KEYS TO THE CITY
I: A New Career In A New Town
II: Dream Life
III: Paintings As Prayers
IV: Late Summer Evening
Rose Crowned Evenings
Moments Of Pure Ashtray
The Personalised Circus
Blind Children On Western Streets
Lucifer Says He Won't See Me
Swans On The Surface
Girl Smoking On Balcony
Stained Glass Window
The Insurance Was WILD
The Sea's Smile
Van Gogh's Lights
The Disappointed Prince
A Night At The Circus
Chekhov In Kreuzberg
A Stolen Dress
Two Contract Killers Get Arrested
My Uncle Dick
Death In The Cafe
Performing To The Curtain
Getting Past The Curtain
Living With Samuel Beckett:
An Anti Essay
The room viewing was scheduled for a Tuesday evening, at nine O’clock.
I should first of all stress that the room viewing was of huge personal importance to me and had the potential to change my life for the better. At the time I was staying in the spare room of my bass player’s aunt, and only had three weeks until I had to pack everything up again and find somewhere else. The situation was getting stressful; my parents were getting concerned – what on earth would happen if I didn’t find anywhere?
For over four months I had been searching for a room. In this time I had sent hundreds of emails, made dozens of phone calls, and visited several rooms. I’d run all over Berlin like a man possessed: I’d ring the buzzer and see the potential flatmate by the hallway and say, ‘Hey!’ Within no time at all, I’d be standing in the middle of the room, saying how much I liked it. Then we’d retire to the kitchen, where each time we’d talk for around twenty minutes. We’d briefly speak of ourselves. Often they would talk to me about their studies, and I’d nod interestedly, wondering to myself how the interview was going. Sometimes when I met these people, I’d go for the confident, funny style, other times, quiet and thoughtful, neither of which worked. Yet no matter what masks I’d wear, the conversations were often the same: we’d explore how flat share life would hypothetically be like with one another; eating habbits, pets, music, volume, the surrounding area, parties, cleaning, boyfriends and girlfriends, and so on. After the twenty minutes you’d be exhausted.
Upon leaving these interviews, I’d feel as if I’d just been at the dentist; relieved that the whole thing was over, and bizarrely feeling better about myself. I’d shake hands cordially, smile warmly, and wish them all the best. Then I’d walk out into the street, and say to myself, ‘yeah…maybe that’s the one’. However, sometimes, in all honesty, I knew straight away that I didn’t want the room – there’d be a glaring detail that they would have forgotten to mention in the advert (a financial loophole, a psychological revelation, the presence of a dog, the absence of a kitchen), and I’d try not to wince, enjoy the rest of the coffee and sort of just pass the time. On one rather entertaining occasion, I sat with an ex punk. She was a lovely and friendly woman, around fifty years old, with a husky voice and bleached red hair; I vividly remember walking up the flight of stairs, and seeing her waiting for me with her barking, excited little dog, smiling sympathetically as if I were a returning son. I could have turned around there and then, but I actually decided to enter her apartment and have a chat; why not. The room was even quite nice, but she insisted that I would have to stay for at least a year (although it was too expensive and already out of my price range). In the middle of the room, I thought to myself, whilst making small talk with her: what am I even doing here? There’s no way I’ll take the room. So naturally I told her I really liked the room, and followed her round as she showed me the rest of the flat. Afterwards we enjoyed a nice cup of coffee together, where she spoke tenderly of her fourteen-year-old son (of whom, would be visiting and frequently staying with us). At one point she reminisced about her youth, remarking that once she had been a ‘wild young thing’. She laughed heartily, gave me a wink and then went to attend the poor dog in the other room. As I bid her farewell, I informed her that I probably wasn’t interested, which she found to be a shame, and a part of me now contemplates what it would have been like living with her; probably a ridiculous and expensive farce that I wouldn’t have been allowed to escape, but perhaps not.
Anyway, you get the idea. I was tired of the whole process, and so, I hoped that this Tuesday evening would finally resolve the issue and I’d start to settle into some sort of routine. And I had a good feeling about it, a very good feeling about it. The room itself was located in a hip part of town, a neighbourhood I knew all too well: Turkish cafes and bistros covered the noisy streets, whilst down the sidestreets, modern and Wi-Fi-friendly cafes resided quietly; there were art shops, old pubs, new bars, music bars, music cafes, book cafes, art bars, galleries, café bars, and a wide variety of cuisines at your fingertips – burgers, Italian, Greek, Asian… but listen to me – I sound just like a flat share advert. Ultimately, this neighbourhood had been my nocturnal and indeed afternoon stomping ground for the last three years, so it felt natural that I should finally live amongst it all. All the elements were coming together, thus, it was decided: on Tuesday I would see my future room.
I had decided to buy some cake for the two tenants I would be meeting – Matteo and Lucinda – both of whom had seemed nice enough in their advert (albeit an advert they themselves had written). I had heard (or read online), that gifts, cake, homemade brownies – this sort of thing was always a plus when attending a flat share viewing –and prior to this, I had never done it. Actually, tell a lie, I bought beers once, which the girl, having just gone to her late night yoga class, promptly refused, and then, almost in a fit of guilt, reluctantly accepted, much to my joy. In fact, on another occasion, I had greeted two young students with not only a bright and breezy ‘good morning!’, but also a bag with two butter croissants – although they had already prepared the breakfast and cared little for my gifts. Regardless, gifts and gestures supposedly left a good impression, and perhaps my problem had been the gifts themselves. And I wanted to leave a good impression – and yet, didn’t I… - I consider myself a naturally friendly and open person who always– no: I’m sounding like an advert again, but you can see the neurotic traps you end up falling into regarding this murky room business. I wouldn’t be surprised if they made a TV show out of it, or the room viewings started getting filmed, in order for the tenants to compare all the candidates as fairly as possible and make sure they make ‘the right decision’.
From the single photo they uploaded, the room looked acceptable: twenty square meters, two big windows, a bed, furniture etc. I mean, it didn’t look spectacular, and perhaps it was a little too expensive (480 Euros). But then again, you really don’t get rooms in a better location, or so I told myself.
The cake by the way was chocolate. I bought it at a station café. Two slices. For Matteo and Lucinda. I wouldn’t need any.
Finally: Tuesday. I finished work early, and after taking two trains, I was down the road from the room in no time at all.
I rang the buzzer, was let in, walked three flights of stairs, until I saw the open door with someone standing by it smiling. It was Lucinda. She was a sweet-faced woman, with slow moving eyes, probably around twenty-three years old. We shook hands and I entered the apartment as if I was on live T.V, smiling all around and energetically replying to Lucinda’s simple instruction about taking my shoes off. As I entered the flat, I met Matteo, who greeted me like an old friend. There was another man in the hallway, who was just leaving, having previously viewed the room. Retrospectively, his face looked tired, concerned, overwhelmed, exhausted but nevertheless, presumably interested in the room. Perhaps it had been a good trip to the dentist. I can’t remember his name, but I ironically wished him luck, which got a few laughs, and in an American voice, he heartily said, ‘Me? I’m the competition!’
We all laughed; great stuff! Then he left, and Matteo said: shall we see the room then?
I walked into the room. It looked exactly like the picture.
It was…just a room. What the hec.
‘Yeah’, I said, beaming as if they had spent months designing it especially for me, ‘I like it’. I probably muttered something about space, windows, the floor.
Lucinda then sat on a chair, I sat on the bed next to her, and Matteo led proceedings by also sitting on a chair, but opposite the both of us. He was smiling, grinning: let’s talk.
Curiously though, I had taken up the tactic to question them first; who they were, what they were doing. It was rather bizarre, and Matteo in particular wore a perplexed look on his face, as he explained himself to me. I was not the least bit interested in their answers; Matteo, was Venezualian, and Lucinda was from a Northern European country, which I immediately forgot the moment she told me. They were web designers, or students, or in fact both, or potentially neither, living far from Berlin, commuting, but they just registered the flat, which was great, and easier, for them, and Matteo’s girlfriend was living somewhere in Germany, and Lucinda’s boyfriend was studying in London, he was twenty nine, she was twenty two, Matteo, not her boyfriend. It was all a blur; I asked them a lot of questions, just for the sake of asking questions. After a few minutes I let them take the lead, for it was my turn, and so: I told them who I was.
What kind of music do you make, Matteo asked, very interestedly.
Well, I said, that can be a surprise. I can give you my details and you can look me up. Lucinda smiled, I played with my hair for a moment, sat back, grinned, and Matteo nodded vigorously, saying, yes - this is what we have to do. I then told myself not to act too comfortable or cocky, and answered the remaining questions in a calm and coherent fashion.
But what about poor old Lucinda, Matteo said – Lucinda was very shy and let Matteo do most of the talking– for she lives next door, behind that thin wall – would you be…practicing a lot?
I would be living right there, she confirmed, and laughed as if it was a joke.
At least you’ll know all the songs! I said, but it wasn’t so warmly received by Lucinda, who nevertheless smiled, and then we clarified schedules, work – when we’d be in the house and so forth.
Matteo then embarked on an excruciatingly boring and yet simultaneously concerning discussion about the rent, the deposit, the contract –it was clearly his life’s work, for he took great pride in it. At one point he proudly revealed that he and Lucinda ‘would be taking care of all furniture expenses’, which I found strange. A part of me wanted to dispute this arrangement, or question it’s necessity, just for the sake of it, but I just let Matteo drone on about the rent. Basically, every year the contract would get more expensive. And don’t ask me what happened to your deposit if one of the three tenants were to move out without notice, or with notice. But he spoke about it very excitedly, in a very ‘in the know’ fashion, letting me into his world of contracts and rates, which, to his credit, he had constructed all by himself. Lucinda stayed quiet throughout his monologue, but when I stole a glance, she gave me an impassive stare of confirmation. I decided to ignore everything about it and nod interestedly every now and then. Finally, he summed it all up nicely: so you’d pay the money to me, and I’d pay it to the landlord, but every year, it would get five percent more expensive, because of the contract, which Lucinda and I will take care of.
What a bore! But I liked them, they were nice enough – yes, I’ll take the room, if you’re asking, but they didn’t ask this.
Oh! We haven’t shown you the kitchen yet!
And so they led me into the kitchen: it was here that things started to unravel.
In the kitchen were three people, who appeared to be the current tenants. I remember very little about them, save for the one with the ridiculous intellectual bowl haircut, and the general vibe of all three: they were sat in the corner, almost in exile, smoking rolled up cigarettes and eating snacks and almost openly sighing as Matteo began a smaller monologue on the kitchen.
When Matteo said to them, this is Joe, I was greeted with complete disinterest and a few embarrassed smiles. There was a moment of silence as I looked around the kitchen, so I decided to sum up my thoughts with a few, ‘yeah’s’, or, ‘cool’s’, or something like that.
Meanwhile, Matteo minced around behind me uneasily, talking about the sink and the oven. Having seen enough – the strange vibe from the other three was putting me off my viewing– I instigated that we go back to the room: I cared nothing for the kitchen, for at the end of the day, kitchens, bathrooms – they’re all the same.
We re-entered the room. Matteo then closed the door, and murmured something ruefully to himself. Clearly, something had gone on between he, Lucinda and the current tenants.
So I said, that was a bit strange with them?
And Matteo, turning around, nervously checking the door, whispered: …we had an argument. He smiled ruefully again, as if he’d just slept with his friend’s girl or something.
Oh yeah, what about?
It doesn’t matter, he said, just…stuff. You know.
And then, turning to me, very seriously, almost inquisitively, he said:
Oh, by the way – what do you think of cuddle parties?
I didn’t quite hear him properly. ‘Cattle parties?’
No, cuddle parties.
I grinned in anticipation: what are they?
Oh, every week, we have a group of friends who we like to meet up with and, well…cuddle. We get naked, and sit in the living room, or in the kitchen, or in our rooms and hang out. There’s no sex, but it’s intimate, and nice, and very friendly.
I chuckled for a moment, and then realising that this wasn’t the desired response, I grinned, but that wasn’t the right response either, so I said: right…?
Matteo laughed – so it was a joke. Perhaps it was a room viewing code to see how ‘open’ I was – anything is possible in this town.
No, he said, smiling bashfully, we are not joking. How do you feel about this? Honestly. Be honest.
Lucinda said: it’s very important that you be honest with us, that we; be honest with each other.
Well, I stammered, sure, whatever is good with you.
Yeah? Matteo asked.
Yeah, I repeated, the concept going through my mind again. You’ve got to be joking. Then I said, well, it would be a bit strange waking up in the morning to get a cup of tea, and bumping into a load of naked people in the kitchen! The last bit as a joke, sort of. But then again, you know -
Matteo laughed. Yes, perhaps we would keep it in the rooms. Or: he then glanced at Lucida. They conferred.
Lucinda then began to speak: But the kitchen is so good for it, she sang.
I sat there. The kitchen has such great space.
Matteo smiled: you probably think we look pretty creepy now, eh! And chuckled.
I laughed, a little too earnestly, and then repeated the thing about, yeah sure, no, not at all.
Lucinda, grabbing her knees with her hands, said: We just want to live in a very, comfortable, cosy – cuddly flatshare! But we don’t want to feel like we’re pressuring you –
Then Matteo said: no, we don’t want to put pressure on you at all.
Lucinda: We just ask this to everyone, because it’s very important to us, that we can live…in an open environment, and everyone respects each other’s space. We want it to feel like your home too.
I watched her speak so earnestly, I was confused and not saying much: cuddle parties?
Lucinda: It’s just like it sounds. We all meet up, get naked, and just …cuddle (she chuckled, blushed, I can’t remember, and I nodded understandingly, like I was in the middle of a business deal).
Matteo: It’s not a sex thing, it’s a confidence thing, a trust – a way we relax with each other, our friends. And as you can see, that kitchen is a great space for cuddle parties.
Then Matteo began another lengthy monologue about the rent, furniture, perhaps he reiterated the ins and outs of the contract. I drifted off and kept my replies to yeses and noes, and occasionally asked a question that I wasn’t really interested in. All that was going through my mind was the prospect of living in a cuddle party cult. I was really pissed off that again, this viewing had been a waste of time. Yet I consoled myself about the cake still in my bag: I was happy that I hadn’t given them the chocolate cake yet. No: the cake was coming home with me.
Lucinda said to me warmly: god, its so difficult judging people in twenty minutes, right? I mean, you seem so nice! But, it’s always the same isn’t it? I find it so strange, meeting people like this!
Me: yeah, it’s a strange process. I probably elaborated on it being a strange process, meeting people like this.
Then, to round things off, I made a speech to the pair of them about what kind of flatmate I’d be: someone to enjoy coffee with, cook with, but also, you know, respect each other’s privacy. Perhaps I still wanted the room after all, but I probably didn’t. Feeling thoroughly depressed, and thanking both of them for the invitation to come by, I put my shoes on and got my stuff together. Then the buzzer went and Matteo went to greet the next victim.
Lucinda then remarked on how I said ‘privacy’ different to her boyfriend. I said it in the American way, he said it in the English way. Now she had proof. I replied that maybe I’d watched too much American TV.
Then I left the flat and sat at a bar, where I had two beers, spoke to no one, and then went home, thinking: what the hell are cuddle parties?