Travel

I Spent a Day Actually Speaking to People On Public Transport

In trying to learn more about my fellow commuters, I met angry drunks, happy drunks and a vegan in furs.
November 23, 2017, 9:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany

Much like the London Underground, Berlin's S-Bahn is a busy metropolitan train network that survives on a strict unwritten code of conduct: commuters should avoid any form of communication with each other at all costs. Even fleeting eye contact is a step too far for many, especially during rush hour, when they're already forced to be much more intimate with strangers than anyone ever should be.

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My trips on the S-Bahn usually follow the same pattern – headphones in, coffee in one hand and my phone in the other, watching the city rush by in silence. I do often find myself wondering about my fellow commuters. I try to imagine their life stories, though I never actually bother to ask them anything. But with half a million people of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds travelling on the S-Bahn every day, many of them must have something to say.

That's why I decide to get on the Ring Bahn – a 23 mile continuous loop that's part of the S-Bahn network – at 9AM on a Saturday, and spend 24 hours on it. My only goal is to get to know my fellow passengers, and listen to whatever they'll tell me.

Over 21 laps of Berlin I meet – among others – two refugees on their way to church, a vegan designing fur coats, an angry racist and drunk friends partaking in the world's dumbest bet.

9:10AM: Lap 1, Luwam and Mbrak, 17, On their way to choir practice

Mbrak's tattoo

The first thing I notice about Mbrak is the tattoo of a cross on her wrist. "We’re on our way to church," her friend Luwam tells me. "We sing in the choir," Mbrak adds. Both of them left Eritrea for Germany six months ago. Every month, thousands of people flee the small northeastern African country to avoid life-long military conscriptions and a harsh dictatorship. Today, Eritreans make up two percent of the refugee population in Germany.

After hundreds of thousands of refugees came to Germany in 2015, the country's largest refugee shelter was built on the grounds of the former Tempelhof airport in central Berlin. People from all around the city joined together to help support the 2,500 refugees living there. Since then, these migrants have been trying to find their place around Germany. Luwam and Mbrak found theirs in a church in the Neukölln borough in southeast Berlin.

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The religious services in Eritrea are different – they are louder and more enthusiastic, Luwam explains. They go to church twice a week – choir practice on Saturday and mass on Sunday. I ask Mbrak where she got her tattoo. "In a big church in Frankfurt," she says, to my surprise. She runs her fingers over the small cross as the train approaches Neukölln, where they both get off.

11 AM: Lap 3, Özgün, 22, Economics student

Özgün

Two laps later, Özgün hops on and sits across from me. It’s Saturday morning, but he’s on his way to the library. He originally wanted to study History at university, he tells me, but his parents wouldn't let him. They didn’t think the degree would lead to a proper job. "Don’t get me wrong, my parents are very supportive people," he says. "And, to be honest, they were right – studying History probably wouldn't have led to much, or added anything to my skillset." In the end, Özgün – who is the first person in his family to go to university – opted for Economics.

He’s reading the book World Order by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. "It’s taken a while, but I actually find Economics quite interesting now. I’m happy with my decision." He does admit that he's a bit jealous of kids from wealthy families who can study whatever they want without worrying about how much they'll earn after graduation.

Özgün’s parents are part of a generation of Turkish migrants in Germany, of which 40 percent left school without any qualifications. For his generation, that number has dropped to 13 percent – though only 14 percent of people in Germany with Turkish roots have a university degree, which is under half the German average.

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"My parents are Turkish and I look Turkish, but I was raised in Germany,” he says, as we approach his stop. “I feel like a Turkish person when I’m in Germany, and like a German person when I’m in Turkey.”

2:25PM: Lap 5, Janine, 25, Clothing designer

Janine

Janine has pinkish-purple hair and two lip piercings. When she was still living in Munich she stood out in most crowds, she says, but in Berlin she feels like she blends right in.

"I design fur jackets,” Janine tells me. She studied fashion design and currently works for an aspiring designer who makes “Azerbaijani-style” outfits – jackets made of suede, leather and fur. Janine started working on the project this week, and she already looks tired. "Deadline stress," she offers.

"Why fur?" I ask her. "It wasn’t my choice," she replies. “It’s actually a bit strange for me because I’m vegan.” Apparently faux fur is not an option for the high-end designs she’s meant to be creating. "In my defence, I only use rabbit pelts from animals that have been shot by hunters in order to control the population,” she says. “No animals died just for the jackets.” I glance at the fur around her neck. "Oh,” she nervously shuffles. "This was my grandmother’s. Moths would eat it if it was left in storage. It doesn’t hurt to wear it once in a while."

3:45PM: Lap 6, Patrick, 27, Four years sober

Patrick

As I approach my seventh hour on the train, Patrick, 27, walks up to me and asks for money. He has the word "BOOM" tattooed across his fingers – "a decision I made when I was younger and carefree", he smiles. A colourful tattoo on his lower arm catches my eye – it’s Patrick Star from SpongeBob SquarePants.

One of human Patrick's earlobes has a huge spacer in it – the other obviously used to have the same, but now the torn skin of his earlobe just dangles beside his face. I ask if he minds me hanging out with him for a while. "Of course not,” he replies.

Patrick's Patrick tatttoo

When we briefly get off the S-Bahn and switch to the underground U-bahn – Patrick is meeting a friend at Alexanderplatz – he tells me he earns between €10 and €35 an hour asking for money on the train. Patrick has a train pass valid for the entire month. "A lot of people like me don’t even bother buying a valid ticket," he says. "And many are looking for cash to score heroin. But I’ve been sober for four years, partly thanks to rehab."

Up until a year ago, Patrick had an apartment, but now he’s homeless – just like 11,000 other people in Berlin. "It’s shit when you’re thrown back into this situation," he tells me. "Where do you sleep when it gets cold?" I ask. "There are lots of emergency shelters," he replies. "They’re not that bad. Some of the drug addiction emergency shelters are actually really good." He gets off the train, while I change back to the Ring Bahn at the next station.

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At Prenzlauer Allee, guys with beards and beers get on. Three laps later, a teenager uses the window as a mirror to thoroughly check out his outfit. Saturday night is in full swing.

11:20PM: Lap 15, A drunk racist

A drunk blond man in his mid-forties gets on the train. He grumbles “fucking foreigners” to a guy who gets on at the same time. "Poles ruin everything, we pay you €700 to €800 month. Get out of our country!" Everyone on the carriage goes quiet. The man being abused looks stunned and on the verge of tears. Suddenly, he jumps up. “Fuck foreigners, you say?” he shouts, his voice cracking. “Come on then,” calling the blond man out, but the guy does nothing. Moments later, he gets off the train.

Later that night, I ask a police officer I meet what I could have done in that situation, to stop an aggressive drunk from hurling xenophobic insults. He says that, next time, I should press the emergency button on the train.

1:30AM: Lap 17, A very drunken bet

A while after midnight, just when my journey really starts to feel endless, two drunk friends get on and sit close to me – thankfully, they brought beer with them and their great mood is pretty contagious. A few minutes in, one of them proposes a bet – he ties his own shoelaces together with multiple knots and tells his friend that he has three minutes to undo them. If his friend succeeds, he'll get two beers.

Thoroughly tied shoes.

His friend accepts and gets to work, but it's soon clear that instead of undoing them, he's just tying more knots and making them even tighter. “Fuck your two beers,” he says. The shoes are so thoroughly tied together that it seems impossible they'll ever be undone without a pair of scissors. We approach their stop and the guy stumbles towards the doors and off the train.

8.30AM: Lap 21, The end

I’ve circled Berlin 21 times. Before I started, I had assumed my trip would be like living out Nietzsche’s concept of life being nothing more than the same moments lived over and over again. But while these were 24 very long hours, no two moments on the S-Bahn were the same.

At 8.30AM I get off, while the train continues on to the next stop.