EXTRACT: Witboy in Berlin - Adventures in the First World

Witboy in Berlin: Adventures in the First World, written by Deon Maas and publised by Jonathan Ball Publishers.
Witboy in Berlin: Adventures in the First World, written by Deon Maas and publised by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

In the past, the soundtrack of every new city I visited was the endless rhythm of booze, adventures and new voices. Now, I live in a furnished flat; life's only rhythm is my own running around trying to stop our dogs from eating the landlord's furniture or peeing on their carpets. 

For the first time, I'm not a tourist in Europe, but a resident. Gone are the days of those two-week pleasure-filled whirlwind visits, followed by an ode to the wonders of the town or city I'd just enjoyed. Now, it's all about cleaning the flat, grocery shopping, walking the dogs, paying tax.

For the first time, I need to start thinking of myself not as an African, but as a European. Every day, I rub shoulders with the very people I used to make fun of: people with no working knowledge, but many opinions, about Africa; vegetarian anarchists; and people who think they're better than others purely because they're from Western Europe. I also think, often, about all those South Africans who see themselves as Europeans and not Africans.

Our flat in the southeastern suburb of Neukölln overlooks other blocks of flats across the street. The people who walk in the street, talking to each other, never look up. But I see all the subtle interactions: the couple who finish arguing before ringing their friends' doorbell; a child being bullied by an older brother or sister behind his parents' backs; that last intimate moment between two people who have to spend what remains of their free time with someone else. All most of them really wanted to do tonight was stay home and watch TV, but social pressure compels them to spend their hours in the company of others.

It's just after ten on a Saturday night. People are starting to arrive for parties and get-togethers, but no one's coming to see me. Surrounded by people, for the first time in decades I feel alone. Here, looking down upon the world from my first-floor balcony, I'm far away from friends, from anything familiar. I'm so new here that I'm still amazed to hear children speak German and to see dogs respond to German commands. The starting point for countless immigrants, surely. 

I am here, in Berlin. Not Germany – Berlin. One of those world cities where almost everyone comes from somewhere else. Just as New York is not a microcosm of America, Lagos is not entirely representative of Nigeria, and Johannesburg does not always feel like the rest of South Africa, Berlin has its own identity. I realise this very quickly when I leave the island of Berlin to explore the rest of Germany. 

The city has always been known for doing things a little differently. This suits me well. 

I learn quickly that Berliners even have their own ideas about traffic rules. The Germans are renowned for never jaywalking. They'll only start crossing when the green man appears, but in Berlin they cross the road even when the man is red. Sometimes. Especially late at night. It's not approved of, but it happens. The Germans call the traffic-light man Ampelmann. He is so famous that an entire industry has developed around him: T-shirts, mugs, even sun loungers carry his picture. His appearance changes across areas of the city, an indication of whether you are in the old East or West Berlin. 

I start to suspect that one of the reasons I'll be able to survive in Berlin is because I can cross the road even when Ampelmann says I may not. I could never live here if I had to wait for the green man. Africa runs too potently through my veins for that. There are people here who are not white but who are born-and-bred Europeans. My own skin may be white but there is one thing I know: I am, and remain, an African.


It's strange to live in a place where people don't understand your references to the popular culture from your youth. No one in Germany knows who Liewe Heksie is – or Haas Das, Rabobi or Trompie. Everything may be new and exciting, but nothing is familiar. There are no friends to bump into in Melville for a drink. Worse, in my first two days in Berlin I lose two friends: Johann Botha, producer and presenter of 50/50, shot dead in a bar in Jeppe; and, a day later, Mick Desmond, the owner of The Irish Club in Linden, one of my favourite watering holes. I can't go to their funerals, as much as I want to. For the first time, I feel the full effects of the distance.

I've said goodbye to my friends in Jozi. I didn't see some of them very often anyway, but they were always within striking distance – some literally. Now, they're a 12-hour flight – and thousands of rands – away.

I'm taking leave of my old life's everyday things, feeling like the house with the little pigs inside that the wolf's blowing down.The Welsh have a word. Well, they have many words, but I'm thinking of a specific one: hiraeth. It's hard to translate, but comes down to a nostalgia for something that no longer exists – something you remember, but that's no longer how you remember it.

Leon Retief, a friend who has lived in Berlin for several years, says, 'I miss South Africa, but the South Africa of seven years ago.'

This has nothing to do with politics or a changing social environment. It's more about a feeling you had when you were a part of something, once, a specific environment or set of circumstances. Something you're never going to get back. I'm sure I'll see some of my friends again, and that we'll always stay friends, but the new experiences I'm having, and the fact that we're being exposed to such different influences now, mean that these friendships will probably never be the same again.

* This extract was taken from Witboy in Berlin: Adventures in the First World by Deon Maas, published by Jonathan Ball Publisers.

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