It was my thirtieth birthday, and I’d travelled to Berlin with my friends. It was a fairly pleasant weekend until the arrival of Andy, an acquaintance who’d latched on to the trip eager to meet women and have sex with them, so at least we shared some common ground. My other friends weren’t keen to follow suit, as they all had girlfriends.
Furthermore, they were with us.
So anyway, it was Saturday night. Andy had chatted up a cute blonde girl and an infinitely cuter brunette from Zürich, both of whom spoke some conversational English. I joined them, and we were somehow able to convey that we wanted to explore the city as one. This hadn’t been a problem for the rest of the group, as they’d all gone to bed in disgust.
So Andy, the girls and I moved on to a funky bar in East Berlin, where we proceeded to get drunk. Despite the alcohol, the deafening music and the colossal linguistic barrier, we somehow understood each other perfectly. I was even getting on rather well with the cute brunette, who seemed blind to my vast collection of inadequacies. In fact, she even smiled a few times. And then the bar closed and the sun was rising as we staggered to an empty café. It was 6am and Andy was still full of beans, while I gave up all pretence and slumped onto the table to sleep.
And then we went our separate ways.
‘Don’t worry,’ Andy said as I bade him farewell from his taxi, ‘I’ve arranged to meet them tomorrow, same time, same place.’
‘Excellent!’ I’d grinned. This was after all in the days before my optimism had been extinguished like a bonfire in a flash flood.
‘So show them a good time!’ he continued. ‘I’m off home.’
Having not strictly speaking invited Andy, I’d forgotten that he’d booked himself just the one day.
And so, as I watched that sole vehicle drive off down an empty Berlin boulevard through a head that throbbed like a hammered thumb, I was left with a solemn sense of duty that I absolutely had to meet those girls. After all, Andy had arranged it, and I’d be a toad not to turn up.
Later that evening, as my friends spent their last night in Berlin together, I went back to the bar where Andy had met the cute blonde girl and an infinitely cuter brunette from Zürich, and waited.
A fidgety hour passed. I’d been so nervous that I’d become strangely relieved to them not turning up. Without Andy, I was just a spare part anyway.
‘At least I made the effort’, I thought as a colossal weight lifted off my shoulders and I paid and left the bar.
And then I walked straight into them.
‘Hey, you made it!’ I squawked, my hand still on the door handle.
‘Lucky you caught me,’ I explained as I escorted them back to the table I’d just left. ‘I was just leaving!’
Neither of them looked as if they’d lucked out. They just looked like what they were: Swiss, and disappointed. What I needed was Andy and his casual enthusiasm, except Andy wasn’t there. Andy was in Bury St Edmonds, scratching his arse in front of the TV.
On the upside, I learnt a very valuable lesson that night; If something’s not obligatory and your heart’s not in it, you shouldn’t feel compelled to do it. On the downside, I spent the most painful, torturous hour of my life coming to that conclusion as I attempted to eek out a conversation from two women who would rather be at their parents’ funerals.
I asked about their day, and got a generic reply about sightseeing. I tried talking about Zürich and got brief, indifferent answers. The linguistic chasm had widened overnight so I pulled out my trump card: a pocket dictionary we’d all laughed about needing the night before.
I looked up a word as the girls watched in silence.
‘Aha!’ I yelled with more eagerness than the situation warranted as I trilled out the requisite translation.
‘Oh. Ja. Okay. “Teppich”,’ they’d reply, but there was no frenzy of excitement, no communicative bonding, just aloofness, and indifference, and pain; awkward, shifty pain, mostly from me.
The awkwardness began to make me sweat, and I’d started mopping my forehead as I continued to talk. After all, if I didn’t talk, they wouldn’t bother, and the ensuing silence equalled death. Instead, all they did was either look at me deadpan and nod, or else mutter in one another in German, and giggle.
I waved over a waiter for more drinks and attempted to relate a humorous story, which fell on bored ears. I looked around for inspiration and found none. And then, eventually, I ran out of chat. I had nothing to say, and looked at my beer. The damn thing was virtually full. I squirmed, then I shrugged – actually shrugged - as the two girls stared back at me waiting to see what I was going to do next.
And then, in the silence, I heard behind me two English guys. I’d been reassuring myself that any patrons listening in may not be able to understand me. How wrong that now was.
My nerves got the better of me as I gibbered about anything, my London accent becoming thick and decipherable only to the men behind me. The girls meanwhile were no longer bothering to show interest as they looked around the bar for someone more interesting.
And then, when I paused, I realised the guys behind me were listening, and were now whispering to one another.
‘Anyway’, I said as the bleeding obvious suddenly dawned on me. ‘Great to see you again,’ I yelled as I jumped off my stool. The girls looked somewhat weary, as if I were about to jitterbug for an encore, but they slowly began to understand the international language of Leaving.
The feeling of freedom as I ran through those doors was overwhelming. The guilt from remembering that in Europe, you pay the tab at the end and I'd landed them with the bill, less so.
But I've learnt to move on.