Earlier this month, I visited a friend in Prenzlauer Berg for dinner. As I approached the apartment, a rat scuttled across the pavement.
Now, many of you probably aren’t surprised by that; after all, Berlin is a big city, a dirty city, and that’s just where you find rats. But one of the most surprising things about Berlin is simply its lack of rats. Even in the most wretched apartments here, or at least the ones I’ve been to, you just don’t find them. The city is extra-diligent about cracking down on them, and on places where they could breed, and as a result, you’re far more likely to see a marten or a weasel (especially in cold weather) than a rat.
But, as you might guess from the way my luck runs, I’ve had experience with them. My last apartment, which I moved into a little over twelve years ago, was a nightmare. I took it over from a guy I knew whose wife had gotten a job in Hong Kong, and it was a huge, ground-floor place in a particularly depressing part of Wedding. It was in the back, not on the street, but it was just exactly what I didn’t want: two coal ovens, for one thing, each of which burned a different kind of coal, which, because the neighbors had destroyed the coal-cellar assigned to the apartment, I had to haul around 35kg of coal into just about every day. For another thing, there was nothing of interest in the neighborhood, or, as I discovered, for many, many blocks around. None of my friends wanted to go up there, but at least it was close to the U-Bahn.
Now, in the street-front was a shop which looked like it had been closed for a long time, given the dust on the windows, with a sign behind the grating indicating that it sold espresso machines wholesale. As the bitter winter, one of the coldest on record, faded into spring, there was activity there. Out went the espresso machines, and in went a bunch of burly guys, cleaning the place up. Soon, a sign appeared, saying that an Italian ice cream place would be opening. Certainly nothing too exciting about that; those places are omnipresent here, and, since I don’t eat ice cream, I don’t know if any of them are any good, although I suspect not many are. Finally the place opened, with a sign saying the ice cream was made on the premises, which I found surprising, since the shop was incredibly tiny and I couldn’t see where they made it, not even when the back door, which opened onto my and my neighbors’ living space, was open.
One problem that I had was that I was subletting this place illegally. I believe all sublets in Berlin are illegal, but some landlords are cooler with it than others. I was told that this place was owned by two sweet old ladies, one of whom had briefly taken English lessons from the guy who’d sublet it to me. At any rate, I never saw them. I paid rent to the guy I’d sublet from and he paid the landladies. My address was c/o him, as it had been at my previous sublets, and I never had any trouble getting my mail until one day we got a new postman. He was an ageing hippie, from the looks of him, John Lennon wire-framed glasses and a greying pony-tail. But looks can be deceptive. “I can’t deliver mail to you because your name isn’t on the post box,” he said. I told him that the name of the guy whose apartment it was was on the box, and that should clue him which box to put it in. “No,” he said, “you have to have your name on the box or I won’t deliver it.” I’d been warned not to do this, but it looked like I didn’t have any choice. So I wrote my name on a label and pasted it onto the box.
The days got warmer. Finally, in July, it got downright hot. A friend came to visit and when he got in the apartment he said “Man, those are some mellow rats out there. They didn’t even budge when I came walking by.” I looked out the window, and sure enough, there were a few grey lumps in the lawn. When he left, I watched him go, and he stamped his foot. The rats scurried a bit, then settled down after he was gone. This didn’t look good. That night, as I left for work, I noticed that there were a bunch of empty cans out back of the ice cream joint. The labels indicated they’d contained peaches in heavy syrup. No doubt that’s what had attracted the rats. The ice cream guys couldn’t be bothered to walk a few steps to the garbage cans and throw them in.
I got off work at about 11, and I’d go to Zoo Station to catch the subway back up to Wedding, and it was there, among some of the most unsavory residents of Berlin, that I noticed more rats. They were between the tracks, the same color as the pebbles, but unlike the pebbles, they moved. They’d run for the sides when trains approached, then come back out again, scavenging for who knows what. I guess I just hadn’t noticed before.
It started to cool off again, following the usual pattern of warm days but increasingly sharp nights. I was sitting, reading, one night when I heard a sound from the kitchen: eeeep eeeep. From my time on the Lower East Side in New York, I recognized that immediately. When I checked, I found a couple of turds. They were big enough that I knew the animal I was dealing with, and it wasn’t a mouse. I went to a hardware store the next day and bought a rat trap and baited it with peanut butter. Don’t mess around with cheese; go for the stuff they really like. That night I was awakened by a snap, some high shrieking, some rhythmic flopping, and then silence. I fell back to sleep.
The next morning, there was, as I’d expected, a large, dead rat in the middle of the kitchen floor. I picked it up and went outside to the garbage bins, which were overflowing with empty cans left by the ice cream guys. As I deposited the rat, there was the sound of scuffling inside the bins. I bought another couple of traps. It was getting colder. The ice cream guys would be closing down. They’d want in, somewhere.
A few days later, the doorbell rang. It was the hippie postman. In his hand was a bill from the electric company. “I’m not going to deliver this,” he said. “You shouldn’t be here.” And with that he walked off. Now what?
I bagged a few more rats. This was getting unpleasant.
Soon, a letter, registered mail, arrived for the guy I was subletting from. The word “Hausverwaltung” was in the return address. It was wrong, but I suspected I should take a look at it. After all, he was in Hong Kong. And it was what I’d feared: the bill the postman had refused to deliver had been sent back to the electric company as undeliverable. They, in turn, had alerted the landlady that Herr Ward had apparently skipped town. The landlady checked her records and saw there was no Herr Ward on her books. She checked the mailboxes and saw my label on the box. She terminated the lease.
I faxed Hong Kong. The guy filpped out. He told me to get out immediately and cursed me for losing him his big, cheap Berlin apartment. He announced he’d be back in a couple of weeks to close the apartment down. I had to be out by then.
I was hardly heartbroken, but the timing could have been better. I had a lot of work to do, and this was just complicating things. Still, it was time to look for a new place. And there were the rats.
In late September, the ice cream shop closed for the season. The cans were no longer being tossed out the back door, or in the garbage bin. I headed to Zoo Station at 8 one Saturday night to catch the first batch of Berliner Morgenposts to check the apartment listings. There weren’t many, but there was one from a woman in Mitte who needed someone to take over her lease. I wasn’t sure I wanted to live in the east, but things were, it’s true, cheaper over there. I called the next morning. It turned out that not only was she a journalist, not only did she speak English, but she recognized my name from the magazine. I looked the place over. It was fine. We set a date to meet with the landlord.
The furious guy from Hong Kong was still due, and the woman in Mitte was having trouble moving out. I moved some of my stuff in, and left some in Wedding. A friend had rented a place in Neukölln that he’d partially furnished but couldn’t yet move into, for some reason. He let me have it for a couple of days, just to sleep in, while things shook out. I’d go to Wedding, pack some, call a cab, and move it to Mitte. Finally the day came when a friend rented a truck to take everything, and I woke up early, and went to the apartment to start getting things together for the big move. When I got there, there was excitement in the courtyard. One of the garbage bins was on fire, and the neighbors had a bucket brigade going. I reflexively looked to see if I could help, but it appeared things were going well, so I went inside.
About twenty minutes later, the doorbell rang. I opened the door to see an old woman leaning on a cane, and a well-dressed younger man with her. The woman started shouting. “You started that fire! I’m calling the Kripo [Kriminalpolizei] and having you charged with arson!” And who, I asked the man, are you? “I’m her lawyer.” Do you speak English? “Yes.” Does she? “No.” Good, let’s speak English. I hope you’re being well-paid for this. “Not nearly enough,” he sighed. I told him I’d been asleep in Neukölln when the fire had started and only wanted to pack my stuff and leave that place for good. The guy who had the lease had missed his plane in Bombay, I think it was, and would now be a few days late, but she could deal with him when he got here. “You’ll really be gone this afternoon?” the lawyer asked. I promised him that as soon as he got the old bat out of my presence, I’d go back to packing and they’d never see me again. “Have a nice day,” he said, and steered her towards the courtyard.
So that’s how I found the place I’m leaving now. People are always surprised when I tell them that this — rats, coal heating, being informed on by my postman — happened in West Berlin instead of East Berlin, but someone recently theorized that the postman could well have been ex-Stasi, given a job where he could do no harm. Possibly. Another friend who’d been studying law and had dropped out to work in the Post Office later told me that the postman had broken something like eight federal laws. No doubt.
I hope there aren’t any rats in my next place. With four, three, or two legs.