An Hour with the Gypsies of Berlin

“Nothing is real! This…” she said in broken English, gesturing to her arm and her clothes, “…isn’t real.”

You never know what kind of conversations you’ll encounter on the streets of Berlin–especially when it comes to the Turkish markets. Here, years ago, chaotic drum circles of gypsies and musicians overran the actual markets. Jewelry makers and gem stone sellers gathered to sell their wares. After mandated noise restrictions and gentrification took hold in recent years, street-sellers, musicians and vagabonds still gather on the corner of Friedelstraβe and Maybachufer.

Setting up my makeshift henna shop to earn a couple of spare euros, I almost forgot about Berlin’s pure insanity. Sitting there for a little over an hour, I managed to make five euros and a packet of tissues. But I was sitting in the middle of a reenactment of “Ballad of a Thin Man” by Bob Dylan.

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The sword swallower comes up to you and then he kneels…

Indeed, there was an American sword swallower. “Come watch my show!” he exclaimed to passer-bys, desperately trying to curate an audience. “I’ve seen me before. I’m pretty good.” He performed magic shows, collecting tips in a top hat

My only customer of the day was a dreamy, somewhat dilapidated woman. I couldn’t tell if she was 30 or 50 years old, but life had taken its toll. She looked upon my sad little “HENNA TATTOOS, SUGGESTED DONATED 5 EUROS” sign for a while, slightly smiling. Then she plopped down next to me, pointed at her middle finger and requested a henna masterpiece.

She was German, and could only sputter out a few words in English. “Beautiful!” she exclaimed as I shakily lined leaves and flowers on her knuckles. It wasn’t, but I appreciated her appreciation. Upon finishing, she sat for a while, undeterred by our very clear language barrier. I wasn’t sure if she would actually pay, but her bits of English were so entertaining I didn’t mind.

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You walk into the room with a pencil in your hand… you try so hard but you don’t understand

As she gestured to my eyes and the air around me, she was able to relate that she was talking about my “aura.” Then she pulled at my jacket and said, “not real.” She pointed at my sign and said, “not real.” She rubbed her index finger and thumb together, signaling “money,” and repeated, “not real.” I didn’t quite understand.

Then she pointed to the small circle of people gathering a few meters away, where they beat drums, strummed guitars and sang foreign lyrics together. She gestured to my eyes and her eyes again. And then to her heart. “Real,” she settled upon.

After about 20 minutes of this, she packed up her things, handed me a packet of tissues and a five euro note. “Danke,” she sighed, pointing at her newly flowered finger. “Very pretty.”

She wasn’t the only unusual creature to stumble my way. One man, biblically named ofAbraham, invited me to join the drum circle and bring my henna “business” to a spur-of-the-moment festival he planned for next month. I declined, respectfully, and remained a quiet observer instead.

And you say, “What does this mean?” and he screams back, “You’re a cow!…

It all felt so exciting, but of a world apart from my own. These were the people who came to Berlin in true Jack Kerouac-style long before Berlin became a global destination. They make a few bucks on the street, eat for the day, laugh and make friends with strangers, go broke and do it all again. This culture is part of what makes Berlin so unique. It is one of the few cities that people can still arrive alone with empty pockets, and manage to make a life out of it. Artists, performers, dreamers, conmen, businessmen, from every corner of the world, all manage to collide, intermingle and coexist here.

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Something is happening here and you don’t know what it is, Do you, Mr. Jones?

It may all seem chaotic to the casual observer. It is chaotic. But I disagree with my existentially declarative customer. This was real. This city contains remnants of the days of gypsy Berlin gone-by–one of the many reasons I always come back.

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