city of freedom

As I minced along the aisle of the u-bahn, I felt a burgeoning sense of self-consciousness, as if I was in one of those weird Japanese prank reality TV shows, where they send a fake T-rex running through an office with one unsuspecting employee and show the results on national television.


To be fair, I am more self-conscious than the average person, so half of those burning stares probably came from my head. But I had reasons to be paranoid. I ripped my jeans around a particularly awkward area, and was trying to find a store that sold a sewing kit. Mincing was my temporary solution, which, combined with the bag full of sauce bottles (I was cooking at a friend’s place), which tinkled just like alcohol bottles, must have been a strange sight.


On the carriage was the average Berlin crowd, which by definition was anything but ordinary. It was a particularly hot day, so people were either wearing things that had lots of holes in them, or nothing at all. Thai pants, ripped jeans, shorts, tank tops with ironic slogans written on it, and a Chinese tattoo that translated into ‘mad diahorrea’. This was a city that reverted back to the dress code of the Garden of Eden, post-original sin, where coverage is achieved in a last minute scramble. It a long shot from the Berlin I knew through my history textbooks, where, swamped by political crises, West Berlin was touted in those black and white photographs as the ‘city of freedom’.


Having spent most of my time in places where your personal worth is often judged according to your appearance, this was both a relief and a bit of a shock. Relieved, because for once I’m never underdressed; shocked, because I am constantly amazed at what the urban catwalk that is the after 10pm u-bahn has to offer. Unfortunately, adjustments take time, and I wasn’t ready to display a gaping hole in my jeans just yet.


At long last, I got off at Friederichstrasse, one of the many city centres, thinking ‘there has to be a store here somewhere that sells needle and thread.’


The first store I went into was a big cosmetics chain. The moment I walked in I realized how hard this is going to be. What section does a sewing kit come under? It seemed unlikely that there would be a specifically sewing/knitting section. Where could it go then? With makeup? Maybe girls do some emergency sewing during make-up sessions? I wouldn’t know. Scouring through the make-up section—an impressive sight by itself, with more shades of colours than your average art supplies store— it was sewing kit free.


Maybe underwear? Seems reasonable. Those always need fixing. As I coursed through lines of lingerie I realized how out of place I must have looked, mincing down the lingerie aisle with a tinkling bag of what most people would assume to be alcohol. Panicking, I turned into the next aisle, which turned out to be for condoms.




Although nobody was looking at me, it felt like I was marked out by a hundred floodlights. Maybe they do put needles and thread here. Maybe they sew after sex over here. But alas, that aisle was sew-kit free as well.


Losing hope, I asked one of the shop assistants, who was wearing a pair of ripped jeans herself.


‘Excuse me, do you sell sewing kits?’ I tried to mime sewing by doing a twirly hand-motion, but it probably looked like I was trying to cast a spell. The woman looked at me as though I asked for her address. A terse ‘no’ saw me scurrying for the door.


It was a similar story in the other stores I went to. At the end, I was forced to draw the conclusion that either people just threw clothes away whenever they started having tears, or they just keep wearing them with pride. Given the display I’ve seen around the city, I’d say it’s the latter.


But I wasn’t ready to give in just yet. Dejected, I got on a tram to go back home, planning to try again in another part of town the next day. As I sat there, cross legged, watching an assortment of teens ranging from shaggy-dreadlocked to fresh-out-of-punk-concert, I noticed a man next to me cradling a baby. His tattooed arms were swinging back and forth gently, coaxing the baby into a slumber. As I shifted my attention away from his ripped jeans, I noticed what he was singing under his breath as a lullaby.


… numa numa iei…


Then everything clicked. If a dad could sing a decade old viral pop song to lullaby his baby to sleep, nobody will care if my jeans were slightly torn. Most people obviously don’t mind ripped garments anyway. Uncrossing my legs, I felt a surge of relief as a cool breeze passed between my legs. I finally felt I belonged to Berlin. So defiant. So free.





‘1 euro very cheap!’
the dreadlocked male
in the

knocked down stall
at a bundle of

old letters
‘you collect stamps?’
a blind date

I hate those

they’re for my mother
I picked two
DDR era letters

they were written
by the same person
looks like a girl’s

writing light
green on the paper its

exhausted brown
from its fight
with reality

I don’t speak
German so it could be

a love letter
that outlasted love

ich liebe dich
(in faded pink)
sounds familiar

maybe it was
the last one
maybe somewhere

was it’s not
you it’s me
maybe I’m just

reading myself
into it maybe
they were just friends

maybe one was
a spy
which would be ironic

either way
they’d never had known
that their story

would be sold to
an idiot
for a euro

komfortkabine stopover

I always say I’ve technically been to a country if I’ve transferred there before. I do this because most people think transferring at an airport doesn’t count as visiting a country. “Yes I’ve transferred at Tokyo” “But you didn’t leave the airport!” “Well I’ve been to the US… I transferred at Detroit” “That doesn’t even count as the US!”


Sure, airports might not give you the authentic experience that passing out in a shisha bar in Budapest would (that’s another story). But in a way they’re the essence of how a city or a country wants to be seen by the average traveller.


Apart from that, the airport terminal is a heaven for people watching— put a large number of tired and bored strangers together in a claustrophobic box where you can get charged for your mere existence, someone’s going to crack. Which is why yours truly doesn’t mind the 8 hour stopover, as long as it’s in a major airport with a healthy flow of fidgety people; I’ll be content to perch in a secluded corner and judge every one of them while I’m pretending to be asleep, which, incidentally, is really easy if you have Asian eyes.


You can always count on a certain type of people to be at the airport— the kind that would not only complain, but actually do something about their complaint. I’m not that kind of person. Shoot at me and I’ll probably complain about the caliber of the bullet and remain standing. Tackling you to the ground won’t even come up on my mental to-do list.


These people would write a strongly worded email to a cooking show if they thought the host got the idea of al dente wrong. These people, unlike me, aren’t scared shitless about publicizing their opinions. And that makes me jealous, which is enough reason for me to hate them.  


Case in point, when I was going through luggage control in Frankfurt, I noticed a commotion at the other end of the room. I couldn’t resist the urge to eavesdrop, so I shuffled towards the surface counter, pretending that I had problems with putting on my belt.


I could tell at first glance that the man was one of those people. Clean shaven, slightly pudgy, middle aged, with slick tufts of greying hair sprouting from his head as if someone decided to use weeds in an avant garde flower arrangement and— the most telling feature— trousers that didn’t really reach his shoes, exposing his checkered socks.

Judging from the expressions of people working at the service counter, they hadn’t marked him out as one of those people yet. Inexperience killed many a career. They were deceived by his ostensibly harmless look, the triviality of his complaint, the calm tone of his voice and his soft English accent.


“I specifically told the luggage handler not the open this bag, but he ignored me!” He gestured at a slim, black Agnes B. travel bag. Some would call it ‘man bag’. An imaginary gavel sounded in my head.

“I’m sorry sir, but what can we do for you now?” Funny how German sounds harsh, but English spoken in a German accent sounds like finely strained milk tea and almost has a placating effect. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to work on the man.

“I don’t think you understand, I specifically told him not to open this bag! I demand he be made responsible!”


That’s how they complain. They insist that no, you can never understand their plight, and in virtue of that, you should just shut up and do as they say.


The woman at the service counter did not do this. Worse, she looked slightly bemused, which was all the man needed.


“Do you think this is amusing? I want to speak to the manager! This won’t go unnoticed…”


I moved away, not wanting to attract too much attention by lingering around for too long. In my mind I was already fantasizing about what could possibly be in this mysterious bag of his. Since I already made up my mind to hate him, I let my imagination roam free as to what kind of incriminating demon he could have stored up inside that slim, Agnes B. travel bag.


Maybe it was the ashes of his late mistress; maybe it was an embarrassing latex costume; maybe it was the severed hand of a Starbucks barista who put too much chocolate powder in his morning latte. The possibilities were endless.


It was at this point that I knew I had to find out what was in that bag, or else I wouldn’t be able to put my mind to rest on the 11 hour flight back to Hong Kong.


So I started to search for him. I tried to look as innocuous as possible, stopping at a bookstore and pretending to flip through that week’s Foreign Affairs— if I had to be a farce, I might as well be a sophisticated one.


I couldn’t find him anywhere, and since he couldn’t possibly have gone to another terminal in the last 5 minutes, I concluded that he must be in one of the four toilets in that part of the terminal.


And so I went into every one of them. Toilets say a lot about a country— at the very least, it shows how they want to be perceived. The average tourist might not bat an eyelid at the plethora of souvenir shops packed in the terminal like a cheap bazar, but there’s a good chance that they’ll use one of the toilets.


The toilets in Frankfurt felt clinical. Everything from the urinals to the walls had a dull matte steel finish; the mirror was the only reflective surface there and it made me feel extraordinarily self-conscious. I was about to leave the second toilet when I noticed a small sign that read Komfortkabine. The English translation was etched right beneath it— Comfort Cabin.


Since I’ve seen vending machines selling condoms and sex toys in other German toilets (see Munich airport), I wondered if the Komfortkabine was a tongue-in-cheek euphemism. I didn’t want to be seen going into it just in case it was for that kind of purpose, which was why I checked to see if the toilet was empty before going into said ‘cabin’.

It was no different from any other toilet, except that it had about twice the amount of free space. Maybe ‘comfort’ just meant a bit of breathing space in a cramped terminal.


When I left the toilet I saw a crouched figure on the ground outside— it was the man squatted over the Agnes b. bag, scribbling furiously on something. As I came closer I saw that he was writing on a complaint form, his thin, cursive doctor-esque handwriting snaking over the small piece of paper like his silent temper. The words flowed out of the allocated box, and onto the other side of the paper. I edged closer, craning my neck to see what was inside the bag.


I guess I could have asked him bluntly about the contents of his bag, but how do you start such a conversation? “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help noticing that you don’t want people to know what’s inside that bag of yours. Would you mind telling me what’s inside?” He might be the kind of person to do that, but I wasn’t— so there I was, circling him like a hyena stalking a larger prey for the first time.

He shifted his stance, and for a brief moment, I caught a glimpse of the contents of the bag— stacks of paper. Just stacks of paper.


He must have smelt my disappointment. His pen stopped scratching and he looked up, noticing me for the first time.


“What do you want?” It sounded more like a bark than a question.


“Nothing” I said it almost like an accusation. He looked slightly taken aback. I turned and left in a huff.


He had failed my expectations. Nothing, no matter how dishonourable or disgusting it was, that is written on paper could be incriminating enough, could justify my hatred towards the man, because both the written word and pictures are reflections, mere echoes of what had happened. Neither can provide the immediacy to justify my increasing hatred towards this man. And without that, I can only turn my hate towards myself; according to my watch, I had four more hours to do just that.


I stormed back into one of the toilets, and gratefully entered the Komfortkabin, relishing the extra empty space, gladly filling it with the scent of my spite.