Welcome to a new series in the FrogDiva world. As part of my adventure in building my life in Berlin I have undertaken a few personal projects that help me understand and appreciate life in Berlin better. One of them is the Bridges of Berlin series, the other being Hidden Treasures, and now I bring you Taxi! (Berlin), inspired very much by Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York photography series.
When I lived here for the first time I couldn’t feel at home in this city and had the impression I was constantly bumping into cultural and emotional roadblocks. Berlin is definitely not an easy city to adjust to, regardless of whether you are German or not. Nevertheless, it was a conscious decision to move here last year and make something of my life. In other countries I usually head straight to the market place if I want to understand the city. A former colleague in India once told me “If you want to find the soul of the city or town, look for it in the market. The people are raw and show their true colours there instead of hiding behind a shop or museum.” Berlin is too Kiez-oriented (zone) to do this and each Kiez has its own market to boast of. So I opted to try a different strategy and invest time and effort on the one group who know Berlin by heart: the taxi drivers.
The Berlin taxi drivers are the unsung heroes of the city, along with the city sanitation crew, and are classified into two major groups:
1. those employed by a company and receive a basic salary with fixed shifts, or
2. freelancers who own the car they drive and work whenever they want or can.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both, starting with taxes, insurances, liabilities, and licenses. In both cases, the rates are fixed and each drive is strictly monitored by the meter linked straight to the headquarters (if employed) and the tax auditors.
I have spent a small fortune the last four months with all the taxi rides around Berlin, talking to all the drivers during the rides, interviewing them for their life stories and more importantly, how they became a taxi driver in Berlin. It has been a mixed bag, to say the least, but a fascinating experience nevertheless.
On some occasions I had the strong silent type who provided monosyllabic replies, which was a dead end no matter how hard I tried. In other cases there was a language barrier, where the driver was not fluent enough in German to carry on a conversation beyond understanding the destination. Then there are the super chatty ones who had real story to tell. One out of eight drivers will turn out to be a real gem and tell me an unforgettable story – or two.
Born in Turkey, Ylmaz moved to then West Berlin with his parents at the age of 10, attended the local schools, obtained his certification as a heating engineer (Heizungsmonteur) and landed a stable and well-paying job, by which time he had also become a German citizen. After Unification, however, most of the west German engineers in the company were laid off to make way for the flood of East German engineers, who not only needed employment but were also willing to settle for much lower salaries.
Ylmaz had to support his family by hook or by crook and refused to give up his own dreams, so he turned to taxi driving as a temporary solution – and got stuck for the next 17 years. Many of the older taxi drivers have regaled me with stories from the “old Berlin” or pre-Unification days, pointing out all the changes they have witnessed since. Ylmaz was very emotional when discussing one of the most poignant shifts in the Berliner social paradigm: the attitude towards Muslims.
As a community leader, Ylmaz is active in the local mosque and is involved with many community projects but lately there has been increased police presence in the area and residence have began complaining about unnecessary police force. “Nowadays if you are a Muslim or even look like one you are blamed for some crime or another until proven innocent: we get accused of all sorts of things just because we are immigrants, get dragged in for questioning, get slapped with a huge file, and then, after hours of interrogation, they apologize for the inconvenience. This does not help community relations at all! I have spent hours at the police station defending the people at the mosque or trying to clear my name.” Life in Berlin, he went on to describe, has become aggressive and scary. For the taxi drivers who work the night shift and get called by the bars to pick up a drunk customer, they say a little prayer and hope for the best. By law they are not allowed to turn down a call and must respond, and thus end up with one or the other adventure.