The first thing that struck me about Frank when I got into his taxi was the absence of a GPS. Up until that point I had assumed that an electronic navigation system was a requirement for all taxi drivers here in Germany. When I gave him the address of my destination, Frank immediately pulled out a thick map book. I stared like a goldfish in amazement and asked whether he was actually going to look it up in a map! He chuckled in amusement and said that he knew every street in Berlin almost by heart but hadn’t been in that particular part of town in a while.
Frank is the very first, and probably the last, native Berliner taxi driver I have met thus far. He speaks in broad dialect and has a lovely sense of humour. If you are not fluent in Berlinerisch, you might have trouble following the conversation, because he is unapologetic about his roots and about having lived all his life in Berlin. I am fluent in standard German and can follow a couple of dialects without wincing, but I must admit to struggling with Berlinerisch among the natives. It is not as difficult as the South German dialects, especially from the Black Forest, but a certain amount of adjustment is required.
As to the map? Frank frowned and said “the young taxi drivers of today don’t know how to drive, really drive, they just punch the address into the GPS and off they go. But to be a true taxi driver you have to know the streets by heart, understand the area, and engage in meaningful conversation with your passenger.” Over 65 now, Frank only drives part time these days. He retired a couple of years ago but found retirement far too dull and boring, and missed the interaction with the passengers. The taxi was his office, driving his life, and conversation his bread and butter. He reminded me so much of my father-in-law.
Like most other drivers, Frank started out as student wanting to earn more pocket money. He had lofty dreams of going to university and landing a glamorous job afterwards. Life, however, got in the way and he never made it to university. “I have two sons now, each with their own family, and I mades sure they got the best vocational training possible and then sent them both out of Berlin. One lives in Belgium and the other in Switzerland. None of us has fancy jobs, but we are proud of what we do, do it well, and earn enough to live comfortable lives.” I got a wonderful discourse about the dignity of labour and pride in your craft from Frank, as he lamented the lost art of conversation and respect for one another in today’s society.
When I asked whether he ever regretted his decision to remain a taxi driver, he turned around, lifted his hand and pointed to the sky: “There is not a day that I regret in my life. I live each day to the fullest and try to enjoy each moment. I have lost far too many friends who died young and bitter. I promised myself never to end up like that.”
Like every dignified old-school taxi driver, Frank gave me tips on the best fish markets and fruit stalls around town. “But for the best fish you have to go to Holland, and to Belgium for the clams!”