Shortly after I had moved to Charlottenburg, I placed an ad on the Connexion française website for a language exchange so that I could practise my French conversation with someone and they could learn English in return. I had a few responses but the meet-ups weren’t really successful because we didn’t have much in common. But on the verge of giving up hope, I received a message from a young French woman (let’s just call her J.) suggesting we meet at the S-Bahn station at Hackescher Hoefe.
Dressed in jeans, a white sleeveless top and gold Nike trainers, she was instantly recognisable on the platform. I can’t remember where exactly we went that first evening in this rather touristy area with generally mediocre and overpriced places to eat but thereafter, we met once a week, at first to speak French and then English and then just French which suited us both better. Sometimes we would head to Datscha in Friedrichshain, a Russian café-bar with a Soviet style living room lined with pictures of Lenin and other communist memorabilia, where we ordered borscht, followed by Russischer Zupfkuchen, which isn’t actually Russian at all, or the warm blinis with quark and blackcurrants. Despite sharing a love of exercise, we both had a weakness for any rich desserts (rather like Diane Keaton and her neighbour in Manhattan Murder Mystery). Other times, we went to see French or English films at the Hackesche Hoefe Kino, the Sony Center or at my favourite Arsenal Kino on Potsdamer Platz.
Our tastes didn’t always coincide. She hated Juliette Gréco and Jacques Brel and found the attitude of Mersault abhorrent after I gave her a copy of Camus’ ‘LÉtranger’. But the only really awful thing about being with J. was that she is stunningly beautiful. Next to her, I knew what it must have felt like to be friends with Lana Turner. In a city where no straight men ever look at you unless you’re wearing an evening gown and heels (speaking from personal experience), all the heads turned whenever we walked into a place and I was completely ignored. Alongside someone blonde, tanned and super slim, I felt plain and badly dressed. Even my all my male friends admired her looks and constantly pestered me for her number which I had to somehow diplomatically refuse.
After a few months, we started hanging out at the Insitut Français on Ku’damm which has a wonderful cinema and exhibition rooms on the ground floor with large windows shining light across the pavements as dusk falls, reminding me of the aquarium like ones at the hotel in Balbec through which observers could watch the dinner guests in Proust’s Recherche. Afterwards, we always headed for the one cheap place to eat round there – an Italian pizzeria on Uhlandstrasse where you sit on wooden benches and they announce when your order is ready to collect in garbled Italian which meant listening out closely in mortal fear of missing it. The owner was rather un-Italian looking, bald with glasses, but he was clearly smitten with J and asked her out. She told me about their date – how she waited until 2 am for the restaurant to close, then they went to a nightclub owned by his brother where they started dancing. Gradually she became aware that he was giving directions for other couples and dancers to clear the floor until they were completely alone with the music.
Despite that, J. decided that she didn’t want to see him again which meant we could never return to the pizzeria. She told me she was bored with the city and that, “Berlin me semble fade”. A little later J. returned to Paris where she still lives to this day. Our paths have crossed only once since then when she invited me to stay in her tiny apartment in Montparnasse. I think I annoyed her with my large suitcase and inability to be tidy, even in such a small space. At a party with many of her friends who gathered to eat Galette des Rois, nobody spoke to me all evening and I felt hurt when she asked me if I hadn’t found it too boring. I decided then that she was probably just too cool to be my friend, that things weren’t the same and that I was OK with that. After returning to Berlin, I picked up my copy of ‘L’Étranger’ and had dinner at the pizzeria on Uhlandstrasse.