The Turkish Baker of Zossener Strasse

There are stories in the streets of Kreuzberg, many of them already erased by the wind. Many lie sleeping in the Bergmannkiez Cemetery.

Some stories persist. They can’t go away or be swept up on the wind. These stories come alive each day in the actions of the people of Kreuzberg. They are truths.

Autumn draws fresh cold lines around the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, it turns the green leaf into a curling dark apple. The sun shines on some days, and dark clouds hang low the next. Nothing is the same in Kreuzberg, this corner of Berlin where people work hard at survival, life, work.

Wet streets and the hiss of rubber on tarmac, shrugged shoulders covered with dark clothes, and the newly paled faces of shivering shoppers. Doors now closed to keep the warmth in and the wet out.

The Bergmannkiez graveyard is full of those who were once local people, they lie in peace. Autumn is no longer on their mind, nothing should disturb their rest, not even the nagging thoughts of change.

I have walked through this graveyard many times, reflecting on the mysteries of life and death.

Life is a mystery that unravels itself, the mundane is only the cover of a book that beckons to be opened and read. Most people, it seems, are too frightened to delve deeper into those ancient pages.

As I walked the paths through the graveyard, I passed a grave I had never noticed before. A simple modern sculpture of two lovers entwined. A man and a woman. She, “Meister Tänzerin”, a Master dancer, and he, a Choreographer. For sure a story of love — or maybe not, a story of a jealous muse who broke hearts and kept lovers separated?

Further down the path I saw a cat sitting on the top of a gravestone, peacefully enjoying a single ray of sunshine that warmed the stone for her. I stopped and read the inscription. Sadly, the grave of a young boy, about ten years old when he passed from this life. “Taken by the waters, delivered to the heavens”, that was all it said. I presumed it meant that he had drowned. The cat slipped away and disappeared into a small thicket of trees.

As I headed towards the gate at the end of the slope, I passed statues, crosses, graves so long untended that their names had become blobs of moss and lime. Then as I approached the gate I glanced across at the statue that adorned a grassy grave. The dark marble figure of a woman, middle-aged, tired face, and a triste looking hat with a leafy motif embossed on its side, a shopping bag hanging from her fingers. A work of art that depicts a life, a mundane life of cooking, shopping and tending to her loved ones. A life.

I walked away from the wooded graveyard and into the neighbourhood where bakers and hairdressers do their business. A cyclist rushed past, dodged a figure crossing the street, then stopped behind a 40 ton delivery truck, her red face glowed in the cool air, her lips pushed outwards as she whinnied like a horse. She raised her head, and I could see the whites of her eyes as she attempted to get past the truck.

Autumn changes, but stops nothing. It makes us shrug at the shoulders as we make the brisk journey towards the underground stations. Thoughts are of work, play, and keeping going till we can go back to our rightful places of rest. Our eyes see the ground ahead, filled with fallen flattened leaves, cut to shreds by boots and heels.

Eyes dropped to the street, just listening to the grate of metal, the clatter of slammed doors, and the constant groans of mechanical things. The smell of beer when passing the doorway to a bar, a place for drinking all night. No cocktails, just whiskey and beer.

Damp air grabs at odours, it holds them tight until enough people have pushed it away, they walk through the invisible fug with twists and turns of their shoulders, and quicken their step when it’s pungent.

The smell of the city, a bit of this and bit of that. The ambiguous clash of everybody’s world. Everyday life.

I pass the baker in Zossener Strasse. The Autumn air filled with that familiar smell of bread. The promise of warm food, sweetness in the mouth, the thought of butter slipping, steam rising from the fresh white bread. A moment of joy. The imagination is lit with bright feelings of home.

The baker’s lot has changed. More efficiency, faster baking methods, central bakeries with automated-everything to ensure the business is making top dollar, this is today. Tasteless loaves — white blocks of half-baked bread shoved into each other at the end of a conveyor belt.

You don’t know if it’s cream in the middle, or yellow jam filling — no, it’s just not baked. Damn.

When people pass the Turkish baker shop in Zossener Strasse, more than halfway down, close to the corner where you go down into the underground, they know it’s good bread. Made by special hands.

If you stand on the opposite side of the road and watch the people on Zossener Strasse, people who are in a hurry, or not, when they reach the baker’s shop you’ll notice how they lift their heads and sniff at the air, all of them do it. Some of them skid to a halt, look around themselves then step inside, as if an invisible hand pushed them through the door.

Whoever kept going tucked their chin down onto their chests and dug their hands into their pockets. They sniffed at the air for a last pleasurable whiff of bread before they moved on to the underground.

I was watching people on the street. I had my camera, took a few shots, walked about the Bergmann Neighbourhood, then stopped opposite the Turkish baker’s shop in Zossener Strasse. There was a line of people, at least four of them outside on the street waiting to get inside. The windows were so steamed up that I could hardly read the signage of large red letters on the window pane. The letters have been carefully placed high to ensure people can look through the glass and see all the breads and cakes in the cabinet next to the glass.

If you stand close enough, on the same side of the street, you get a view of the woman behind the counter serving the customers. Her thick worker’s hands pointing at different breads, then holding the bread up for a customer to inspect, fingers and palm like a small cup to receive money, a bunch of coins held between the tips of her fingers and thumb, then, the coins dropped into the customer’s palm.

Her face always blocked by the large red lettering on the window. The bread is always in view.

The patient line of feet goes back to the street. The smell of freshly baked bread comes from the rear of the bakery, it shifts in the air, then through to the front, it fills the space where customers silently stand and dream, then it drifts out into the Zossener Strasse, here it is grabbed by the wind and carried along until it mingles with the smells of traffic and people.

I wanted to take a few street shots around the baker’s shop. The steamed up glass, maybe I’d be lucky enough to see the vague image of a customer’s face through the steam, where the moisture begins to slip and drip down the glass. Every street photographer knows this shot, it’s cliche, but it’s fun, and it’s a challenge to make it your own shot. It didn’t look promising, so I moved around a little, leaned on a wall and watched customers come and go. The window was so heavily covered in moisture, and it didn’t look like it would start to fade, drip, or anything of the kind, anytime soon.

I waited as customers stepped outside, bread wrapped in warm paper, each one smiled as they gently lifted the small parcel of food closer to their faces, then they walked away into the crowds. Some customers couldn’t wait any longer, and so began pulling at the loaves they had bought, they ripped away the thin paper, then tore away chunks of bread.

A group of men stood close to the curb near a red car, one of them leaned against the door and filled his mouth. Another laughed loudly, his mouth stuffed with wet bread. The taste of fresh bread seemed to cheer them up as they ate it. The men stood close to each other but didn’t speak, they only ate bread. The Turkish Baker’s bread.

It occurred to me that I shouldn’t wait too long, and I needed to do something else. The baker was back there, unseen, busy at work. He, or she, whoever, was baking bread for the longest line of customers I’d every seen here. By now, I could see a line of at least fifteen people waiting in the cold, rubbing their hands, pulling at their hats and caps to cover their ears, faces damp and red. The group of men near the car were still laughing, bright faces in the cold weather.

The people in the line at the door waited patiently, silently, one of the men from the group called out, “how long? Anybody know?”

A couple of people in the line turned towards him, one of them spoke, “Like always, when he’s done the work first — be patient, man.” The customer turned away and stared into the doorway, he was next to gain entry. He had to wait until the woman at the counter waved him in.

As I watched him, I could see his feet shuffle, he put his hands into his pockets, then removed them, he rubbed them together, then let both hands hang loosely by his sides. A woman came outside, she joined the men, she held the bread up above her head and waved it around for a moment. The men laughed together, she stepped up to the red car and tore the wrapping from her bread, then a chunk of the crust. The men breathed in deeply, smiling at the woman as she placed the first warm bread in her mouth.

The bakery is clearly special. But once, it wasn’t much of a shop, just another baker selling sweets and breads. Now, it has something rare about it — fresh bread baked by a master baker. A quality that everybody loves.

Zossener Strasse is one of Berlin’s older streets, and like so many Berlin neighbourhoods, the structures and buildings, bombed and flattened in the war, were then used as foundations for a new era.

Apartments and shops went up quickly, the Government promised that in ten or twenty years they would rebuild them more solidly. German orderliness and craftsmanship prevailed, and the quickly built houses proved solid and lasting structures that still serve their purpose today.

The Baker’s father moved into the neighbourhood in the 1950s. He was an immigrant worker, offered the chance to make a living in Berlin, he took an opportunity and moved into a small flat above the shop. He kept his ears and eyes open, and then one day managed to negotiate a price for the shop below his home. He worked there as a simple Baker — the trade he had learned, he taught his son the same trade, but with the money they made he could afford to send his son to a school where he learned new techniques of baking, using modern science.

The son learned well, but never forgot the human touch in his work. He put his heart into everything he did, even the day he saved a child from a lake. Or that’s what people say about him, he saved a child from drowning, or he didn’t, nobody is sure. The Baker is too busy working to tell people his story.

I walked away from the baker’s shop. My thoughts were wrapped up in ideas of street photos, cool shots, and catching a moment of life on the street. Something spontaneous might happen, I hoped that I’d find another steamed up window and see a dripped face to photograph. I went to the café on the corner, “Que Pasa”, a place where hipsters and dudes go to drink cocktails, eat Spanish food and sit outside. I looked for a composition to frame. A curved back, creased jacket, with angled legs under the table talking to another “shape”.

I stood back, about twenty metres, adjusted to 35 mm on my lens, and panned the rows of tables, then the window — which wasn’t steamy, then took a shot of a couple leaning into each other at a table. The woman’s elbow had caught a white plate, its contents slid onto the chequered table cloth, she hadn’t noticed — she was looking into her lover’s eyes. Nice shot, look at it later. I heard a shout and turned around.

At the traffic lights behind me, a cyclist was waving her hand at a car driver. The lights were red and the car driver had pulled in too tight to the curb, waiting to turn right into Bergmannstrasse.

The cyclist was angry because she couldn’t get past, she wanted to overshoot the red light into Bergmannstrasse. She was screaming at the driver, “Arschloch! geh mir aus dem Weg!” — “Asshole — get out of my way!”

I raised my camera to get a shot of her emotional face, hands flapping about, obscene gestures. Hold the frame, adjust, and wait a second until the perfect composition of bike, obscenity and anger form a memorable street shot. A little piece of Bergmannkiez character on my hard drive. The cyclist kicked the bumper on the car.

I took the shot. Nice moment.

The driver opened his window, poked his head out and looked at his bumper, then back at the cyclist who was now spitting words a dozen at a time. His hand came out holding a leather wallet which flopped open, an identification card. The cyclist stopped swearing, stopped gesturing, and pulled back in place behind the car. Nice and gentle, no fuss, obedient, and no more obscenities.

I heard the driver speak in calm tones, a few words, “Polizei,”- “on a charge if I have to get out of this car…” and then the window closed, the car pulled away into Bergmannstrasse.

I slipped the camera into the bag on my shoulder, and shoved my hands into my pockets. A woman standing on the otherside of the road, a boy by her side, they looked at the spot where the incident had taken place. Her tired face, slightly rosy and wet couldn’t hide the heavy rings under her eyes, her dark raincoat open, the belt unbuckled, and each end flopped around like snakes when she turned and spoke to the boy. He looked up at her and listened. They both looked across at me, she smiled and the boy waved. I didn’t know them.

They turned, and walked towards the underground, they plodded along the Zossener Strasse, weaving in and out of foot traffic. The boy gripped the woman’s hand firmly, so I was sure it must have been his mother. Their steps were heavy and sometimes the boy inverted one of his shoes and scuffed the top leather against the tarmac.

As they drew level with the Turkish Baker’s shop, the boy noticed a man standing close to the shop door. The man’s dog was tugging hard on its leash, and the man stretched the leash while trying to get the dog under control. The group of men and the woman, still eating their bread, leaned against the red car, and laughed at him. The boy pointed, and pulled at the woman’s sleeve. She turned her head towards the man and the dog, then simply pointed to a courtyard gateway next to the baker’s shop, her arm flopped down to her side and she tugged at the boy’s hand so that they could move on. The boy searched about, his head swinging back and forth, he laughed out loud when he saw the cat. I heard his gurgling laugh from twenty metres away, other people heard it too, they looked over at the woman and the boy.

We all saw the cat, its white teeth grinning, red lips tightly formed. Its back was high and shoulders low, it looked frightening when it stepped out from the gateway to display its fluffed up tail, the dog edged back, then forwards, it barked constantly, the tight leash holding it back gave it courage, but not enough to risk the cat’s claws.

The commotion caught the attention of a few other people and they started to walk across the road towards the Turkish Baker’s shop. I watched a man who had been busy staring at his newspaper for a while look up, when he saw the crowd forming he threw the paper into a nearby bin, and stepped out into the road without looking. Zossener Strasse is a busy road, I thought he was going to get hit by a bus, and he would have to go to the underground. But he seemed to know what he was doing and made it to the other side without a scratch.

I walked across the street towards the Turkish Baker’s. The boy’s gurgling laughter seemed to rise above the traffic, the voices, the humourous gasps of other pedestrians. They gawped, exchanged comments, and pointed at the man and the dog who was losing control of his angry pet. The boy’s laugh sounded like water tumbling down a drainpipe. Glug-glug-gurgle-gurgle, followed by wet splashes of chaos when it hit the metal grate at the bottom. The woman had stopped and waited patiently by his side.

The boy coughed, spat onto the road, then wheezed loudly. People close by watched him gasp for air. An old man in a flat cap placed a hand on his own chest and breathed in deeply. His grimacing face and blue lips full of empathy. The boy finally stopped coughing.The crowd carried on eating their fresh bread and chatted and laughed. The boy was fine.

The woman leaned over and rubbed the boy’s hands, which were a deep purple colour with streaks of whiteness at the knuckles. His face was now wet, so was his grey school shirt. He wore dark trouser which were heavily creased. As I got closer to the shop front, I could see the crest of a school badge sewn onto the boy’s shirt pocket.

I lifted my camera to take a shot, but as soon as I looked through the lens, I only saw the woman looking directly at me, wagging her finger. She was admonishing me for my audacious street photographer ways. Bad timing, not now. I lowered the camera, and nodded at her and the boy. I felt like a stranger at a funeral.

The woman was slightly overweight which caused her arms to bow around the sides of her upper body, the open raincoat revealed a purple blouse that looked grubby where the buttons went through their holes. I saw that she wore stockings, one of them had slipped down to her ankle and formed a dark bundle of meshy material that was stopped by what looked like muddy house shoes.

I couldn’t make out her hair , although I’d guess it was dark, she wore a felt hat that somehow matched her rosy cheeks and dark ringed eyes, it was a hat for a sad day, but a sprig of green leaves gave it life. I’d seen those leaves on my walks through the graveyard.

The boy tugged at her hand and they walked to the shop door, the woman looked inside, then back at the boy. She went inside the shop, and from what I could see she strutted through to the back, where the Turkish Baker did his work. The boy stepped aside and waited in front of the shop window. His face dropped to look at the tarmac, he seemed to be searching around with his eyes, as if he didn’t know where he was, or maybe he felt alone without the woman by his side.

I moved into the now large crowd that gathered around the door of the Baker’s shop. There was a straight line of silent customers waiting, but many people had already bought their bread, not all the same sort; long breads, short crusty rolls, flat Italian bread with a dab of flour across the crust, and the German half rounded loaf of white — too many types to count or remember.

The customers were now chatting as well as ripping at pieces of bread, mouths filled with bread and words, always with laughter the punctuated their muffled sentences. The man with the dog was staring at the red marks across his palm where the leash had raked his skin, the dog sat obediently and looked up at him.

It was so loud that nobody heard the shush-clunk of my camera shutter as I took a few shots. I decided to look at the photos later, the people were beginning to shove each other, in a friendly way, but a bit too much for my liking. I put my camera back in its bag, and stood among them.

Then the noisy voices stopped, without warning or reason. A voice boomed from inside the shop, “The boy, here?” — “Yes, he couldn’t wait much longer,” a woman’s voice said.

“You should have taken him straight to the underground, it would have been better for him.” The Baker’s voice.

The crowd moved back from the shop door and made space,they agreed with the Baker’s words. The long line of waiting customers shifted aside like a wave forming into a rippling wake.

A small man stepped out into the street. His large strong hands pressed against his white overalls. A long dark moustache over his upper lip formed into small upward curls at each end. He pushed his chin in deeply, so that it formed a double roll of skin under his jaw. He could have been a sailor by the way he walked, but it was obvious he was the Turkish Baker. He looked around but didn’t seem to notice the men and women who chewed their bread. But he saw the boy crouching at the corner, stroking the graveyard cat, the Turkish Baker walked over to him and held out his floury hands.

The boy stood up, looked at the baker’s hands and touched them. The boy’s face glowed with delight, his eyes brightened and he looked up.

“This can only happen once, and it’ll do no good. You know that boy?” Said the Baker.

The Baker and the boy looked across at the woman who had brought him to the shop, she nodded once then touched the leaves on her hat.

“I wanted to feel you lift me again, it made me feel safe when it happened,” Said the boy.

The Baker placed his strong hands around the boys ribs, gripped tightly, and lifted the boy into the air.

The group of men near the car pushed through the crowd and watched as the boy was raised up above their heads. Mouths opened and bread fell to the floor, nothing was said.

The Turkish Baker put the boy down and folded his arms. His moustache covered his lips, but his eyes were soft enough to show friendship to the boy.

“I lifted you out of the water, and it didn’t help you, and it can’t help you now. You can see that, can’t you?” Said the Baker.

The boy bit at his lip, and churned his arms against his chest. The woman took his hand.

The Turkish Baker stood at the door of his shop, then waved the crowd away to make space, he watched the boy walk along side the woman.

They made their way along Zossener Strasse, up towards the graveyard, maybe she wanted to pick some fresh leaves for her hat, or the boy needed to take the cat back to its rightful place. They were walking back to their rightful place in the underground.

Written by

Berlin Notes — Writing about the Creative Art of Living

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