Russkij Berlin

“There’s a cultural difference between the Poles and us: We eat and then get drunk, whereas they just get drunk”, my Russian driver pointed out to me as we turned an intersection in central Berlin. The radio was tuned to a German-Russian station and he smiled when I exclaimed that I had never even heard about it. As if to reassure me for the drive ahead, he then launched into a story about how he quit drinking after a particularly rough wedding in Moldova.

His name was Dmitri and he returned rental cars to different cities for a living. “Mostly vans, but I get the occasional spors car.” When he explained the task, it quickly became clear what a truly horrible job this was; a fact he was quick to admit: Dmitri gets up at 6 in the morning, drives several cars across the republic and returns home late at night, even on weekends. In Dresden, he had a train to catch that would take him home, so we sped along the dark, empty highway.

Back in Berlin, we had briefly given a colleague of his a ride: An older, white-haired man from Kazakstan, who had sat in the chair next to me and occasionally remarked something in Russian, with a raspy voice. As Dimitri, who was from Eastern Russia, told us about crossing Siberia in a Lada, I let my eyes wander and noticed the faded prison tattoos on his colleague’s hands. When we dropped him off to get another rental car, I learned that he had been a bus driver all of his life. According to Dmitri, the man simply could not stop driving: “It’s in his blood”, he remarked before casually adding “ever since his wife has had a stroke, he has been supporting her with this job.”

Just last week, The Guardian lamented the lack of a British equivalent of This American Life, the public radio show featuring extraordinary stories about ordinary people in the US. The idea is simple enough: Using the radio, one can gain insight into the lives of people we would never otherwise meet.

As Dmitri continued about Siberia, it occurred to me that taking shared rides accomplished exactly what The Guardian was looking for: They offer a glimpse into the unique cosmos of other peoples’ lives, however briefly. When on the road, one does not normally wonder about all that goes on in the long line cars passing us. But I have a feeling that I’ll keep thinking about this old Khazak bus driver, returning German rental cars to support his ailing wife in Leipzig.