Presents from in-laws are rarely well targeted. A blind folded young rookie shooting darts at the pub might have better luck of hitting the bullseye. With this in mind, I have to hand it to the in-laws. Why We Took The Car is an absolute banger.
Being from the island that Her Majesty deemed worthy of a gaol, it’s rare to be exposed to any literature that’s not originally written in the Kings. My German wife and I constantly marvel at the books that each of us didn’t read growing up. So, it was rad to be introduced to a modern German text whose prose could match the pace Berlin.
WWTTC kicks off in Berlin and circles back there but it’s really a book set on the road. It’s a young adult novel but in such a way that it puts you back there. Mike Klingenburg, a kid with lots to offer but too shy to reveal it. Tortured by isolation but too disgusted by the phoniness of what it seems to take to fit in. Desperate for female attention but more invisible than wind. Just me?
Just like Nick in The Great Gatsby, Mike is the narrator but he’s not the namesake. In German the book is called Tschick, way better, right? I’m not sure who decides these translation changes. I was once in Paris when the American film Friends With Benefits came out. In France it was given the subtle and nuanced title of Sex Friends. Anyway, Tschick (pronounced Chick) is an impoverished Russian ex-pat who regularly turns up to school several vodkas deep and seems to pay no mind to anyone. The only thing Mike and Tschick have in common is that they’re both equally outcast. Mike initially fails to see this as the basis for a friendship but after a little coercion they buddy up. Summer holidays roll around, parents aren’t on the scene, for both middle and lower class reasons of neglect, Tschick steals a Lada (If you’re not familiar, look them up. Russian engineering at its finest.) and the two hit the road, donning duct tape moustaches at times to hide their youthful appearance, lest the two underage punters attract any suspicious glances.
So what about Berlin? It’s a world unto itself. It’s German but not in the way Munich is. It’s German in the sense that it’s ultra-liberal. Owning their past and moving forward has arguably made Germany the beacon of the free world and Berlin stands as the centerpiece. The wall that once divided the city is now a street art gallery, more likely to be tearing down oppression than propping it up. English is almost more of an advantage here than German. Museums, restaurants, bars, cafes and clubs, Berlin has too much to see and do for me to pretend I’m going to know whether you want recommendations on raving or galleries. Most importantly, Berlin packs most of the best that an urban jungle has to offer and everyone is welcome. Many of the corners are now filled with refugees, hustling to get by but even this is largely accepted, part of the rich tapestry.
Berlin reminds me of my favourite quote from WWTTC; it sums up why we have to read, travel and throw ourselves headlong into the whole big mess:
‘Ever since I was a little boy my father had told me that the world was a bad place. The world is bad and people are bad. Don’t trust anyone, don’t talk to strangers, all of that. My parents drilled that into me, my teachers drilled that into me, even TV drilled that into me. When you watched the local news - people were bad. When you saw primetime investigative shows - people were bad. And maybe it was true, maybe ninety-nine percent of the people were bad. But the strange thing was that on this trip, Tschick and I had run into almost only people from the one percent who weren’t bad.’
If Lost Boys’ Book Club had a manifesto it would read something like that. Don’t trust second hand accounts. Read this book and explore Berlin for yourself.