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Ich Bein ein Spassfaktor!

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by Kevin McHugh, for outsideleft.com
originally published: March, 2005
The more time spent in the company of others, the greater the Spassfaktor.

I'm usually in good spirits on the subway. It is precisely because everyone else is so obviously not. It is winter in Berlin, a mild one this year, but cold and windy nonetheless. There is cold rain instead of snow, so people are wet and the clouds press heavily on your sense of well-being. Berliners understand this the best.

I board every subway car the same way: first I wait for everyone to get off: an interesting stream of fashionable women with baby carriages (this seems to be the world capital of hip single mothers); groups of old Muslim women with heads wrapped in silk scarves; a punk and his dog (punks always have dogs) and his punk girlfriend; a Worker—beer in hand—easily identified by his Blue Worker Pants (all workers have the exact same pure blue pants); an old man with a cane and a checkered cap and many other forgotten faces. As I board, I scan the car for an empty seat, preferably not next to a crazy person or a teenager throwing up. This happens much more than you would think. I sit down with great discretion but usually hit someone with my bag, prompting the first frown. The frown is contagious, it seems, for when I glance around at my neighbors faces, they too are frowning. The subway here is quite similar to a funeral parlor, where one must deal with some unexplainable loss—an event of both profound angst and sadness in a forced social environment of close proximity with distant relatives, and thus the unemployed father of three stares out the window to avoid eye contact with the poor old woman who resembles his mother, who is by chance sitting next to a drunken red-faced man who reminds her of her great uncle. The heaviness and absurdity of the situation make me smile, which provokes more frowns and some scowls. And then I notice the silence. The eerily pure silence fuels the depression of a Berlin subway car, and the more quiet it becomes the more depressed one is, until the air is a raging fire of silent tension and depression. It is so contagious and subversive that, upon boarding, even friendships and romances are shattered, families torn apart, happiness broken, with each passenger now sitting entirely alone, unable to communicate with someone they had just kissed a moment ago. Sometimes I cough and shuffle my coat on purpose, to keep from hearing nothing at all.

On the next stop a group of women come in and break the silence with cheerful laughter and jokes. Well, I guess I am wrong. But wait, no, they are speaking Spanish. They are from Spain, a far off place of sun and earth and a mysterious thing called social skills. The other Germans regard them with cautious suspicion, like trout examining a shiny lure with furtive glances from the corners of their fish eyes. The young German trout are especially intrigued: ah, the Spanish! So carefree, well-sunned, bright smiles—if only.But the women get off at the next stop, and their laughter echoes through the damp station.

Like most other Germans I spend the time avoiding dreaded eye contact and choose to read the advertisements pasted around the top of the subway car. Shuffled in between some informative subway maps and a well aligned picture of a proud German woman who had saved on her gas heater and the environment, is a large photograph of a content looking grandfather engaged in some sort of grandfatherly activity with his grandson. Beneath it is a rather complicated looking graph with an elliptical curve going up to the top. When I focus my eyes a bit more on the x and y axis of the graph, such variables emerge as "amount of time spent alone," "Spassfaktor" (literally "fun factor"!) and some other confusing words that stretch on for most of the poster. Basically some genius at an advertising firm for senior homes got the idea to actually make a graph of the despondent inner turmoil of its aging customers. As the graph suggests, the more time spent in the company of others (one must only glance inches above to see a happy couple) the greater the Spassfaktor. The more time an old man or woman spends locked away in their house, the Spassfaktor drops to zero.

What? Is this for real? Is the man to my left also looking at this poster, then considering his evening out with friends and assigning it a Spassfaktor? Did the extra bottle of wine boost it up to a 8.9? I shuffle uncomfortably in my seat. The night is dropping toward a 4.2.

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