Mum’s developed a new habit. Whenever I call home these days she likes to ask if I ‘have anyone special’ in my life. Her voice drops a little as she tiptoes around the question. Subsequently, my new habit is tiptoeing around the answer. Of course, I have lots of special people in my life but none of the ‘steady boyfriend’ variety to which I know she’s referring.
People often say that dating is a game. I have no idea what they mean by that, but the past few months of dating in Berlin has me thinking about the good, clean, family fun that is Uno. If you haven’t played the game in a while, here’s a quick refresher: each player is dealt a hand of cards that is, on the outset, as random as they get. There are colors, numbers, symbols, wild cards, draw two, draw four. There are so many combinations, the aim is to reduce your cards one-by-one. You know you’re doing well in the game when you’re left with a single card. As with any game, a good shuffle results in a better play. My recent dating experience has delivered a cross-section of men that is truly difficult to describe which means the cards in this game were shuffled by an evil genius.
First up, was a sweet 26-year-old from Verona in Northern Italy. In the Uno deck, he’d be a Yellow Zero: unassuming and not intimidating. This, of course, is a novelty in a city where it sometimes feels like everyone’s trying to out-do each other on the freaky scale. As it happens, Verona is also the setting for Shakespeare’s infamous Romeo & Juliet. So historically, we had the right ingredients for a good (and tragic) romance on our hands. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, there was no double suicide, but this scenario wasn’t without its own level of tragedy.
Yellow Zero had a very strict way of doing things. He lived by a self-made rulebook and didn’t like to stray. This is problematic for someone like me who has trouble sticking to a regular coffee order, let alone an actual routine. He got upset if I sat in ‘his’ chair (I didn’t know he had a favorite chair), was 10 minutes early to everything and then became flustered when I was on time. He often patronized homosexuality and queer culture. At first, I thought this was a language barrier, but it happened a few times and then I wondered how he’d managed to live here, in this Mecca for sexual open-mindedness for two years already.
He was polite and cooked us dinner a few times, but his old school charms wore thin when I noticed the handwritten note on the wall behind his single bed. It read: ‘oversleeping kills productivity’. If you’re looking for the quickest way to kill the mood, then that surely is it. We were Star Cross’d lovers of a different kind. Yellow Zero and I saw each other three times and after the third date, in a move surely inspired by The Godfather, he kissed me goodbye on the forehead and I knew we’d never speak again.
Shortly after Yellow Zero was the 31-year-old techno DJ from Milan, better known as Red Skip. We met on one of ‘the apps’, he seemed fun and delivered good banter on the texts. Before we even met, he invited me on a trip to Poland where he was to DJ the next month. Everything was going well until I received a message an hour before our first date. It read: “Hey girl who didn’t even save my number in her phone. Are we going to meet or…?”
The sound of faint alarm bells started ringing in my head. Why was he calling me girl? How did he know I hadn’t saved his number in my phone? Why was this a problem? Sure, we had loose plans of going to Poland together, but we were still strangers at the end of the day. The message was too loaded for him to be bluffing or joking. I brushed it off and suggested we could argue about it when we catch up. What followed was a string of messages detailing how angry he was about the fact that I hadn’t saved his number. How he wasn’t in the mood to catch up with someone who doesn’t care about him. When words failed him, he threw out a series of aggressive emojis that I didn’t know were part of the catalog. The alarm bells were now wailing in my head. So, this is modern dating. A culture where going for a simple beer results in having to justify myself to someone whose ego enters the room before he does. I suggested we reorganize the whole thing because he was clearly upset aka throwing a tantrum.
“It’s now or never”, he wrote because he would be too busy DJing and organizing parties in the future. For some sick reason, there was a huge part of me that still wanted to meet up with him, but I was with a friend and the rest of me was distracted by the roast chicken and chips we’d just ordered. I told him it was weird catching up tonight and lucky that I didn’t save his number in my phone and threw Red Skip on the pile. A quick game’s a good game.
Wild Card Draw Four
Which brings me to my next card: Wild Card Draw Four. Those of you that have played Uno would know this card makes people sick with excitement. You’ve probably seen the dumb smirk plastered across someone’s face when they pick it up. They become drunk with power because it’s a complete game-changer. It’s a little dangerous and can totally derail the whole situation.
It was 3 am Sunday morning when I met Wild Card Draw Four. I’d made a last-minute decision to follow some friends to a club and happened to be alone on the dance floor when he approached me. He asked if he could buy me a drink, pulled out a few drink cards and ordered us a straight double vodka each.
There we were standing at the bar, surrounded by buff, topless men thumping their bodies to techno. I looked at him for a bit and waited for him to say something. When he didn’t, I asked: “Who are you?”
“I built this place.” He said.
“What do you mean you built this place? Do you own it?”
“No, I redesigned it and rebuilt it myself. I only finished a few hours ago.” He showed me his hands and they were covered in splotches of grey render. As it turns out, this guy was the club owner’s right-hand man employed to renovate venues around Berlin.
We spoke for a little while, but between his broken English, my minimal German and the heavy sound system it became too hard to hear each other. He led me to one of the offices, we sat on some black swivel chairs and he asked:
“Do you have any fetishes?”
“Maybe. I’m not sure” I said. “What about you?”
He stared at me for a few seconds while the smoke tendrils rose from his cigarette. Within the grey, sterile, prefabricated office walls, he point-blank said: “I like to piss on girl’s faces.”
And there it was, the line that derailed the whole game signaling this was the Wild Card Draw Four. It was exciting. And weird. I suddenly felt stumped by the white, fluorescent lights and all I could reply was: “Look, I’m open-minded… but that’s a bit much for me.”
“Fair enough”, was all he said.
Despite this, we continued to hang out for a little while*. He had the blinding intensity of a thousand suns but was shrouded in darkness. He grew up in East Germany, in a city near the Baltic Sea and came from a troubled childhood. He was in his early 30s, was mildly addicted to cocaine and porn, had a short stint in prison, averaged 30 cigarettes a day and had two kids under the age of 10. He embodied the Dangerous Bad Boy archetype so much he might as well have had it tattooed to his forehead.
For a hot minute, this was an exhilarating contrast to my quiet, Australian upbringing where the most action sometimes came from the Yarra River floating past a few Eucalyptus trees. Wild Card Draw Four was a straight shooter. Two hours after we met, he said I’d have to learn German if I was going to be his girlfriend. 18 hours after we met, he said I’d have to take his surname if we were to marry.
It didn’t take long before the language barrier and cultural differences wore thin. Our brief time together suddenly ended at a party where I lost all attraction to him. It was inexplicable but instinctive, so I told him we should go our separate ways from now on. He was nice about it. Handled it well I thought… until he messaged later asking for my friend’s number. I suppose now she would have to deal with the blinding intensity of a thousand suns.
I picked up a Blue Reverse shortly after that. This card shakes things up a little, but it’s ultimately friendly and reminds you what it’s like to switch gears. Even if just for a little while. Blue Reverse and I met in a store. It was as simple as him walking in, me saying hello and us chatting the old-fashioned way. With tingling skin, awkward half-smiling, a sweaty upper lip and all the other annoying stuff your body does when you’re nervous around someone. Blue Reverse also came complete with his own entourage. There was someone to take his smoothie order (anything with almond butter), someone who seemed to be keeping time on an itinerary and someone ready to book taxis.
When I asked him about the surrounding hoopla, he said he was here for work and that the entourage was his crew members. No, Blue Reverse wasn’t a pilot. He was a director from Los Angeles, flown here to film a commercial but better known for directing music videos for some of the biggest hip hop and pop stars of the past 10 years. On paper, he had the makings to be an elite douche bag. In real life, he was energetic, grounded and passionate about life. He was only in town for a week and asked me to show him around Berlin. So, we worked around his schedule and got to know each other at abandoned airfields, spy towers, and cozy wine bars. I even noticed myself starting to lament the fact that he would have to go home in a few days. The night before he left, I popped round to his hotel and walking away shocked, but not surprised.
You see, Blue Reverse’s videos are pumped with all manner of innuendo ranging from exploding champagne bottles and dripping coconut milk to slippery anacondas and stripper heels. They are jacked-up raunch. Slap-in-the-face erotica that’s a hot pink G-string away from XXX. So, my imagination braced me for something along those lines, but his bedroom behavior delivered the opposite. In hindsight, I realize that so much of his creative expression works on the idea that sex sells. It’s a commodity. And if you see it that way, then just like palm oil, copper or rice has no place in the bedroom (unless that’s your kink, of course). Like I said: shocked, but not surprised.
These stories are only the smallest window of what goes on in a city that is notoriously single, jammed with people from dozens of nationalities. With more dating apps than you can shake a dildo at, my friends and I have resolved that getting the date isn’t the hard part, it’s getting the match. But there is a strange alchemy in this city, things happen. You could pop down to your local restaurant for a quiet pasta one Friday night and end up in a private fetish party in an old bank vault or you could go to a rave and end up writing a TV script with someone who was passed out next to you. With so many opportunities available, the devil is in the detail of learning the difference between being a ‘yes person’ and knowing your boundaries.
Having done a little reflection I find myself thinking about Forrest Gump and that scene when he famously delivers: “My mama always said, life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get”. I’d like to submit a 2020 revision and tell Mum: dating is like Uno. You need to learn to play the hand you’ve been dealt and always, always keep an eye out for Wild Card, Draw Four.
*No faces were peed on in the making of this article.
Text: Isabella Ubaldi, Collages: Frank R. Schröder
Isabella is a freelance writer/copywriter who grew up in Melbourne, Australia: A place which tried (but never managed) to provide with the kick up the ass she truly needed. She escaped Melbourne after a break up. Armed with several years’ advertising experience, Isabella resolved to use all the manipulative techniques she’d absorbed over the years to convince you that this article she wrote means anything at all.