How I became the Babe of Berlin

A month ago, Ruth Elkins was just another twentysomething, cutting a living in a foreign city, sick of being single. Then she wrote in this newspaper that German men didn't know how to flirt. And the phone started ringing...
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The Independent Online

You may not recognise me, but I am a minor German celebrity. It's been a recent lifestyle change: a month ago I was just another jobbing journalist, tirelessly tracking stories across Germany for The Independent on Sunday. But for the past few weeks, I have been plastered across the tabloids, deconstructed in the broadsheets, and had my movements tracked on television. I have been recognised in the street and stalked by madmen. In short, I am Germany's Big Summer Story. And all because I was rash enough to say in print that German men don't know how to chat up a girl.

You may not recognise me, but I am a minor German celebrity. It's been a recent lifestyle change: a month ago I was just another jobbing journalist, tirelessly tracking stories across Germany for The Independent on Sunday. But for the past few weeks, I have been plastered across the tabloids, deconstructed in the broadsheets, and had my movements tracked on television. I have been recognised in the street and stalked by madmen. In short, I am Germany's Big Summer Story. And all because I was rash enough to say in print that German men don't know how to chat up a girl.

I admit I was feeling particularly neurotic the day I mused in this paper's "Stories" column that I had become the Bridget Jones of Berlin. Facing the prospect of another meal for one at home, I reasoned that I might as well spin a quid or two out of the fact that since I moved here last year, I had failed to secure a boyfriend. And that there was no sniff of romance on the horizon. Not a sausage.

I wasn't complaining: life is good here. Berlin has 3 million people spread over a city the size of London. And with more than enough cheap, high-ceilinged, wooden-floored apartments to go round, most under-35s have a quality of life that Londoners can only pant after. Bars shut when you stop buying drinks, and you can cycle home afterwards. Still, more than a year out of a slightly disastrous long-term relationship, I was getting a bit lonesome on Sunday afternoons in my big old flat.

I didn't think I was being picky. Every day I would see a dozen men that I found attractive. They would brush past me at the local supermarket clutching their bread rolls and Bratwurst, all tall, Teutonic and lovely looking. Or I'd bump into them at my local tram stop, their heads buried in the morning paper, bespectacled and intellectual. I knew most of them were available. There is an abundance of single blokes in Berlin: the last census counted 439,400. And, at 24, I was hardly past it.

No, the problem, my article concluded, is that these guys are hopeless at chatting women up. The best you can hope for is a longing look and a helpless smile before they hurry past. All the German women I asked agreed with my opinion; all the men just looked guiltily at their feet.

I filed the piece and forgot all about it. When it was published last month, friends rang to say they'd read it and laughed. They weren't the only ones. A few days later, Focus, a news magazine here, called to say that what I'd written was "very amusing". I was right, they said: Berlin was renowned as the "capital of lonely hearts" and the men probably were a bit crap in the flirtation department. They saw me, they said, as the Brit chick with a zest for the Zeitgeist: a British version of Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City fame. Would that be right?

"Well ..." (I was thinking on my feet) "... I suppose I do have a Mr Big in London..." I thought wistfully of the One Who Got Away.

"Doesn't your mother call you Carrie instead of Bridget Jones?" asked the reporter. "It would really work better if she did, you know?"

Mother forgive me, but all I could see was my career trajectory. "Well ... sometimes I suppose?"

"Wonderful! So what do you want in a man?"

Naively, I told her. Everything. And a few days later I posed, Manhattan überbitch-like in stilettos and 100 per cent lipstick, in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

I should have known better. I opened a copy of Focus the next week to find the article next to a large glossy personal ad inviting the pity of the magazine's four million readers. They had listed my vital statistics, and challenged Germany's men to apply for the "vacant position" as my boyfriend.

The letters started to arrive the next day.

Alexander was an earnest 18-year-old with severe existential angst. He was worried the age difference meant he probably wasn't The One. But in his special, adolescent way he let it be known that he really fancied me and please could he be my "pen pal"? Sebastian was an older man. His English was terrible, he admitted, but my picture had spurred him to watch CNN for "at least an hour each day" to improve. However, his linguistic difficulties didn't stop him from sending a grammatically challenged sonnet based on "Friday I'm in Love" by The Cure. Another potential suitor offered to cook me his "famous Spaghetti Carbonara" and slipped in a picture of himself in the kitchen to back up his application.

Letters came from young fathers, ageing ski instructors, Frankfurt financiers and a Munich architect, who sent a photo of himself shirtless, wearing a pair of underpants on his head. It didn't stop there. Some had managed to find my email address and used up megabytes explaining why I should give them the chance of a date. My phone began to ring late at night with invitations to parties. Even the Independent's foreign desk got dragged in, fielding calls from brazen Berlin boys who got my number by pretending they wanted to have "professional contact" with me. I had created a monster. But the media loved it.

Soon I was being introduced on Berlin drive-time radio as a woman "as beautiful and as desperate as Princess Diana". Women's magazine Maxi rang for my opinion on the state of German relationships. I posed (not topless, I promise) for BZ, Berlin's answer to The Sun. "Why Is No One Flirting With Me? Pretty British Journalist Despairs at Berlin's Men" is how they sold me on page three.

When the broadsheets realised they could also wring column inches here, my plight was intellectualised. Why, they demanded, couldn't German men chat up women. "Er, because the women's movement has broken their spines?" I suggested in desperation, and immediately regretted it. Although I know numerous British males who are firmly under the thumb of their German girlfriends, I was anxious that my feminist credentials remained intact. The quote never appeared.

The German equivalent of the News of the World invited me out for dinner in the name of "German-British friendship". PR agencies and media consultants called to offer me their services. Men stared at me in the street before asking: "aren't you that woman in Focus?" One joker offered to help me sell the film rights to My Story.

I still hadn't had a date.

This had to change. I picked a couple of Focus readers out of my bulging post bag and invited them for dinner. Heinz was 35, well-dressed (in a my-ex-girlfriend-went-to-Gap-and-forced-me-into-chinos-and-pale-blue-shirt-kind-of-a-way) and said he "liked art". He suggested we meet at a posh Italian restaurant in Berlin's gentrified Mitte district. When I turned up 10 minutes late, he was nervously sipping a glass of amber-coloured liquid. "Already on the whisky?" I asked, tripping over in my six inch heels. "It's a Martini," he growled back. We recovered for a while but then it transpired he was a former East German who had turned ultra conservative once the Berlin Wall fell. We had an argument about tax and I went home alone.

Next up was Benjamin, a former lieutenant in the German army who offered to show me his bullet-proof vest and told me he once spent a "very happy" summer in Bexhill. He has a personal website with the slogan: "Benjamin: Expect the Unexpected", but after Heinz my expectations had plummeted to new depths. Still, Benjamin had a few surprises up his bullet-proofed sleeves. By day he sold armoured vehicles to anyone in post-Saddam Iraq with a hundred grand to spare and had got into a spot of bother recently when he tried to auction off Saddam Hussein's banknotes on eBay. We had a chatty dinner in a steakhouse near Bonn. He was lovely. A really nice guy. Unfortunately, I didn't fancy him. It seems that fame is, indeed, a lonely business.

Then things got really serious. A producer from RTL television rang. He thought it would be a "real hoot" to see if Germany's men really are such bad flirts, he said. "But look darling, I'll be honest." He lowered his voice. "We have to make sure you're thin enough." Clearly, if I was going to make a go of this fame game, I was going to have to cut out the solids.

Somehow I passed, and the RTL "Flirt Test" - scheduled for the national lunchtime news - seemed simple enough. I would be wired for sound, plonked in a café and filmed by hidden cameras to see if any German would have the balls to chat me up. When (of course) they failed to do so, he and the camera team would spring out and ask the male diners to justify their silence. Then (to add balance, naturally) we would find some unsuspecting British blokes, who, being British, would know all about small talk and would start to flirt in seconds.

Twelve hours of filming and several hapless Germans later, we still hadn't found our quintessential English gentleman. In desperation, I called my former flatmate, James, and told him to meet us at a nearby Irish theme pub.

The producer, looking as though he needed valium, instructed him to sit at the table next to me and flirt as the cameras rolled. "But you have to pretend you've only just met," the producer said wearily. This would be hard considering I had gone to school with James's sister and we'd known each other for years. The finished item was more The Archers than Sex and the City. It went something like this:

James (looking up from his book, smiling, speaking German with a thick British accent): "Do you think you might be able to tell me the time, young lady?"

Me (in English): "Nine o'clock."

James (in mock surprise): "Oh, you're British?"

Me (lasciviously): "Why, Yes. Yes, I am."

James (immediately moving to sit opposite me): "I say, how wonderful! Can I buy you a drink?"

The next night, my best friend, Jules, rang from London. "How are you?" she asked.

"Slightly famous but still single," I groaned and pulled the duvet over my head.

"Oh come on, Ruth," she laughed "It's not you, you're lovely. It's vile Reinhardt. Don't you realise Mr Darcy was British?"

Of course! What do you think? Shall I issue a press release?

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