It has pleased god to make the world so that people with unusual first names are easier to find than others. And then he created Irish given names to remind us that his ways are unsearchable, at least if you use a phone book. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Eight years or so ago I got a phone call from a friend. This time it was about something I like even more than birthday cake – she had called to tell me about a dog. A friend of hers, whom I had apparently met at a party some time ago, had recently adopted a dog and was now worried that as a busy self-employed person she might not always have enough time to go for walkies. So she was looking for assistance, and hadn’t I always said that I would love to have a dog only that as a busy self-employed person I did not have enough time … ? (Yes, I had).
But this was probably about more than a dog, since it was mentioned at some point that “she has some trouble meeting guys” which, despite being notoriously bad at deciphering social clues, correctly interpreted as “she has trouble meeting guys that I” (i.e. the friend who called me) “approve of”. “Well,” I thought cunningly (or with whatever of my meagre mental capacities I mistook for cunning, since I am not actually in any way shrewd), “maybe I should have a look at this”. After all I had a few things going for me; I might have been a bit lacking in the looks and charm and manners department, but I had figured a few things out for me, like making my own money, preparing three square meals a day with some efficiency and without too much grandstanding in the kitchen, and more often than not being actually present when I had promised to be at a given time in a given place. So while I probably wasn’t somebody you would wanted to have a weekend fling with, before reality flung you back on monday I had some qualities that might suddenly look somewhat attractive after your friends had long enough disapproved of the guys you met or failed to meet. And if nothing else I would get to meet a dog, so as far I could tell I had nothing to lose.
There was one problem, though, and that was one of names. My friend could tell me that I was supposed to meet one [ʃəˈvˠaːn̪ˠ], and “isn’t that the coolest name ever”, but she had no clue how to spell it (and neither, obviously, had I).
By now I know that Germans are not the only ones to have trouble with the name – Lee Mack has a whole routine about Irish names in general, and “Siobhan” in particular, which is apparently famous with all the Siobhans in the world and they attend his gigs just to giggle for the three seconds when their name comes up. Not that I have any reason to complain – my own name is spelled “E-I-K-E” and is (at least if your are English) actually pronounced “I-K”, so with two redundant “e”s there goes the myth of German efficiency.
Siobhan’s Bavarian family named did not help much in finding her, either, especially since I grew up in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where the Bavarian syllable “oi” is homonym with “eu”, so I ended up with some quite weird ideas on what to look for in the phone book. However it transpired that, apart from having a job, knowing how to cook and being reasonably reliable, I was also gifted with a special kind of stubbornness, so after a lengthy session with the telephone directory and only a tiny bit of abuse from some accidentally cold-called Siobhans I actually managed to fix a date for what in the end really turned out to be a date, even if it was carefully camouflaged as some sort of business transaction over a time-sharing arrangement for a dog.
We agreed to meet at the Südkreuz train station, which I previously hadn’t been aware to actually exist; the last time I had been in Schöneberg the area had been occupied by the nearly derelict, in a picturesque way, metro station of General Pape Strasse, which was then knocked down to be replaced by what looked like somebody had tried to replicate Great Britain’s experiment to create an aircraft carrier from pykrete, only this time on land to make the attempt even more risible.
So meeting at the train station it was, and I was waiting rather nervously for things to come.
What came was not a thing but a woman, with black hair and a little rogue-ish white streak (that’s “Rogue”-ish as in Marvel’s X-Men Rogue), in a red basket weave coat, and slightly out of breath because she was being pulled forward by a skinny black dog which exuberated with enthusiasm for the world in general and all the nice people in it in particular. The dog greeted me warmly (or maybe she was testing clandestinely with her tongue if I was edible – Tati was, and is, somewhat of a glutton) and then Siobhan and I got to introduce ourselves to each other somewhat more formally. I guess we recognized each other from the birthday party some time ago, but both pretended not to, so as not to spoil a new opportunity with preconceived notions.
This was in January, and it was really, really cold, and it drizzled, and and to top things off we decided to wade through the mud for a bit (actually we decided to go to a vacant lot that the district of Schöneberg had made available as an exercise area for dogs, but it rather amounted to the same thing).
Schöneberg back then looked a lot different than it looks now. The houses were still worn down from many decades of neglect, the streets were dirty, and the streets were lined with used car lots flogging of hopelessly derelict jalopies to hopeful young entrepreneurs who had successfully made the long trek from their African or Arab homes to stock up on only slightly bent camshafts and 1974 VW Golf I engines. Leading up to the train station was an avenue that, as I later found out, was named by Siobhan’s visiting friends the “rapist alley”, not, I think, because of any actual rape that had occurred that but because for the fear that rape might happen any time soon around there, which is the principle by which many formerly civilized western countries are run now.
It was true, however, that some guys tried to sell weed and illegal cigarettes to the students of the local school and this is why, so the apocryphal story goes, the empty lot next to the school was rented out for a symbolic fee to a hastily formed association of dog owners who then had their collections of mutts and mongrels patrol the property to mutual benefit. The generosity of the local council did not extend far enough to cover any landscaping or paving of ways, so every gush of rain would turn the area into sludge. Undeterred we started doing rounds around the perimeter, and so did the other dog owners until the place looked more and more like a very badly run prison facility. With nice conversation and the dog hopping around us I had the time of my life.
It transpired that we had quite a few things in common. We were almost exactly the same age, both freelancers, both not necessarily thrilled by what the world had had to offer us so far but both, for the time being, open to the possibility that life had still something in store for us. Also we both have a penchant for British comedy, and Siobhan was somewhat excited to finally have found someone to discuss Red Dwarf episodes and the nuances of Bill Baileys supporting character in Black Books. She had just embarked on a quick lecture regarding how much Monty Python owed to Spike Milligan when suddenly the shouting started.
A dog run is a strange microcosmos where people from all social strata and all ways of life meet united in a common purpose, which is to unleash their critters and let them look after themselves for a few precious minutes. As a result city dogs, who have to get along with each other in confined spaces, are much better socialized than the rather territorial country dogs and, at times, better than their human masters. They are far less noisy to start with.
What had erupted here was pretty much a lower class conflict. K., a former builder whom bad health had forced out of his job and into indigence, and who would later become Tatis trusted dog sitter (because that is one of Siobhan’s little tricks, turning strangers into allies by taking their concerns seriously) was shouting at a young woman twice his size (but then he is a small man). It transpired that H. had used the bushes around the lot, in absence of a proper restroom, as a restroom, and that the source of K.’s anger were not any hygienic concerns but worry about the welfare of the animals (as dogs have an unfortunate preference for human excrement). Now all this was reasonable gross and everything, and it would have been easy to side with K., or shake the head about both of them in moral indignation and say a short prayer to thank god that we were not like these Pharisees.
Siobhan however took K. aside and pointed out to him that, through no fault of her own, H.’s mental development lagged a long way behind that of her body and that shouting at her was not only ungentlemanlike, but also rather unlikely to accomplish anything in the way of education. Then she spoke, in private, to H. to tell her that if she felt any natural human impulses she should take the trouble and cross the street were the proprietors of the gas station would certainly allow her to use the toilet. Eventually they both relented, and the shouting stopped. With peace thus restored we set out to proceed on our peripatetic ways when the dog, having spotted a rabbit, tunneled under the fence and went for a hunting trip on the adjoining railway tracks. I found myself commandeered to, basically, kneel down in the mud and guard all possible exits while Siobhan and a few volunteers finally managed to retrieve the mutt.
When she accompanied me back to the train station Siobhan looked a little embarrassed. “I can’t imagine what you must think of all this”, she said, referring to the mud and the excrement and the shouting.
Well, what did I think ?
In retrospect I think that this was Siobhan in a nutshell – a strong sense of justice, unafraid to get here hands dirty, and convinced that fixing one small, mundane or even distasteful problem in the neighbourhood might be more helpful than lamenting about all the big and ugly things that are happening in the world at large. I thought that I rather liked what I saw, a rather down-to-earth knightess in her, after crawling through the mud after the dog, somewhat splodgy armour (actually as it turned out not much armour at all – I have rarely met somebody who cared for others as much, but was as unprotected for herself as Siobhan, so I made it my job in the next years to fend off those things she could not protect against herself). It was basically then and there that I decided, as any good Sancho Panza would do, to throw in my lot with her if she just would let me, even if it came out somewhat less eloquently as “Want to meet again ? Maybe next week ?”.
Turned out that she wanted to.