Most foreign correspondents in Berlin know this experience: in the middle of a German crisis, any sudden collapse of national self-confidence (Is Lena good enough to win? Why are we Germans obsessed with Prince William?), a young Redakteurin from a newspaper or a radio station rings up and says: Herr Boyes, we need the Blick von Aussen. The dreaded BvA. This practice began with Werner Höfer and his chain-smoking foreigners and although in the meantime communism has collapsed, Germany has unified and the country is fully sovereign, the curiosity about the BvA is still there. Strange, but, well, why not? My problem, of course, is that I have been here so long that the BvA is pretty much the BvI. Sometimes I even dream in German. The verbs arrive just as I wake up.
And then suddenly a genuine outsider turns up on your doorstep and you start to look at the country in a different way again. I have known Viktor Kalashnikov (real name!) and his wife Marina for some years and they have always given me a fresh view of events. Why? Kalashnikov used to be a KGB analyst, first in Brussels, then in Vienna during the 1989 central european revolutions and German unification. It was Viktor who handled the NATO documents stolen by Stasi super-spy Rainer Rupp. During unification, he filtered through the Stasi documents that needed to be sent to Moscow. Viktor knows the secrets of a lot of Germans.
And now? Well, it seems that someone is trying to poison both of them. Since leaving the service, Viktor has been working as a journalist and has written provocatively about the careers of other ex-KGB agents, about Russian support for jihadists and about Vladimir Putin, who was greeted again this week as a great friend of Germany. So he has enemies. Blood tests in the Charité showed that he and Marina now have over 50 micrograms per litre of mercury in their blood. The norm is about 2 micrograms per litre. Doctors tell me that you only get these kind of levels if you eat tuna and whale meat three times a day for years on end. Or if a mouth full of amalgam teeth fillings collapse. Or if you have been working in a factory that produces mercury waste.
Or if you are being systematically poisoned.
So poisoning it is then and the Kalashnikovs have duly been in contact with the police. Mercury poisoning ist so eine Sache. Your gums swell, your skin cracks up, you lose weight. But mainly you wait to see if the mercury circulating around your body is going to bind with the protein in your brain cells or your nervous system. You wait for the memory loss, the epilepsy, the hallucinations. It is a particularly sinister poison, slower than the Polonium that killed another ex-KGB man Alexander Litvinenko in London, but utterly destructive.
What do you do with a poisoned spy? Well, you take him to your pub. He and his wife sit with their backs to the wall in the no-smoking room, close to the second exit, just in case someone decides to finish them off. There are different ways of treating mercury poisoning. The more radical is too expensive. So they have to be patient. And in the meantime it’s ok to have a Weizenbier.
Where better to sit out than in Floh which hasn’t changed since the Cold War. Here, the regulars are more likely to die of alcohol poisoning than of mercury poisoning. Much more likely. There are antlers on the wall, a blech poster featuring a dachshund and a bottle of Jägermeister, a Luftschutzbunker sign, Krautkitsch, lots of CDU veterans and Hirschgulasch on the menu.
Already at the second meeting Viktor does not need to hunch up or sit against the wall or glance suspiciously at the locals. “I’m beginning to feel at home here.” He orders the mixed grill with a beer. You can almost see his mercury levels dropping. The ex KGB-man, on the run from his enemies, is beginning to relax. More: he is being assimilated. At the third meeting in Floh, we are actually laughing. He tells me old KGB stories to keep his memory working. Anti-mercury training, a kind of Sudoku brain-jogging for spies.
By the time we next visited Floh, the locals were nodding at Viktor, raising a glass. Soon, if a Russian hit squad doesn’t get to him first, they will be calling out to him “Na Viktor, wie geht’s denn so?” Here then is a real Blick von Aussen. And if I see my pub through his eyes, through the eyes of a Russian far from home, you get to recognise a special German quality: hospitality, Gastfreundschaft. After a while in the microcosm of a Berlin pub, you are treated equally, with a kind of warmth that you don’t get anywhere else in the world except perhaps Ireland. Viktor is about to become a Stammgast and as long as he can pay for his Weizenbier, he has a refuge.