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Berlin: The Adventures of an Expatriate Package Delivery Man

The Irishman Patrick J. Murphy moved to Berlin last year. While working on a tech startup, he needed a job. So he sent an application to a rather large online store. What could go wrong there? Well, how about everything?

I was in Berlin, looking for funding for a tech startup, and had to earn money to live on, while there. A delivery service that exclusively works for a rather large online store was the first company to offer me a job.

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“You’ll be finished each day by 2 p.m.”, they said. “Loads of time for other meetings, or you can just go home to bed.” I thought to myself: “Lovely. I will be driving around Berlin all day, meeting Germans and practicing my language skills!”

The reality was a bit different. After a compulsory two-day course at the ‘school’ run by the company, I learned the theory of how to deliver a parcel and record the process on a scanner. Twelve out of 35 applicants made it through the two day course, which finished with an exam. You had to score over 80% to pass.

My colleagues were German Turks, Eastern Europeans and the occasional African. A very loud Russian nearly got fired from the course for constantly shouting out “Scheiss Amerikaner English!“, referring to the many TLA’s (three letter acronyms) we had to master, such as UTL (unable to locate), DNR (delivery not received) and UTA (unable to access).

Blue Eyes in ‘Marzahn’

During a break, another man leant over to me and quietly confided: “When I get my driver I.D., I am just going to give it to my wife, and she’ll drive each day for me and do the deliveries.” He showed me a photograph of her on his iPhone. “Look”, he said, “she looks just like me.” She did.

I was assigned to a contract delivery company and started work the next day. We met at 7 a.m., in freezing winter darkness, at the carpark of a grim industrial estate near Tempelhof Airport.

My colleagues were 90% young German Turks, a decent bunch of fellows. They asked me if I was being given the Marzahn-Hellersdorf district, an area in former East Berlin where the right-wing AfD nationalists were giving their black refugee neighbors a hard time. “Why do you ask?”, I queried. “With your blue eyes you’ll never get beaten up” was the response.

On the Aircraft Carrier

Handed the keys of a white delivery van, we waited for Whatsapp notifications to depart to the warehouse of the ‘rather large online store’ (RLOS) and collect our load of packages. Sixty white vans were in my group, all lined up in a long row. There were ten groups of vans, 600 in total. The RLOS’s carpark could only accommodate 60 at a time.

At 07:10 a.m. our phones pinged with a message: “Einsteigen bitte! Und starten Sie Ihre Motoren!” “This is exciting!”, I thought. At 07:20 a.m., our phones pinged again: “Losfahren, Jungs! Keine Scheisse heute, bitte!

We drove in convoy through the darkened streets to the warehouse, two kilometers away. Tight security checked us into the loading zone. Parking attendants signaled us where to park. It reminded me of the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Collect, Load, Get Out

Once there, our scanner tablets came to life and beeped the numbers of floor markings in the vast warehouse, where our wire carts waited, full of packages and parcels. I found mine, two huge cages on wheels, each 2 meters tall. A hundred boxes, packets and parcels.

My beat was south-west Berlin. Because I lived there, they figured, I would know the neighborhood: Charlottenberg, Schmargendorf, Friedenau, Schöneberg, Steglitz, and all the way out to leafy Dahlem.

We had 15 minutes to collect, load and get out of the carpark, or you were screamed at by the parking attendants.

Lipstick for the Sixth Floor

A satellite view would have spotted dozens and dozens of white vans exiting the collection zone, spreading through veins and arteries of Berlin’s road network, like the mass escape of four-wheeled maggots.

The first thing that struck me about my delivery district was that very few buildings had lifts. That meant that you had to schlepp up flights of stairs, sometimes up to five or six stores, to deliver one small parcel. Probably lipstick, for a customer too lazy-assed to purchase it the last time they visited the Schloss Steglitz mall.

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I began to get very fit, very fast. The weight began to drop off, and the muscles in my legs hardened.

Ringing All Bells

The second thing that struck me was the lack of safety consciousness of Germans. They would open their doors for anyone. I learned quickly that rule number one was to ring all the bells until someone buzzed you in the main entrance. If the delivery apartment was not answering you would ring on a neighbor’s door and plead politely to take the parcel. I did a lot of pleading. Occasionally a neighbor would shout at me: “Take a parcel for him? No way! He’s an a**hole! If you see him, tell him that Herr Meyer in 4b told you that!”

Why do people order products for delivery and are not there 60% of the time to accept them? Ground floor apartments rarely accepted parcels for neighbors, as they were constantly harassed by all sorts of delivery people. But nearby shops, pubs, businesses were also a good bet for leaving a parcel, if you asked nicely.

Germans have taken to online shopping and home deliveries so much that I was once in a traffic jam in narrow cobblestone streets, caught between vans belonging to UPS, FedEx, Hermes and others. Sometimes I would end up at an apartment door, in a queue behind food delivery men and a couple of package delivery drivers.

In the Nude

A habit of a number of apartment dwellers in Berlin was to open their doors in various states of undress. One was completely naked, and quite unashamed. Most people were very polite and respectful, even friendly, and some would engage in small talk. An older man refused to accept a parcel as it was too cold, and asked me to take it back, warm it up and come back when it was ready. Some customers were drunk, and quite a few were stoned.

Sometimes you would have 15 or 20 deliveries on a small narrow street. The receivers of the parcels would see on their app that you were on the road, and emerge from their buildings, looking to catch you as you went down one side of the street, unwilling to wait as you came back up. Chaos, and a few arguments ensued. The parcels were all in computer-organized nylon carry bags and you had to follow the sequence. Pulling a bag out of sequence and rooting for someone’s package screwed up the whole process and delayed things. Some irate customers would barge past you and start rooting around the back of the van, looking for their package. Not wanting to get into a fistfight was important, so you let them forage amongst the bags, until they emerged defeated. There was a knack to it.

The laws of physics were also rewritten. When nobody was at home and the parcel was small enough, you tried hard, very hard, to shove it into their letter box. I became an expert at bending and shoving cardboard packages into post boxes. Sometimes a good thump was all that was needed. So Frau Schöller, sorry about the makeup and Herr Schmidt, those watercolor pencils, I hope they were usable? Why the heck weren’t you at home?

Brotherhood of Drivers

I was advised by a colleague that when in a white van you were the ‘King of the Road’, meaning that you could take liberties with driving styles and parking. I found this to be true. As a ‘König der Strasse‘ I parked anywhere and everywhere, and never got a ticket. I parked once at a busy bus stop outside a skyscraper office building on Berliner Strasse, for 30 minutes. I went back and forward, hauling about 40 parcels up to various offices, with the hazard lights blinking. I knew that I was being watched on CCTV by beady-eyed traffic police. They didn’t give a damn, unlike the waiting bus passengers who loudly complained. Not even the bus drivers gave me grief. The brotherhood of drivers.

My lowest point came on New Year’s Eve. No businesses were open and few deliveries were successful. White vans are not equipped with toilets, so you usually had to relieve yourself in a bar or restaurant along the way. On this day, with nothing open, I had to do what any man would have done: I took a dump into a plastic bag in the back of the van and peed into a plastic bottle. While disposing in a rubbish bin afterwards, I got a few strange looks.

Things began to go sour for me as the system ground me down. Higher productivity was the motto. I started with 70 or 80 parcels and packages a day, but after a week or two, was being given up to 110 packages to deliver to 100 addresses. In an 8 hour day that meant having less than 5 minutes to drive to each address, park, exit the van, scan the package, buzz yourself in the building, wander around to find the apartment, which could be on the top floor of the ‘Hinterhof‘, a building at the back of the internal courtyard, and then hand over the package and get a signature.

Call from the Mothership

It was impossible. At around 3 or 4 p.m., the mothership would call you up. They could see your progress and location on the computer screen. The mothership in reality, consisted of rows of colleagues seated at bench tables in the warehouse, staring at laptops, analyzing your progress. If you fell behind the algorithm, they penalized the delivery contractors and fined them. In turn, the contractors penalized us, the drivers.

They had a fine ‘fine system’. It began with dirty vans: 20 Euro. Late to work: 15 Euro. Customer complaint: 20 Euro (if, for example, you wouldn’t carry a 40 kilo metal carjack up to an apartment, or you squashed someone’s face cream in to their letterbox). If a rescue van was sent to assist finishing your route deliveries, it would be 2 Euro per parcel. Twenty parcels would be 40 Euro.

So, think about this: You bust your chops all day after turning up five minutes late for work in a van dirtied by the pools of mud in your industrial zone carpark. That’s a fine of 35 Euro already. Two customers complain that you didn’t deliver their package directly to them as they were playing music and couldn’t hear the intercom. Another 40 Euro. Finally you have 15 parcels left to deliver at 4:30 p.m. and the rescue guy comes along. That’s another 30 Euro. In total: 105 Euro. And you’ve only earned €85 after tax. How the hell does that work? You end up owing the company money!

Paid in Full

The final straw was when the rule came down from on high that we had to work 22 days per month. A mini rebellion ensued. My colleagues banded together and told the boss to go to hell. He called an emergency meeting in the carpark, pleaded with us and explained that he was also being fined and penalized. The group didn’t care. Neither did I.

I walked over to my him and said: “Listen, my friend: I’ve had enough. I quit.” He understood in a flash and knew why. I handed over my ID badge and high vis jacket and we parted amicably. And he paid me in full, in cash.

I’ve trudged up and down the stairwells of every style of apartment building in western Berlin, from period 19th Century marble palaces to grimy post war rebuilds, met all kinds of people and lost five kilos. I never did finish at 2 p.m., any day. I continued my hunt for funding for the tech startup and fled Berlin to avoid the lockdown when the Coronavirus came to Europe.

Would I do it all again? Hell, no! But Berlin, I miss you.

Note: The Berlin Spectator changed the author’s name and does not name the company or affiliate he worked for, for obvious reasons.