When people ask me if I still love living in Berlin after 23 years, I find myself going into a reverie, whilst trying to fade out the loud American newbers (New Berliners) at the next table who have absolutely no intention of learning any German because they don’t need to, to order their galãos, and buy their Stutterheimer rain macs and get a beard trim.
And I drift back in time.
I go to that place that was uncomfortable and scary to go to. But you went there because there was nowhere else to go. That was the place I went when I moved to Berlin, back in 1991.
Every day for lunch I’d go to a canteen in Friedrichshain, with sports news on TV in the corner, and slabs of Kassler with Sauerkraut, because it was cheap and there weren’t many other places you could go to eat on your own without attracting attention (back then, people didn’t just go out for lunch without a reason).
After a week I knew people. Berliners. I knew Olaf whose ambition was to be a roadie for the Rolling Stones. I knew Detlev, who had always wanted to move to Amsterdam but never got round to applying for an “Ausreiseantrag” and now that the wall was down, well it somehow seemed too easy. And I knew Kirstin who was setting up her own theatre because there were some empty rooms in the building next to hers.
Three weeks on, and I had a decent place to live, some mates, a job, and enough invitations to gigs and plays and art shows and shared atelier spaces to make me realise I could really do and be anything I wanted here, because when you go to the scary place and there is no where left to go, that is when the real magic happens.
Fast-forward 23 years.
To say things have changed is an understatement. Gentrification has done its work well. My area resembles a toy-town version of turn-of-the-century Berlin, adorned with shiny cars and even shinier families and studded with retro-fitted coffee shops where the language du jour is transatlantic just like the coffee roast. If I didn’t have an old rent agreement, it would be completely beyond my means to live here. The rattle of wheelies from the hostel tourists passing under my window is the soundtrack of my dreams.
And yet, and yet, I love this city, because there is still space. Pockets of air trapped in the holes of the crumbling wall, that recall the rawness of that ‘betwixt’ time: the suspended couple of years after the fall of socialism and before the deathly grip of a capitalist market economy tightened, where there was room for something different, for experiments.
So one recent rainy evening I had an urge to revisit that feeling. Might be something to do with the 25th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the wall, and the sick-making feeling I got every time I turned on the TV. Saccharine-crocodile-tear-interviews with East Germans reminiscing about that exciting moment when they first got to walk through the doors of KaDeWe chased speeches by politicians spouting off about the significance of the moment when West and East, the metaphorical brother and sister separated at birth, once more embraced. No-one mentioning the fact that the embrace was a cold one that neither partner was really sure they even wanted, and that East Germans still earn only 80% of what West Germans earn for the same job. All the tourists pouring into Berlin just to stand freezing and watch those stupid expensive white balloons lift off and disappear into the dark.
A friend had cancelled our plans, it was dark and rainy, the whole scenario was screaming: Go home and binge on Netflix. And then I thought, “C’mon, where did you leave your Berlin-balls? Remember that time, when you went “there” just because it was there, went to a show just because it was on?”
Open-Mike Night. In Wedding. Red-Wedding. The only district in Berlin where they never voted for the Nazis back in the thirties. The last spot in Berlin where there is still space to create magic out of spit and polish and an industrial canteen. What the fuck.
Walking up to Brunnenplatz, the Neo-Gothic Magistrates Court loomed, lit up from below, looking like a fairytale castle reflecting in the water. Seriously, if you had committed a crime and were lead in here in handcuffs, wouldn’t you just fall down on your knees on the steps and confess right off? I would. Even in broad daylight.
It’s autumn, the bright sparkling wet leaves crushed on the ground still emanating a little summer sun. Worth it already. Even if I never even fucking find the place. Uferstrasse. Cul-de-sac. Industrial yards. Lots of sky. Empty streets. Not a soul to be seen. If this were London I would hightail it out of here before Luther had to turn up and rescue me from being chained up in some dank cellar for a week.
(Gratuitous excuse to post a pic of Luther)
But here, I have Berlin-balls. I’ll just walk like I know where I am going. It will suddenly loom out at me I’m sure. Guy walking behind me. Half turn. Ok, he looks vaguely literary. Glasses at least. Got to be a good sign. If he follows me into this industrial wasteland it’s got to be a good sign too, right? Only in Berlin is that actually a GOOD sign.
Getting closer to the light source I turn, and ask in German if he is also looking for the open-mike night, he affirms. He says I looked like I knew where I was going. Ha. Berlin-balls. Together we search. It isn’t easy. Just to get up on stage and read five minutes of my private churnings. Jesus, next time I’ll go to Hyde Park in London and get myself a soapbox.
But then, in that old canteen, with its fifties charm, big old sofas and wood panelling, I watch Lucas, a young American student read his off-the-wall science fiction poetry (that’s a genre, honest to god), and Kathleen from New Zealand throw a poem out at us like some kind of furious white female version of Linton Kwesi Johnson, I listen to Justin’s dark timbred voice, talking about a moment where two lives collide in a car, and afterwards we all chat and laugh, and I was glad I came here not knowing anyone. Going home, I have a hand-drawn map of how to get back to the station, a short-story competition invite and an offer to help me with some translations that are getting the better of me, and a feeling that I may have made some new friends. A bit like that feeling I had all those many years ago in an old canteen in Friedrichshain near the wall.
The taxi drops me off at my favourite Lebanese takeway, and I smiled at Najib, my falafel man, who has been here even longer than me. And he asks me with a grin, like he does every time: “Scharrffe Sossse?!” and I say, “You know what? Yeah. Fuck it. Scharfe Sosse.” As hot as you can.