East Berlin, 31st December 1986. Freezing cold. Dark. Great lumps of ice thrown up on the side of the road, like discarded rubble from a giant’s rampage. Stomping my way along the Karl Marx Allee in my cold leather monkey boots, not made for Berlin winters. The boulevard, so broad, so bright. The proportions aren’t right, I don’t seem to fit: this is a boulevard meant for warriors. For giants. But they are nowhere to be seen. I feel incongruous, so small and warm and full of blood on this strangely monochrome New Year’s Eve.
It is almost 1987 and I have just seen Die Fledermaus by Strauss at the State Opera House at Under den Linden. The delightful operetta seemed like slow water torture to me, the jaunty happy music anathema to a teenager’s soul. I am walking to the flat of a boy I am in love with, even though he lives in the GDR and I live in London. I am walking because I am too nervous to take the underground because everyone is going crazy shooting fireworks that ricochet off the turquoise tiled walls of the labyrinthine underground tunnels, and because I am better at finding my way above ground, where I can always be sure of turning to see the Fernsehturm behind me, glowing through the fug. I am still young and British enough to find the snow and the cold alarmingly beautiful. I am still naïve enough to think that the weather and my surroundings are portents, beckoning me toward my destiny, leading me to… to where I am supposed to be.
I ring on the doorbell of the old turn-of-the-century flat in Friedrichshain, with high soaring ceilings, dark-paneled wooden doors. He opens, with nothing but a towel wrapped round his waist. No boy of that age in Staines, London, England, would ever conceive of something so romantic, so disarming, so natural. He was bathing to get warm, and envelops me in his arms. His parents are away. We have planned this. Music, some grass to smoke, red sparkling Crimean wine that his parents left behind for us, making me dizzy. I try really hard to lose my virginity, but somehow it’s not as easy as they lead you to believe in Just 17 magazine or Mizz, both of which I read religiously in my other life, in London. They only talk about “taking precautions”, about only doing “what feels right”. No one explains how you go about it once you are sure. Surely, once you are determined enough to down Crimean red, to put on the record of your choice (Robbie Neville, C’est la Vie, extended version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22_gslQ4cS4) and lie down with a boy you like it should be easy? It is strangely mechanical and not at all romantic and the parts don’t fit where they are supposed to. We give up frustrated and disappointed. The music is right on the money. The scream of fireworks, the crescendo of noise outside announces that it is now 1987. Lying there, half cold, half hot, on a hard settee in the living room, it feels like the loneliest place on earth.
27 years later. My own flat, one mile south. My flat has soaring ceilings and wood-panelled doors. I am drinking red wine again. But this time it is Spanish and not sparkling. It is the 31st December 2013 and Berlin seems to have grown smaller, or have I grown? It fits me like a glove. The cold is simply an interruption between warm cosy islands of activity; no longer a harbinger of fortune. This time it is my visitor who rings the doorbell. I wear perhaps more than a towel, I know now how the dance works. He cuts some white powder on my coffee table. He selects a song compilation on youtube. He leads me to the bed, smelling of snow and sulphur. The years have washed so much away and brought so much that is shiny and new, but the dance remains the same, every step, every kiss, every shiver. This time congress is not complicated by youth, expectations, or clouded by thoughts of destiny. I am sure I am where I’m supposed to be. The fireworks outside my window build to a crescendo, exploding and scattering in the night sky. It is 2014. I lie, half cold, half hot, on my broad soft bed; it feels like the loneliest place on earth.