Berlin after 1.5 Years
Berlin may sometimes want you to suffer, but never to rush.
I’ve now been based in Berlin for about one and a half years.
What I’ve learned
Berlin is a city of extremes. Winter is cold to the extreme. It's so cold that last winter my tits literally fell off and I had to spent all of spring trying to find them again. A good portion of Berlin's nomadic types escape to warmer climes for extended periods of time to avoid the mental effects of eternal grey skies. Some would say this is hypocritical escapism driven by comfortable wages in a city where the cost of living is laughably small compared to other European capitals, and conducted by those that claim to have green feet and proclaim the virtues of seasonality and yet can't handle a bit of depression. But I say fuck you, I'm cold and sad and I want to get out of bed & not feel like I'm dressing for an expedition on an especially cold part of Neptune. Anyway.
Summer is so ecstatic that it can feel, appropriately, like an extended high, one in which you’re pinching yourself you feel so lucky, but at times, in the corner of your eye, you glimpse a ghost, the other side of the year, and shudder at what’s coming. But it’s all worth it, for the sorts of people who come here. The extremes represented in the folk who live in Berlin are interesting. As a city with so much in-built trauma, it attracts a whole range of those who are looking in some way to exorcise some demon that might have been following them in their previous locale. If you fall into the party scene, it can swallow you whole, taking up 72 hours of revelry before crashing you into your bed for a day and a half, on the come down but with the beat from whichever dancefloor you were on still reverberating its way through your bones. There are hippies and squatters, anarchists and activists, organisers and orgyists. Increasingly, there are technies, who’ve swarmed the city in increasing numbers due to its play-hard reputation, into which they can fit whatever asynchronous work they’re doing. It’s a mecca for the the hedonists, the wanderers and the searching. It is Peter Pan, and we are its Lost Boys.
Community is easier, more prioritised. For whatever reason, I’ve found community building to be prioritised in a way I never felt in London, at least in the warmer months. Perhaps because most areas of the city (or at least the city I see) are bikeable or walkable. This means that the barriers to access if you want to join a club or community in another district are greatly reduced (than say a metro/tube/subway ride in a hot carriage at 6:15pm in another city). The Climate Action group I’m part of meets weekly at a hub that has a space encouraging such work, and has been running successfully since October 2020, all on a volunteer basis from its members. On a personal level the people within this community tie me to hope for the future, healing for the present, and recognition of the past. We laugh, eat, play, read, talk, argue and sometimes cry together. It is a level of human communion I've never experienced before. I might be wrong, but I felt this wasn’t possible for me in London, with its size, cost, and more work-oriented lifestyle. Of course, people also build communities in a city like this over much more debauched and sultry things, like orgies, or all-weekend clubbing.
Berlin Examines Its Past. With so much trauma in such recent times, the German Government has been remarkably good at acknowledging wrong doing and seeking to memorialise it. This doesn’t make them perfect, not at all, but the intention here is grand. In comparison to other atrocities and sins committed during the 20th Century, Germany has the clearest program of museums and education related to the Holocaust, and small Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) memorialise those who were taken from buildings within the city and murdered by the Nazi regime. Some of the largest tourist attractions relate to the Berlin Wall, which was literally splitting the city in half less than 35 years ago, and the Holocaust and Jewish memorials. This speaks volumes of acceptance, memory and repentance. I think we in Britain could learn a great deal in improving our collective memory of the sins committed during our own atrocities, all over the globe.
For a City that stood as the most stark representation of Communism vs Capitalism, it is remarkably anti-Capitalist. When the wall came down, one might have expected a wave of hyper capitalism to spread throughout the East/West front line capital. However this didn't happen, and Berlin, while rapidly becoming gentrified, has not succumbed to the pulls of rapacious value-ridden capitalism as many other "up and coming" cities worldwide did. Today it maintains many idiosyncrasies when it comes to money (primarily cash-based, a rental cap on landlords until recently, generally low cost of living) while clinging on to public spaces and buildings which in any other metropolis would have been torn down and redeveloped a long time ago. (On this point I'm sure my dad - a property developer - would say that this also increases sustainability and long term liveability of a building, but anyway).
People love Techno. I was told recently by an aspiring DJ that Berlin “isn’t good for your music, but it’s great for your ear.” The general quality on any given night for electronic music is unparalleled, and I appreciate the proximity of it in case I want to dive in for night of rhythmic movement and sweaty revelry.
Nowhere is Perfect. I left London because I knew I had to get out and experience life elsewhere before Brexit. This felt desperately important to me. Living in a foreign country, especially one in which the language isn’t particularly familiar to your own, with different customs and rules, is always a disorienting experience. You look for people like you, those that understand the absurdities, but are along for the ride all the same. Berlin can be bitingly cold, and the people can reflect that, inhabiting a rule-abiding and bureaucratic point of view in many areas where it feels unnecessary. While some parts are breathtakingly beautiful, there are places that make you shudder in their frigidity and blankness. The lack of housing available is confusing and disabling. It’s become a meme, which means people have resigned themselves to its permanence. Entering the next phase of living here for me will be searching for a new apartment, a ritual many of my friends have gone through and describe as one describes a bad bar job they had in their early twenties: intense, character building, but preferably not needed to be experienced again. This has taught me that wherever you decide to settle, there will never be an eternal sense of complete wholeness; a rightness. It will always be a negotiation, a seeking of equilibrium. In cities as in life.
Surprise love. Like the best relationships, they happen not by carefully planned combination of all your perceived preferences, but by accident. I often imagined that I would move to a warmer country (speaking some mediterranean language) and find my peace and joy in a Guadagnino or Almodovar-esque conviviality. I would spend afternoons by the beach reading Isabel Allende novels in Spanish correcting my friends still using "c" instead of "th", for example. It is with surprise and delight that I find myself somewhere else, somewhere that feels appropriately opposite to my own sense of alienation I often felt in Britain, but managing to remain in a multicultural, multifaceted and dynamic city.
As Musa Okwonga says, Berlin is an introvert fiercely disguised as an extrovert. That’s me, in many ways. We are growing, together.