When we first arrived in Berlin the trains were on strike so we waited for about 45 minutes at the airport for a train that never came. Finally figuring out an alternative route we headed through farmland and thatched roof houses towards the city. Aluminium giants balancing on tip toes above the Spree greeted us like ceremonial city gates. An unseasonable hot day in May, an early taste of the summer to come. Every second person walking around had a large open bottle of beer in their hand. A man unzipped and pissed on an underground train line. With an underlying restless energy, Berlin doesn’t show off it’s disheveled charms easily. It makes you get under it’s skin and find them yourself.
Many words have been written about Berlin, the word itself has an aura about it. It’s one of those places like New York or Paris that is drenched in folklore. One of those cities that has been at the forefront of World history and cultural shifts. The palpable history is so enticing for someone from such a newly minted country. I certainly didn’t live there long enough to have my head wrapped around it all but I can tell you how it made me feel.
The summer stretched on. Hazy days smoothed and spread out into each other. I would spend most evenings on the window ledge of our apartment reading and drinking icy sparkling water out of a wine glass. We lived in the hinterhaus (back apartment) so I looked down on a courtyard crammed with bicycles, flowers and herbs growing out of various pots and an old bath tub. Everybody’s windows are thrown wide open to let in some air, even if the air is hot and thick. Every evening around dinner time I would hear two phantom voices singing a duet. The exact same song every njght. Their harmonies echoing around the high walls of the inner courtyard so I could never tell where it was coming from. The combination of endless damp heat and the repeated song made me feel like I was going crazy.
In the summer people fill the city’s communal areas. Spilling over the banks of the Landwehrkanal and the Spree, outside every corner Spatkauf, in the dipped field of Gorlitzer Park, plopped down on sidewalks, grilling at Tempelhofer. Droves head to the many lakes that ring the city, getting refreshed in the murky water. Also summer brings wasps in their masses. They hovered around the lip of my beer bottle, at my elbow, around my face. They flood every pastry cabinet in the city. A quivering thicket of wasps devouring the sugary toppings of schneckens and strudels.
We read books and watched films about Berlin. Trying to get a handle on this place. Looking for context in the subtext. We went for endless long walks in a different direction each time. Stopping at Spatkauf’s along the way for ein Unterwegsbier, or ‘walking beer.’ The days turned colder and our street Manteuffelstrasse was alight with brilliant golds and reds seen through slanted sun. Colder still and we were walking under softly falling snow. We walked from East to West and back again. Past the jubilant, gently subversive East side Gallery. Past the wide flat expanses of Plattenbauten on Karl Marx Allee and the Turkish markets of Kottbusser Tor.
People say, oh you should have been here at this time, In the wild cabaret times of the 20’s, In the 70’s when Bowie and Iggy were getting loaded, eating curry wurst and writing some of the best music of their careers. When the wall came down, relatives clasping each other with tears in their eyes for the first time in years. When the techno scene was getting started, man, you should have been here. And still people are saying that now. A friend thinks that people will look back on 2015 and say that was a golden era. Startups getting a head start in a hugely creative city that is still (for now) cheap to live in. Doesn’t sound quite as sexy as the folklore of the past to me, despite what previous mayor Klaus Wowereit said.
Talking about these alleged golden era’s one cannot help think about the dark times in-between and running alongside. I found these parallel narratives were handled with grace and openness throughout the city. From the powerful coffin shaped concrete slabs that make up the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe to the small bronze plaque set into the cobblestones outside our apartment. Called “Stolpersteine,” or stumbling stones they are placed outside various buildings across Berlin and Europe and inscribed with names and dates of Jews deported from the buildings. Individualising the faceless masses of the holocaust. Above it all the Television Tower is an ever present symbol of the fear and distrust of Soviet occupation.
I never went beyond very basic German skills but I do love the German’s use of compound nouns, words that are bunched together to form new words. From the western adopted Kindergarten (child garden) to the absurd Gummihandschuh (rubber hand shoe, or rubber glove) to the delightfully obvious hackfleisch (mince). The one that I came across which suited our time in Berlin perfectly was das Wanderjahr: A year of travel before settling down to one’s vocation, also used for a lengthy period of travel.