“Du bist verrückt mein Kind, du mußt nach Berlin.“
“You are crazy, my child. You must go to Berlin.”
Franz von Suppe, composer, 1819-1895
Anyone who has ever been to Berlin is probably well aware of the lure of this city. It’s something that stems from its history and seeps under your skin and into your bones. I’ve lost count of the number of visitors I’ve overheard saying things like “It’s my city” or “I feel so at home here” and they’ve got a point.
It’s an open city, a free city, welcoming but completely aloof to your plans and ideas. Berlin doesn’t care what you do, what you wear, how it all works out for you. She won’t help you settle in or hold your hand while you make new friends but she won’t criticise what you do either. She’s capricious: sometimes rewarding hard work, other times not; sometimes she’ll speak your language, other times she’ll bark at you in Deutsch. But she’s a good (if somewhat contradictory) companion. She loves a beer and a good yarn, late nights in a club and yoga at 6 a.m., fine art and graffiti, she smokes indoors but wears flip-flops in the shower. And so on.
My own love-affair with Berlin happened completely by chance. In ignorance fuelled mainly by lingering images of grey concrete buildings and even greyer skies from my school textbooks, I almost passed up the offer of a week’s holiday here to visit uni friends. That week flew by in a haze of warm, late nights; evening lake-swimming; cheap eats; daytime beers; and ping pong. We decided on the plane home to move there.
* * *
Three months later, with some paltry savings and nothing more than a backpack and a guitar, we arrived. It wasn’t the most felicitous welcome: that year Berlin’s October already felt like a British January. It was, surprise surprise, EXACTLY like my textbooks: grey, cold and bloody miserable. Gone were the pavement tables and the long, slow sunsets. Gone were the smiles and the Boules and the canal-side ambling. It was as if Berlin had gathered up all the inhabitants and tucked them into her voluminous fur-coat to keep them safe and warm from the winter. The streets were deserted except for the battened-down dog walkers and the occasional burst of orange from a BSR rubbish collector. My most vivid memories from that time is the acrid smell of coal ovens burning day and night, and the pervasive, bone-numbing cold. I felt pretty low.
Our first flat was a tiny place in a silent Hof next to the Mauerpark in Prenzlauerberg. We had a calor-gas stove, a heap of blankets and mould growing on the walls, but at least it was our own space. Unable to find jobs, our days were spent practising songs to busk with, walking around our Kiez and waiting for our friends to finish work so we could start drinking. Definitely not the healthiest time in my life. Having no structure to our days, hardly any money and absolutely no sun for weeks on end was wearying in the extreme. We booked one-way flights back home for Christmas prepared to give up the Berlin dream.
And then, on our daily trip to the Späti to use the internet, I found an email inviting me to an interview! Despite having no interview-appropriate clothing, and being too poor to buy any, I got the job, and the day before we flew home, my boyfriend was also offered a job. Our luck had finally changed and we came back in the new year with a sense of purpose and determination to make our new life work.
* * *
That tale was several years ago now, and I’m still here. I love Berlin- she’s seen me through some tough times and given me some of my favourite memories and people. Her winters may still be grey and bitter, but when you’re spending them with wonderful friends, in cozy cafes, and focussing on the pretty lights and the smell of Glühwein instead of mould and coal smoke, then you can appreciate the beauty year round.