I’d never been to Berlin before I landed there in late 2008, but I always knew I’d love it, and I had a decent sense of how it would be. For once, it turned out, the reality wasn’t so far from the dream. My first employer out of university, a poorly run film production company, went bust a year into the job and London, a town I’d never loved, felt dreary and staid, bereft of hope once Lehman and his brothers had extracted their pounds (Sterling) of flesh. Fuck that. I was off, I’d decided to become a Berliner.
The city was an escape, but also an excuse. There were, as hoped, plenty of never-ending parties, and they became something I sought to ration, like smoking or biting my nails. But of course I couldn’t. I was enthralled by the Maastricht microcosm that was our cosy WG, the lazy walks by the canal and the high-cheekbone chic of Mitte’s snootier Straßen. There was faded history and half-hearted regeneration, failed Turkish integration and ersten Mai desecration, all swaddled in a permissive, “es ist erlaubt.” In this city, where large-scale capital investment was foreign and the public sector mops up unemployment figures, I felt part of an indigenous culture that had survival down to an art. It didn’t matter that in nearly three years I only visited one other town in Germany (that, I thought then, was the point). I was a Berliner.
I knew this, because I went to the free lunchtime concerts at the Berliner Philharmonie, locking my bike to the railings as the elder stateswomen of Charlottenburg passed in their furs; because I feasted on €5 rotisserie birds at Sonnenallee’s ‘City Chicken,’ dousing the breast in spicy-as-sin hot sauce for which I invariably paid the true price later; and because I knew all the shortcuts between the city’s east and west thanks to an all-too-brief stint as a bike messenger, curtailed by insipid rain, and, later, snow. Sure, I may have been a pussy, but I was a Berliner.
Allegedly, I have roots in the city. According to my mother’s hazy genealogy, some great-great grandmother, or was it -aunt, was born in Charlottenburg, but the Stargardter’s true home, until the mid-1930s when the new administration came knocking, was Strehlen, a small town about 30 miles south of Wrocław in Poland. I never made it to Poland, just as I rarely made it to Charlottenburg. I regretted this then, as I do now, and it began to dawn on me, like an alcoholic’s self-revelation, that I wasn’t a Berliner.
And at some point that begins to count. It wasn’t the cold, or the drugs, the thankless hack work, or the inescapable sense of us all wasting our God-given talents. It was the wobbly feeling of no longer being game – of wanting out. My first escape from Berlin, itself an escape from London, came in 2010, after a miserable stint working as a felch-diving bottom-feeder for a German news organization. On a whim, I moved to Colombia, where I jumped into a punchy local newspaper with its best days behind it. But despite covering a general election and interviewing the world’s second tallest man, I soon yearned for Berlin. Perhaps, I convinced myself, I really was a Berliner.
So back I came, swapping the Tropics for 27-hour stints in Bar 25. And, boy, was Berlin Mach 2 fun. This time round, though, I’d determined to do it properly. No more excuses. Where do I sign up for Volkshochschule German classes? At the Volkshochschule? Where’s that?
I’d never been happier than I was in my own little corner of Kreuzberg, buying stretchy, sesame-flecked bread from the Turkish super store next door, or strolling down to Hermannplatz for a naughty portion of pommes mit senf. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the ease with which one day flowed into the next, I couldn’t rid myself of the nagging, niggling truth: not for much longer would I be a Berliner.
In early June, 2011, I finally said auf wiedersehen to my Berlin impostership. It wasn’t easy. How could it be? No more Sekt for breakfast, nor laughably cheap Brötchen sandwiches for lunch. No more edge-of-your-seat, riding dirty on the subway, nor Augustiner Helles, the nectar of the beerhall gods. Pastures new awaited, pastures I knew would prove more fertile for whatever it was I was looking for next. The last year and a half, spent living in New York, and now Mexico, validated that decision. But there isn’t a day I don’t look back, remembering the smiles when the shutters open at Panorama Bar, or the wafts of smoke emanating from Görlitzer Park barbecues, and think how pleasant it was, however brief, to be a Berliner.
Image credits: 1. © Timor Kodal 2, 3 & 4. Provided by author