Berlin Stories: Part 1

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” – Christopher Isherwood, 1930

Waiting. That’s what happens when you get older. When I was younger, I couldn’t wait to get out. The future—and the kind of life that I wanted to lead—was something to be hunted, apprehended, and roped down. As I got older, finally out of school and on my own, experience was the name of the game—jumping into any and every situation, no matter how dire, risky, or just plain stupid.  I wanted to soak up everything that life had to offer. Curiosity and desire overpowered fear—fear was, in fact, a motivator. But as you get older, settling in one place, one job, and succumbing to the empty, infinite space of the web, the TV—where each day is really not all that different than the previous one—the ‘waiting room’ no longer seems like such a gray place, rather a space filled with artificial warmth. It is easy. It is comfortable. It is sad.

While in youth, one’s hopes and dreams may have seemed so far away, the images of which were vivid, bright, and fully-formed, age means a slow, yet imperceptible death—the Self slowly fading away. And as one’s drifts farther and farther away from the harbor of childhood ambitions, there is little one can do but let the slow steady waves take you away towards that vague, desolate space where many have rested before you—your mother, your father, your high school friends.  Looking forward, however, means declaring that ‘dreams change’: a fool’s acceptance that the fierce determination of their youth was no match to reality’s sobering ways. When the vision of a future is hazy, when the options seem so vague, or worse, predictable and expected—mortgage payments, babies, cubicle life—looking backwards becomes life’s greatest indulgence.

The wind blew in, awakening me from my tired slumber. The room was empty: a mattress on the floor, a plastic Ikea doohikey for clothes, and a lone table at the corner. But my room was large. Its walls were painted the shade of fresh butter, and it had high ceilings and French doors that opened up to a small balcony overlooking the cobblestone street below.

All I had was a backpack, a towel, and a bed sheet that I bought from KaDeWe, Germany’s most popular department store. I rented out the room for 200 Euros from Felix Wolter, a young art student. The apartment was located in Gleimstrasse Street in the bourgeoisie-bohemian district of Prenzlauer Berg. The apartment, riddled with black graffiti scrawling was where ‘hip and pretty’ ended and ‘decay and decrepit’ began. There was a café and bar beside the building; but despite its tattered red velvet couches, free Wi-Fi, and coffee offerings on the menu, the rough, scowling crowd—downing their beers and whisky at noon—and the sneering waitress made it clear that the place was more the latter than the former.

I can’t remember how many other apartments I looked at—conducting most of my searches on Craigslist and Couchsurfing—but this had been, by far, my favorite. Luckily, Felix, who I suspect was high during my visit, felt the same way. With glasses, a goatee, and a stocky yet fit built, and one of the organizers of Berlin’s Critical Mass, to many, he might seem like the equivalent of a New York ‘hipster’. (I know this because of the news clipping cutout of him leading a bike parade, his fist in the air and a cigarette hanging from his lips.) Critical Mass originated out of San Francisco and was a cycling-driven demonstration to bring peace—and more bikes—to the streets. But then again, he wouldn’t have cared. He was a Berliner, and that was all that mattered to him. Not German, but a Berliner. And Berliners are the proud gatekeepers, ambassadors, and some would even say, ‘citizens’ of their city. They were proud of the unique, free flowing, and ever-changing culture that they revived and recreated from the rubble of their dark, war-torn past.

Set in the Eastern sector of Berlin, the apartment was laid out in the most unusual fashion: the bathing area was in the kitchen, and by extension, the toilet was within proximity. The bathing area, made out of a tub that had grown yellow with age and a makeshift handheld shower, was adjacent to the dining table—with only a thin curtain for modesty’s sake. The bath, an obvious last-minute do-it-yourself renovation during the cold war period, jutted out from the rest of the building, with a large window with a view to the street below—perfect for those with a penchant for exhibitionism. But this setup was not uncommon for an apartment in East Berlin. It was, in fact, quite mild compared to other layouts. (I was told that one apartment supposedly had the toilet located in the middle of the stairs.)

Differences between the Eastern and the Western sectors of Berlin were often hot topics, especially when nights—or mornings—were winding down, and there was little left to talk about. It was also a favorite topic amongst new residents of Berlin, such as myself, reveling in the sense that one was finally beginning to understand the city—a foolhardy assumption, of course.

If you were a student, a traveler, a writer, a performer, an artist, a hipster, a free spirit, or just plain broke—or all of the above—you lived in the East. In fact, before one had any right to identify themselves an ‘artist’ (or any other similar term), one had to move to the East first. You see, in a city of 3.4 million inhabitants and 12 bezirkes (i.e., boroughs), where you lived, determined (whether you agreed with it or not) who you were: your economic status, your political affiliations, and most important of all, your taste.

The popular districts of Charlottenberg, Wilmersdorf, and Tiergarten are mostly comprised of the crème de la crème of the Berlin society, including business bigwigs, city celebrities, and international V.I.P.’s. Schöneberg is another upper class area but is best known for its gay population and left-wing attitudes. Mitte is divided into the affluent locals in the Friedrichstrasse and Unter den Linden section whilst the younger, student crowd are situated towards the north. Prenzlauer Berg at the northern section of Mitte, is known for the “BoBo’s” (Bourgeoisie Bohemians) and is becoming one of the city’s favored districts for expatriates, artists, and young families. Other artsy boroughs include Friedrichshain and the Bergmanstrasse area of Kruezberg, which is known for the many non-conformist beatniks, punks, and fashionistas. On the other hand, Kreuzberg’s Kottbusser Tor section is known for its large Turkish population and myriad of alternative “Doner Parties.” Neukölln—heralded as the ‘new Kreuzberg’—is another hotspot for the young, the daring, and the broke, who flock to the area for the cheap apartments and the non-conformist, anti-establishment street cred that comes with living in the borough. Like Kreuzberg, Neukölln is a cultural melting pot, whose largely immigrant (and marginalized) residents hailed from Turkey, Asia, and Africa. The least popular sections of Berlin, and farthest from its center—barely within the periphery of the S-bahn ring that defines the territory of Berlin—is Wedding and Lichtenburg, which is often affiliated with the right-wing conservatives. Ironically, Wedding, like the English translation of the word, was also where married folks, new or otherwise, moved to when they were ready to raise a family or had grown tired of city life. When people said that they were moving to Wedding, it was understood that they were ‘settled’, ready to grow up and old. People who moved to Wedding were never heard from again. Lichtenburg, on the other hand, was known as the stomping ground for Neo-Nazis. The area, and its (mostly) proudly racist inhabitants, was a stern reminder that the city’s horrific past would always lurk in the shadows; that what man and mob are capable of will always be too close for comfort. No matter how many new buildings were erected or what civilized, cosmopolitan, or socially-conscious movements were created in this living, breathing city, the fact was that there would be no hiding from the horror that occurred. More frightening still, was the knowledge that there was no guarantee that such tragic events couldn’t happen again.

Prenzlauer Berg, north of Mitte, however, was a borough caught in the in-between: the high-brow cosmopolitan culture of Mitte (at student-friendly prices) and the sense that one was on the cusp, at the tipping point and the creative edge that defined the Southern districts—without the danger of actually living life on the edge. Apart from Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, home to many English-language schools, kindergartens, and hostels, was a magnet for the foreign residents and newcomers of Berlin, as most jobs and short-term apartments in the area were easy enough to wrangle. Prenzlauer Berg, or ‘PBerg’ as it was called by the locals, was easy to navigate, and rough and eccentric enough to tickle those with a love for whimsy and wonder. I fell in love with the area immediately. And it was no mild infatuation; three out of the six places I lived in were located in Prenzlauer Berg. The district, much like the rest of Berlin, was intoxicated by the past. While the city was very much a modern city, with its denizens committed to burying the horrors of their history, there was still a sense of nostalgia for the past. While no one wanted a return to the dark days of Hitler or the GDR, a yearning for the mood-filled days-and-nights of the past: secret café sessions in beaten down smoke-filled hole-in-the-wall jaunts, the flair and flamboyance of Vaudeville, the rhythm and spirit of the ‘golden age’, and, even, the beginnings of underground punk. The present, and the future, may be a much neater, orderly, and peaceful place, but for Berliners, the past, in all its madcap, kitschy glory was where magic—and the real party—could be found. Their obsession with the past was evident in the many GDR-themed bars, cafés, and haunts (and accompanying mismatched granny-esque furniture), and the success and popularity of the city’s many vintage shops. Soon, I found myself possessed by nostalgia. The past—the artifacts, the style and culture, the images of a different time—come with stories, whether they were even true or not. Vintage wasn’t just a preservation of the past, but the acknowledgement of something special. Berlin—past, present, and future—was special, indeed.

The kitchen and the narrow hallway, made even narrower by the multiple bikes leaning against the wall, were painted a shade of crayon blue, while the wooden floor planks were a shade of pastel-mint. The paint on the tables and chairs, the same hue as the floorboards, was peeling. The kitchen was in dire straits—exactly how I liked it. A European-style washing machine—with a small metal cylindrical grid where the clothes were placed and washed—was in place of the oven. When I first entered the apartment, Felix and his very tall, blonde, blue-eyed friend (who I later found out was working in a Doner shop, of all places), were smoking rolled cigarettes and drinking beers, and behind them, a large map of the city—every side street, every U –and S-Bahn line, every park, was sketched over a blue board. The green lines of the map were wild vines unfurling, choking and releasing, and stretching and spilling furiously over and into the city’s landscape: the beaten-down squats, the bullet-scarred buildings, and the horror, trash, sleaze that made even the brightest of days seem as though it was eclipsed by wild moonlight.

The city was intoxicating. Berlin promised new life, where anything and everything was possible. Berlin was a life in pictures: flipping backwards and forwards in sepia, black-and-white, color, with only the steady ‘click, click, click’ of your mind’s shutter for company. Berlin was Europe. Berlin was New York—but better. Berlin was art, and music, and culture, and youth. Berlin was a chance to believe in something—that vague, hazy imperceptible notion that there was more to clocking in and clocking out. Berlin was an underworld; where only the restless and the renegades—who were happy enough to be swept up and under the city—were permitted entry. But this was no 21st century occurrence: Berlin had been, was still, and would always be this way.


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