City of Exiles: Berlin from the Outside in

Iggy Pop, 1978, Berlin, photo: Esther Friedman

When I moved to Berlin in 2009, I was struck by two things. One was the strong feeling I had, a feeling that is hard to describe. It was a kind of peace that washed over my restlessness. At the same time, I noticed that Berlin was a meeting place, that people from all over were flooding into an open city. Berlin was a city of strangers and between them I sensed a beautiful solidarity. As a writer who has lived in several cities and had travelled much, I wanted to understand these things about Berlin. I soon realized that a certain kind of free spirit had been drawn to Berlin for a long time, and often for similar reasons. I wanted to know why. So in 2011 I began to write a book, City of Exiles: Berlin from the outside in, which was published in May by Noctua Press. After the jump you can read an excerpt from the second chapter of the book. Enjoy!

It’s long been said that few Berliners are from Berlin.

«Almost everyone in Berlin had come from someplace else», noticed 19-year-old Else Plötz after arriving in the city from the East Prussian provinces in 1893. Later known as Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven, the flamboyant queen of the Berlin and New York avant-garde, Else began a journey of personal and sexual discovery in the Manhattan on the Spree, then the fastest-growing city in Europe. A couple of decades later, as great human tides continued to breach Berlin’s borders, Jewish industrialist and Weimar Republic foreign minister, Walter Rathenau, semi-joked that there were «no Berliners left … I believe most Berliners are from Posen, and the rest are from Breslau». Willy Haas, the Czech editor of Weimar Berlin’s celebrated literary journal, Die Literarische Welt (The Literary World), whose contributors included Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, remarked that anyone could become a Berliner, and often did, for it was as simple as breathing in the air.

Blown in from the vast glacial plains beyond, Berlin’s fabled air, or Luft, is the mythic source of its etheric allure. «You notice how intoxicating the air is here?» Iggy Pop asked a journalist he picked up from Tempelhof airport in 1977. «It’s a big thing, the Berlin luft. We’re not too far from Poland and the air sweeps in off the Ukraine plains. I like to walk around. When I first got here, I just walked and walked, not thinking about anything, just talking to myself.»

This punk renegade, romantic and recovering heroin addict had a feeling in Berlin that many of its exiles have long echoed. It’s a feeling borne of space, the freedom to walk on neutral ground, to be at peace, anonymous in a rootless urban frontier. Located in the nether regions of Central Europe, Berlin has been called a third zone between East and West, a place where everyone and no one belongs, where Iggy and his ilk can walk around and talk to themselves. I do it all the time.

Berlin’s centuries of war, revolution, division and exodus have made it very porous. The city is also built on sand, making it both porous and permeable. (Sorry, I like these metaphors and will probably overuse them.) By the end of WWII, nearly a half of the pre-war population had fled or had been killed. A few years later, many got out of Cold War Berlin, both before and after it was cleaved with concrete. When the Wall finally fell in 1989, much of East Berlin was abandoned as the communist experiment unravelled. With West Berlin no longer a subsidized capitalist island within the Iron Curtain, there was another exodus of the people who had kept it on life support. About half the city’s population has arrived since that time.

It struck me early, this sense that few in Berlin were born in the city. I do know a few echt (real) Berliners. But many of their families found exile here after escaping into West Berlin from the East.

There’s even a name for Berlin’s outsiders. Wahlberliner are the people who choose to live in Berlin. But they often didn’t choose it to get a job. Berlin still has the highest unemployment among major German cities. No, they choose it because it’s built on a cosmic power spot. I’m joking. Sort of.

Soon after I came to Berlin, I interviewed a new age Mayan scholar to find out if the city would survive 2012, the year the Mayan’s predicated the world would either end or be forever transformed. He told me that Berlin was located on the line separating the East and West of the global brain, the fault line of global consciousness. Hence the Wall. But Berlin would harmonise these long-opposed spheres of thought. People were coming to Berlin to take part in the transformation.

Berlin’s magnetism is perhaps more simple. «No one expects you to speak German, no one expects you to fit in. It’s a place where you can just fit out,» said Jon Rose, an English-born Australian violist who also runs his bow along steel fences and car wrecks. Jon first moved to Berlin in 1985, left a while back, but still returns most years to perform. He always has good stories about fitting out in Berlin. He started a band here in the 1990s called The Exiles with his Australian drummer, Tony Buck. Soon after, the two started the Exiles Festival for the «internationally and musically displaced» in Berlin. I’m not the first to think about the city of exiles.

As I said, I first breathed the Berlin Luft in 1996. In those early post-Iron Curtain years, I also had a thing for Prague, a city with a certain mystique for pseudo-literary types who had read Milan Kundera. My then-partner Sofia and I were actually on our way to Prague. But in Berlin we started on our music tour of sorts, a journey around the Continent that we mostly paid for by playing Eastern European and gypsy songs on accordion and a drum.

Sofia is brilliant on a squeezebox. But Berlin, the city itself, somehow willed us on. The locals clapped and threw Deutschmarks as we busked across city squares, subways and tumbledown streets. We stayed for longer than we planned. I never forgot the feeling, the sense of openness, the wide, shabby, leafy boulevards, the simple tenement living, the good cheap beer you could buy on every corner, Kreuzberg’s amalgam of Turks, punks, old war survivors and bedraggled bohemians.

It was very different to Greece, or specifically Crete, where Sofia and I were arrested and imprisoned for playing music on the street. Luckily, that was the last stop on the tour. But even Prague was pretty disappointing. It was impossible to escape the tourist crush. We didn’t play much music there either.

A part of me stayed in Berlin I suppose. Although the shapes and hues of the city had blurred, when I returned in 2009 it felt like I was coming home. Riding the train into Berlin from the airport, a young woman, hearing Melisa and I talking, asked in English if she could help with directions. She smiled, promised we would love this city.

People were calmly drinking beers on the train, sitting casually with their dogs. Compared with Australia, there seemed to be few rules. It’s hard to explain; but people just seemed cool. It was as if they were ruled by a kind of mutual respect.

Others helped as we stumbled with our bags in search of a friend’s apartment, a shop front that was also her DIY fashion studio. We finally made it after some people gave us their map. Once there, we were introduced to a crowd from France, Germany, Japan, Australia. Some old friends stopped by, having finally ended their months-long tour of Europe—many Continental music tours begin or end in Berlin these days.

The next day I wanted to meet up with these friends but didn’t have a phone. We ran into each other anyway on the street. I had no idea where we were. What were the chances? we said. I’ve been running into people in Berlin ever since.

Later that night we went to see Martin, a born-and-bred Berliner who I lived with for a while in Tokyo. He had a cute Japanese friend with him and looked ready to go back to the Far East. He smiled at Melisa and I as he rolled a joint in the bar. You guys look more like Berliners than I do, he said.

We had no work. No real plan. No hope, I sometimes thought. Our savings nearly ran out. Some snow fell in early November. We were soon dancing drunk in the snow. We were somehow very happy.

text: Stuart Braun

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Born in Sydney, Stuart Braun completed a doctorate in history before living across Asia, Australia and Europe and publishing widely as a journalist and writer. He has lived in Berlin since 2009. City of Exiles is his first book that is available here in Berlin at Do You Read Me?, Motto, Dussmann, Pro qm, Shakespeare & Sons and many more, as well as online here.

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