One year in Berlin, an anniversary of sorts. This is my story of this utterly relenting city. A tale comprised of four distinct seasons, three apartments, numerous jobs, countless fleeting friendships and one difficult language. It is about a city of immense density caught between the heavy weight of its past and the inexplicable light and freedom that shines from the darkest of places.
This city that I now call home is something extraordinary, an anomaly. It has progressed into its next chapter, following the contours of history, flourishing into a liberal and cultural hub. It has changed from all recognition and proliferated into a city of tolerance and acceptance, a place where people are free from judgement, and even freer to express themselves. Yet I have felt Berlin’s depth.
This is my time in Berlin.
I arrive into the mid May heat. Under fluffy white clouds and pale blue skies I am unfazed and unappreciative. Several years of traveling throughout the Southern hemisphere has made me complacent and convinced that the climate around the globe is constant.
How wrong am I.
Yet I watch as the city erupts under the suns steady gaze into a social hub of epic proportions. The people embrace the sun with all they have, the light a source of energy triggering parties and festivities. It feels like there is an air of spontaneous energy that the people wear, a belief that anything is achievable in the lightness of it all. And Berlin harnesses this frame of mind while bolstering it with its liberal and relaxed social codes.
Though as I reconvene with old friends who now live in Berlin, I can’t understand the casual yet predictable nature they take to checking the weather forecast. It is like they have become consumed by it. Is there a reticence to Berlin’s nature? Strangers envy our first summer in the city, yet many through snide smiles, cannot resist mentioning the winter. If there was any deception I hadn’t picked up on it yet.
Autumn rolls in. The light late nights gradually recede giving way to dark autumnal reds ands purples. The trees cast their leaves like lost wishes covering the city in a light coat. Things begin to wind down, and thoughts of commitment run stronger and deeper in my mind.
My focus turns to apartments and finding something permanent. Crashing on friends’ couches and ping-ponging through the cities Air B&B has lost its appeal. It is now I realize that almost half my conversations revolve around living arrangements. I have met many friends now who are in near constant motion; their time spent exclusively orbiting the fringes of the city from apartment to apartment. They are impossible to track down, their addresses changing more than the graffiti on the streets.
The struggle is real. Apartments seem to only exist on short-term leases or to those with the correct documentation. Those that have nice places have usually earned them through years of perseverance and networking. I suppose I was lucky to find our small yet expensive studio in Kreuzberg; not two adjectives often associated with good fortune whilst flat hunting unless you are in Berlin. And to my amazement we are still here. The monthly payment to a Spanish woman in Granada, whom I’ve never actually met and without so much as a whiff of a contract, has not demanded her place back, yet.
Winter hits. It’s like being dropped from a 5th story apartment block. The impact is shattering. Endless grey skies languidly hang over the city. For weeks at a time the temperature rarely exceeds a spritely minus 10, all contact with the outside world is kept to a minimum. I feel I could map the apartment out blind folded, yet choose not to as I feel it would be a frivolous task.
It is time to leave my job as a tour guide. My boss is acquiescent; he has been here for several years and knows fully the weight of winter on the position. I’ve been finding it difficult to garner enthusiasm with the crowds as they fight to keep warm in this great refrigerator that has become Berlin.
Yet even in the density of the winter there is fortuitous nature to the city. Its ability to sustain life in what many would regard as hostile conditions is surprising. We have come close to rock bottom many times yet the city won’t ever fully let us go. Somehow it manages to placate the situation, even offering up seemingly random opportunities and coincidences in the strangest of spheres. Work will materialize just as you need it most. A short-term lease will appear through a friend of a friend you met one chaotic night in Sysiphos. The city and you are bound together deeper than you know.
Spring has broken the seemingly endless chain of winter. An immense weight and pressure feels like it has been lifted, unburdening a strain on tired shoulders. It is now with a clearer mind I begin to reflect on the events of a year in Berlin.
One thing is evident and that is that I’m not leaving here in a hurry. For one I feel like I’ve earned another summer after too many months of darkness. The second is that I’ve existed on the fringes of poverty since I arrived last May. If I were to attempt to leave it would require working more than I am comfortable with. After all, I don’t want to disrupt the ethos of this laid-back city where free time and leisure outweigh work and commitments.
The language too has begun to slowly open up to me. I note this as an old colleague reappears for an Überraschungsbesuch. We worked together for months in near silence, the chasm of language preventing spoken communication. Yet as she enters this day we speak for 15 minutes over life, the job, and relationships. It wasn’t until that evening that I realized the significance of this fragment of my day. I’ve been denying my progress with my Deutsch, fearful that I will undo my hard work by acknowledging it. Though, I think it may have just become another reason to stay in this incredible city for a little longer…
Text: Liam McGuckin
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Liam McGuckin spent the past three years working and exploring everywhere from America, Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, India, to Nepal. He loves sustainability work, is avid about environmental issues and enjoys drinking Negronis. On the weekend you’ll find him dancing at Sisyphos.