It’s June when I arrive in Berlin. I take a room in an apartment in a quiet street. It’s paved with big, uneven stones, the sort that make your teeth shudder when you ride a bicycle across them. One end of the street opens out onto a main road with eight lanes of traffic. On the corner there’s a dive bar with a flashing sign.
At seven o’clock in the morning disco thuds indistinctly from the bar’s covered windows, and middle-aged men sit in the paved courtyard behind, smoking cigarettes right down to their filters. At the same end of the street, opposite the bar, is a caged quad full of dumpsters from neighbouring apartment blocks. They’re unobtrusive and the top of the cage is alive with thick green vine, but on warm days the smell of rotting garbage sticks in the back of your throat. Sometimes kids sit on top of it. I can’t work out what game they’re playing, but they don’t seem to notice the smell.
At the other end of the street is a small park. Its dusty patches are flecked with cigarette butts and bottle tops. There is a playground, a small basketball court and a couple of concrete table-tennis tables. If I’m making it sound grey and awful, it’s not: its edges are leafy. On warm nights teenagers picnic with disposable barbeques and kids run through the fountain in their pyjamas.
This close to the city most everyone’s on bicycles or trains or trams, and cars wait parked in the street. A thick greasy film settles on their windscreens (something secreted by the trees, my landlord tells me) and leaves catch under their wiper blades. The apartment buildings are old, painted in greys and lemons, tagged with lazy graffiti. Above the buzzer to my building is I LOVE VERENA BREMER in a childish hand.
Around the corner is a childcare centre. ‘The House of Little People’ is painted in bright letters on its windows, which face the street. When I walk past in the afternoons, there’s often a row of toddlers with their faces and palms pressed to the glass, looking out at the street as if from inside a prison. I’ve glanced inside for clues as to why they want to escape, but the crèche always seems cheerful and full of movement.
In my German class a few weeks later we’re asked to describe our neighbourhood, our Umgebung. I want to say all of this, but the words fall away from me. I begin sentences before I realise I’m incapable of finishing them. I’m crippled by all the words I don’t know.
I’m a temporary resident, here for a summer. I’ve been twice before. The first time was in 2011, backpacking with a friend. We did a bicycle tour, took pictures at the East Side Gallery, saw Hitler’s bunker. We caught the train out to the green suburbs to visit Sachsenhausen, first a concentration camp and later a Stasi prison; came home very quiet and not knowing what to do with ourselves. I learned to like beer sitting under dripping trees by a lake. The second time was in 2013, for three weeks, visiting the same friend who was then living there. It was summer. We lay on dry grass in parks after dark, eating nectarines with the juice running sideways down our necks. I went to the Jewish Museum, the Käthe Kollwitz museum, the Neue Nationalgalerie. On weeknights I’d catch the last train to Mitte, where my friend was working in a bar, and wait for her to knock off so we could go and drink somewhere else. The Badfish had the most beautiful ashtrays I’d ever seen and a jukebox that played Johnny Cash. We ate falafels at six in the morning sitting by the river. ‘At home when you’re still out and the sun comes up,’ said my friend, ‘all of a sudden you feel like you’re wasting your whole life. But here it’s fine. Everyone does it.’ I laughed, but I knew what she meant.
So this city isn’t a complete stranger. I understand its geography some. I know everything looks closer on a map than it actually is. Still – in the first week I misjudge the distance between my flat and the Volkspark in Kreuzberg. It takes me two hours to walk. I’m wearing flimsy sandals. I climb to the top of the hill at the park’s centre and look out over the city. A French couple asks me to take their picture. They’re shy, beautiful boys with eyelashes like cows’. Their pants are rolled to their ankles. They tell me they’ve just been paddling in the waterfall nearby. I fall asleep reading my book on the grassy slope and when I wake up it’s eight o’clock and the sun is heavy and gold and the whole afternoon feels like a fever dream.
I enrol in language school. Intensive classes. I am not quite a beginner: I had about a year’s worth of German lessons some years ago, but I’ve forgotten a lot. In my first lesson I have to introduce myself to the class. My name is Jennifer. I live in Friedrichshain. I am twenty-four years old. I am a writer and editor. (Here, the teacher tells me to use a different word for ‘editor’. She asks what kind of things I write. I don’t know how to explain any of it.) I’ve been in Berlin for two weeks. (Here, the teacher asks what my Muttersprache, my native language, is. I tell her English. She tells me I speak German with a strong French accent. For some reason I apologise. The whole class laughs, but kindly.) I learn words from signs. On the U-Bahn I try to decode advertisements. When the convenience store guy says ‘Danke auch,’ I mentally file it away as a correct possible combination of words.
When I try to explain it, I always end up saying, It’s a young city. I don’t know if the census data supports this, but when I look around the train carriages, or when I’m waiting at a pedestrian crossing, the faces I see are mostly youthful. Rent is still cheap compared to Melbourne prices, though Germans complain it’s going up. A beer at the späti costs eighty cents. The cliché of Berlin as some kind of artistic Shangri-La makes me wince – but at the same time, everything feels more possible here. In Melbourne when someone asks what I do, I never say, I’m a writer. I say, I’m a closed captioner for the hearing impaired. I work in a cafe. I tutor high-school students. Here, writing doesn’t feel like such a ridiculous profession. It feels like I could scrape by. Everyone else is doing it.
A day at the lake: the sky turns the colour of champagne before the storm hits. I pick up my things and shake the sand from my towel. The air is thick. I stand in the shade and drink from a plastic cup while I watch the sky change again. It’s bruised and moving fast. A family stands beside me, eating chips with mayonnaise from cardboard trays. The parents share one; their little boy has the other all to himself, and I watch his stomach distend in a matter of minutes. I watch two men walk by, each eating an ice cream, each with a baby strapped to his chest. I watch a mother lead a boy, maybe four or five, to the first-aid room. He is naked and golden all over, with a crew cut. He holds his hand protectively over his tiny penis, though it’s his foot that he’s cut. The sign over the door reads DEUTSCHES ROTES KREUZ RETTUNGSSTELLE and I repeat it to myself, sounding out the syllables under my breath.
The announcement over the PA system comes first and dozens of obedient swimmers head to shore, then lightening splits the sky across the lake and now everyone’s packing up, but dreamily, half-watching the electric light show while they pack their things. I’m zipping my backpack and turning to go and the rain starts in fat drops, then it comes in sheets and everyone’s laughing and running back to the station with towels draped around their shoulders, teenage girls dinking one another on their pushbikes (all eyelashes and legs) and thick trees overhead and by the time I reach the overpass there’s gritty mud spattered on my feet and shins and a cigarette butt stuck in my sandal between my toes.
The station is above ground. I wait for the train under shelter, rain still dripping from my nose. Everyone else on the platform has just made the same dash from the lake as I have. I want to catch someone’s eye. I want us to do gentle smiles. But the Germans keep their faces still. I watch the rain falling on the treetops. My skin feels dirty. It’s the first time I feel lonely.
I decide to see a film. I find an American one with German subtitles. The U-Bahn spits me out at Neukölln where the streets are still slick with that same tropical grime. The lit storefronts throw their light on the pavement, green, pink, red, yellow; my own face flashes at me from windows.
I go to the desk and recite my Reservierungs Nummer for the ticket I booked online. It’s a small victory. I’m so jubilant when I can use and understand the language. I get cut down so fast when I mess it up. I buy a beer. I have never seen a film alone before. The cinema has sparkly black curtains that open for the advertisements, then close, then open again for the feature. It reminds me of a time I never knew. In the film there’s a scene where Ben Mendelsohn dances in a neon pink-lit room. He’s in front of a woman, but she is trapped inside, in a clear plastic shell exactly the shape of her body, like a perfectly moulded coffin. It’s all I can think about on the train home.
When I try to explain it, here’s what I’m leaving out:
the wide stairwells in the old apartment buildings, an open window at every landing, elegant wooden balustrades; the staggering obedience of pedestrians at traffic lights; the beer bottles deposited neatly underneath – not inside – the orange plastic bins in the street, ready for someone to come and collect within minutes so they can get the refund (ten to forty cents a hit, depending on the bottle); the light flashing in points from the TV tower in Alexanderplatz at dusk; the young men trying to sell me drugs in Görlitzer Park; the silver streamers hanging from the walls inside the Clärchens Ballhaus where couples swing dance; the dust; the empty lots; the club by the river that’s like a playground for grown-ups (swings and tree houses and tunnels to rooms and a great net where bodies collapse to see the sunrise); the hydrangeas all blooming at once; the rubbery smell of the U-Bahn; the vogueing ball in a cave of a bar near Kottbusser Tor, dozens of contestants sashaying down the catwalk in that room hot with breath and bodies; the busker kids singing Dylan in a joyful, defiant way on the overpass; the gentle smiles between strangers purling out of the bar at dawn.
Another thing I’m leaving out is abandonment. People walk away from factories, hospitals, a whole airport and somehow they all remain right where they were. There’s a women and children’s hospital in Neukölln that looks like something out of a horror film, the plants metastasising across it.
There’s another in Weißensee, north of the city. The graffiti inside used to be haphazard, but these days it’s a gallery, each room in a different colour – one with tessellated bright yellow bananas, another with hundreds of cartoonish, Barbie-pink heart shapes littering the walls and ceiling.
At Spreepark, the abandoned amusement park out east, the rollercoaster is slowly composting in nature. A flock of empty swan-shaped gondola boats bob on the lake. Like the children’s hospital at Weißensee, it’s closed to the public – in fact, both were recently given new, sturdier fences in the same dark green metal, but they’re easy enough to scale. Each attracts plenty of visitors. A friend sliced open her finger trying to get into Spreepark. The doctor in the casualty department told her he remembered going when it was open to the public in the late 90s.
In Tempelhof, south of the city, the disused airport sprawls for kilometres. On weekends people jog, skate and cycle down its runways. The last time I went it was a bleak summer day, all bruised purple skies and wind-flattened grass. A few kites bobbed high above. For a while there was talk of turning it into subsidised housing, but the public voted to keep it as a community space. It’s an attitude I’m beginning to recognise in the city.
Two weeks before I leave, a new cafe opens around the corner from my language school. The faces behind the counter are young and serious. A man and a woman maybe my age, but they seem to be the owners. I go for coffee in the half-hour break from my class. They’re patient with my German: they never defer to English, though it would no doubt be less painful for all of us. They wait when I forget the word for ‘lid’. (‘Do you have’ – [pause] – I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten how to say it – the plastic thing to cover a cup?’) They explain how they make their cheesecake. The coffee is the sort I’ve missed from home. I go back every day with a friend from class. The four of us make conversation and it’s not as hard as I thought. Sometimes they give us a cookie to share. Sometimes they ask what we’ve been learning in class. The woman tells me to practice reading sentences and highlighting the four cases – nominative, accusative, dative and genitive – in different colours. ‘It’s how native speakers learn to do it at school,’ she says.
The first day she says ‘See you tomorrow’ is my last day in the city. Though I’ve spent the last twelve hours packing, I somehow forget I’m leaving. I smile and say bis bald as I sling my backpack over my shoulder.
Later, walking home through the park where kids are batting shuttlecocks across the balding grass, I realise my error. I feel foolishly bereft. I tell myself it’s silly; this was only ever temporary. But the leaving-sads are anchored in my gut. I phone my dad. In the 80s, he and mum lived in a tiny town in Midwestern USA.
‘When we left Mankato,’ he says, ‘we both started bawling as soon as we got on the plane and didn’t stop until we got to San Francisco.’ It’s evening. The shadows are falling heavy through my tall window. I’m folding the last of my clothes.
‘It might always be a magnet for you,’ he says. We hang up.
I meet some friends at the Clärchens Ballhaus. The garden is the same as ever: filled with people, pretty lights strung between trees. My friends are waiting. Inside, older couples are swing dancing and serious waiters carry trays across the polished floor. Women queue for the three bathroom stalls and children with sweaty brows run between the silver streamers. The dance hall has been here for a century. It will be here for a while yet.
I take the train home. On the escalators at Alexanderplatz I catch a glimpse of the woman from the cafe: she’s going up, I’m coming down. Slow curtain of recognition on her face. She smiles at me.