Berlin was cold the way I imagined it would be, the way I wanted it to be: desolate, romantic, vacant, post-Communist. I had so many ideas about the city, so many stories about my birthplace stored up, that my visit began with getting past them to see what was sitting in front of my own frozen nose.
Luckily (??), my wallet was stolen during my first night at the hostel. I ended up playing a game with myself: could I spend a week in Berlin on a budget of $100? I almost made it (save a desperate $13.00 splurge at a touristy Starbucks near Checkpoint Charlie on the night that I left), eating lots of bread and cheese and taking long walks through the ankle-deep snow. Without money for museums and tours, I decided to make friends and looked for stories instead.
I started at the flea market.
I stayed with a girl from New Zealand, a couchsurfer with a studio apartment in Kreutzberg and two futon mattresses on the floor. She took me to her favorite 1 Euro falafel shop down the street, and a free lecture by Nobel-winning writer Orhan Palmuk at Hamburg University. I loved it when Palmuk paused, just before beginning, to snap a photo of himself at the podium with his phone. That and when he ended by reading the first chapter of his latest novel in Turkish—the language it was originally published in, but also a pointed political statement in a city that is still learning to accept its very rooted Turkish community (thanks to which I was able to eat my 1 Euro falafel lunch).
Amalia told me hitchhiking stories (next adventure, anyone?) and took me to a socialist cafe and a socialist wine bar, both run on donations only…
I met a girl from Canada. “What do you think of Berlin?” she asked me, “One of my friends told me it was heaven on earth. Everyone talks about how cool it is. But I can’t decide.”
I had lunch with my aunt’s sister’s ex-husband. He moved to Berlin from the German countryside in the early 80s, when Berlin was divided, harsh, still-demolished and reeling with the weight of its recent past. I kept asking him what the city was like back then, wanting to have some idea of the world I was surrounded by when I came into it in ’84.
“It was completely different,” he laughed the way people do when remembering their younger selves, nostalgic and mischievous but also sort of relieved, “It was crazy.” He described the punk rock clubs that came to inhabit the city’s abandoned spaces—one in a bank vault, “The acoustics were amazing. So metallic.” One literally underground, that you had to climb into the sewer and walk along water pipes to get to.
He knew it would be smart to leave Berlin when he sat up in rush-hour traffic one morning at 10am and realized he was completely drunk, “I thought I wouldn’t live much longer if I stayed here.” So he found a job filming weddings near Philadelphia. “I learned so much about America, I had unrestricted access to these intense, emotional days. Everyone was so relieved to see a stranger. They’d just start telling me their secrets.” He got it all on tape, the uncles and cousins, the bridesmaids and exes, spilling the details about how they they fought with or dated or secretly wanted to be the bride or groom. “When people drink too much they love to confess. Everyone’s looking for someone who will listen and then forget everything they’ve heard.”
Now he’s back in Berlin, running a documentary film distribution business with a group of the original friends he squatted with in the old days.
An internet café call to an old classmate—we studied translation together at Naropa—drained my last two Euros on my last day. She’s in Berlin teaching English, writing poetry, making screen prints, and experimenting with a Super 8 camera found at a flea market. She edits the film with scissors and tapes the clips back together. This summer she wants to organize a festival with people projecting their films onto a wall with a live band playing in the background.
I’d like to be back to Berlin for the summer, when it’s light until 10pm and the degrees of grey are offset with green. Maybe to find the hospital where I was born, the apartment where we lived, to trace the stories that I’ve heard. But I needed to find my own version of the city first.
Which I did.
All photos copyright Merete Mueller 2010.