Going back to Berlin

Two days before returning to Berlin I watched the aching and beautiful film Auf Der Anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven). What I love about Fatih Akin’s films – besides their emotional depth and lingering sadness – is their keen eye for the “ordinariness” of life in Germany (and Turkey). Streetscapes, kitchens, university cafeterias – it’s as real as can be. It was the perfect way to practise my German.

I spent a year in Berlin as university student. I was young and free and my days and nights were, well, extensively documented on social media – why not? But some things don’t show up in Facebook photos: the smell of baking bread in the U-bahn stations; hands make sticky from drinking Club Mate; the first glimpse of early sunrise in the summer, when your night is still in full swing; the heavenly taste of Kristallweizen with a slice of lemon.

It was all like I remembered, but I’m (maybe) a real grown-up now. More inclined to enjoy organic ice cream than 50c tequila shots (grassy, sweet Zubrowka is another matter); more excited about eating Turkish food at normal dinnertime than at 4am. This time around, I was able to tick off the two activities that I somehow never found the time for in 2011 – cycling in Tempelhof, the vast empty space in the city that used to be an airport; and visiting the über smart modern art museum, Hamburgerbahnhof.

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Clärchens Ballhaus – a dancehall unchanged since decades

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I used to live on this street

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Club Mate is a soft drink made from mate tea. A acquired taste that every new resident has to get used to.

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Reunion with my dear Australian friend Kate

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Neukölln at night

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Kneipe

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“You pay 1 euro with your first drink for the DJ”

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The Tempelhof terminal is one of the only remaining examples of Third Reich architecture

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Some examples of food worth going crazy for:

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Bio-Eis (organic icecream, now everywhere in Berlin)

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Döner macht schöner

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Leberkäse im Brötchen

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I travelled around the world to find this Turkish dessert – it’s called Künefe and is made of shredded pastry, soft cheese and honey

I don’t think I could ever get sick of Berlin. It has a wonderful creative spirit and wears its history on its sleeve. Its citizens are interesting and interested in preserving its unique place in Europe and the world. It’s a crossroads for young people from everywhere, and in the summer, when gardens are growing out of control everywhere, it’s a real fairytale.

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Darkness and sunshine – that’s Berlin!

The Necklace

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“A part of me will always belong to you.” (Street art at Mauerpark, Berlin)

By the time I had the necklace, it was too late to find out anything about it. I had never seen my grandmother wear it, but somehow I knew that she must have loved it. An oval pendant with a cut-out design of hieroglyphics, it would have reminded her of dusty bazaar from whence it came, in the days when far fewer people were as worldly as my grandmother was. So then it was my turn to love it, just like she’d loved me.

In the middle of an otherworldly European summer, I was forced to farewell the man I was convinced was my Prince Charming. He went home, and home was on the other side of Atlantic. It felt like being dumped by a cold, heavy wave. I went back to Berlin alone, feeling smaller than ever in the big grey city. “Come to Paris!” said my best friend, who was on a glamorous trip around the continent. I sensed it would be my only opportunity to be so miserable in such a luxurious setting. I went, and wandered around the streets, and the sticky heat and sunshine were surprisingly good medicine. On holiday in the shimmering alternate universe of Paris, I could pretend that I was riding some warm current, ultimate destination unknown, and just drift.

I got my first inkling that the necklace was missing when I arrived in my next destination, the brainy city of Basel. I hadn’t slept and had just shot across the countryside in a super fast train. Everything was new, and the necklace was not around my neck. It must have been squashed in my bag. But over the next few days, it did not reappear. By the time I left, it was making me distinctly uneasy to think about it. I was missing its shape in my hand, the feel of the cold chain on the back of my neck, and just knowing that we were travelling through unknown landscapes together.

But I was in denial. Surely my necklace wouldn’t just be gone. It was much too important an artifact, and it was mine to take care of. I didn’t lose important things the way other people seemed to, did I? Especially when the necklace was one of my last remaining mementos of my grandma Ethel, who had been everywhere, and been everything to us. I could only fantasise about the stories that those little silver-plated Egyptian figures would tell. Everywhere I went, I had had it hanging on my chest. It was my go-to item of glamour, because I always imagined my grandmother wearing it and reminding herself of exciting times. Having been twice left mysteriously at other people’s houses, it had always found its way back to me – but my luck had run out.

It had travelled halfway around the world with me, and now might be left in a Parisian hostel, or in a French train, or somewhere else entirely.

My Swiss hosts hadn’t seen it. In fact, I hadn’t seen it. With a lump in my throat, I lodged a lost property report with the railways, and never got a response. My necklace had left me. Without my necklace, and my prince, I didn’t feel like I had much left to hold onto. I was losing pieces of my life, one at a time.

The necklace and me in happier times. (pic: Kate O'Dwyer)

The necklace and me in happier times. (pic: Kate O’Dwyer)

I felt like even if the necklace turned up and showed itself and told me about all its adventures, I wouldn’t be worthy of putting it back on. My grandfather trusted me with my grandmother’s necklace, and I had let her down – my Big Ma, the woman with a million stories and a heart as big as the whole blue sky.

Switzerland in summer was a Technicolor wonder. And travelling alone had become my cause. But without my necklace I was more alone than ever.

The Black Lodge

a possibly unrelated beer (photo by Dan Hough)

a possibly unrelated beer (photo by Dan Hough)

I had a few weeks left. At the end of these few weeks I would sit down in a plane and wave a teary goodbye to Berlin, the city of my imagination, the only place to truly be young and nocturnal and full of thoughts.

I woke up every day in a sharp melancholy, calculating how many more mornings I had of looking out on my snowy courtyard, holding a warm coffee mug. I spent the days looking at people on the street, feeling a bubbling jealousy – how is it that they were able to stay, when I had to leave? At night, usually for the whole night, I drank Weißbier with fellow foreigners as we all wondered when we’d see each other again once there were continents and oceans between us.

Some friends from Sydney were in town, and wanted to see some Berlin bars. I met them on a quiet, dark street behind Schönleinstraße. One of them had found out about this bar online – it was modelled on The Black Lodge. Like always around this time, I had a little lump in my throat that got bigger when I looked at anything at all.

We found the address of the bar. Silence, and nobody around. “Well, it said on the website that it’s meant to be open tonight,” said my friend. “It’s new.” She didn’t sound very disappointed. She was on holidays, and everything was equally exciting, I guessed. But I could count on my fingers the number of nights I had left to visit a bar like this. Soon I would be living my old life again, and it would be as if all of this never happened at all. So I was definitely disappointed.

I stepped up to the door of The Black Lodge and peered through the glass panel at the dark interior. It was definitely closed for business tonight, without explanation. A single light bulb was switched on somewhere inside, illuminating a narrow doorway and a few black and white tiles on the floor. It was authentic flooring from the TV show, and I imagined the dark red curtains that must have covered the walls in there, and the armchairs, and the people who would quote all the lines and talk about the chewing gum coming back into style and try to figure out how Twin Peaks could still give them nightmares. But I could only see that single patch of light.

It made me feel slightly, and strangely, afraid. There on that silent street, I suddenly felt the stillness of the night and the crispness of the cold air acutely. I imagined that just as I was looking into the frosty glass of the door, somebody was looking at me, from a window up above. It made me shiver.

“Do you think that this is a real bar?” I asked my friends. “I’m getting a weird feeling about it. Like, maybe it’s actually an art project.”

My two friends chuckled. “No, really!” I protested. Just then under the streetlights, it seemed true to me that somebody in Berlin would set up a bar’s façade sure to attract a certain type of young person, and then revel in that person’s disappointment while filming the whole episode with a fancy camera, all in the name of art. Stranger things had happened – were surely happening right now, a few streets over in Neukölln. And for a David Lynch-show-themed bar – it was too perfect.

Or maybe it was the cobblestones on the street, and the night in the city that was slowly eroding my logic. It was all too big and unfair. I couldn’t explain how it felt to know that I would soon be looking at the same night sky but on a different street, with different scents in the air, wearing sandals.

We gave up and walked into the night. Later, at home in Sydney, I heard that my friend had gone back to The Black Lodge and found people drinking inside. I couldn’t help but hate all of them.

Epilogue: I looked for The Black Lodge and found that there is nothing at its domain name. IT’S JUST TOO WEIRD. 

DEUTSCHE POST

oktob

classy LR (photo by Kate O’Dwyer)

“We need costumes, of course we need them,” they all said. Dressing like a normal group of young women wouldn’t cut it – for Oktoberfest we needed to be squeezed into tight-bodiced Dirndls with bright gingham aprons and frilly white blouses that skimped on coverage around the bosoms. My lady friends turned out to be right about the necessity of dressing up, Bavarian-style, to match all the strapping young men in their Lederhosen – the theatre of Oktoberfest, which takes over so much of Munich for a buzzing, otherworldly few days, is as intoxicating as the litres-upon-litres of beer.

My Dirndl was on the traditional side (dark brown, skirt down to my knees) but I still managed to burst out of the top of it.

Still, I think that the original one I had ordered from a confusing German online store would have been more eye-popping. I’ll never know – upon my return to my little apartment in south-east Berlin I had a knock at the door and was delivered the unforunate dress, wrapped up neatly but many days too late. It wasn’t the store’s fault, apparently – the website displayed a warning that at peak times, Dirndl deliveries might be delayed, and this was the most important time of year for lovers of German paraphernalia. Not to worry – the store offered full refunds, 48 Euros that could be put to good use by this particular foreign student. All that was necessary was to return the Dirndl by post.

Torstraße was far from my home, but a place I used to visit a lot – a wide street split by tram lines, and full of small rooms that would come alive at night, packed with interesting people drinking interesting things that they didn’t pay much for, all with the special spark in their eyes because they were in Berlin, the greatest city on Earth, with the extra good fortune to be young at this most excellent time in history. I think on this day I must have been drinking mint tea at St Oberholz, a café where a certain type of young person (with black-rimmed glasses) came to set up their laptop and procrastinate with their magnum opus. I took a detour to a yellow Deutsche Post, my unwanted Dirndl wrapped up in the bag that it was delivered in, with a makeshift label stuck on one side.

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this package did it right

Time ticked on infuriatingly while I stood in the line. There were many things about the German postal system that I did not understand. Every post office was also a bank, for example, and parcel notices were sent out in advance, so it was actually possible to arrive too early for your packages. But at least they were open on Saturdays. I was finally called up by a grey-haired matronly Frau at the far end. She took one look at my bundle and said “Das geht nicht. It doesn’t work like that. “Oh, so how does it work?” I asked. Apparently I needed an official box to send things in. “Danke,” I said and smiled. The woman did not smile.

I found a stack of bright yellow boxes that evidently needed to be assembled. I picked up one which in its squashed state was very long and wide. It appeared to come with drawn instructions but these were worse than useless. There I was, wrestling with a huge flat yellow piece of cardboard almost as big as myself, my face growing redder by the second. I looked around. Nobody was surprised to see this happening – nobody was even looking. It didn’t alleviate my embarrassment. I hid into the most secluded corner I could find and eventually managed to force it into a useful shape, get my squashed-up package inside and stick my label on the top. I lined up again.

I waited for another short eternity. I looked out the windows at the grey, windy street and thought of all the grey, windy streets beyond it, stretching across the sprawling city and into the grey, windy countryside, and eventually to the cold sea. There wasn’t much warmth left in the air and every day brought us all closer to a winter that I was getting afraid of.

I was called up again, to the same woman. She frowned anew but there was a little smirk somewhere on her face. At my expense, of course. My package still wasn’t acceptable – home-made labels were nicht erlaubt. There was some official form among all the other official forms in the place that I needed to fill out. I felt a bit forlorn, with my package still in hand. My eyes suddenly stung. Why was it all so hard? Is this what delayed culture shock felt like? How ridiculous that I needed to bring a friend to the damned post office for moral support! That dreaded thought was showing its face: “This wouldn’t have happened back home!”

I had now spent more than half an hour at the post office, and it had gotten me nowhere. Some kind of resentment at the pointlessness of leaving home that day was surfacing, but I frowned hard to keep that feeling down. In the same way that I always tried to reassure myself that (almost) nobody ever died from the cold in Berlin (surely a lie), I told myself that plenty of ordinary Germans use the post office every day, and none of them have gone insane.

With the correct label finally stuck on the box, I approached my new nemesis again. I kept my eyes on her and tried to look like a person with serious intentions, not some clueless traveller who at this moment, was afflicted by acute homesickness and a malaise brought on by seeing too many stern faces in one room (especially when any resident of Berlin should have been used to the latter by now). She had another question. Where were the pieces of sticky tape that came with the box? I drew a breath, but didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, she could see that I might cry, and relented. Her smirk returned: “Ok, we’d better get your package on its way, hadn’t we?”

I imagined the post office woman sniggering to her colleagues over black coffee and stupidly sweet cakes later that day. I did my best to slam the post office door behind me, zipped my jacket up to my chin and marched down Torstraße for my mint tea.