I’m in a wonderful mood this morning. I fly home to England tomorrow for the Christmas holidays. I’m finally returning home, and I never expected I’d be doing it on my own terms. I didn’t fail, I didn’t crash and burn like so many others I’ve met along the way here; the French guys I met back at the hostel who spunked all their money in one month; the homesick kids who come in their droves and fly back after a couple of weeks when they miss sleep and sense; the poor buggers who are overwhelmed and turfed out by the ever unspooling red tape. Moving to Berlin is an upstream salmon odyssey, battling against the current with hungry bears pawing the shallows. It’s a mad dash for safety under sniper fire, friends being picked off seemingly at random. You’re only ever one U Bahn fine or job interview rejection away from complete failure and a disgraced Ryanair home. But despite everything, somehow, I made it, and it feels so good.
Tomorrow will mark ten weeks in the city. In that time, I’ve managed to find a permanent residence in a good area, obtain a dream job in an achingly cool office, and made a fantastic circle of friends who I’ve had dozens of adventures with already. Come January I’ll be able to finally get registered, which means I can get a bank account, access health insurance, join a gym, and I will officially gain that most sacred of titles: I will be a Berliner.
Right now, Berlin feels like the only place on Earth that I want to be. Every couple of decades, some trend-setting hipster kids discover a new haven with liberal values and low rent, the word gets out, and that city draws in the new skint youth with all their optimism and creativity, and focuses it like a laser, carving out The Strange, becoming the defining voice of a generation. Paris had it in the early twentieth century, Denver had it during the Beat Generation, San Francisco had it in the 1960’s, and Berlin has it now; though one day Berlin will lose it, and some new cheap city will draw in the artists and the musicians and those to whom growing up is giving in. Lisbon is apparently the new kid on the block, and already friends of mine are talking of heading there in a couple of summers. I don’t know where it will be next.
I remember reading a famous passage by Hunter S Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which he describes how it felt living in San Fran in its heyday. He described how he could be tearing across the city at 6am, out of his mind after partying all night, and he knew that whichever street he took, which ever direction he headed in, he would meet people who were just the same as him – people who were just as mad and free as he was. Weeks after I arrived here, that passage was floating around in my head. Ever since my first night in Come Backpackers, whenever I have felt bored, skint, or lonely, I have found adventure is just a stroll away. Just pick a direction and go. The city will look after you.
Berlin is more than most cities; more than a collection of sand blasted civic buildings and perfume doused shopping malls. It’s a mess; it’s the sickly sweet shit mix you stole from your parent’s drinks cabinet as a teen before every Friday night, pouring out trace amounts of every spirit and liquor until you were left with a plastic bottle filled with a potent liquid that glowed neon purple and tasted like varnish. It’s the amalgamation of every culture and minority the world has to offer, crammed together into a low-rise city blessed with all the freedoms that having nothing brings, with all the freaks and weirdos swirling idly around the same unceasing whirlpool.
Life can be bleak here, and if you’ve browsed these diaries in any real capacity you’ll have read stories about addicts, prostitutes, thieves and all the nocturnal evils that tread the daylight in Berlin. But, despite everything, there is a palpable sense of hope. Everything is so momentary that it’s hard not to feel like something better is just around the corner. The very fact that it is hard to solidify a lifestyle here brings people together. If I’ve learned anything from my time, it’s that Berlin isn’t a city, it’s a mindset.
The Berlin mindset is socialism in motion. When I am poor, my friends feed and shelter me. When my friends are poor, I feed and shelter them. Everyone constantly drifts around this water mill. Sometimes you’re wet, sometimes you’re dry. Friends are valuable here, and the wider your circle, the more secure your position. When I first moved here, I experienced the crushing inner city pressure that has no doubt engulfed every migrant throughout history. Wherever you are in the world, it’s the same feeling: you’ve just arrived in a big, fast city, nobody knows you, and nobody cares about you. If you fall, you’re going to fall hard.
After a few weeks, however, my circle grew. I spent more time hanging out with Michelle. I met Dave in my hostel. I met Victoria in a night club. I met their housemates, their friends from back home, we went to clubs together and met new people, and our circles have merged and grown. I have a wonderful collection of people to catch me if I fuck up, now. This is something that every single person must go through when they move here, and the memory of that keeps Berliners kind to newcomers.
That shared struggle gives birth to a charity that is evident on every street corner. Clothing and furniture are left in neat piles outside homes when they are no longer needed, empty bottles are left upright next to public bins so that homeless people can collect them to return to the supermarket, where they pay a few cents per recycled bottle. Every weekend there are festivals, marches and concerts showing solidarity with refugees. I remember one Sunday talking a stroll to Mauerpark, just to waste the day. At the entrance to the park I found a busker rapping along to old school hip hop from a boombox. Every song he played, he changed the chorus to ‘Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here’. He had a crowd of a hundred people, all dancing and cheering and singing along with him. Imagine fleeing a war torn country, leaving everything you know, and being welcomed like this. People can be so beautiful.
The spirit of this wild place was encapsulated perfectly yesterday morning on the U Bahn. A plain-clothes ticket inspector leapt up and began the rounds of the carriage. An old man sitting next to me had no ticket, the inspector gleefully prepared to boot him off and fine him at the next stop. Seeing a fellow Berliner being hauled off the train is always grievous – everyone here knows the fear of the €60 fine for fare dodging. Sometimes, however, money is so hard up that you simply have no choice – take the risk or stay at home.
The old man stood up to leave and the rest of us watched him mournfully. What happens next, usually, is a jolly good bollocking on the platform courtesy of the thuggish BVG ticket inspectors, followed by your details being taken and a fine slapped against your name. However, as the poor old boy was collecting his belongings to leave, a young woman spoke up. She told the inspector that the ticketless gentleman was travelling with her as a plus one – on a weekend, any monthly ticket holders can have a friend ride along for free. The inspector questioned her, scowled, and stalked off the train. The old man sat back down, and thanked his young saviour. The whole carriage was beaming.
That’s this city in a nutshell. Living in Berlin feels like finally being able to have the fun you always deserved, and fuck anyone that tries to put limits on you. It has same camaraderie you remember from school and every shit job you’ve ever toiled in: whether it’s an oppressive manager, egotistical teachers, or in Berlin’s case, the ever-looming boogeyman that is an empty bank account; a common enemy does wonders for uniting the masses.
Before I came here, I was working and sleeping and not doing much else. My daily commute was a total of three hours, sometimes more. I had around two or three hours of leisure time each evening before bed – and half of this was taken up with daily chores and cooking. For a long, long time I felt cheated by life. I had worked hard, done everything I was supposed to, got a First at university, found a job, paid off my debts and… what? Fuck all. Nobody descended from the sky on a golden escalator and draped a medal around my neck. Life just ground on, indifferent to me. I found myself going to work and coming home having barely uttered a word. Conversation with my colleagues was the same every day, because nothing new ever happened. One rainy afternoon I did a few ‘happiness’ tests online from various medical websites. I answered honestly. The results invariably suggested I go to a doctor as soon as possible. Fuck that, I moved to Berlin and I’ve never been happier.
I love this city. It’s my home now. I came here for so many reasons – wanderlust, insatiable desire for adventure, a craving to find people just as impulsive and stupid as me, people who aren’t embarrassed to have dreams that soar just a little too high. I found everything I was looking for in Berlin. I found people who are lost and weird and who want absolutely everything life has to offer and have no idea how to get it, just like me. I hated the Dan I was turning into back home, the office guy who lived to work. I hated him, and so I scrapped him and started over. It really isn’t so hard. If I can impart any wisdom on you through this diary, let it be this: If you are unhappy in your daily life, if you feel like you deserve more, do something about it, please, for fuck’s sake!
Over the past ten weeks I have attended sweatbox punk gigs and fiery political rallies, I’ve trawled fantastical nightclubs, dived into art, poetry and music, got lost down avenues that pulse with history, seen fierce solidarity with refugees, seen a lifetime’s worth of nudity, tried a fair bit of nudity myself, met utterly unique characters, occasionally felt like the coolest guy on Earth and much, much more frequently felt like the main attraction at the freakshow.
My last night in Berlin was spent with the best friends I have here, Dave, Michelle and Victoria, three completely different characters who have absolutely nothing in common other than the fact that we are here. That’s something Michelle said to me when I first arrived, when I was doubting whether I was cool enough to fit in. She told me it doesn’t matter who you are, if you decided to come here, you’ve something in common with every single person in the city, and that’s enough. The four of us squeezed onto the sofa in Victoria’s apartment and watched a Christmas film, cradling cups of mulled wine.
I’ve had so much fun here and I’m just getting started. I’m back in January, when I’ll have a new flat, new job, and a new year ahead packed with whatever the hell I want. I’ve already started making plans. It’s going to be a wild one. Have a great Christmas.
I’ll see you next year!
End of Part One