If you’ve followed these rambling diaries at all, you’ll have seen a steady decline in my sanity over the past six months, from wide eyed new kid on the block to another paranoid, muttering hermit on the U Bahn. When I arrived, all I saw was bright lights and endless glitter, and everything else was muted in the background, and I didn’t care to know anyway; but after half a year, those beautiful faces in the foreground melted away as if someone refocused my brain like a camera lens, and behind everything I saw so much that I didn’t like. In the depths of winter, my spirit shrank to smaller than it had ever been before in my life. I’d fallen out of love with the city, and the thought of seeing out the rest of the year here made me shudder. But, as I’m fond of saying, a lot can change in a day. And in Berlin, a lot can change in a minute.
It was International Women’s Day a few weeks back, and I’d heard about a demonstration taking place at Hermannplatz. I left the office early and met Heleen off the U8 in Neukölln. The whole square was packed, so we sought each other beneath a statue. I’d brought beers, she’d brought prosecco. Hermannplatz market was in full swing that evening, and the demonstration was merged all through and around it, thousands of people heaving between white and red striped tent tops. We stood watching the chaos, chatting idly about our respective love lives and how they’re quite equally disastrous. It’s a comfort knowing you’re not the only one.
We hung around in the crowd for 45 minutes, wondering if the march was ever going to begin. Dave was supposed to meet us, but true to his own mythology, he was nowhere to be seen. I just cannot keep track of that boy. Keeping tabs on him in this city is like trying to catch mist in a sieve on a windy day. He’s incorrigible; madcap and slapdash and in the best way.
The procession finally began, heralded by the slow arrival of a squat white pick-up truck with a canvass roof, laden with speakers and bold looking people flying flags. The march headed down the long unbending Kotbusser Damm, and people filled the street from start to finish. Thousands had shown up, much more than any protest or demonstration I’d attended previously. The light was failing, and it was that magic hour when the sky turns oily blue and the streetlights bathe everything in pastel orange. That shade of streetlamp amber will forever be synonymous with mischief, a lifelong remnant of a glittering teenage career in underage drinking.
I was smiling ear to ear, fists clenching and unclenching with excitement, and we shared the prosecco as we were swept along. From balconies and fifth floor windows, people were hanging out and cheering their support, and off to the left a cohort of safety-pin jangling punks were flying an anti-fascism banner and chanting in passionate unison.
Amid the chaos, we bumped into Dave halfway down Kotbusser Damm; he was standing on a raised platform in the middle of the road, a baggy shirt hanging off his lanky frame, scanning for us as the bodies flowed around him. We hugged, but he couldn’t stay – he was with an unseen friend on crutches who was bringing up the rear of the march, as he couldn’t match the pace. Heleen and I wanted to remain in the thick of the parade, and so we parted ways after only a moment, with a pang of guilt. Dave’s merry locks bounced away into the river of people.
It was refreshing to see the numbers, the shades and the smiles of people lining the streets. A quartet of white-aproned kebab shop men tripped over one another in their haste to make it outside to film the vast procession. Up high on a balcony, a lone father held his little girl snug to him and pointed at the crowd, as she gazed, mouth open. Heleen and I wondered to one another whether the little girl’s mother might be somewhere down with us. People in scarves and gloves were dancing behind the music truck, as other vans and lorries laden with speakers floated along every few hundred metres, trooping their own tunes.
Every single person out on that street was there because they supported equality; because they were willing to get out and fight for a kinder world. In the middle of all the banners and flags and singing, I felt the hair on my arms stand on end. I was glowing happy as we reached Kotbusser Tor. We passed beneath the U Bahn, and as the crowd began to file through the underpass beneath the encircling flats, whoops and cheers from the top of the buildings drew the crowd’s gaze. Twelve storeys above, a gang of black-clad figures had taken to the roof, and as we craned our necks up, they unfurled a huge German-scrawled banner that fell cascading down the side of the building, and the air above them erupted into fireworks, gold and red, bursting over our heads.
The sudden ecstasy of this spectacle was unimaginable, five thousand people suddenly, simultaneously, and utterly unexpectedly reaching a wild, soaring orgasm of hope. It felt like the entire city was there, overflowing with spirit. The joy, the beauty, the colour; this was the culmination of all that pent up, fizzing love now bursting its banks and floating across the illuminated cityscape. The sheer humanity of it all! The cheers! Heleen and I hugged instinctively, beaming. Many others were doing the same.
This was it. This was what I needed to see. I knew you had it in you Berlin, I knew it! A feeling returned to my chest that had been gone for a long time; I felt fuzzy, like my heart had spontaneously swelled to five times its size, like I could explode into colour, with enough soul for every single person on the planet, like I could single-handedly save the world and everyone in it. I laughed away tears. Better than any drug, better than anything else in the world, that feeling. God, I had missed my fire. It had been so long. I was scared it had gone out for good. But look at the sky!
The white van rumbled on, shaking the terraces with its music, and a fine rain was peppering us, and the street was filled with delighted shrieks and dancing. The dozen figures in black punched the air in triumph, high above the crowd, waving flares in each hand, billowing red smoke. A couple of them swung one leg over the building’s edge, as if seeking to be nearer the crowd, gravity and a hundred feet of empty air be damned, and all the while fireworks cracked the air on all sides and gold rained over us. I glanced around me as everyone’s gazes were still fixed skyward, and I marvelled at the flashes of colour streaked, joy-frozen faces, their gaping smiles etched across their bright cheeks, gleaming with rain.
The people do care. They really do. I’m so glad I didn’t give up on you, Berlin. Everything was wonderful that night; the clouds opened and rain fell and we continued our march, we witnessed the gathered crowd and speeches in the drizzle, and there was nothing but smiles and acceptance for every measure of human being. I really wish you could have seen it. There is always hope, and don’t you ever be so silly as to think otherwise. You, me, everyone – we’re all going to be okay. I promise.