To think that I could describe a city of three or four million people with a very complex past and present would be hubris. Berlin is Berlin, a city whose name needs no modifiers. It just is and in that is part of its history and reality. But it also tied to so many other things, the reality of east and west in Europe, reunification, and so on. Finding the balance is something I cannot do after only one full day here.
I live in a four room apartment with blond wood floors in the neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, part of former East Berlin. I rented a room from a man, Frank, who had advertised on Craigslist “room for rent”. He is a big man, taller than I with a hefty belly, whose eyes are currently red with a heavy cold. Frank works counseling the unemployed, who are numerous I am told given two things: the economic readjustment following reunification of East and West Germany that led to a decimation of employment in the East--it has still not recovered twenty-years on, and the current global recession.
Around the corner is a complex of red-brick buildings that formed a brewery. Now it is creatively called the Kulturbrauerei, the Culture Brewery. It holds arts schools, performance spaces, a movie complex for art films, and various eateries. Berlin continues, I am told, to be a creative leader in art.
Five and six story apartment buildings line the streets. The ground floors of many, especially on corners sprout businesses such as cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, book stores, travel agencies, and so on. A mall has opened one train stop away. It looks like a mall from the nineties anywhere. Across the street, a coffee house called Balzac Coffee beckons, though I swear it has a relationship with Starbucks, with its Venti and Grande sizes. Starbucks is in Berlin--omnipresent as it attempts to be. It occupies part of the Tegel airport, a small city airport attempting to be receiving and departure ground for a large city. It is also on the Alexanderplatz in the heart of the city. But it is not in my neighborhood, unless Balzac is its stealth runner.
My building has no elevator. It is a walk up, with a cobbled entrance hall behind a big door, like a nineteenth century building waiting to receive a horse-drawn carriage. The stairs are to the side. Covered with old linoleum they widely climb five stories at the side of scarred wooden balustrade. Graffitti decorates the walls’ faded beige. An anarchist sign, the A encircled, various gang-like tags, and a bold, hybrid “fick off”. I trudged my suitcase up four flights of stairs to the third floor (the ground floor is 0, the first floor would be called the second floor in the US) while reminding myself of even further climbs in Amsterdam and Bolivia to motivate me to keep going.
My building opens on a green space divided by fences into separate courtyards for each of the buildings that surround the block. At night, if I wanted, I could look out into windows of other lives, people doing what people do. It reminds me of Rear Window, the Hitchcock Film, but only the lit windows on a courtyard, of which mine is one, not any of the ominousness of Hitchcock. I gather all the apartment buildings open similarly on an enclosed green space.
I sit in a neighborhood cafe, called Manolos, by the U-Bahn tracks. Green painted, they rise above the street, the Pretty House Alley, The Schönhaus Allee, like Chicago’s “El”, having just recently climbed from the underground. Behind me, two young men with American accents are talking about music and forming a band. Quite a few Americans are around here, at least judging by their voices. Some are tourists of whole ranges of sorts, and some are resident, like the old man on the train yesterday who was reading a book in English to his obviously German grandson. The neighborhood also has lots of Spanish speakers, both Latin Americans and Spaniards--the latter are the most numerous, I think.
I like this cafe, particularly a small table by the window that looks out on the life of the street. Right now a young man in Vinyl coat with racing stripes on the sleeves and his similarly clad, blond girlfriend are unchaining their bikes from a rack and beginning to cycle in the drizzly chill of this Saturday morning, a fixed look on their faces. Bike lanes are marked in the brick of the sidewalks, separated from both the street for autos and the sidewalk for pedestrians. I like that idea. It would not surprise me if I spend part of every morning in this cafe while in Berlin.
In Utah English it is a “coffee house.” Inadvertently, I switched to my Spanish-influenced English to call it a café, which means both coffee and coffee house, as well as a place where small plates of sandwiches and such are served. Last evening I had a piece of chocolate tart here, an extravagance I allowed myself after a day of walking. Oh my was it good, dark and rich with a tang.
Last evening, I was speaking with my housemate’s girlfriend/ partner (she has an apartment on a different floor). Her English is very good since she was raised in the diplomatic corps in countries all over the world, including the US. Susan came to care for Frank. They had planned to be away this weekend--they were going to Frank’s mother’s home a six hour drive away--but Frank is ill. He has a bad cough and looks feverish. Susan knocked on my door to invite me to share their chicken soup and we talked about many things. She also works with the unemployed but as a teacher, though she would like to do more counseling.
Susan told me that on one side of the apartment the area has become more touristy, while on the other side it is normal Berlin. There is the Berlin which puts on a well made up face for the outside world, including the rest of Germany, of which it is now the capital. There is also a different, internal Berlin. How do you say it, she wondered. It is troubled by insecurity, not so much inside the people, as by the instability of structure, life, and economy.
Both Susan and Frank are very hospitable. They were concerned that I would be ok while they are gone and wanted to provide me any and all information I might need during my stay. They both have rented out rooms to travelers in their apartments, probably as a way to make some additional income. Susan complained that both her last renter a young American man and Frank’s a young American couple were dishonest. She said she preferred to rent, if at all since she is seriously thinking of not doing it again, to older people. They are more established and the men do not feel the need to treat all women as if they were “their wives”.
When I awoke this morning, after eleven hours of jetlag recovery sleep, I realized they had traveled. The apartment was still. I got up, opened my window to enjoy the morning’s chill, and thought about what part of Berlin I will explore today and what I should write, since I will spend hours each day on my work. Still, I am here; there is much to see.
My first day was spent desperately seeking a plug adaptor so my American laptop would engage the European plugs. I finally found one in a massive electronics store on the Alexanderplatz. Today, I do not know. It is drizzling and threatening serious rain. Though one can argue it is a day to stay close to home, read and write, I do not expect I shall. My feet are itchy to roam and a city that just is awaits.