Sunday, 12 December 2010

A Tale of Two Cities, or Learning to Like London After Falling in Love with Berlin

My complicated love for the city of Berlin is, I fear, unrequited. I was drawn there unwittingly, relocated there almost without warning, not exactly against my will but contrary to many logical factors which told me to stay where I was: financial, practical, romantic. But having ignored all of these, arriving fresh off the ICE train with all my worldly possessions in tow (in a suitcase so heavy that I had to enlist the help of a good friend, already in situ, to help me across town to Moabit and my new abode). At first, Berlin was no great shakes. It was huge, just another big old place. In my first couple of weeks, I compared it to what I knew (London) and very soon realised that the two are such obvious opposites. London is a twisting, turning maze, enormous and sprawling but full to the brim and so claustrophobic it hurts to breathe. Berlin is also enormous, but it's full of space. The trains are big enough, the streets are wide enough, there is water, there are lakes. Berlin is an open-air festival every day. It's scruffy, down-and-out. It has its upmarket areas (Prenzlauer Berg, Charlottenburg), but these are still kind of rough around the edges in that slapdash European way - they retain a ramshackle, reminiscent despair that resists all the gloss and patent of cities like London.

Even though it can't help but be effortlessly cool, there's still an overriding sense of functionality about Berlin - it'll never shake off its Germanity, and it doesn't want to. But enough has been written about the enigma of Berlin as a city (to which I'll come back later) - I want to talk a bit about my Berlin, what little of it I can claim. The reason I loved the lady from afar is because she never really welcomed me with open arms the way, say, Edinburgh did. I always felt that Berlin was too much of a good thing for me. In Berlin I was too much like how I wanted to be, life was how I always wanted to live it. I was too carefree and jubilant, the weather too good, life too simple. It was almost a challenge to live up to Berlin, and it was bound not to last.

For a whole month, my friends had suggested I get a bike, but I resisted, making one excuse after another: I'm only here for two months, I'm leaving in six weeks, it's totally impractical... Finally, I saw sense and rented a set of wheels for my last few weeks. My cycle ride to work was an improbable one which took me past Tiergarten, up towards the Reichstag, directly through the Brandenburg Gate, up Unter den Linden towards Alexanderplatz and finally up into Prenzlauer Berg. These were moments when I was just contented in the simplest of ways: cycling through the city on a choking, hot morning; enjoying a lingering dip in the Plötzensee after sweltering in an office without air conditioning, then racing across town to an open-air cinema to recline in a deck chair watching Where the Wild Things Are while storm clouds amassed overhead; dancing till the early morn to klezmer beats in a squatters' basement, fuelled by a couple of litres of beer; lunchtime picnics in the park with my intern colleagues. I was on a little voyage of discovery - one girl on a bike (a common sight in Berlin) chirpily pedalling my way through the world.

I always knew I was going to be a Prenzlauer Berg girl, as soon as I knew even a little about the city. I'd read about Prenzl'berg's various histories, its association with swathes of Russian immigrants who lived there in squalid conditions in the postwar years in cavernous empty buildings with no heating or water, before any of the grand façades and courtyards had been renovated. Arriving, I found that these days it is one of Berlin's premier locations for the up and coming, the professionals, the young families (the latest trend on the Hill, apparently, is to push an empty pram around). It was once on the margins of civilized society and thus by Berlin standards a good place to be, but now gentrified and so far from the cutting edge of some of the more chaotic neighbourhoods like Kreuzberg and Neukölln, to which it handed over its kudos long ago. Nevertheless, I loved it. It's beautiful, affluent, cultural, leafy, grand - and it has a zillion different cafés, not to mention smoothie bars, cheap restaurants, expensive restaurants, second hand bookshops and toy shops (for all those kids sprouting up everywhere). And let's face it, I've never really been one for slumming it anyway.

During one of my Edinburgh festivals, long before I had any real prospects for moving to Berlin but a faint idea that I might like to go there one day, I briefly met a German girl who told me that while Berlin is enormous, it's easy to live there - you just find your 'Kiez' (area) and bunk down, discover all the bits that you love, and your Kiez becomes your Berlin. In the short space of time that I lived there, I think managed to do this, to discover a tiny little bit of the city. Berlin tipped its hat to me, I smiled back, and we moved on.

Now, having permanently relocated, in one fell swoop, to the great roaring, stinking, hooting, filthy animal that is London, I'm going through a long and complicated process. Sometimes (usually on the tube), I get a strange feeling and wonder how it is that I got to be here, now. I think it's probably best described as alienation - London to me is a black hole full of undiscovered, unseen streets and unknown places, full of promise, but towards which I'd have to struggle and claw my way up from a dark underground tunnel to make any sense of. In Berlin, travelling by bike or tram, or up on the elevated U-Bahn looking down over the city, you're not so hemmed in.

But I want to make a real effort, because this is my Home now, and I want it to feel like it. I'm slowly, slowly, building up a tiny arsenal of London Experiences to arm myself with when I have to do battle against the mean reds that decide to pounce upon and attack my homesickness every once in a while. For instance, yesterday I took a stroll around Borough Market with my best friend. Sampling all the free cheese we could get our hands on as we went and accompanied by a brass quartet doing their Christmas numbers, we discussed life's big questions. It was wonderful - I'm in love with markets anyway, and this is truly the market of markets. Expensive, they say, but then, I only bought oranges, and I'm sure they don't make a big mark-up on those. And when I get into the kinds of echelons of society that buy fresh seafood to feed the five thousand of a Saturday evening, I'm sure I won't notice the difference. Maybe, it occurs to me, it's because Berlin is so cheap that it's easy to live there. Of course London has its share of marvellous things, but you have to pay for them through the nose. In Berlin it's fun to live nearly on the breadline, because it feels like everyone is.

Berlin in literature has got to be about as fascinating as the real deal. I've just read Christopher Isherwood's first instalment of the Berlin Stories - Mr Norris Changes Trains. Ironically, I read most of it on the train. I find that my reading material for the tube has to be of outstanding quality for it to keep me entertained for forty-five minutes underground; it must be of a high enough calibre to banish the familiar dread that accompanies the morning commute. This book more than hits the mark - it's brilliant and witty in its creation of a ridiculously endearing focal character. Reminiscent of Holly Martins in The Third Man, the narrator is strangely hollow and serves as a mere platform for the bumbling, foolish, inarticulate but ultimately conniving and scheming Norris - who gets his just desserts in a final humourous twist. Funnily enough, it's not really about Berlin as a city. Or, more accurately, I was expecting lots of architectural description, of which there is little in this novel. What the author does do really well is capture, through the personae and actions of a certain few key players, the particular atmosphere of Berlin in the inter-war years, the political knife-edge that was the city in the 1930s, the tensity and dark and coldness of it all. Reluctant as I am to dig up the train metaphor again - next stop: Goodbye, Berlin.