November 17, 2018
I stood in the kitchen waiting for my coffee to brew. I looked outside the window at the magnificent Stalinist apartment block across from me, all cream brick and staunch, no-nonsense columns and rows and rows of identical windows. I now live in an apartment block just like that, the mirror image of the one across the street. They are imposing and monumental, and when they were built in the 1950s under the orders of the Communist East German government, they were unironically compared to palaces, shining displays of socialist excellence.
It was Saturday. I procrastinated leaving the house in order to put off stepping into the cold. It was morning, but it could have been 7am, 11am, or 3pm by the looks of the sky outside. I recently moved back to Berlin, my childhood home, after years abroad, forced to leave because of bureaucracy and legislation. I miss New York acutely. I’m lucky, I tell myself. I get to come back to a place that’s been unsolicitedly described as “cool” by every person I tell my story to. All the Americans keep moving here, don’t they? My new flatmates are English. I keep hearing Americans and Australians and French and English people chattering as I walk down the streets, sit in cafés, try to order a beer at a new trendy bar only to not be understood because I ordered in German and the barkeep is from New Jersey.
It’s supposed to be good, I keep hearing. So I try to make it good. I walked down the main street of my neighborhood, toward the market. It is not good. Perhaps it’s the weather. When winter gets going in Berlin, you don’t see the sun again until spring of next year. This isn’t an exaggeration. The claustrophobic grey light enveloped the city. There weren’t even clouds. It was just a perfectly uniform layer of grey, as if the entire sky had been paved over.
Under this concrete sky I wandered down the street. The heavy gray morning had already been replaced by a heavy grey afternoon.To the left and right of me there was one hip Vietnamese restaurant after the other. They all looked identical except for the fact that a few of them were not vegan. There were some cute little boutiques with pretty trinkets, like pastel-coloured vases with matte finishes and rose-gold accents. I stared longingly at these, and wondered if purchasing them for my room would make it feel more “Berlin.”
I turned away and watched the people walking toward me instead. Many of them were couples or groups of friends. I saw a tall, skinny girl with tousled blonde hair walking hand-in-hand with a tall, skinny boy in a bomber jacket and a knit beanie from some brand I should probably know. She was wearing black skinny jeans and Doc Martens and an oversized denim jacket. Everyone here is slim and tall and the cool girls don’t wear makeup, and their black skinny jeans show off their thin, elegant ankles, like this girl’s do. I felt a bit sorry for that slim little ankle, because wasn’t it cold? And then suddenly I was overcome: my ankle does not look like that. My stout little ankle does not fit in here, my ankle is not a Berlin ankle, it’s all wrong.
The man with her was just as intimidating, with his matching black skinny jeans and neatly parted hair and burgundy corduroy jacket. The men here frighten me. They always seem to have a witty remark on their lips, but rarely a kind one. But it doesn’t matter, I seem to be invisible to them.I feel invisible here in general, except to older German people who suddenly become annoyed with me when I’m standing in their way or talking too loud in Spanish with my mother.
I got to the market. Everyone had their canvas tote bags hanging from their shoulders, so I pulled mine out of my purse too. You can’t go shopping in Berlin without a canvas tote bag. I bought some tomatoes and spinach after loitering for a while beside a vegetable stand, scared to do something wrong or get yelled at by the gruff vendors or the impatient shoppers beside me for being too slow. But it went well. The vendor even smiled at me as she handed me back my change and I was so grateful to her.
At three in the afternoon, It was slowly beginning to get dark already, the sky changing from light grey to deeper grey, as if someone painted another layer over it. I reminded myself of loose plans for drinks that are supposed to be finalised later today, though my phone’s been silent. I need to give it time, I told myself.
As I walked back home in the approaching darkness, my bag heavy with groceries and promises of delightful dishes I was going to cook in the vague future, my phone gave off a sign of life, the warm buzz of a message. I started mentally sorting through my closet as the wind picked up and nipped at my face, wondering if Berlin would finally be the place where I embrace thrift-store shopping in order to get that Instagram-approved normcore-cum-grunge-cum-insouciant look.
A couple of hours later, I left the house again, my purchases from the market dutifully stored away in the bottom of the fridge, where they will probably languish until I throw them out next week. I walked half a block to the U-Bahn, and started trudging down the stairs to the platform. On the walls of the U-Bahn station around the corner from my apartment block, there are huge black-and-white photos of the street—the Frankfurter Allee, although during Communist rule it was the Stalinallee—from the 40s, 50s, 90s, and early 2000s. There’s one from 1943 which shows the spot where my apartment block will later rise up, but in the photo there’s nothing but rubble, the remains of a bomb attack. It’s winter in the photo, and children in rags are standing close to the destroyed entrance of the station, huddled together, some looking at the skeletal remains of bombed-out homes, others looking into the camera, their faces curious and hungry.
I sat in the train as it hurtled toward the bar, and I thought about what it all must have looked like sixty, seventy years ago. It struck me that I knew more about the Berlin that doesn’t exist anymore, a Berlin that lives in only in black-and-white photographs and memories and journal entries, than I do about Berlin now, the globally celebrated playground for the young, broke, and sexy.
I got off the train, and a pack of American boys in identical denim jackets with beers in their hands followed me. As we all trudged up the stairs of the station, they laughed and talked over each other excitedly. I fell back a bit, realizing our destination was the same. Happily chattering, they entered the bar before me, with the comfort of someone who’s truly at home. I marveled at their ease.