Memoir

Tribes of Berlin

THE EARLY DAYS in a new city always feel similar to snorkeling, or taking hallucinogenics, or lucid dreaming – where nothing is fixed in place or context, where people and objects drift by as if disconnected from reality, where there are no memories.

And so it was for my first day in Berlin: men in lederhosen with fierce beards, bells as heavy as bricks hanging from their necks, were herding goats through the Brandenburg Gate. Ravers on a makeshift stage at Potsdamer Platz pumped out techno and smoke – protesting for the legalisation of marijuana. Those who weren't dancing rested like dogs in the afternoon sun – heavy-eyed, stoned.

That night, down the old swathe of socialism, Karl-Marx-Allee (formerly Stalinallee), on miles and miles of trestle tables steins of beer and bratwurst were sold. Hordes of double-demined, bleached blonde groups sung joyfully and drunk beer – men and women looking indistinguishable from '80s band Europe who provided the soundtrack from the last days of the Cold War: ‘The Final Countdown'.

One day – one city. But there is nothing homogenous about these locals. Berlin is a city of tribes.

For a newcomer, you can find your tribe via the internet or in a club or through friends of friends, or connect through film nights, poetry readings, events advertised online on Toytown or in monthly expatriate magazine Exberliner. Pick your tribe: the artists, the American expats, the fashion people, the web-geeks, the burnt-out academics, the English teachers, the language students (who themselves are divided into castes and tribes depending on their school), the history buffoons who tour concentration camps, the nudists, the ravers, the people writing books (first novels about boy meets girl, set in Berlin), the DJs, the embassy crowd, the drag queens and the installation artists.

There are support groups in Berlin for mothers of neo-Nazis, and other groups for mothers of drug addicts. At night, they roam the gritty Kottbusser Tor, a U-Bahn station notorious for drug dealing, and menace the dealers in a way that only mothers can. Then there are the politicals: the anarchists, socialists, communists and collectivists. Each month posters go up around Berlin advertising the next protest. Sometimes anarchists came to Prenzlauerberg to protest against the yuppies. The lead singer from radio-friendly ‘alternative' band Travis moved into the neighbourhood – seen as a sure symptom of decline. In black paint on the wall opposite my building: ‘Fuck off yuppies.' This was the old East Berlin, where bits of the Wall, ugly and grey, still rise out of the earth like rotten teeth. In the old no-man's land, the death strip, still nothing grows, even twenty years later.Berlin is a city so hip that the locals wear mullets with an insouciance that says ‘I look cool even with the White Snake hair' – yet still there is no denying Berlin is haunted.

IN SUMMER NIGHTS when I am not out on the street (at a beer garden in Mitte, dancing at Ankerklause, playing ping-pong in the park, on my bike, cruising, cruising) I am online: browsing, perusing, surfing. Craig's List is good – want a job, flat, new/old couch, lover, $5 haircut, German lessons, ride to Stuttgart – this is your site. I got all three of my Berlin sublets through Craig's List – and each owner seemed so idiosyncratic and distinct that only the most perverse ruler of the cosmos could engineer that I would live in their houses in my time in Berlin.

First is the Park Avenue princess who denuded her flat (nineteenth century in the old East) of furniture before I arrived, yet left her library of books which encompassed the works of Primo Levi and picture books of pornography, Hannah Arendt and the history of horse fisting. Pasted around the walls were magazine tear-outs of topless models, yet there were no plates in the kitchen. Did she eat? She told me that her tribe in Berlin ‘was kinda Bloomsbury, you know, like the group' and I wondered if she said that because they were all fucking each other – or they fancied themselves as intellectuals. Maybe both.

Next sublet contact was a dead ringer for Keira Knightley: an artist and former girlfriend of a famous singer, whose light-filled, art-filled flat on a canal was the personification of the Berlin dream – cheap, gorgeous apartment opposite some hippie caravan collective where African drumming and chanting woke me in the late morning.

Lastly there was the spicy tea-drinking, punk rocking Romanian-born Egyptologist who answered the door with a swollen face (fall off a bike) and serious beard (solidarity with his Muslim brothers). He had soft porn taped to the back of his toilet door and the shower stall was in the tiny kitchen, so you could theoretically fry an egg on the stove whilst showering. ‘It's old East,' he said, as if that explained its oddness. That I could afford to sublet these apartments while filing only the occasional travel story or op-ed back to Fairfax showed that in some parts of the world you can live by your pen.

As for work in Berlin, there are never any job ads on Craig's List that promise serious employment. ‘Bloggers wanted' reads an ad up since last June. I browse the personals but I do not answer any ads. Too scared, I suppose.

One friend K put up an ad for a lover and met two different men through the site. I met her the day after she rendezvoused with a Serb who wore green Converse. She looks dizzy and is grinning: ‘still fuck drunk,' she explains. Neither lover lasts long, but no matter – this is Berlin, a city of transients.

For friendship she also goes online – finding a mixer on a site called Toytown (for ‘Germany's English-speaking crowd') that connects the native English speakers with the locals. She invites me along and we get quietly drunk on the couches while around us young Germans, Brits, Australians, Russians and Americans negotiate not the awkwardness of our different nationalities and languages, but the bumpier ride from virtual to real contact. You can flirt and be bold online in the banter and bounce of a real-time feed. In person you are just – well, you.

But a few more drinks and people loosen up. Could this be the birth of a new tribe we are witnessing? We wondered what it would be: a Russian/American/Australian tribe based on a love of Rilke perhaps?

 

KREUZBERG, AND AN English friend new to the city, and I are walking along a canal. We had been to a bar writers were said to frequent and had that lovely time where how you feel and where you are collide. Here we were drinking red wine and talking about books and writing – and all around us were people doing the same. The spine of a Goethe splayed on the table, someone talking about Kafka at the bar, while those at tables alone were not really alone: they had their pens and their notebooks and by candlelight, they appeared to be writing. So heightened was our mood that we carried on, certain Berlin and the night would provide.

Down a side street the bar has a glowing light above the door and a small sign. It looks cool, hidden; the secret ‘insiders' Berlin of which we feel we are now part. We ring the buzzer and a woman opens the door in a gold dress slit to the navel. She looks at us blankly and leads us up the stairs, where sitting desolately around a horse-shoe shaped bar are dozens of men, alone, naked and drinking beer. Actually, they aren't all naked – some are wearing leather straps across their navels that join to a pouch over the groin and another strap that disappears between their buttock cheeks. Some look profoundly depressed, others simply melancholy. The woman moves towards us to relieve us of our coats and jackets while we, like actors in a David Lynch movie, go towards the bar, tittering nervously, ‘I think I'd like a beer, wouldn't you? I wonder if they speak English.'

I wish I could say we stay, get to know this tribe a little better, but just before we place our order (in terrible, nervous German) we look at one another and wordlessly decide to leave. For all our libertine talk in the previous bar, we are bourgeois to the core. The woman in the slit dress gives us a look that Berliners do well – contempt. A look that says, ‘pussies'.

There is a tribe for everyone in Berlin – and even if you don't really fit in, the door will open to you – and you can stay if you like, if you are game.

 

SUDDENLY IT IS Winter: you can see your breath hanging out the front of your face like a speech bubble and the nights are longer. Luke and I are walking through the West Berlin suburb of Schöneberg past some lively bars. ‘Skins' bars,' explained Luke. ‘It's Skins Festival this weekend.'

While I try to digest all the possible things the festival could be celebrating (tattoo art, beauty products, a medical conference ... ?), he explains it is for the sizeable German community of gay skinheads. Luke even knows one guy who is a member of all the minorities: ‘he's a German-Turkish, gay, Jewish, skinhead Nazi.'

Wow, he's fucked up, we agree.

Later I met a German guy who is introduced to me as the country's most renowned fetish photographer. He is in Berlin for an exhibition of his work. I sit next to him at dinner: he is vegetarian and doesn't drink. He speaks openly and plainly about his profession: ‘Sometimes we go to warehouse, empty of course and they, they bring their own things, and I just try to capture the moment.'

I have a terrible sensation during the dinner: one of acute melancholy – that we have only one life, and mine is not set on that course – that pleasure and pain in a chilly warehouse in Berlin will be someone else's experience, and I will hear about it second hand at a dinner party.

 

WHAT BROUGHT ME to Berlin? In truth I don't really know  – I was drifting, unemployed, and supposed to be writing a book – dreaming of an England I could no longer afford – and Germany seemed as good a place as any to live. Not a Germanophile, I didn't speak the language and I did not worship its authors or its playwrights. I didn't even know any Germans. I was – as far as it is possible to be about a country – entirely neutral. But I was optimistic that I would find others in the city just like me and we could form our own tribe. What tribe was I hoping to join in Berlin? An expatriate creative underclass would be the answer.

Writer on the continent, not successful – yet in that golden haze before success. Poor and happy, with similarly positioned friends. Everyone poor and happy, no one so successful that there was alienation and envy, all of us on the edge of some spectacular future. It would be comradely. Canadian writer Margaret Atwood said of Paris in the 1950s: ‘Paris was cheap, still intellectually alive, and thus still the place you felt you should go to write if you were young and romantic and broke, and dedicated to your art.'

American expat Henry Miller wrote in 1934 at the beginning of Tropic of Cancer of ‘the fall of my second year in Paris ... I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am.'

Today Paris and New York, those old hubs of bohemianism, require a corporate salary yet Berlin is El Dorado – a happening place in the centre of Europe where you can live on air and dreams, make a cool café your office, and return home to your wonderfully cheap, large apartment. At night if you want to go out, but are feeling poor you can drink at a bar right by the old church at Zionskirchplatz where you only pay what you can for wine, or brunch at the vegan socialist café costing between four and eight euros – ‘whatever you can afford'. Berlin has, for a while now, been talked about as a destination par excellence for unknown writers: cheap, creative and with just the right level of melancholia to give it depth.

Of course the salad days are long gone, I am constantly told by jaded émigrés who squatted in the '80s and '90s and raved in abandoned buildings. It's now happening in Leipzig, or Sofia, Warsaw, or San Paulo they say. Yet I think Berlin's wonderful.

For a start there is an abundance of office space in the form of plenty of cool cafés with free wi-fi and comfortable, quirky, well-designed spaces. Secondly, rent is cheap and apartments are the sort that exist only in dreams: high ceilings – many rooms, moody half-light in the afternoons – buildings that have the melancholy feeling of ghosts in the stairwell, their outsides still pocked with bullet holes plus – a bonus for the itinerant subletting. And subletting is part of Berlin life, so it's easy to get a short-term rental in Berlin and you're sure to get a good apartment whether you want to stay a month or a year. And the third attraction to a stint in Berlin? Critical mass. Everyone, it seems, is broke and writing a book.

City mayor Klaus Wowereit expressly wants to attract creative types. Embedded in the city's strategy for post-reunification economic recovery is the call for artists, musicians and writers to call Berlin home. Berlin, he says, is ‘poor but sexy', which is no doubt how many artists and writers see themselves. Wowereit toldTime magazine: ‘The most decisive aspect is to bring creative young people to Berlin. I like to compare Berlin to London in the swinging 1980s. London was in a bad economic situation, but had a great deal of creativity and a positive mood.'

While Berlin is not as good value as when David Bowie and Iggy Pop moved to the city in 1976 and flatted together in a giant ten-room apartment (which Bowie painted black) in a gorgeous old building, the still-low cost of renting and huge spaces attract the new nomads and the art crowd in their droves. By 2006, the census reported that over 13,000 Americans were living in Berlin. The Guardian warned: ‘Go drinking or record shopping in Kreuzberg, and it won't be long before you hear British voices'. Already, some warn of ‘overkill'.

According to a recent report by AP, ‘If you show up in Berlin strapped for cash, you're in good company. The German capital's sizable student population, high unemployment rate and swelling starving artist contingent make penny-pinching a citywide obsession.'

Now, looking back, it wasn't so much Berlin that I wanted to live in – but a sort of tribal land that existed in Berlin in my imagination. Let's call it Bohemia.

 

ONE DAY I ride my bike out to the atelier of an American expat who has a studio in Wedding – east of Mitte. I cycle past where the wall used to be, and up through streets and streets of brown-box apartment blocks until I come to a sprawl of rug shops and kebab houses.

Antony C., a former New York-based artist, has been in Berlin for five years. He is one of Berlin's growing breed – the non-integrated creative community whose members fly back and forth from New York several times a year, have art dealers and commercial interests in New York, but work in Berlin because of cheap studio rent.

He tells me, ‘I've got my papers (visa) sorted, but a lot of American artists haven't. They are pretty relaxed about it – they don't really bother getting organised. But they don't get a lot of hassles.'

One thing Antony hasn't bothered to do is learn German. ‘I can order in restaurants and bars and stuff – small talk but I can't hold a conversation. I'm hopeless.' He has a German girlfriend who speaks English and many of his friends are American artists who have also fled the high rents in New York.

‘Studio space is insanely expensive in Manhattan. They are all coming here.'

But while they can make the art here, selling it is another story. Mary Hoeveler, the managing director of Citigroup's art advisory department, told the New York Times: ‘The artists are there, but the market isn't, quite.'

Antony's studio is huge – and inexpensive. He shakes his head when he repeats the cost – it is so little money for so much space that he can scarcely believe it's his. ‘I tried to get a long lease, because I know this is too good to be true and rents are going to go up,' he says. Along the floor there are bits of wire, lumps of clay, a match-stick model. He is already imagining working on massive sculpture projects – the sort that would be impossible in Manhattan with its tiny studio space and expensive materials.

Wedding is the next push for artists, in the process of gentrification – from grim Soviet style suburbs to hip haunts for expat artists. The main drag is a long, long row of mostly Turkish shops – kebabs, rugs, shops selling household goods such as kettles, toasters and tea sets. ‘There's a Burger King, which is good,' says Antony. I find it later, just by the station and buy a junior whopper from a teen who repeats my order back to me in perfect English.

I meet another Australian, Laurel, at a gathering of expat freelance journalists, and she talks about coming to Berlin in 1990 just after the wall fell and squatting in one of the old buildings in the east. ‘No one could believe we wanted to live in the east,' she says. The buildings had been abandoned after the wall had fallen, as some East Germans weren't sure if another wall would be erected in its place and they would be forced to return, so houses were effectively abandoned as they escaped. While the electricity had been turned off – and it was freezing in winter – it was perfectly legitimate to squat in one of the incredible old buildings and later – after years had passed – claim a sort of squatter's rights.

Laurel had just returned from an artist's colony. A disused abattoir in the Czech Republic, it was freezing cold ‘but really interesting'. Her project involved going into the pens and photographing the shadows as they moved across and through the wooden slats and pens.

 

QUITE QUICKLY I found my tribe in Berlin, and we had a lot of fun. It was as I imagined it: a lot of us were writing books, or were journalists or photographers. Often we met in the afternoon and played ping-pong and drank beer, or had dinner parties, or met in the bars of Mitte. We were poor and happy. For a while. But September came and even in the Indian summer, lying in bed with a late summer flu and listening to BBC World Service, I felt a chill when I heard about the banks falling like dominos. I realised that it was one thing playing at being poor and bohemian for a while – but it only worked if you could opt out when you wanted: return to your job and stability, having visited Bohemia.

Now it seemed like an island where I was marooned. No money coming in, and as the media seemed to be falling apart, none would be for a while. It was time to pack away the ping-pong paddles before it stopped being fun. I'm back in Melbourne now and Berlin has receded like a dream. Did I really ride a bicycle along the line of the old wall one rainy Tuesday stopping for waffles on Oderberger Strasse? Did I really eat fried chicken at White Trash then dance to the Gossip, with drink in hand, sweat flicking off my hair? Did I really chain-smoke in a bar called Fire? The Berlin dream came true – truer probably than I wanted it to be.

Bad things sometimes happened in Bohemia – an obsession with money, or lack of it, a feeling of jeopardy when down to my last twenty euros, the pervasive sense of insecurity, of life being too light, of borrowed apartments and empty days.

That I once walked out of a Lidl with a packet of Arborio rice in the sleeve of my jacket because I was cooking for my tribe that night and I didn't have the money to pay for the ingredients seemed not an act of daring, but an indictment. It was time to leave before the police broke up the party.

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