Thirty-one hours after taking wing from Melbourne I sat in Heathrow airport awaiting the 6.55am to Berlin, watching, deep in cross-hemispheric daze, the golden glare of the rising English sun, taking in the fleeting minutiae of my fluid surrounds—the slick leather leggings of a German brunette; a businessman with head buried in an I-pad; the smell of morning coffee fusing in and out of the universal airport terminal aroma of faint diesel, industrial detergent and duty free perfume.
While customs officers at Heathrow scrutinised as I channeled through their labyrinth of x-ray machines just to get to a flight transfer, the Berlin arrival couldn’t have been more liberal. A bespectacled female officer glanced innocuously at my working holiday visa, looked up, struggled briefly at the discrepancy between me and the passport shot before her—my 26-year old self, shag mullet, lookalike of a 17-year old Homer Simpson/Brian McGee. Satisfied, with a stamp and a nod, I was waved through, collected my gear from the luggage carousel just feet away, then shuffled a few feet more out of the terminal gate and into the chilly air of Berlin. I couldn’t believe how smooth it was, nor how small Tegel seemed for the fourth busiest airport in Europe.
I’d learn later, in one of many of my local history lessons, that Tegel had been built by a mobilised population of West German civilians as a response to the soviet blockade of 1949—the existing Templehof airport could not handle the intense airlift of supply from American C-54s; another was needed and Tegel was built amazingly in under 3 months.
Picking up the slack from the mute customs officer, three local youngsters accosted me as I walked out of the gate—Benedict, Kalle and Tom, combined age barely nudging mine, who questioned me in fruity Germinglish for their school project about where I’d come from and what my intentions were in their country.
“Hallo. May we confirm the interview with you?”
“And is it that you have arrived for personal or business?”
Benedict looked a bit like Arthur Macarthur and grinned cheekily when I said I was in his city to play music, drink good beer and have a fine time. The kids’ parents smiled on from the seats; one had brought the family dog with them. I would soon learn that dogs rule Berlin—more welcome than people in most places, including shopping malls and trains, and all through the streets where they lick benches for crumbs, jonesing for ass sniffs and pats. The dogs here are hilarious; each one is an individual, and all look very German. I shook the kids hands as they took my picture.
After squeezing through the smallest bathroom door on earth with my ream of gear, I lumped into a beige Mercedes taxi driven by a Turkish man named ‘Seige’. His car stereo was fixed to a station called ‘Funkhaus’ and, powered by Seige’s lead foot, we grooved out of Tegel like euro-pimps to the tune of some deep horn-driven German funk. I directed us to Kreuzberg, Lausitzer Strasse 15, the corner apartment block where Hon and I would be living in for the next 6 months, possibly longer. Hon was still in transit between Dubai and London at this point, and later, I would pick her up from Tegel. Seige floored the cab through the wide Tors and straats of West Berlin, as a torrent of impressions presented themselves—lush cedars lining canals, rusted train hubs and decrepit industrial buildings, tattooed with tags and graffiti. I smelled a rich dankness, a buttery mustiness that inundated with impressions of the city’s past.
It was a jarring moment arriving to the corner of Lausitzer and Reichenberger, plum in the middle of the googlemap scene I’d ogled countless times in the previous months. We’d managed to effortlessly lock down this apartment after being put in touch with a mate of a mate, a fella named Wal and his lady Maddie, neither of whom I’d met and only conversed with over email. Serendipitously, Wal was moving out of the apartment, before learning that his landlord, a Turkish film Phd named Koken, wouldn’t be back for another 6 months and didn’t need the place after all. The place was ours if we wanted it. Luck continued when Koken not only agreed to sublet the apartment, but also a rare warehouse studio space for Hon and I to work in just four blocks away. Berlin’s cheap rents and ample studios had become scarce in the past few years; the squat culture and verve of the mid 2000s was succumbing to gentrification. The fact that both the apartment and studio space was to cost Hon and I less than the price we both paid for a single room back in a Melbourne share house was the icing on the cake.
At this point, I didn’t know a lot about Kreuzberg—my new home—other than it was once a very poor spot, still was to some extent, bound to the West by the wall until it came down, and had a sizeable Turkish community. I’d heard it was gritty and full of creative types, and seemed to exemplify the ‘poor but sexy’ vibe attributed to the city a decade ago when mayor Klaus Wowereit tried to attract creative types to the Berlin, and declared it as such: “Berlin ist arm, aber sexy”. A decade later, it seems Wowereit was successful; Berlin has come a long way since the wall came down and Guru Jush began eking out his finest wares to the pilled up masses. From a grim past, Berlin today has transformed into Wowereit’s hub, bursting at the seams with artistic, if not hedonistic energy. With a slew of new start ups and capital investment infiltrating the city, some think it’s on its way to being Europe’s new silicon valley.
I was knackered and wired and stunk like wet man, like sweat coddled in wool for far too long. I sat my gear down by the apartment stairwell entrance, as the morning sun glistened through the tall, lush cedars lining the ‘strasse’, seed pods scattered over jolted footpath cobblestones. A fella skirted in on a bicycle. Wal, in blundstones and oversize wool sweater. He had the appearance of an educated anarchist. We shook hands and got chatting, as he prized opened the huge iron door to our apartment block. We walked in and I smelled a skunky odour that reminded instantly of time spent years ago in the Czech Republic. We crammed into the 1 x 1 Soviet-era elevator and got off at level 4. The apartment was excellent, larger than the pictures indicated, though a little more worn, to be expected from a complex built in post-war 1950s. An entrance landing led to a kitchen and separate bathroom, the latter with cute white tiles and bath, a hand held shower and a picture-portrait mirror with Elvis Presley’s head on it, as well as a curious duel-level toilet, where your ablutions rested upon a ‘top shelf’ like some sort of viewing platter before it was flushed to the bottom level with the water. A sizeable studio bedroom led out to double doors with a balcony overlooking the Reichenberger-Lausitzer corner, and the windows of the apartment blocks opposite, which at night, as we’d later find out, was like a Kreuzberg take on Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’, every little domestic scene in full illuminated view. Lone pictures of Turkish faces on the walls, an old-fashioned weather meter by the radiator pipes, beige, makeshift curtains—the apartment was our cosy mariner’s shack in the sky.
Wal and I took a short stroll through Kreuzberg, down stresses lined with 6 story Kiez tenements, ubiquitous graffiti throughout; old Turkish women peering from window sills; strolling punks in boots and dyed hair; many moustaches—both the serious Turkish type, and the playful hipsteresque variety. There were attractive girls on bikes, helmetless, carefree, hair blowing in the wind; swarthy shade merchants in tracksuits by Goelitzer, selling drugs. I could smell the ‘Old Europe’ odours of cooked, thawed stone, moist dirt and history that came in waves. We sat at an outdoor breakfast spot, where I stuffed up the coffee order and ordered two times the required amount and, as Wal was not drinking coffee at this time, drank all of it myself and felt wired. Getting to know Wal, I saw he was a peculiar fella, a soft spoken non conformist, with a penchant for German philosophy, which he’d come to Berlin on a scholarship to study, arriving 7 months earlier with no German comprehension. His current proficiency have me hope that Hon and I could do the same.
Agreeing to meet up again for beers the following night, Wal rode off to the city library. I walked down to the outdoor table at a café on Wiener Strasse and ate a Double Vegaburger as I watched the passing cyclists and breathed in the new sensations. After a nevessary shower, I sat on the couch in the new apartment and stared out to my neighbours on their balconies smoking cigarettes and watering plants. It hit me that I’d arrived, with the sense that we had many doors to open in Berlin, this city was right for us, that we would find home and opportunity and creativity and that the world was our lobster and only great things were to come.
With Hon arriving in an hour, I moseyed up to the nearest U-Bahn station, ‘Goelitzer’ and made my virgin transit west across Kotbusser Tor, Hallesches, to Uhlandstrasse station, then caught a bus—meticulously on time to the minute—north to Tegel airport. Hon arrived, we embraced and celebrated—together, deliriously, finally, in Berlin. Cabbing back again to Kreuzberg, the afternoon glare lightened the tone on the decrepit scenes I’d watched on the same drive that morning with Serge and his Funkhaus.
Hon fell in love with the apartment instantly, and after dumping and unloading, we wandered through bustling Kreuzberg, settling on fresh picante pizza on benches on the Skalitzer Strasse footpath and necked Berliner Kindl half litres for a Euro each as surreal sunset fell over Berlin. Now truly delirious, we purchased odd foreign groceries at the Turkish supermarket by Kotbusser Tor, then opted for refuge at our new home over a few Schoferhofers (a crate of 11 longnecks for 9 Euro), slipping into our new domesticity over tunes on the apartment stereo. While Hon fell asleep and began to offload her jetlag, I, half cut from delicious wheat beers, ambled back down the 4 flights of stairs and, under the deco-lamp lit Kreuzberg night streets, strutted to the canal by Maybachufer, crossed the bridge to the other side, following the gypsy music being strummed and bowed on violin and guitar to howling voices echoing through the night across the waterline. These sounds took me all the way down Hobrechstrasse, past every hip romantic candlelit bar sizzling way on each corner and at least a handful in between on each Kiez tenement—immaculate architecture, some pre-war and elegant, many post-war and beat, all lit by yellow number light boxes that glowed in the night next to thick, ornate carved doors with residents’ surnames on doorbell lists. I got a little tipsy and smoked a cigarette as I wandered through this delicate, fresh night, awash in a heightened stream, intoxicated and elated to be living in the flow of the void once more.