5 years ago I came to Berlin to start a new life. I didn’t know anybody in this city and I was looking for a new home, maybe a place to stay, maybe a stopover to go further but definitely a place to collect some happy memories to forget about challenging times. I ran away to find a place where life is easier, instead I found myself and the strength to look back.
Arriving in Berlin in 2013, this street should become my new home: Karl-Marx-Allee. I remember I felt strangely comfortable as a small person in this space in between these huge buildings: a great place for practicing humility. I also liked the enormous sidewalk, which didn’t look like a sidewalk at all next to the multiline road but more like a chilled highway for pedestrians. I would take my bike around this area, excited about every sunray, getting some coffee and enjoying every second of this feeling: freedom.
I learned that this used to be the “Stalin-Allee” and the buildings were the famous “Zuckerbäckerbauten” (wedding-cake style), a term used by Berliners to refer to the architectural style of socialist classicism of the Soviet Union which was exported to various parts of the world and can also be found in Cuba, China and North Korea. They were built as “Arbeiterpaläste” to represent the strength and engineering skill of the GDR. The huge boulevard was intended to serve for marches and parades.
Berlin welcomed me with open arms. I immediately felt that this was a place where everybody could be whoever they wanted to be and do whatever they wanted to do. There is no judgement when you walk through the streets and still, people look at you, they recognize you are there. This was my first impression of the city and even now, after five years, I would still hold this to be true. There is no comfort to be found though: you are on your own. If you need help, ask for it and see what happens: you might get an ironic comment or, if it’s your lucky day, an irritated look and a reluctant helping hand. It takes time to get to the heart of people around here. Hold your breath and don’t give up.
Berlin welcomes you with open arms but it doesn’t comfort you.
After a golden September full of sun, excitement and love-at-first-sight-moments with all the amazing red-brick buildings and lovely streets with cafés and happy people in it, winter came. It was a hard winter back in 2013. In addition to living a life with hardly any daylight (it was my first full time job and I would just not get used to leaving the house in the dark and coming home when the sun had already been gone for three hours), it was also the coldest cold I’ve ever felt. It found its way from Sibiria right into our bones and I didn’t know how to get rid of it, until I found the sauna to be my salvation. Why on earth did I ever think it was a good idea to move here? After months of doubt and a whole city in depression, spring finally arrived. The city changed completely as if it had never seen the sun before and life seemed worth living again.
Be whoever you want to be – that’s kind of an unwritten invitation that comes with the urban culture around here. This place is perfect for finding yourself because you do not get any reaction out of anybody around here. No one cares. Clothes don’t matter (here you can be a manager going to work in shorts and sneakers, no one cares), cars are not a status symbol as in other cities in the world (You might only get the question: do you need one here in the city? After the tenth time you realize, you really don’t), fancy jobs don’t last (First of all: define fancy. Second of all: will the company still exist in two years? Who knows.) and I guess I don’t even have to mention that titles don’t count (before I moved to Berlin I had lived in Vienna for six years, now maybe some of you know why I felt like mentioning it). Do whatever you want to do, be whoever you want to be. Whatever.
Berlin lets you be whoever you want to be
but at the same time it couldn’t care less.
In the meantime, I do not live in Karl-Marx-Allee any more. I found a cozy apartment in a quiet and green area in Prenzlauer Berg at the border to Weißensee, where I moved in with a friend in 2014 and have been living there by myself for quite a while now. It is another part of the city I fell in love with, in summer I sit on my balcony and watch the trees during the day and the stars during the night, not hearing anything but the birds who live in the community garden.
The houses of the so-called “Wohnstadt Carl Legien” were built between 1928 and 1930 and conceptualized by Bruno Taut and Franz Hillinger who were part of the architectural movement “Neues Bauen”. This movement came up before the First World War: its idea was to create plain and simple apartments in combination with open, green surroundings which should form a contrast to the traditional, conservative construction with confined space conditions. The architects felt a social responsibility to offer living conditions with much light, sun and fresh air – something I still appreciate every single day.
Whenever I feel like company, I walk over to the only café in the area , another one of my favorite places to be and have a chat with the owner, Riad. He created this island for exchange in an area where people used to be sceptical to talk to each other, after all we are still in East-Berlin. The neighborhood has been changing though, people start greeting each other in the streets. What I already felt five years ago is also still true around here: it takes time to get to the heart of people. Hold your breath and don’t give up – and one day it will pay back.
Berlin teaches you to take over responsibility for your own actions because there is no one else to blame. If you feel people are not friendly, start greeting them and one day they will greet back. If you feel the area you live in is too loud, move away to somewhere else and stop complaining. If you feel the area around you could use a bit more life and a place where people meet and talk to each other, open up a café like Riad. Everybody can live their lives as they want to. Do whatever makes you happy and if you are not: change something about it.
It’s a complicated relationship but still the best I could ever hope for.
Even though it has not been easy, after five years I am still in love. It’s a complicated relationship and still the best I could ever hope for. It is the kind where one falls in love over and over again, has the worst fights and wants to leave badly but then ends up staying because you found a completely new side about each other you learn to appreciate. I was hoping to find a destination, a place to stay. Instead I found myself. And no matter how long I will stay and where I will go next: for that I will always be grateful.
Text & Photo: Kerstin Schachinger
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