This month marks the 20th anniversary of my life in Berlin. In another six years, I’ll have lived here longer than I ever lived in the US. Hard to believe, but it’s true. All this has gotten me nostalgic for all the streets where I’ve lived since I moved to this city. Here’s a little run-down:
(I never officially lived here, but it was my entrance into the city)
In 1995, I worked two jobs at Southland Mall in Hayward: one full-time at Waldenbooks and one part-time at Happy Donuts in the food court. I worked these crazy retail and food service hours for one reason only: I wanted to save up enough money to travel around Europe and visit my long distance boyfriend, a native Berliner. So I saved up all my money and never went out; I lived off steamed broccoli and brown rice I carted around with me in Tupperware containers (if you’re thinking, Well, that doesn’t sound that bad, then I suggest you steam some broccoli, keep it in a Tupperware container for a couple of hours, then open it up. Once the smell hits you, I can guarantee you’ll be thinking, Poor, poor you!) When I’d finally saved up enough I bought my plane ticket from a rather dubious travel agent off of Telegraph Avenue. A few weeks later, I flew to Berlin.
My boyfriend picked me up from the airport in his bright yellow Volkswagen and took me to where he lived with his family in…..Kladow.
As far as I know, the only book Kladow has ever shown up in was Jonathan Lethem’s novel A Gambler’s Anatomy. But he got the place wrong. The villa he describes in the book could easily be in Wannsee or Sacrow, but not Kladow (although there might be something villa-like I’m forgetting about down by the Havel River). My guess is he wanted to write about the ferry ride from Wannsee to Kladow (an awesome trip, by the way) and figured why not put a villa there for convenience because who the fuck knows anything about Kladow anyway?
Well, I do, strangely enough.
Kladow is one of Berlin’s Speckgürtel middle class suburbs with upper middle class pretentions: Cookie cutter houses, cheap gazebos in the garden because, duh, that’s classy, dads waxing their BMWs on Saturday mornings, hedges trimmed right or else you’ll hear about it: that’s Kladow. In other words, the last place I wanted to hang out when I flew to what I’d assumed was a cosmopolitan, world class European city.
But Kladow, I do thee wrong. Historically, it was an interesting place to grow up before the Wall fell. The house on Krampnitzer Weg was less than a mile from the border. Berlin is surrounded by lots of water, which meant the “Wall” was sometimes an invisible line crossing through a river or a lake. Like Glienicker See, one half in West Berlin, the other half in Potsdam, which was in the GDR.
In the summers before 1989, my now ex-husband went swimming in the West Berlin side of Glienicker See. If he swam too far, East German border guards would yell at him from their guard tower on the other side of the shore, a machine gun dangling from their shoulder: Gehen Sie sofort zurück!
Get your ass back to the West! They didn’t have to tell him twice.
Lived here for: 6 months (had a balcony)
I once read Kafka had been jonesing to move to Berlin all his life, but he only lived in the city for one year when he was already seriously ill. The place where he landed: Berlin-Steglitz. It broke my heart a little when I read that, because Steglitz is a posh, leafy suburb, far from the Lebendigkeit of Berlin Kafka had been drawn to.
Don’t get me wrong: Parts of Steglitz are definitely beautiful. The Botanischer Garten is there, which is one of my favorite spots in the city. But there were no cafes on my street, only old lady hair salons, one after the other, and lots of old ladies with well-set hair and yippy lapdogs at the end of thin leather leashes. My roommate, who was in her mid-20s like I was, was a disciple of Rudolph Steiner. She and her much older Swiss boyfriend used to get together to play the recorder and sing odes to apple trees. Definitely not the scene I was looking for. After six months, I hightailed it to Neukölln.
Lived here: 2 years
If you’re young and hip and know anything about Berlin, you’ve definitely heard of Neukölln, which has been the hip place to be for at least ten years now. But back in the early 2000s, if you told people you lived in Neukölln, they’d say, “Oh my God, why???” At the time, Neukölln definitely had the reputation of being a bad neighborhood, but it soon became clear to me that when people said the area was “bad,” what they really meant was “poor and mostly not white” (make it hard to get guns and don’t allow anyone to live too far below the poverty line and watch crime fall, kids, watch it fall…)
My memories of Edmundstrasse:
The Thai kitchen/snack bar on the corner where they did karaoke in the evenings on a gigantic screen that took up half the room.
Seeing a drunk man once spin around a lamp post just like in the old time cartoons.
Walking on real city snow for the first time in my life, instead of driving hours to “visit snow” like I did in California and Arizona.
The square a five minute walk from our place where they had a small farmer’s market on Saturdays and a Wall City toilet, a new thing at the time. I was fascinated by the groovy, new age music they played when you went inside. Check out this awesome guitar version of it!
Lived here: 6 months (had a balcony)
Innstrasse was the last place I lived with my now ex-husband before our marriage fell apart. Actually, it was already pretty much over before this point, but I wasn’t ready to say die yet. This was the first time I tried to move to a new apartment in the attempt to save a relationship.
My memories of Innstrasse:
Around-the-corner access to my favorite Neukölln cafe Cafe Rix, which is still going strong it what is now mega hipster land.
The area was a little heavy on the cat calls, which is rare for Berlin. One middle-aged Turkish guy even got out of his car and followed me to my front door when I accidently smiled at him. Yikes!
The fabulous nuts and mocha at Ed & Fred Nussdepot.
Lived here: 18 months
The summer I left my now ex-husband, I crashed on the couch of a friend in Friedrichhain. Another friend was crashing on her other couch because she had moved out of her place and her new place wasn’t available until the fall. Fun times, really, especially because I was freshly in love.
In late August, I was looking through the available apartments in the Berliner Zeitung when I saw one I thought must be a typo: a large one bedroom in Schiller Kiez, a neighborhood in Neukölln, for 190 euros warm (German lingo for “utilities included.”) Although Berlin was still dirt cheap at that time as opposed to somewhat affordable like it is now, less than 200 bucks a month for such a big place was still unheard of. I called the landlord and he told me the price was indeed correct. I told him I’d just left my husband and he said, “Come sign the lease today.”
Can I even fully express how much I loved this apartment? Sure, it was run down with coal ovens for heating (very 19th century!) and a Dusche in der Küche (shower cabin in the kitchen) which went from scalding to freezing cold in about five minutes, which meant you had about a minute and a half to soap up and wash your hair. But the apartment was also so charming, with hardwood floors and an old pot bellied ceramic stove in the kitchen. It was close to the apartments of my best friend and new boyfriend. It was the first place that was mine and mine alone.
For years, I was pissed at myself for giving it up. I had a reoccuring dream that I went back and the keys still fit the lock. I told the new renter, “I’m back now. Get lost.” When I lived there, this area of Neukölln was beautiful, but under appreciated and undiscovered. Now it’s prime real estate, with Tempelhofer Feld right around the corner. So why did I leave? Because my new boyfriend pressured me to move in with him.
“I don’t want to move. I love my place,” I said. So he moved in with me and wore me down with his constant complaining. Lighting a fire every morning in the winter, what a pain! One minute showers, totally unacceptable! Eventually I caved in and we gathered our five birds (another story for another time) and moved to nearby Weisestraße.
Lived here: 6 months (with balcony)
Could I blame the balcony for another mere half a year in a new apartment? Yes, of course, I could. But in retrospect, the reason is clear. I had made the same mistake again: moving to try and salvage a relationship, like love can be renewed by new walls.
Try as I might, I could also never warm up to the apartment. It was sunny, big, cheap (not as cheap as my coal oven place, but what is?), with gorgeous floors and a bathtub. But I hated the new metal doors and the plastic framed windows.
Unlike my now ex-husband, my relationship with my boyfriend didn’t end with a bang, more a fizzle. I moved out after six months. He took two birds, I took two birds, we sold the fifth.
Lived here: One year
Weserstraße has been hipster party mile for a while now, but when I lived there in 2005, it was a particularly rough part of Neukölln. I lived around the corner from the Rütlischule, a notorious secondary school (in)famous for a letter penned by the teachers and administration to the city of Berlin, urging them to shut down the school.
Like other parts of old school Neukölln, this area would have been tough to handle for a teenage boy, but I never had any problems there as a random 30-something white girl.
My memories of Weserstraße:
Living in a tiny albeit charming studio with two crazy parrots. The male, Coco, hated me. He was in love with my ex-boyfriend and attacked me regularly since I was his “rival” (still have a scar on my right hand, left eyebrow, and on the side of my lip). I’ve had a lot of different pets over the years, but I can tell you parrots are the most hardcore of all of them. But I aso loved those little bastards. Melena and Coco 4-ever!
The old junkie upstairs whose dog, a gigantic Great Dane, bit me once. Not hard, but still.
My neighbors never complained about my psychotic parrots, but they did call the cops once when I was alone in the kitchen, singing some old Bessie Smith songs. “Ma’am, we’ve been told their was disturbance at your place and just wanted to come by and make sure you’re ok.” Now that’s singing the blues. 😉
Going out on a date with my now husband around Christmas 2005. When we held hands across the table towards the end of the date, I knew that this was it. Six months later, I was pregnant.
How the neighborhood started changing. I still remember when the first cafe bar opened up, Freies Neukoelln. A funky cafe bar in Weserstrasse? Unbelievable! I was already pregnant and bummed that I couldn’t go and have a beer there. Ironically, the place has since been pushed out by gentrification. I found this video somewhere where the former owner complains about it, which is both kind of funny and kind of creepy/weird at the same time.
Mittenwalderstrasse, aka home
Have lived here: 13 years
Thirteen years, holy moley! And what a thirteen years it’s been. I had my first daughter in 2007, and the second in 2008. In 2007, my husband and I got hitched two days after Christmas at the courthouse in San Francisco. Against the odds (at least if you live in Kreuzberg), we’re still happily married.
My recipe for a happy marriage:
- Find someone you don’t have to constantly explain yourself to because they already understand how you tick (even if how you tick sometimes gets on their freaking nerves)
- Give each other space and have a full life away from each other
- When you come back together, laugh a lot, because laughter is love, and love is laughter
Who am I kidding? I probably just got lucky.
Here’s to the next 20, whether they’re spent here or somewhere else in the world.