Perennially Homesick in Berlin in Wintertime
Hey, can we talk? I think we need to clear some things up. No, it’s nothing serious. It’s just, about this city. Yes, I know that it has a great nightlife, art, actives, bars, clubs, pubs, parks, etc. That’s not what I want to talk about. It’s something that exists below all of that. Something that we should admit about this place. Simply put, this city is confusing. I don’t mean socially, bureaucratically, economically, or meteorologically. I’m not talking about one specific thing. I mean all of it. Fundamentally. At its core. It’s confusing. Perhaps you don’t agree. I applaud you for your clarity of vision, but sorry, this article is not for you. You are free to continue your blissful existence elsewhere.
Even more than a Yogi in the mountains, show me the person who has "figured Berlin out" and you will show me an enlightened person. And yet, with a population of 3.5 million, these people must be here somewhere, right? Maybe an old Frau working the cash register at a local Aldi? Maybe a Turkish man smoking shisha in a Neukölln casino? Perhaps a 30-something couple pushing a stroller down a street in Prenzlauer Berg? Ok, I’ll admit, that last one is a stretch. But one thing is certain, it’s not the recent expat.
Even if you already believe that Berlin has a deep down nature of uncertainty, humor me while I take I take that assumption further. If we want to know why Berlin is confusing– especially to the recent arrival– we have to get familiar with the idea that Berlin has a duality of form and representation. In other words, Berlin is both an imaginary place and a real city where people live. It is a fictionalized world of extravagance and freedom, the farthest extent of the western empire, the last refuge of the perennial wanderer, and also the place where you have an apartment a job and a cat. (If you’re lucky) But before we get too philosophical, it might be helpful to answer a simple question; what does it mean to ‘figure Berlin out’ anyway?
Its not too difficult to get a idea of what that might look like. 'Figuring Berlin out’ might just be as simple as making Berlin your home. Ok, that’s easy in concept, but how do we do that in practice? Naturally its different for each person, but some things are common to everyone. For example, you need to find some type of sympathetic community. Find love in your personal life –whether that comes in a platonic form or not. And find some kind of feeling of personal responsibility for ones own life and choices. Even with all this something extra is needed when you’re in Berlin. As cheesy as it sounds Berlin demands that you be yourself.
Many people underestimate how difficult it is to get this all sorted out. It certainly doesn't just fall into place unless you are a very lucky individual. When I came to Berlin four months ago, like many people, my first month was frantic and energetic. I remember once walking down Sonnenallee and smiling for no reason at all. It seemed Berlin itself had opened up and invited me in. The city gets that way sometimes. I was lucky enough to meet people early on who I got along with. Each of us, in our own way, were beginning on the path to building a new life in this city. Perhaps it was just bad luck, but I have unfortunately witnessed many of these beautiful wanderlusts fall into some kind of depression as the city moved deeper into winter.
This common, and sometimes not so common funk hits people irrespective of whether or not they have a job, friends, good apartment, or solid ideas about about about their future. (Although not having those will certainly make it worse.) The reason for this is partially due to Berlin itself. Specifically, Berlin in the winter.
The first time I ever got a warning about Berlin’s winter I was still in San Francisco. I was sitting in a cafe listening to my friend tell me about her Berlin host father whom she had through our school’s foreign exchange program. She said that around October, when the leaves were beginning to fall, he would look out the kitchen window during breakfast and in a deep German voice say, “Here comes my least favorite time of year.” He would repeat that statement every day as the weather got worse.
Hearing this, I took it as a kind of challenge. As a Californian I was tired of what felt like an endless summer. In many ways I came to Berlin for a romantic notion of what winter could be. In my minds eye I pictured an artist bent over a desk creating great works, profound music, fine paintings. Perhaps with a real winter, one could finally find the time to actually create something. I expected the cold, snow, and difficult conditions, but I have found instead is quite surprising. From what I’ve discovered so far, I wouldn't describe Berlin’s winter as harsh. Instead, it’s more subtly oppressive, like an uncomfortable work environment, a passive aggressive significant other, or wearing a heavy backpack for a whole day. As someone who has only ever lived in California and Rome, the Berlin hits hard in the most insidious way.
I remember one week in particular, before I managed to find an internship. My finances were running low and I was sojourning like a ghost across the massive cityscape dropping off resumes at place after place. I noticed a man carrying a poodle. That wasn't the strange part. He appeared to be talking to himself in a worried and frantic way. He was well dressed, no earpiece in sight, and he definitely wasn’t talking to the dog. He was having a terrible day. When I got home that night I recalled the number of people I saw talking to themselves. It was seven. Was the whole city losing its mind? I needed sleep. I closed my eyes and drifted into the next grey day.
That week –and month– has passed and what I've learned so far, more than anything else, is that Berlin’s winter is psychological. Facing it as a recent expat requires stoic calm and a good supply of vitamin D tablets. Perhaps we knew this already, but actually living it is something different. Being in Berlin in the winter has the potential to bring to the surface our deepest needs and broodings.
In the beginning I said that Berlin is different from other places because it demands a certain level of being yourself. If its true that the necessity for feeling at home in Berlin comes from being yourself, then winter is the time when you learn what that means, and summer is the time you celebrate it. Winter is not just a depressive time of the year but rather as a space where you can learn invaluable things about your life that you might otherwise miss. As an unsettled-wanderer without the psychological and material necessities of a home, you get a rare opportunity to confront yourself before your preferences and personality are completely crystallized. In the long run it might be that the winter is essential to turning a person who merely lives in Berlin, into an actual Berliner. What do we celebrate in summertime if not the rebirth of ourself which we have molded in winter? I for one can’t think any better reason to party.
By Cameron McMichael