Odious, noisy, dirty, and grey: a year in Berlin

“And you, you can be mean, And I, I’ll drink all the time, ‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact, Yes, we’re lovers, and that is that…” – Heroes by David Bowie.

The two years David Bowie spent living in Berlin’s Schöneberg district inspired three groundbreaking albums, and gave birth to Heroes, a song that for many is the unofficial anthem of the city. He summed up his experience in the divided but bohemian former German capital in one of the most frequently used quotes about the city, “Berlin, the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.” This was the late 1970s and, while filled with Cold War intrigue, West Berlin was undergoing an artistic renaissance.

Museum Island, Berlin
Reichstag and River Spree, Berlin
Berliner Fernsehturm, Alexanderplatz, Berlin
Church, Berlin
Davis Bowie plaque at his former Berlin home
River Spree, Moabit, Berlin

It is an image of the city still cultivated today – the freewheeling creative centre where experimentation is encouraged. In reality, it’s is a very different Berlin to the one Bowie knew, but also one going through a profound renaissance. Albeit this one is much more about gentrification and a booming economy in tech start-ups. As the mass of building sites and roadworks can attest, the face of Berlin is changing irrevocably.

It’s just over a year since we, somewhat reluctantly, moved our lives from The Hague to Berlin. It’s been a year of adjustment and frustration (this is the bureaucracy capital of the entire Solar System), a year of adaptation and slowly finding our place in a city that, in Bowie’s words, is “… so easy to ‘get lost’ in — and to ‘find’ oneself, too.” We’ve had periods of feeling lost, but a year on from those first confusing days and we are at last finding our feet, if not ourselves.

A German colleague, who moved from Munich to Berlin, told me it had taken her three years to feel comfortable in the city … and she speaks fluent German. Others have told me that when the city gets under my skin I’ll never want to leave. Anneliese Bödecker’s pithy statement captures this split personality with alarming accuracy, “Berliners are unfriendly and reckless, gruff and bossy. Berlin is odious, noisy, dirty, and grey; roadworks and congested streets wherever you go – but I’m sorry for everyone who does not live here.”

Berlin might actually be the urban embodiment of ‘can’t live with, can’t live without‘. I’ve not quite reached that point yet, but as we embark upon our second year I’m looking forward to seeing if the city gets under my skin, as opposed to on my skin – anyone who has worn a pair of flip flops in Berlin for any length of time will understand. Spend a day walking around and you’ll return home with feet that look as if they’ve been dipped in used engine oil. Air quality should be a major topic of conversation.

Funkturm, Berlin
Sculpture on Karl Mary Allee, Berlin
Sculpture, Berlin
Typical toilet, Berlin
Tiergarten, Berlin
Will our time in Berlin end like Icarus?

Such is the city’s reputation, moving here came with myriad expectations, more from others than ourselves. It’s a little too easy to only view the city through the lens of start-up schtick or the counter-culture cool marketing. Berlin is a more complicated place in reality – as anyone who has ever had to work out the recycling rules will tell you. There are many positives to living here, but the city can still leave you grasping at thin air when it comes to feeling like you belong.

Berlin is growing, and maybe the fact that we find ourselves here at a time of upheaval, as old and new clash, has made our first year more challenging. Yet we’ve loved many things, and have found ourselves exploring pockets of the city that only occasionally attract tourist attention. Piece by piece, the city and its people are coming into focus. The next 12 months start afresh, as T.S. Eliot, whose books once burned in Berlin, said:

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
– The Little Gidding

8 thoughts on “Odious, noisy, dirty, and grey: a year in Berlin

  1. Glad you’re slowly finding your marks in Berlin. Allow me to be honest, though I liked a few specific spots, Berlin gave me the creeps. No offence to Berliners. It’s just me. (Too much History and blood).

    1. It’s been a lot slower than anticipated. Friends and colleagues love the city, but I find it a bit oppressive at times. Less so the history and more the ‘attitude’. Berliners aren’t always very friendly!

      1. Hmmm. Strange isn’t it when the “new” Berlin has this worldwide reputation of “trendy”, creative. And you have had experience of very different cities. Well, hang in there. You will find your niche.

  2. I’m glad you seem to be coming to some sort of state of d’etente with the city. And it’s been fascinating reading yours posts about it. Enjoy you new year!

    1. To be honest, it feels like an uneasy truce. I’m hopeful that we’ll eventually see eye to eye, but the upcoming winter might be the deal breaker!

  3. Gee , I didn’t realise it was a year! Seems only yesterday that you were trying to find a place to live.
    That toilet looks wonderfully clean at least!

    1. I know, it seems impossible that time has passed so quickly. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster, but we’re settling in now.
      Berlin toilets are regularly plastered with stickers like this, it’s a major opportunity!

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