Even if Berlin wasn’t in its fifteenth month of a pandemic and the seventh month of a hard lockdown – with the recent addition of a 9pm curfew – this would still feel like a strange year. It’s early May and this morning I awoke to blue skies, brilliant sunlight and soaring temperatures. Nothing strange in that, except yesterday there was a snow storm followed by a thunderstorm that incorporated a hailstorm. This is not typical.
In medieval Europe, people interpreted these types of events as signs of the End of Days. The mass hysteria brought on by the Black Death saw 14th century writers record sightings of large demonic dogs roaming the streets of towns just before everyone started dying. In 21st century Europe, signs of the covid and climate apocalypse have come to feel vaguely normal.
Still, it’s a relief that Germany’s vaccine programme has finally kicked into gear. This seems largely in response to a realisation that if millions of people had to face a summer without a holiday, mass civil disobedience would be the outcome. It’s no coincidence that there’s an election looming. We get our first vaccination very soon, raising hopes that we might finally be able to leave the city limits.
The last time that happened was seven months ago. Over the winter Berlin began to feel a bit like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and brought to mind the Berlin of the Cold War. I remember taking the train from West Germany in the late 1980s, travelling through communist East Germany to reach exotic, West Berlin. A literal island of the West surrounded by a wall in a sea of Soviet red.
In the absence of free movement, when the weather has allowed we’ve been pounding the streets of Berlin. In a different era our peregrinations might have led us to be recognised as Berlin’s version of Phyllis Pearsall – the woman who walked over 3,000 miles down 23,000 London streets over the course of a year to create the London A-Z – a story told in the book Mrs P’s Journey.
We haven’t walked 23,000 streets yet, and we have the benefit of a smartphone, but if lockdown goes on for much longer I might just start a Berlin A-Z project. The upside is that, even though Berlin has largely been shut down for almost half of the time we’ve lived here, we have explored even the most far flung corners of the city on foot.
That’s how we found ourselves walking streets named after Belgian towns in an area of Wedding, known as Red Wedding due to its communist ties in the 1920s and 30s. These quickly turned into streets named after Dutch and Luxembourg towns. This area was in the French-controlled sector when Berlin was divided in 1945, nearby is a collection of streets known as ‘Little England’.
It’s not the same as travelling to other countries, but in lockdown you take what you can get. Wedding is an area we’ve not spent much time in and, while traditionally a poorer working neighbourhood, gentrification seems to be transforming parts of it into havens for trendy coffee shops and rent inflation. This will only accelerate now the German courts have struck down Berlin’s five-year rent cap.
It’s hard to get a real feel for a neighbourhood when most things are still closed. We’ve been noting down nice looking cafes, restaurants and beer gardens, and now have an extensive list for when things reopen. Typically, after three years in the city, we’ll be leaving Berlin in the summer and now find ourselves up against the clock to do all the things we’ve missed out on in lockdown.