The first part of this will be familiar to anyone who has been following along. It was an almost off-the-cuff response to a piece by Tourettes that featured on lostravellers. It tried to capture a bit of what Berlin brings out while mirroring his dissociative style, with only moderate success.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it wasn’t finished. The following is the full story, and what I hope is a more complete homage to the city.
My arrival in Berlin was a stuttering one. I blundered my way around the Hauptbahnhof, grappling with the bipartisan nuances of the U and S bahns and their sinewy interactions, unsure where I needed to go. It had been a long day on the trains: from Italy’s Alps through the spacious Bavarian plains to Berlin and I was ready for whatever the city had to throw at me. Or so I thought.
A late night closure of the Kottbusser Tor station threw me momentarily before a kind stranger set me right. The trains were running late and I walked the last stop to Kate’s apartment on the edge of Kreuzburg, tired and tardy.
I had been to Berlin before and drunk deep in its late night mayhem and sprawling hints of empire. It looked like New York City in the early nineties, or so it seemed. I hadn’t actually been to New York, and only just experienced the early nineties – but there was something in the air, on the walls, in the bottom of the bottle. Cheap but sexy was their motto and I was determined to play the part.
An hour after my arrival and we were at the first bar: swigging Jose Cuervo from the bottle, and throwing euro into the MD kitty. Someone gave me a blue heart and I washed it down with a swill of Augustiner.
“Just take a bit, they’re strong okay…”
Okay. Sure. Just a bit; for now.
We roamed the wide avenues wired and taxied to a small club on a houseboat. In a twist of small world madness I bumped into an old workmate, not so surprising in a place frequented by pinging antipodeans. We smiled and talked past each other, captive to our chemical choices.
Eventually the bug bit again, and we took leave of the dance floor to take more E in the bathroom. It was cramped, with 10 people in the cubicle, but the contact was good and we headed off to nod appreciation to minimal techno. Sal met a Viking princess and Min was despatched to the park for more MD. Fate played her hand and Kate dropped the new baggy through a crack in the floor, fodder for the hungry water beneath. A collective moan escaped and it was back to the bar, beer to numb the agony of absence.
On another bathroom run Kate overheard a German couple fucking in the neighbouring cubicle. “Was ist mein nam?” She moaned, and we laughed all the way home.
There was only one bed in the high ceilinged apartment so we spooned, three deep under the duvet. Wrapped in a cocoon of flesh my cock stayed its hand and we stayed friends. Berlin had spoken and we had been silenced, put to sleep in the light of a still dawn.
The following afternoon was gruesome as we struggled with the debt our excess had created. We ate eggs and drank free coconut water at Kate’s work and laughed at her earlier vomit in the shower – a sure sign late night ketamine is never a good idea.
I ventured off to meet Brother Tijo but failed miserably, ditching central Berlin and the now abandoned Tascheles for the raw excitement of Neukoln again. Tijo was in Berlin for a work conference, our serendipitous overlap a joyous opportunity for reminiscing over all that is Hhhudrin. But his conference dragged on and I gave up, choosing guaranteed company and copious red wine over the chance of a text.
The night had its way with us again and it was a tough start as we walked Kate to her half-seven shift at the café. The night hadn’t finished with Sal and we found him waiting patiently above one of the canals, photographing a pair of receding swans against the soft morning light. He greeted us nonchalantly, as if he knew we’d be passing by. It was a disposition that belied his insomniac state – victim as he was to late night lines and the whims of the city.
We told some fibs and delayed check out time at the hostel I had barely visited, and Sal took us to a Turkish Flea Market where we bought silly hats and eased him back down to earth.
Finally, I got Tijo’s text and began the voyage back to Potsdammer Platz and the other world of central Berlin. Tijo’s cackling laugh echoed through the Hyatt’s foyer and I knew I had found my brother, strange as it was to see him there. Times had changed and we lived different lives now – but I was grateful for his company and we set about pulling together the pieces of our past that still resonated.
There is an associated sadness that comes with having great friends. For that what once was cannot always be, and time and decisions will often pull us apart. This isn’t so much the ending, or loss, of a friendship – but rather its absence in your everyday life. Brief catch-ups run on the smell of nostalgia, and reminiscences on previous hijinks – while appreciated – aren’t the same as the constant refreshment of repeated interactions.
Tijo and I fell into wandering Berlin like no time had passed, but I fear that for all our bonds of brotherhood our different lives may eventually push us apart. In his presence, past absence became more pronounced – and it was with a pensive sorrow that I bade him and his affable laugh farewell. Who knew when our paths would next cross?
It is this struggle, the reconciliation between old and new, that finds physical realisation in the streets of Berlin. Historically divided, its now unified suburbs could almost be different cities. There is a world of difference between the grimy parks and graffiti of Kruezberg and the wide avenues and polished facades of Mitte – but yet they are both uniquely Berlin. And I guess that’s where the answer lies. Integrity isn’t in uniformity, but interconnectivity. As disparate as my friendships might be, I still had the history to hold them together. Even if I didn’t live in metaphorical Mitte, I was only ever a train ride away.