The edge-land spaces in Berlin are to the front of stage, easy to spot as you walk through the city by day or night. There is the obvious tension of the old and the new, and the languages in which they respectively speak: a classical architecture of the old, the brutalist new, and the patched spaces between. Buildings still patched with brick, areas of dereliction, but above all of building.
Even more so than last time i was here, you can hardly move for scaffolding and diggers, cranes and hoardings. Berlin is a city in frantic transition.
I have always found Berlin to be a landscape of vistas: not the dramatic ones of the skyline of London or New York, but rather pastiches of motion: trams through the street, old railway arches, the curve of the river, bridges (themselves sometimes part old and part new), and spikes and domes of assorted corporate, spiritual, or civic pride. Not a beautiful city for me, but a very lived one: this is a city to walk in, to drink coffee in, to wander through.
I think it may be easy to be brave in Berlin: to try things. It’s not a brash confidence, but rather a subdued one, but a confidence nonetheless. It’s easy to talk to people. And there are many different people: Berlin is multi-cultural (according to my taxi driver, one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world.
He knows: his parents arrived from Turkey in the early fifties, the pioneering immigrants. He is second generation, but still spends months a year in Turkey, at his mothers old house. His children though. They are German. Or YouTubers. He’s not sure which is their dominant social cultural alignment. He shrugs: his son resents speaking Turkish at home. His daughter is fluent, but only speaks it at home.
I find myself in an odd concrete stairwell. It feels like an afterthought: the architect was clearly focussed on the curve of the bridge, focussed on beauty. It’s almost like they resented the utility i need, to actually make the building functional. On their screen, i would walk a graceful path around the edges. In my mind, i seek the shortcut.
I find a great coffee shop. I mean a really superb one. It’s tucked away: i hesitate as i walk a street. The entire block looks like houses, but is built around a central courtyard. There are no signs saying i cannot enter, but i hesitate to do so as it feels like trespassing. Locals dart in and out: i find myself wondering if it’s a college or school. But eventually i venture in, through a tunnel, and here i am. A great coffee shop.
I sit quietly and listen: nobody pays me any attention, and people talk loudly with remarkable candour. The MIT student, working in finance, on a project he keeps saying is ‘hush hush’ to his friend, then disseminates loudly. It’s a model for asset management that frames asset price as a water molecule. He detours into fluid dynamics. It’s called TDA, and rumour has it that a Canadian company is using it ‘in the wild’. But it’s hush hush.
As is the relationship next door: a shop owner dating a supplier. She never thought it would blossom into romance, but now the whole cafe knows. I feel happy for her, daunted by him.
I mean, i can find my way around a textbook, but the water molecule guy is clever. He talks faster than me. He switches between fields: AI, fluid dynamics, data science. All within our hidden courtyard.
I revisit some graffiti from 2019, the last time i was here.
I love to do this: to return, to see what has weathered, what has persisted, and what has been obliterated. Some things are untouched. Other walls have disappeared altogether. There is a sprinkling of new work related to the war in Ukraine. But overall, my perception is that the graffiti is tired. Perhaps it cannot keep up with the building work. I find almost nothing fresh. Almost listless. Or perhaps it has moved on.
I realise i am walking the same streets, which is a reminder to myself to get lost again. We tend to do this: we meet people, we find our way around, and then we reinforce what we already know. We tread the same paths.
It’s hard to get lost, on purpose. It’s like a string connects us back to our sense of assured place. But i manage, eventually.
I walk past an empty parking lot: behind it a row of railway arches, all boarded up, all differently. Clearly some used to be units, shops even, workshops, but now all closed and overgrown. Possibly nobody has set foot in them for thirty years, they are that derelict and degraded. And overhead another vista, as two trains pass each other with pleasing symmetry, as they must do everyday. Another hidden spaces in a subdivided city.
In a bookshop i chat to the owner: ‘are you working’ he asks? That’s a difficult question to answer. ‘Day off’ i say. Then i add ‘always remember that it’s possible to work too hard’. He looks at me and laughs.