It’s hot. My first of Germany’s intense and unrelenting Summers. I feel a silence within me that wavers between peace and ecstasy. It is the silence of lightning diffused by rain.
I’m sat on a rooftop at sunset, watching the heat seep into the concrete. Up here, the angles of Berlin’s skyline can be observed in their entirety. I watch as the city’s shades of beauty reveal themselves slowly over the changing light of the evening. The buildings are stripped of their sheen; each prism of light revealing their imperfections. I could have been up there for days.
It is through lasting images such as these that we connect ourselves to a time and place. I close my eyes and envision rows of pristine white, post-war houses with gilded balconies; disused buildings anticipating reconstruction; metal tramlines; cycle paths bearing a range of cyclists, some clad in thermals, others with shopping piled high in their baskets; flea markets yielding goods of old boots; exotic handmade jewellery and books with torn pages; local bakeries stocked with crisp rolls and dark rye; underground clubs with graffiti branded across every entrance; elderly couples enjoying cups of coffee across red checked tablecloths. Berlin’s spirit of change and enterprise is palpable. You can do little else but internalise it.
In six short months, I have nearly perished in Berlin’s deathly cold – never before has my skin been touched by such biting temperatures – and witnessed the lateness of Spring. With time to spare and a mind clear enough to contemplate my surroundings, I have seen the seasons come and go so fleetingly. Snow gave way gracefully to budding flowers, withered branches grew heavy with a sudden fostering of leaves, and I too emerged from spiritual hibernation. I watched as the city came alive.
With the first flowers of Spring came the first fleet of tourists, scurrying about the city in any available site like ants near a fruit bowl. I hear you smirking at my confidence to exclude myself from the definition of ‘tourist’, but how long does one have to be resident in a country before identifying oneself as part of it?
From the rooftop, one can cast their eye over the landscape and imagine a city decimated by War and rebuilt from the ashes. Over the horizon, I picture Hackescher Markt, now a thriving scene of commerce, desperate and despondent in its post-war gloom; the crumbling buildings, broken streets and concrete slabs graced only by the life of tangled weeds; the beauty and violence beneath our feet.
This is a city who still sleeps with one eye open. The legacy of war is what Berlin climbs into the sheets with at night. It is the monster at the bottom of the bed. The city has been constructed anew, with every last brick a tangible emblem of what they can’t forget.
Yet amidst the rubble, this divided city became worthy of aesthetic attention. Unlike any other place I have been to, Berlin allows its old to coexist with its new. It is a mass canvas of mixed material. Berlin’s task was not to cover and conceal, but to find a way of incorporating the past into the fabric of the future. Stagnation shifted, and reconstruction inspired a new way of seeing.
In art nothing ever stands still, and Berlin proves it. At every street corner, workmen whistle as they emerge from newly constructed buildings, caked in plaster. The sad frames of disused warehouses brandish banners of images indicating what future form it will take. Baroque architecture maintains its majesty above street view, incorporated into newfound buildings that welcome commerce as a medium for change. Functionality collides with ornament; modernity with history. Art and architecture become the chisel with which Berlin carves itself a fresh identity. I see myself reflected in every new sheet of glass.
Of course, places can offer you the illusion of feeling changed, or enlightened in some way. They absorb you in a swell of activity, addressing your feelings of anonymity with opportunities for communion with others. There’s a reason why backpackers return with a new set of values to match their post-travelling ponytails. They establish a new sense of self away from routine that reflects their surroundings. Liberation becomes woven into every last strand of dredlocked hair.
There were nights when I could walk out into the city and forget I was anywhere. I had no shackles. But with an absence of responsibility came an absence of connectivity. Sometimes I felt like I could walk the streets and each house would turn their lights off one by one. No lamp would illuminate the glass allowing me to see my reflection. No flicker of a candle could offer me a nightcap.
I was alone. The lack of light was just a tangible reminder. I could wade through a throng of people and not one soul would speak. I could be submerged in a sea of faces and still feel all alone.
These were moments where one solitary night can feel like permanent seclusion. I had to learn how to situate myself mentally in nowhere. I learned to inhabit loneliness.