0028 – How it feels to live in Berlin

Alexanderplatz, December 2023

I’ve spent a lot of time in Berlin this year, more than I’ve ever have in my life. I find it kind of hostile. While Oslo is tame and somewhat boring, I find Berlin to be kind of rough. I read a blog post the other day that called it a twisted, beautiful city. I’m not sure about the beautiful part.

I walk quite often through this place called Kottbussertor, also known as Kotti. It’s roundabout that looks like one of Dante’s circles of hell. There are concentric rings of humanity circling the station. From the very outside you have towering concrete blocks, like Easter Island heads but from the 60’s or 70’s, scarred with graffiti. Under their gaze, drug addicts push themselves around in squeaky wheelchairs, never too far from the center where they provide clean needles.

Pedestrians orbit slowly, many dressed with big boots either military or designer or both melting together. Sometimes people have colourful knitted mesh bags to soften the look yet even wool looks aggressive. They go in and out of the burgermeister. Tourists mainly. Lots of people speaking spanish for some reason. Indian workers make the burgers. The number gets put up on these analog style counters. There’s a concept in the movie and comic book “Snowpiercer” where a dystopian society lives on a train and people in the back carriages fight over gelatin bars of protein. It’s kind of like that with burgermeister burgers. Kind of unknown meat that people queue up for. Not somewhere I would take my mother to.

One step closer to the center is an inner ring of cyclists. There are mothers with their cargo bikes and their kids in front. An import from the more civilised climes of the Netherlands. Many delivery riders with electric bikes, branded with company jackets in the colors of the app. How strange to think that the brand strategy applies to people and the virtual space. It makes sense but it’s also so strange. I guess that’s the fun of making art: observing. When you sketch a person’s face you know them better and similarly when you sketch a scene you think about it in a closer way. The cyclists circle around much faster than person could walk. You need to watch out for them.

Even closer to the center are the cars. Germany has a lot of cars. Berlin is not a modern city. Maybe it has progressive politics but it doesn’t apply to the street. Everything is a bit more alive here in a brutal way. Almost all new cars bought in Norway are electric. They purr around the city unintrusively and always stop for you. I very rarely come across a street with more than two lanes. Berlin has three lane streets cutting through the heart of things. It’s exhausting (pun NOT intended).

The cars rush by and they’re always kind of jockeying for place. It’s like no one ever drives in a straight line. There’s a wildness to it. The cars are alive and aggressive. There’s a dirtyness to them too. It’s mad max. I sat in my friend’s car once as we drove through Friedrichshain and then along these communist avenues, weaving in and out of lanes. It reminded me of a car ride in Athens screaming down hill and down town past the parliament in the rain with the diesel engine coughing from the hard life and cigarettes its had.

At the very heart of Kotti is the station itself. A long shoebox suspended above this roundabout of people and machinery. The ground is caked in a layer of bird droppings. Things never get clean here. It’s kind of horrific. I remember landing in Haneda airport and we went outside to catch a bus and cleaner bent down to rub something off the floor with her hand. With her hand! The ground at Kotti is so beyond redemption that it should be burnt with fire. There are homeless people who have melted into the ground. I seriously start wondering what it is I am seeing. I understand why people leave. It’s completely understandable to not want to see suffering on a daily basis. If burgermeister is not somewhere you would take mother to, the inner part of Kotti is not somewhere to take dad to.

You can go up or you can go down. Each way takes you to a U bahn. The trains in Berlin are arlight. Not cramped and vicious like the London tube, not quite bioshocky like New York but also far from pleasant like Tokyo and definitely not clean like Oslo. They sit right in the middle, at least in my opinion. The thing is you often have homeless people asking for money. They walk down the train carrying their rags on their body. You look down to avoid seeing the sores on the face and see the mess that their feet and shoes have become. People hold their shirts to their faces to handle the smell. The homeless man looks in your direction but his eyes are dim. In the same way that he speaks on repeat never hearing a response, he looks never expecting to be seen.

I think of what I wrote yesterday about the feeling of being acknowledged is the feeling of being alive. In some ways the homeless man is acknowledged: people reel back, they hold their shirts to their faces, they avert their eyes. Maybe someone presses a euro coin into his hand. For the most part he has ruined the train. I’m not sure what’s worse, to be invisible or to be a repulsion. How many people die on the streets of Berlin. How many people are already dead?

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