I have a complicated relationship with Berlin, for me it’s the place where the personal meets the political. My grandmother was born in the city before moving to the UK with my dad. She wasn’t a fluffy woman — she certainly didn’t give out Werther’s Originals or hugs. Instead through my childhood she told me tales of the intoxicating decadence, creativity and decay of Berlin. In my head the city took on a near mythical status, and so when I finally visited for the first time in my early twenties I was captivated.
I arrived during the Mayday celebrations in 2003, the streets of Kreuzberg were filled with riotous, joyous, drunken protesters. A young anarchist with an appetite for disruption I felt I had found my home. Somewhat ironically, it was the almost polar opposite to my grandmother’s experience eight decades earlier; as the daughter of a banker her early years had been characterised by luxury cars, servants and horses.
A few years later I moved to Berlin with my partner of the time. I had a burgeoning interest in feminism and had heard tales of activists blowing-up pimps’ cars; I wanted ‘in.’ He was obsessed with body modification and had acquaintances in the ‘community.’ We both somehow knew we would find our niches.
We drove across in early October with plans to live in our van and trade hippy tat at flea markets (we had a failing business selling at festivals in the UK). I had a lazy assumption that because I had heard German through my childhood I would just sort of pick-up the more complicated bits (i.e. the words and grammar). Despite being able to make the right teutonic-sounding guttural noises my ability to communicate was impaired by the fact I couldn’t actually speak German. Within two weeks the first snow had fallen on the van roof, blotting out the power from the solar panel and the roof light. It felt like a sign. Life in the city from then on was cold, dark and isolating.
Almost instantly I loathed the body modification crew my partner had sought out, they seemed to me to be misogynist hipsters who had found an ‘artistic’ justification for perpetrating abuse — several had pornographic tattoos. The political crowd I had expected to find were as icy as the weather; we were immediately treated with suspicion. Our clothes were just the wrong sort of second-hand, selling imported goods clearly meant that we were capitalists and the fact that we were British meant that we were ‘Island Monkeys.’ To be fair, I was deeply ashamed of my naivety in assuming I would pick-up German. It wasn’t entirely one way; on the one hand I was desperate to make friends, on the other I had begun to regard those who deigned to allow us to park on the edge of their artists’ collective as a stuck-up bunch of poseurs. It was essentially the Bristol politikal crowd on organic, fair-trade crack.
At the point where the water we had brought back from the market froze in the van overnight we thought we should probably leave. We stuck it until late February when my partner’s mind collapsed. Around a year later so had our relationship and I vowed never to return to the city.
Aside from the coldness of the city, both social and literal, my abiding memories were of disappointment. I was expecting a vibrant women’s movement to get involved with, and instead was confronted with a ‘Feminist Porn Festival’ complete with posters of ‘empowered’ women on all fours. I opted not to go. There was ‘Drag Queen Bingo’ and a ‘Queer Cheerleading’ protest about something or other. We went along to a few things but spent most of our days sheltering in Turkish-run cafes. I imagined my grandmother laughing at the lefty wankers trying to stick it to ‘the man’, while policing one another for not being queer enough or not having the right sort of dreads. I’m not sure the great patriarchs or bankers felt particularly threatened.
So this year, nine years after saying ‘goodbye’, I returned to Berlin with some trepidation. I arrived with my civil partner, and almost instantly I fell in love with the city all over again. Sure it was Summer, but without the cloud of idealism I could see more clearly.