The Berlin Diaries: Down and out in the Capital

By James Alston | Friday 12th January, 2018

It’s my first day in Berlin, and my mother’s booked us into a beach resort-style hotel for our stay, complete with volleyball courts and actual sand. Our room – well, our beach hut, actually – is about the size of my bedroom back home; that is to say, there isn’t room to swing a Katze. The resort is in Mitte, the hotel-laden centre of the city, and there’s even Go-Ape-style climbing apparatus out the front, complete with a hanging Trabant.

What am I doing in Berlin? Well, I’m telling everyone it’s to study a two year Master’s in Globalegeschichte, or Global History for those of us (including myself) not fortunate enough to speak German. Secretly, I’ve moved here to escape Brexit. The last year or so of keeping up with British politics has been trying, and it’s time for a much needed change. Oh, and I’ve been trying to learn German for the last five years, and made basically no progress, so it’d be nice to speak Deutsch, too.


The beach resort was a bit of a surprise for a city commonly perceived as being a modern concrete jungle, but as I was to find out over the next few weeks, weird, out-of-place phenomena are extremely common in Berlin. Volleyball is certainly popular—there are more courts just outside my main university building, though I’ve never seen anybody playing; it’s far too cold for that. You can pop over to Berghain – if you can get in, of course; the bouncers are notoriously picky about who they admit – don your latex and join in the hedonistic, obscene sex parties. People even surf out here, in a country without an ocean. You just don’t get shit like this in London.

But my first few days didn’t entail any of this decadent fun. What’s on the agenda for the first week in Germany? Well, wading through the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Berlin administrative system, for a start. I don’t know how Germans have managed to retain their reputation for being efficient; like most stereotypes, it’s completely wrong. Then there was the process of moving into my extortionately priced flat, meaning I couldn’t complete my Anmeldung (house registration), meaning I couldn’t open a bank account. It’s almost as though they’re trying to put people off coming here. Maybe they know I’m from the country that just voted to leave Germany’s much loved European Union.

Seeing as I can’t do anything else, I buy myself a rusty old city bike, something hipster enough to fit in with the local ‘scene’. Already I can see myself liking it here. I count four trench coats in my first week, and more when my friend Jon and I hit the bars in Wedding, one of the districts of Berlin, and pronounced with a ‘v’ not a ‘w’ (more of which later).

My mother and I see as much as possible in the five days she stays here, which includes, of course, the Berlin Wall Memorial. The memorial is a long walk that crosses Bernauerstrasse, a street across which the wall was actually built. The foundations of some of the houses that were eventually torn down to make room for the wall are still visible, and just next to them, television screens documenting people jumping from their windows into the West. The fire brigade stood outside those windows for two weeks straight, ready to catch anyone attempting to flee into the non-Communist side of Berlin. It makes you rather glad you weren’t stuck here, and proud to be British. Then you remember we voted to leave the EU.


The real fun starts when I attend a leaving party for a friend of a friend in a small bar in Wedding. They’ve hired out the basement, and we clock the stench of marijuana smoke as we descend the stairs. I practise my German a little, but when one of Jon’s friends asks me a question I don’t understand, I clam up, embarrassed, something I fear will be a common occurrence over the coming months. Instead of subjecting myself to more torture, we take over the speakers and get people dancing.

Before long, we’ve drunk enough to play Kegel, or nine-pin-bowling. I’m rubbish, obviously, but there’s a pretty girl there who seems to be happy talking to me, and nobody minds much that I’m a terrible bowler. I learn this evening that Germans like the English accent—something which is going to come in very handy during my stay in Berlin.

Jon and I drink too much and jump on a tram (another novelty) back to his girlfriend’s, who is out of town. On the walk to her front door, a stranger approaches us on the street and, after scabbing a cigarette, joins us for a little of the journey. As we near the house, he pulls a can of spray paint from his bag, tags a couple of shop fronts, and offers the can to us. I decline, not quite ready to get thrown in a Berlin jail just yet.

It didn’t take more than a few nights for me to realise I’m overjoyed to be here. My Master’s lasts two years, assuming I don’t run out of money before then, by which time I’ll (hopefully) be pretty good at German and have another couple of letters after my name. And if not, I’ll write a book entitled Down and Out in Berlin. Doesn’t sound too bad to me.