Letter from Berlin

Before the sun was the birdsong. Late Sunday afternoon, the gray light slipped through the stairwell’s windows. Her silhouette is dark before them and the posted and penciled papers that map the journey to the glass recycling deposit around the corner and plead with the building’s inhabitants to close the door at night. A thousand heart flutters heard before their shapes cut across the light. I stood still at the threshold. A host of sparrows, rushing out from the ivy—flapping above the pile of wine bottles in the rubbish-strewn courtyard—screamed out that spring was here. 

The first ice cream shops opened the next day. The sun arrives on Saturday, not quite visible from my apartment in Neukölln, its arc taking it beyond the loggias across the street. In Berlin Childhood Around 1900 Walter Benjamin re-entered the city of his youth through such loggias, the recessed balconies in whose shadows he located a kind of god of the city that began where human lodging ended. To look at them, I could only remember that sometimes a person came outside to smoke: just a cigarette and a top of a head hovering over the shrubby plants. There aren’t many loggias where I live on the opposite side of the city from Benjamin’s old world. People around here go to public spaces to find gods or take in the sun—the parks, the streets, the canals.  

From below the chants reached me before the police cars do. Falastina, they shout. Free Palestine, I make out amidst the sirens and static of the megaphones. Some wear FFP2 masks, mindful of their close quarters and that virus cases are rising once more. “Free Antifa!” read the only banner in English, the others are in Arabic script. The demonstrators are outnumbered by the patrolmen and police vans that encircle and escort them. Less than a score of protesters in a Berlin hostile to the notion that Israel is anything other than innocence, means anything more than redemption for this land. They continue on, their righteous shouts leaving no impression on the blue sky or the faces of the pedestrians who continue on toward the canal.

On the bridge over the canal, a young couple embrace in the sun, letting none of the light slip between them. A young woman behind me gushes in lightly accented English about some furniture she found on Ebay Kleinanzeigen. The only problem is you have to rent a car to pick it up—and these streets, you know, they are crazy. A notice hangs on the coffee kiosk: “URGENTLY SOUGHT: Stolen Wedding Ring of my Deceased Father.” On February 27, the ring was stolen from his apartment, the son has written, a situation which he finds extremely sad. Engraved on the inside of the ring is the name “Liesbeth” and the date “27-4-94.”

I follow the dogs and their owners on the dirt path along the water, for once free of mud. Today the bocce courts are not only the province of pensioners. All of humanity has come out to sit on the courts’ wooden encasements as well as the benches that lie next to them. All of humanity has revealed themselves to be sun worshippers. I wonder if the men slinging the silver balls, used to playing without spectators, feel hampered by the crowds, whose grouping allows just enough space for resting places for their coffees or beer. The drinkers turn toward me mildly startled, crooking their heads like little prairie dogs who have just emerged from their warrens after a winter’s hibernation.

When the writer Joseph Roth decided he was leaving Vienna for Berlin in 1920, he wrote his cousin. “I’m going to Berlin in the summer,” he explained, “because in the summer you can sleep on a park bench and eat your fill of cherries.” It is not yet the season of cherries—or even of the cherry blossoms that grow along the route of the wall that used to divide the city, though the next day I will see photos of them beginning to open. It is hard to believe that the season of blossoms has arrived and that cherries will follow soon after. The trees outside my window still have no new leaves—only leaves dead since autumn that refuse to fall.

Beyond the public toilets and before the next circle of benches, a table is set up to sell origami in the usual territory of a man who carries out esoteric rites with life’s detritus. Where has he gone when everyone now tramps through his haunts? Teaspoons clatter against porcelain saucers, announcing a popular coffee shop, whose terraced seating, merrily crawling with patrons, suggests at a distance a kind of enormous ant farm, where the ants tote New Yorker bags.   

Surely, Kurt Tucholsky could never have experienced such a day when he famously wrote about the city: “People complain about the weather, but there really isn’t any weather in Berlin.” How he would have loved it—the lazing and loafing under this sun is worlds away from his vision of the city as a hostile metropolis, more machine than human. Almost an antidote. In 1919 the sun only came out, he wrote, “when you’re crossing the main boulevard and it’s shining right in your eyes.”

Try to tell that to the children banging happily on makeshift instruments on the Admiralbrücke, or the middle-aged who lick ice cream cones outside of Fraulein Frost whether or not they have children in tow, or the man who eats alone with gusto outside Odysseus’s Tavern. He licks his lips before he drinks his wine and gives out an almost theatrical sigh of satisfaction, as if to say, who can think about anything but pleasure on a day like this? I do not think about Tucholsky as I stride along the canal, but about how a friend laughingly named the city when I first arrived, “the Venice of the North.” Beneath the smiling face of Apollo, we become simple animals with short memories.  

In the sun I forget the morning’s protest for a free Palestine. I do not remember that hundreds are demonstrating against Berlin’s new ruling center-right coalition in the city’s center. I do not think about how 175 years ago under today’s sun, the people of Berlin erected barricades and forced the Prussian monarchy to empower a democratic assembly, or that 150 years ago, 20,000 socialists marched to the Friedrichshain cemetery on this day to commemorate their fallen comrades from a quarter century earlier. I look for a warm rock to sit on and sip my drink. I try to transform into a lizard.   

“On a day like this you can’t help but be happy.” Behind me the bar’s wall is plastered with posters proclaiming solidarity. I protest. I lived in Los Angeles for half a decade. Sun can be as oppressive as constant gray, more even. There’s no shelter from the sun in Los Angeles. No, no, I had misunderstood. It’s about the change, the turn in the weather. On the day when the air becomes different, as it did today, you cannot help but also feel a change in your mood. In my memory, he uses the word Wende, but that is clearly wrong. No German would use that word, reserved almost exclusively for Germany’s reunification in 1990, about the weather. But maybe they should, the weather, the climate, also makes all the difference.

The silence after the sun. In the dark outside the bar the canal has turned quiet, too cold now for the clinks of bottles and the murmurs of partiers on the bridges. The buildings on the other side of the water, in what was the East, whose windows had offered earlier the occasional incandescent glow, a promise of something like coziness to make up for their broad shapelessness, are now dark and only ugly. As I shiver, I need to remember that these Plattenbau without loggia are very livable, can be beautiful even, on the inside.

Home is past the abandoned park, the empty school, and the three domes for glass recycling—one each for brown, green, and white glass. I must walk under and beyond the signs of Berlin’s only antiracist, anticolonial, queer-feminist hip-hop political party and the plebiscite campaign that hopes to make Berlin carbon neutral by 2030. My street is empty, the bus stop before my apartment, deserted. No human, god, or animal stirs when I turn the key in the door and we are again in the stairwell. The door closes on the winter night. The hope remains that spring, with all of its promises, will stay tomorrow.

Sanders Isaac Bernstein