12 years is a long time to spend in a single city for me, and during my Berlin years there were indeed breaks. Still, I’ve lived two whole chapters of my life here. University and first steps in tech. Since moving away in 2008 I came back only sporadically, mostly on short business trips. These past days were the first leisure visit, and with the Mini (that is from here) touring town was a whole different experience. The fantastic sunny and warm weather helped too.
Based in the Kiez (district) of Schöneberg, a few streets away from the very first place I lived in, the mix of old Berlin, Anatolia and Kitkat club regulars hasn’t changed too much. Maybe there are more bike lanes, more international restaurants, and hipsters didn’t exist at the time. Life moves slow and orderly here, Berlin is a very unexcited city. Everything seems built to last for centuries. The missing part of the Mini got fixed at BMW, taking me all the way through Wilmersdorf and the Ku’damm. Like 20 years ago this area emanated zero appeal to me.
Brunch with my sister brought me to Kreuzberg, more specifically to what during my time was the no-go area around Herrmannplatz. The amount of tuned BMWs with plebby-sharp looking Turkish-German male drivers goes up. Still, gentrification is taking over and will win in the long run, like in other areas of town. When the sun comes out the trees start to blossom heavily, the white pollen flying around in huge clouds. Streets are green, fat green. A sweet smell permeates the air. Everybody seems to be chilling.
Moving on to Mitte, the Kiez of my second chapter in Berlin, gentrification has long taken over. Tourists are everywhere. English is the main language. I noted a lot of new construction, that replaced former buildings I couldn’t remember. But passing by a lot of doors or lots in my mind I saw the many clubs or party venues, mostly illegal, that had given this area its underground reputation in the 1990-2000’s. That’s all gone, replaced by neat new apartment blocks and office buildings. The morbid charm of postwar Berlin is slowly disappearing, East and West.
In the evening I met an old friend from school days back in Rome, who also moved to Berlin later. Over tasty beer and humungous Schnitzels André and I caught up on the years since we last met. It felt like nothing had changed. The same humour, the same bond of friendship. OK we didn’t talk about kids at the time, and were both less sensitive to neighbours partying at 3am in our houses. Still, we drank a lot of beer that night and toured my former neighbourhood for bars. At one point I stopped for a moment. Close to Mauerpark we crossed a line on the pavement of the street: the former location of the wall. When I lived in the area the old “Todesstreifen” was an empty space, mostly park. Today new buildings are covering it, and we barely noticed the demarkation on the ground where the wall once stood. Wounds heal.
Sunday morning featured a run around Krumme Lanke, a lake in the woods in the south of town. The way there took me through my early years in Berlin, the daily commutes from Schöneberg out to Dahlem where the Freie Universität has its campus spread across old villas and faculty buildings surrounded by woods and parks. Running around the lake was a blast from the past. The white skinned naturalists enjoying the sun on the lawn, horse riders in impeccably white trousers, spots that had seen spontaneous parties at night back in the days… After the run it was time for breakfast at a café at nearby Schlachtensee. Sitting in the sun I absorbed the beauty of the lake and the good weather. But also here, modernisation is on the march: the menu now features Gin Tonic!
The night before take off I went to dinner with my sister and her boyfriend, to one of the places that haven’t changed and still dish out the probably best pizza in town: il Casolare. This down to earth pizzeria on the canal in Kreuzberg, with its benches under the trees of the terrace, used to be a refuge for food from home far away. Simple, cheap, good pizza, always with a crowd. It felt remotely like Trastevere back in Rome. And it still does.
Tomorrow morning I’ll head for Poland, and the more adventurous part of this journey will start. I’m really looking forward to it, tour the countryside, and start sleeping outdoors at some point.