by Emma Mould
Someone tells you, just before you go, to watch out for Berlin. It’s a bit gloomy. It might not help with the latest attack of black mood you have been under. You remember seeing a solar eclipse when you were twelve, the way the birds went to sleep as the day suddenly became extinguished. Like the birds, the trouble with you is that you also believe that any temporary darkness is, in fact, permanent. You dutifully shut down, close your eyes, play dead. You create a home there and truly believe that there is no going back. So you start to feel nervous about Berlin. Perhaps you shouldn’t go.
You have only been in Berlin for a day and a half and it is already in your veins. Like any poor sucker who is newly in love, you think that Berlin’s every feature, its every curve, is just for you. Your love feels very deep and very true. You love the way the whole city moves like a topography of hybridity, the urban with the natural, the mechanical indistinguishable from the organic. Your love is also superficial (you love that you can smoke anywhere and that you can use the underground for free). Berlin wants nothing from you, it only gives. And what astonishing gifts.
As you stand by Checkpoint Charlie, you realise that Berlin has a robust and healthy approach to its historical pain. It understands that the past bruises and that these marks do not fade. Attempting to cover them up is the ineffectual trick of denial and it doesn’t take away their power. The only choice left then is to use memory to give depth and weight to the present moment. So at Eastside Gallery, you are not just looking at a bunch of murals on walls. You are looking at a reclaiming of a literal and metaphorical space which once cruelly amputated the city. This cannot be forgotten but Berlin knows that there has to be a way to grow around the past, to not forgot, but to own it and to use it. Always, to grow. The American guards at Checkpoint Charlie with their uniforms and flags are performativity in action. Their smiles, their banter with the tourists, the free-flowing traffic around them, all of this is a subversive citation of the oppression this place once embodied. It refers to it but it does not bow down to its discursive power. Checkpoint Charlie, as it is now is a site of acknowledgement but also, of resistance, turning previously held power against itself to produce a new meaning. Not a denial but a re-signification. Always, to grow.
Your friends take you to an abandoned theme park in the middle of Treptow, heavily policed by guards. This, of course, only makes it more seductive; there is always the urge to press the ‘do not press’ button, to cover condoned off areas with your own footprints. As you attempt to sneak past them, your friend’s boyfriend whispers at her to ‘be tiny!’ because he doesn’t know how to say ‘crouch down’ in English. The paper-thinness of language reveals itself in that comic moment and you are reminded that there is more to communication than words. And this place is more than words; like someone’s tattered, long abandoned childhood toys, there is now only a faint echoing of fun and thrills. Like everything else in Berlin, it is a place you thought you knew, re-imagined. And it is a reminder that time can leave its ravages. Then you learn that soon, it will be opened to the public again due to popular demand. Nothing is beyond the possibility of salvation.
New love is never really new. New love can only ever be a transposition, an uncertain ghost hovering above previous loves, only existing in juxtaposition to what came before. So your love for Berlin reminds you that the past may bruise, but entire cities, entire loves, have been rebuilt on top of injuries. That no pain is so great that it justifies giving up or playing dead. Life gets in anyway. And your life glows neon with the light of possibilities.
Emma Mould is a 26-year-old graduate student from Bristol who spends far too much listening to records and contemplating her emotional state when she should be writing her dissertation.