Berlin (Slight Return)

In a vintage clothing store, near the wall. Heroes by David Bowie comes on, because of course it does.

This is Friedrichshain, and there are ghosts everywhere: the obvious, Cold War ones, and the personal, psychogeographical spooks of my previous visits to this part of town.


Within half a mile of trying on a leather jacket that doesn’t suit me, my past selves are listening to the trams pass from my translator friend’s flat above Frankfurter Tor; singing Pet Shop Boys at an American drag queen karaoke club; eating late night currywurst and posing for old-school photos in an old-school Photo Booth; sitting in an Airbnb and suspecting I’m part of the problem.

Also Mitte.

I probably have a closer relationship to Berlin than most other European cities. It’s the one place I have previously imagined living, with its hearty mix of artists priced out of London, anarchists clinging on to the margins, and – let’s be honest – the fact a lot of people speak English.

But returning for work – but with time to spend quality time among the right people – reminded me of how much time had elapsed.

This will come across as self-obsession, but it feels truly strange to me that places continue to exist when I am not there, just as I feel I adapt to my new location as though this is where I now live – no matter how brief the stay (in this case, a few short days for a WHO summit) or artificial the life.

And that karaoke place? Well, I tried to return. But judging by the queue outside, the clientele has become younger just as I have become older, and the age gap between us was over twenty years. This was not where I was supposed to be.

Instead, on that strangely warm October Berlin night, you will have found me in an old man bar, talking and thinking of the strange journeys of decades-old friendships, listening to The Velvet Underground and wondering why it was still possible to smoke indoors.

I still like Berlin and I am nowhere near to knowing it. There was time to explore its oldest park and to frown at some of the latest soulless developments in the centre of town, but it still has many secrets hidden from me.

I hope to return, in better humour and season, and watch the ghosts melt away.

There are still goths in Berlin. Some of them are Irish.

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