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What It’s Like to Be in Berlin Right Now

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In our Windows on the World series, we ask Canadians living abroad to give us a sense of how it feels to be where they are right now. It’s a way to cross borders without leaving home.

In November of 2019, I moved to Berlin to pursue a job in publishing. I left London behind, and with my fiancé in tow set up a new life in the German capital, a life we expected would be filled with nightlife, gallery visits and train trips around Europe. I had a timid first few weeks, and just as I was starting to open up to Berlin, the city closed down.

Nowadays, we hardly leave our neighbourhood.

April 7, 2021
A small boat going down the waterway beside a row of houses in Berlin
   Photo: Kristian Prevc
The Landwehr Canal in Berlin, Germany
Landwehr Canal.   Photo: Fionn Grosse (Unsplash)

Whereas other European districts are identified with or bounded by a high street, city square or park, Kreuzberg as I know it is defined by the Landwehr Canal. A walk along its tree‑lined banks today reveals recreation spaces, graffitied bridges, joggers, dog walkers, a Turkish market on Tuesdays and Fridays, bakeries, cafés, swans, people feeding the swans, several churches and a synagogue. For the last year, with much of the city shuttered, my partner and I walked along the canal almost every day.

Although it’s always the same route, the tone of our walk changed as Covid‑19 ebbed and flowed through Germany. Around this time last year, hardly anyone stepped out along the canal, and those who did gave one another the widest possible berth on the narrow dirt paths.

Swans resting by the canal in Berlin
   Photo: Kristian Prevc
Grabbing a drink by boat from the Van Loon kiosk
Van Loon.   Photo: Elli Stuhler

Life returned to the area by summer. Pandemic year or not, Berliners enjoy the local pastime of floating on the canal, drinking beer aboard blow‑up dinghies. (In Germany it’s legal to drink in public, and people do, everywhere.) “When in Rome (or Berlin)!” we figured, and spent countless summer evenings floating with friends, paddling up to Van Loon, a restaurant on a boat that serves Aperol Spritz and fish ’n’ chips from its float‑up bar.

We continued to stroll the canal into the fall and winter. By Christmas, bars and restaurants were closed again, so Berliners socialized on foot, warmed by take‑away glühwein – mulled red wine spiced with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Some of the best came from Horváth, a Michelin‑starred Austrian restaurant that served steaming mugs from its twinkle‑lit weekend Christmas market.

The canal froze for a week in February, something that only happens every few years. What started as a few tentative steps on the ice ended up with speed skaters, hockey games and large crowds. Eventually someone set up a DJ booth.

A Berlin walking bridge in front of a housing complex
   Photo: Kristian Prevc
People riding dinghies in Berlin in warmer weather
   Photo: Kristian Prevc
    Photo: Elli Stuhler

Nowadays, our walks are punctuated by a new ritual: waiting in line. Although the Brits invented queuing, Berliners perfected it. Up until last year, standing in line in Berlin usually meant waiting outside Berghain or Sisyphos wearing varying shades of black and bleached hairstyles last seen in the 1980s. For the time being, with museums, restaurants and clubs all closed, queuing in Berlin means waiting 45 minutes outside Brammibal’s for vegan doughnuts, Zola for Neapolitan‑style pizza or La Maison for an almond croissant, which, with its flaky exterior and sweet nutty filling, is among the city’s finest. On the first warm day of spring, even the convenience stores, or spätis as they’re called here, had a long line of people waiting to buy beers to drink on the banks of the canal, feet dangling over the water.

Bare trees line both sides of a river in Berlin
   Photo: Kristian Prevc

Before arriving in Kreuzberg, we spent five short pandemic‑free months in Friedrichshain, a neighbourhood in the former East Berlin populated by young mothers and aging punks. Living there in a sublet was only meant to be temporary before moving to a permanent home in Kreuzberg, where our Berlin life would really begin. Of course, it didn’t happen that way. I have yet to visit many of the city’s legendary museums and clubs, and it makes me wish I dove in when I had the chance. Now I’m left counting the days until everything opens up. As of now, we don’t know when that will happen. Until it does, you will find me strolling along the canal.