The end of hobo chic

I like to stop by Bebelplatz for a visit to the Empty Library

The barber shops reopened in Berlin this week.

I’d booked an appointment as soon as I saw it coming, to beat the mad rush of involuntary hippies. And so I set out this morning to put an end to my out-of-control hobo chic.

For the wielders of the clipper and comb, it must be a lot like shearing sheep. At a time like this, I’m thankful to have a Welsh barber. Although the guy who mans the front desk told me they hadn’t seen nearly as many self-barbering disasters as they were expecting.

This excursion to Make Murd Presentable Again was also my first glimpse of civilization in nearly 3 months.

I last saw my barber in early December, a week before the current lockdown, and a week before we moved from our Kreuzberg flat deeper into West Berlin.

Kreuzberg’s the centre of the city for me. It’s filled with cafes and shops and all sorts of strange people, from goths and those voluntarily trapped in the 70’s or 80’s to huge Turkish families smoking shisha in the park.

Our neighbours back there were journalists, writers, artists and ex-cons. And no matter what time we went out, I’d always see someone on the street, even at 3am.

The West Berlin district where we live now is so different from that. Flats are difficult to find in Berlin, and we lucked out with a surprisingly large one in a 1930’s building. But this district feels a world away from the side of Kreuzberg I knew so well.

There aren’t really any cafes here, just a few takeaways (mediocre Thai, decent pizza, two good Croatian spots, and a few German), but there is a biergarten at the centre of a large wooded park next door. I never see people on the street at 3am, either. This is a working class district, and most of the lights in the flats around us seem to be off by 11pm, even on weekends.

I grew up in a working class family, so that side of our new neighbourhood felt familiar right away. But I still don’t feel like I fit in here, and I don’t feel any connection to the people we pass on the street.

I think it’s the usual discomfort of the housebound writer, the same mild guilt I felt long before I left Canada. The guilt of being home all day when everyone else in the neighbourhood is working. It feels a bit like skipping school, or living off the system. I always felt a bit self-conscious about running out to the shops on a weekday afternoon too, when all the other men were at work. I guess that’s my dad’s generation coming out.

I spend as much time at my desk as anyone who trudges to an office each day — probably more — and I’ve never had funding that I didn’t earn. But still, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that I should be doing something productive that involves trudging out each morning to the grind.

I never felt that way in Kreuzberg, where no one seemed to keep conventional hours or do conventional things, and where everyone else was stranger than me.

I noticed one other thing on my evening walks here, too. Nearly everyone had bookshelves in our old Kreuzberg neighbourhood. I’d see them lining the walls of the flats we passed by on our winter night loops of the neighbourhood. Germans seem to shun curtains, and the flats were like a fishbowl, but a fishbowl where at least one wall of one room was lined with books.

I don’t recall seeing any bookshelves on my walk through this neighbourhood. I’m sure there must be some, but it’s likely that my level of book ownership vastly exceeds that of my neighbours. Perhaps they’re just public library users, like I was growing up. I could see the public library from my bedroom window in my hometown. How great is that?

Anyway, we were talking about my trip to the barber, and the feeling of leaving lockdown after 3 months.

I couldn’t just bike to the barber in 10 to 15 minutes, like I did from my old place. I had to spend 30 minutes on the subway, instead. But as luck would have it, the U7 line that passes through my new neighbourhood goes all the way there.

I’m glad about that. I like my Welsh barber and didn’t want to change. He’s great at his job, and he always has something interesting to say. Being farther away also gives me an excuse to linger afterwards. I don’t feel so pressed to rush back to my desk.

I felt a bit sad sitting there in the U7 watching familiar stations pass by. Not so much Mehringdamm in the Bergmannkiez, where I used to live. That looked a bit shabbier than I remember. But I felt a pang of nostalgia passing by Berliner Strasse station, where we used to go to a Sichuan restaurant on cold winter nights for the warmth of edible fire.

That and Savignyplatz on the way home, where my favourite bar, the Fisch, was damaged by an arsonist near the start of the pandemic.

I was half an hour early, so I got out at Südstern rather than Hermannplatz to walk through the Graefekiez along the route I used to bike, just to remind myself what it looked like. Really, it felt like I’d never left.

With 20 minutes to kill, I grabbed a döner at Imren — the best spot in the city for Berlin’s ubiquitous snack. It’s ridiculously cheap, and they make their own bread and stack their own meat skewers, which is not the case for most of the other döner joints in town.

I ate my sandwich sitting on the curb by the square, where others were taking coffee with their faces to the sun. I did surprisingly well until the last couple bites. It seems to be a natural law of both döner and shawarma that the wrap and paper splits near the end and drips sauce on some part of one’s jeans.

My barber did an excellent job, as usual. And while I’d hesitate to say he made me beautiful, I am confident that strangers won’t try to hand me spare change near the subway station anymore. I no longer look like a cross between a vagrant and a Beatnik poet.

Restaurants and shops are still closed in Berlin; only schools and barbers were allowed to open this week. But bookshops were always considered essential services, and so I talked myself into hopping a train over to Friedrichstrasse to peruse the English room at Dussmann to see who’s publishing what in travel literature.

Hello Fernsehturm my old friend

I took the U8 up a few stops to Jannowitzbrücke to change to the above-ground S-bahn that runs through Mitte. Emerging from underground and seeing the TV tower was like bumping into an old friend. That ugly metallic tower was a symbol of freedom for me when we were making visits to Berlin during the Malta years; a reminder that there were better places out there somewhere, and that one day I might be able to escape.

Riding the rails past Alexanderplatz and Hackescher Markt reminded me what the city looks like, and just how hick our new far West neighbourhood feels by comparison.

I needed to get back in touch with that, and so I bought a coffee from a Starbucks next to Friedrichstrasse station and walked over to Bebelplatz to visit the empty library. I like to stop by the empty library anytime I’m in the vicinity, and especially at night, when its light shines up like a column from the ground.

I like to stop by Bebelplatz for a visit to the Empty Library

Bebelplatz is the square between Humbolt University and the Opera House where Nazi students burned an enormous pile of books on May 10, 1933. You can read more about it by clicking the link to an earlier blog I wrote about the topic.

Anyway, yeah, I sat on a bench in the sun and drank my coffee in a square strangely absent of tourists. And I stood silent next to the empty library and thought about how grateful I am for all the writers who came before me, and for the wonderful assemblage of books we call the Western Canon that have given me so much.

And then I made my way back to Dussmann to lose myself in the shelves.

I need more books like I need 43 arseholes. I already have plenty of unread volumes on my groaning shelves. But, inevitably, I bought more books.

Today’s haul — anyone read these?

I was hoping to find a copy of Tim Marshall’s latest — his Prisoners of Geography was one of my top reads of 2020 — but it doesn’t come out until April. I found an older one I hadn’t read, though, and a few others.

And then I took them back to my new place on the fringe of Charlottenburg, where there’s not much to do except read and write.

What did I think about on the subway home?

I forget what it’s like to go see a film…
…or a concert…
…or have a drink at my favourite bar

How much I miss meeting friends at Zwiebelfisch for ice-cold beer. Live music (seeing Slowdive at Huxley’s was so great). Catching a film at the Babylon. Hot bowls of Taiwanese noodles at Lon Men’s on Kantstrasse. And galleries on Potsdamer Strasse followed by a cocktail or two at the Victoria Bar.

This lockdown’s going to end sometime, isn’t it?

I’d really like Berlin back.

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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