Westward, Ho! (Part II)

Three and a half years ago, I wrote this:

“Every time I go into the west, I’m seized by the dual feelings of strangeness and familiarity. More strangeness, actually. The people here are still speaking German, and the same newspapers are on the newsstands, virtually the same ads on bus and subway kiosks, but there’s something that just feels a bit off. It’s like I can’t decide whether I’ve traveled back in time or merely to Paris.”

Looking back on it now, and reading the full entry it came from, I can’t help but marvel at how things have changed. Maybe I know the city better, or maybe I’m older and inclined to gravitate more towards stability, far less towards novelty, but taking a walk through the good old west last week, getting off the U9 at Spichernstrasse and wandering past the grand old UdK building to Ludwigkirchplatz, up past Ku’damm and over to Mommsenstrasse, gazing at the gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings, their facades bedecked with flowers, tendrils, smooth and flawless faces and figures, gold inlay and colored tile, wondering which one of them might have once belonged to my grandmother as a child, up Bleibtreu and over on Pestalozzi all the way to Suarez, finally getting on the U-bahn again at Sophie-Charlotte-Platz, I felt no trace of the alien and the new, none of the fear that gripped me before. I simply felt home.

In the past year or so, I’ve made no secret of my growing love for the west. When newcomers rave about Neukölln and Kreuzberg, or even people I’ve known for years extol the virtues of Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg, I am just as likely to talk about the serenity of those vine-swathed, turn-of-the-century buildings in the Bavarian Quarter near Viktoria-Luise-Platz, my insatiable hunger for all things Asian on Kantstrasse, or a bright and sunny winter’s day spent sliding across the frozen Lietzensee (which is about as far west as some people ever go).

I don’t know where it all started but, as with all things I’ve come to love in Berlin, it may have at first had something to do with food. That is, the food available at the market of all outdoor markets, the wonderful and legendary Winterfeldtplatz. I won’t be telling you anything new if you’ve already been here for a while, but I look back on my first couple of visits to that bustling square in Schöneberg (the very first, I think with a dear friend and her mother on their first Berlin visit) and see it as the beginning of an important and life-changing realization for me: the west was alive! And furthermore, its life, at least to me, seemed unstudied and yet very worth living—the people browsing the goods at this market didn’t seem to be as concerned with showing off as I was used to. In fact, they didn’t seem at all self-conscious. Rather, they were occupied by the wonderfully engaging social life that seemed to go on over there, a comfortable life where you didn’t have to worry about making it out to the best clubs at night or making sure you had a coffee at the very best see-and-be-seen café. They were who they were, and in a way, so is the west.

Real estate envy came soon, followed by dreaminess and then at last resolve. I was determined to uproot myself from my mid-20’s existence and move to the west to become the person I was always meant to be. This is like the moment in New York when you realize you’ve had enough of Williamsburg. I looked back on the past four years of my existence and realized that, in the purest, directional sense of things, I’d been heading westward the whole time. My first flat on Sonnenallee, while technically in Berlin’s western sector, was about as far east in the city as I would go. It was followed by two flats in the actual east, first on Mulackstrasse right in the middle of Mitte’s Scheunenviertel, the second on Tieckstrasse not far from the border between East and West. Now, living across the street from Hauptbahnhof with the deafening sounds of construction all around us, we are reminded day and night that we are living next to what used to be known as the death strip (and if you could hear the jack hammers and revving trucks and vehicles beeping non-stop as they back up at 6am every morning, you’d agree it should still be called that). Obviously, I thought, the next stop on this western express should be…the end of the line!

Yet a few things have come between me and my dream home in Charlottenburg or Schöneberg. The main thing, unsurprisingly, is the cost. While real estate agents and hype-filled blog posts and articles would have you believe that the east is bustling while the west is dead, just as I used to think, this is not really reflected in rental prices. Sure, these days you might have a better chance of getting an apartment on Kaiserdamm than Mehringdamm, in that you’ll be competing with five people instead of fifty, but the prices in the old west were always high—the prices in hipper neighborhoods have simply risen to unexpected heights over the last few years. Whereas I had convinced myself that, since no one I knew wanted to live in Charlottenburg, it must be cheap, that was not the reality. What’s more, the seriously imposing Altbau apartments you think of when you think of Charlottenburg (like the ones I passed on Mommsenstrasse) simply never show up in searches for rentals because they are never free…and if they ever are, they probably go to the well-connected people who already live over there; those who find out about them first. Secondly, while there are many beautiful areas in the west, there are just as many remote streets that are too close to the S-bahn or Autobahn or simply too dead at night for me to want to live there. If you’re moving to the west to gain a perfect Kiez (and let’s be honest, that’s the best reason to move there), you should at least have the good sense to live in one, and not a twenty-minute walk from one.

I’ve been searching now for longer than I care to admit (in fact, I’m considering collecting all my real estate commentary into one long rant and posting it online for the world to see). I’ve been searching for that elusive perfect apartment since even before I moved into this one, with all its imperfections, which we have lived in and loved and suffered with for three whole years now, although it’s hard to believe. A few months ago we found and lost an apartment within a month, and it was more devastating than I could have ever imagined, and yet the search goes on, as newspaper articles extolling Berlin’s real estate boom (Property prices up 70% in the last five years! All the capital’s “undesirables” being pushed to the fringes! Russians, Italians, Brits, Spaniards, Arabian sheiks investing in whole city blocks! How wonderful!) seem to flutter teasingly all around me, whispering in my ear that I’ve waited too long, that Berlin has jumped the shark, that we’re doomed to stay in this old, 52 square meter apartment forever, as the new and shiny Europa City rises around us, like the little house in the story. I dream of having a real neighborhood, one where I can stroll out of the apartment and have other apartments and people around me, a favorite café, a place to go food shopping that isn’t Hauptbahnhof, a favorite local restaurant for those nights I don’t want to cook.

Everyone who ever visits our weird little apartment loves it, and indeed some friends have expressed interest in taking it whenever we’re lucky enough to move out. Three years ago I was intrigued by such a place; a hidden, historical building surrounded by trees and gardens on a street that didn’t really exist. Now I just want that comfortable, established lifestyle I saw on display at Winterfeldtplatz. I’m done with the mystery house that has so many stories behind it.

Now I just want a place with one story ahead of it: the one we will create. Now I just want a home.