My third night in Neukölln is the best night’s sleep I have had since arriving. I sleep soundly, without nightmares, and awake feeling refreshed and absolutely enthused for my new adventure. Today I leave Neukölln for Pankow, to meet and stay with my second couchsurfing hosts on the other side of Berlin.
On the S-Bahn over I feel my heart rising with anticipation. The tears of my first day swelling beneath the surface. Transition is hardest when you have nothing solid to hold on to. But I tell myself to take a deep breath. This is one of the things I need to learn to be better with. Transition. Change. Finding solace and comfort in myself. Finding stability in my bones.
I take the S-Bahn to Wollankstrasse, and walk the five minute distance to Brehmestrasse. This was a much better arrival than my previous one already. Clear directions to the apartment I am due to stay in, and a midday arrival too, giving me plenty of time to be lost and found! Thankfully, I arrive at my destination without a hiccup. Success!
I stand in front of the huge doors fronting the apartment block and ring the doorbell which reads ‘Ettinger-Majewski’. The only things I know about Anders and his family are that they live in a communal type arrangement, live sustainable lives, and are self-described anarchists and Gaia lovers. The intercom fuzzes and a voice speaks out, “Hello?”
“Hi, it’s Hope.”
“Ahh yes, come on up, third floor.”
As I climb the stairs, I notice that the walls are decorated sporadically with painted illustrations of climbing stick figures and trees. I reach the third floor and meet Anders. We shake hands.
As I walk inside of his apartment I immediately feel at home. On the wooden floor boards lie small woven Persian carpets, potted plants of many varieties are in each room, the furniture a glorious mismatch of collected items, and shelves of books.
After putting down my stuff in the communal living area (also their bedroom) I follow Anders and Yona (his 18 year old son) through to their kitchen, where we sit and drink tea and eat fruit. Anders says, “All of this food comes from our local Food Sharing collective. We haven’t paid for any food in the last three years. We collect it all from organic supermarkets. It’s the stuff they can’t sell.”
“Like dumpster diving in the States?” I ask.
“Sort of. Except for this is registered and monitored by an official body. It is done carefully so that businesses are able to be more sustainable without risking losing their customers.”
I am amazed. Three years and Anders and his family have not bought any food. And let me just clarify, his family resides in the rest of the apartment block too. It’s communal and sustainable living on a beautiful co-housing scale. We talk about sustainable living, allotment projects, sharing of resources, I point to the microgreens he has growing on his windowsill in the kitchen, and stand up to look out of the window which I can see looks out on to some trees.
“And this is your garden too?” I point downwards.
“Ahh yes, that is ours too. And you see there where it backs onto the railway? Well between this wall there, the Berlin Wall used to run.”
“Right through your garden?”
“Yep. In fact, this bulding that you are standing in was initially built to watch over that section of the Berlin Wall and was only home to those working in the Secret Police. My wife’s grandfather who worked for the Nazis, bought it up after the war, and that is how we have ended up living here.”
“You mean, your Nazi grandfather-in-law has inadvertently put a roof over his Jewish grandson-in-law’s head where he has created a hippy commune?”
We laugh. And it is at this point that I notice, behind the micro greens, and on the wall above the fridge, the royal family memorabilia…
I’m so certain of my company at this point that I let the words roll out of my mouth with hysteria, “Umm… What are these all about? You can’t be socialist royalists can you?” The room erupts with hysteria from all sides.
“It is my fetish,” says Anders. “I am an ironic royalist. It is such a gimmick over here.” He laughs.
We go for a walk with Luca, their old but beautifully welcoming dog, and Yona and Anders show me the town. They point out things to me, trees, buildings, tell me the history of the different types of architecture, and show me Yona’s old school (“this is Hogwarts,” they say). We pass by a shop. “This is a free shop.”
“Oh, like a charity shop,” I say.
“No. It’s a free shop. People donate things and you can come in and take them for free.”
I am confused. “But why not a charity shop?”
Anders puts the explanation together in his head for second. “There aren’t really any charity shops in Germany. We don’t have them. Charity shops are born of commercialism and charity coming together. Whereas this is a product of the Anti-Movement here in Germany. It is born of a different thing.”
We get home and have lunch. Anders tells me that Mika, his wife, describes him as a hobbit, making many meals a day and feeding many people. I say it is an environment that I am familiar with. My mum is much the same when it comes to food. It has always been a communal focus in our family.
We eat pfifferling mushrooms, a type of mushroom native to Germany, with scrambled eggs and bread. We talk about beer and Anders tells me he would love to meet Sion. I mention the Berliner Weisse I tried the day before, and he insists on making me one. I’m intrigued so I hardly protest. Out of the fridge he pulls a bottle of Berliner Kindl Pilsner and a bottle of syrup. “Can it be any pilsner?” I ask.
“No, for it to be a Berliner Weisse, it should always be a Berliner Kindl.”
He pours in the tiniest dribble of syrup. I tell him about the one I had the other day being completely different. “It was bright red and super sweet.” He laughs.
“I just can’t bring myself to ruin a beer like that,” he says, “but yes, in a bar that is how they would serve it.”
For the rest of the meal we talk beer and I ask Anders why I have seen no one else drinking a Berliner Weisse anywhere. “It is more of an alcopop over here. No one really drinks it. But basically, German’s only drink shit larger and nothing else.”
After food, Anders goes to his food collection and I plan my trip into central Berlin for the next day. While he is out I meet his mother-in-law who currently lives in the room at the top of the apartment building. She is wary of me to begin with and informs me that her grandson Yona is not a party animal. She sits down and we talk. She asks me why I’m here and what I’ve come to see. I mention the Berlin Wall. “I remember when they took it down. It was such a beautiful and amazing day. It was such a good feeling. Everyone was climbing over it. And the next day we all took our hammers and chiseled bits out of it to keep. We are lucky that our wall came down. Some countries are not so lucky.”
When Anders gets back we go for another walk around town before the sun sets and we lose the daylight. He takes me to a place where there is a huge pile of great slabs of concrete lain on top of each other like a game of Tetris. Four teenagers sit on top drinking bottles of pilsner. “These are slabs of the Berlin Wall from when it came down.” I am amazed. “It wasn’t organised by anyone really when it came down. It just happened in different areas in different ways. And here, they just piled it up in places. We can come back tomorrow and chisel you some off if you like.”
As we walk around town I notice Anders hesitating at certain corners, inspecting boxes of things left out by other people for the taking of others. The sustainability soldier in him, constantly alert to opportunities of reusing and recycling. It makes me feel at home. To be around people who are familiar to you in their way of life, is like – when you are travelling at least – being around people you are familiar with. It puts me at ease and I feel comfortable.
Later in evening we share dinner, all made from food collected from the Food Share. His neighbour Claudia joins us. We drink wine, laugh, joke, and exchange cultural differences. I feel as though I am surrounded by the oldest and most dearest of friends.