Bicultural Urbanite Luke When your Balcony is your fridge

Plattenbau galore on Frankfurter Allee.
Plattenbau galore on Frankfurter Allee. | © Isabelle Beyer

If there’s a flip side of Berlin’s captivating essence, it’s the difficulty of finding the right home base in a city positively crawling with freshly captivated arrivals. With the sheer volume of applicants the renter of each room receives in Berlin, the ‘casual’ get-to-know-you chats that take place at the viewings often feel like you’re a contestant on some cringeworthy reality TV show. The pressure is high—not only to trumpet all the magnificent aspects of your delightful personality, but to somehow do so without coming off like the most insufferable show pony in town.

And then there’s the arduous process of making sure you have these meetings at all. For anyone who’s ever had to find a flat in Berlin without any local connections, just a glimpse of the garish orange of http://www.wg-gesucht.de can be a triggering sight. I once knew a guy who popped the term ‘wg-gesucht’ into the search field of his gmail account during his Berlin room hunt: it came back with over 200 hits. He wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Needless to say, when I was offered a “big room in a grand old building in Neukölln” just a couple of weeks into my Berlin experience, I accepted without hesitation. This particular shared flat—or ‘Deutsche WG’—was being set up by a friend of a friend of a distant acquaintance; in other words, a connection remote enough to allow the telling of this story.

Teeth-chattering street construction

Now everyone knows just how crucial one’s living quarters are to one’s welfare. The people, interior spaces, and locations we surround ourselves with on a daily basis can genuinely make or break us. With that in mind, it’s safe to say the position I now found myself in was less than ideal. Let me paint a little picture: sure, the flat was located in Neukölln. But this was not the ultra-hip kind of hood you find around Kreuzkölln and the like; this was some serious, deep-down-in-the-depths-of-the-real-Neukölln business, where the amount of street construction going on physically made your teeth chatter. And yes, the building was a “grand old” thing. But it was a grand, old dilapidated thing in desperate need of the kind of foundational refurbishing the neighbourhood was enjoying. 

The kitchen of my beautiful Friedrichshain Altbau WG, circa 2012. The kitchen of my beautiful Friedrichshain Altbau WG, circa 2012. | © Isabelle Beyer I was told a kitchen sink would be installed within the next week, but that for the time being, we should rinse our vegetables in the bathroom (provided one of the other four tenants wasn’t showering at the time; a process that could take a while with the intermittent hot water problem). I was also assured that, within a week, the rather handy amenity of a fridge would arrive—but in the meantime, we should take advantage of the 15 degree minus temperatures outside and store our fresh produce on the balcony. I was further promised that within the next week, we would have access to a very neat thing called the Internet. Oh, the optimism.
 
One week passed, and another, and then another still. At around one month in, I found myself collecting my broccoli from the freezing balcony to rinse it off next to the toilet after banging on the bathroom door for 15 minutes, and regularly venturing out in the snow amidst a cacophony of jackhammers and bulldozers to an internet cafe whenever I felt like searching online for something better—namely, every waking moment. The rest of my time in the flat was spent either strategically avoiding awkward interactions with the ‘interesting’ characters living there, or sleepless in my main road-facing bedroom, which pulsated all through the night with the rushing by of heavy trucks—a soundscape further punctuated with periodic fits of screaming and the breaking of fragile objects from the room adjacent to mine.

Shared-flat living in Berlin gone right. Shared-flat living in Berlin gone right. | © Luke Troynar Long story short: I made it out alive. And thankfully, the next Berlin WG I found myself in was the antithesis of the first—a cosy, welcoming apartment which would gladly become my home base for the next two years. Not only was it as functional as a family manor, it was filled with affable, considerate, and interesting characters (sans inverted commas) who turned out to be the perfect human launchpad for the life I have here today. I guess the moral of the story—aside from ‘think before you jump’—is that not all WGs are created equal. But find the right one, and Berlin will blossom for you in all its raw, distinctive beauty.