Absence makes the heart grow fonder, the wallet lighter, the waist thicker and the vocabulary smaller. Or so I’ve learned over the past three months in Berlin.
There are plenty of reasons to recommend Berlin as an alternative to London, of course – not least the cheap housing and a nightlife scene that isn’t being throttled to death. But there are certain formica-topped nooks and winding redbrick corners here that the German capital simply can’t touch for beauty and familiarity. Reading this summer’s headlines from abroad made me weep and moan for a country that seemed to have lost its way, but I comforted myself with the thought that London, at least, remained. It was London I missed, and London I am thrilled to return to.
One of the things I’ll never again take for granted about this city is the stop-and-chat. My God, how I missed those tiny daily dances of sociability, humour and affection. For reasons I’ll never understand, Londoners have a reputation for rudeness, brusqueness, unfriendliness, hostility, even. And yet I’ve spent more time in the past fortnight sharing jokes and swapping gossip with people – the greengrocer, the neighbour, the postman, the stranger picking up dogshit on the marshes near my house, the woman with a leopard-print shopping trolley outside my local fabric shop, cheerful TfL staff, the lady who sells 12 kinds of onion-flavoured crisps up the road, the lifeguards at the women’s pond – than I managed in three months in Berlin. That’s partly due to the language barrier, but it’s also down to the uniquely outward-looking, sociable, wry humour that characterises Londoners. You’ll miss it when you’re gone.
Then there’s the free stuff. Since getting back, I’ve looked, learned and gone to the loo in the Tate, the Geffrye Museum, the National Gallery and the V&A, all without spending a penny. I visited some amazing museums in Germany (most memorably a collection of gas-powered irons and communist hosiery in a former East German farmer’s attic), but I had to pay through the nose for it. London’s free galleries and museums are rightly the envy of the world – and not just because we stole much of their contents under an exploitative colonial empire.
Finally there are the small things, the hard-to-explain details that form part of every Londoner’s identity: baked potatoes with cheese and beans, teabags, funny bus drivers, Tower Bridge, greasy spoons, terraced houses, the Thames Path (try walking along the Spree river in Berlin and you’ll run up against an impassable industrial estate), good Indian food, Hampstead Heath, Oyster cards, people reading murder mysteries on the bus, gardens, Greggs, fish and chips, and hideous short-haired dogs called Duchess.
In August I found myself standing on a street corner in Potsdam, welling up at the sight of a row of particularly London-looking red-brick houses. Now I can cycle over to my mum’s to watch ‘Poirot’ in a proper London red-brick terrace that smells of home. Berlin is wunderbar, but it’s good to be back.
By Nell Frizzell
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