On arrival to this city, I soon realized that getting on a bike was going to be the best way to feel integrated. My German language skills were basic – progress in this department was slow to say the least.
Despite my poor grasp of the language, the one thing I did have down was my map reading skills – being a well-seasoned traveller. I figured the best way to assimilate into my new culture was to get my hands on a bike and explore the city from street level.
In a city where bikes literally litter the streets, I just couldn’t justify purchasing a new one. As for secondhand bikes at flea markets or auctions, there was always this nagging doubt at the back of my mind that they had been stolen. But it struck me that such items came with the stories of others who had come before. They weren’t new, they didn’t smell like the factories they had been made in – they had taken on identities of their own. Each item was personalised with a particular history which I could only imagine.
Exposure to this way of consuming changed my perception of the objects I was acquiring in my life, and made me question what it was I really wanted, and more importantly made me realise I no longer wanted something that didn’t have a story. In a city like Berlin, where there are so many bikes and people passing through, sooner or later a bike with a story would turn up.
My first opportunity came exactly a week later. Walking home past the Deutsches Historisches Museum one warm spring evening, I came across a bicycle resting gently against a bike stand. Even before I realized it wasn’t locked, I felt it calling me over, tempting me to take it. There was something seductive about the way it casually perched against the stand, willing me to ride it home. The front tire was a little flat, but other than that it looked to be in perfect working order. It had an understated beauty that marked it out from the other bikes and possibly that was the reason it was still there, waiting for me.
Almost as soon as I had established the bike was unlocked, doubts started to creep in. Surely it belongs to someone: they just forgot to lock it. How would I feel if I took it? Even if I could convince myself the bike had been left there by a fellow traveller, would I ever be able to clear my conscience?
The truth was that, despite being magically delivered the bike I had so wished for, now that it was here in front of me, something didn’t feel right. I realized this wasn’t a story I wanted to be part of. Walking away, I felt a surge of excitement at the realisation that the universe was perhaps testing me with this bike. By choosing to walk away, I had foiled it in its attempts to try and get me to sell out on my own principles by offering me this hot set of wheels! But instead I realized the bike that came into my life would not only have to have a story, but that story would also have to benefit all parties concerned.
The trouble with asking the universe for something is that it can sometimes take its time to deliver. Over the coming weeks of traipsing across the city, there were many moments when I was on the verge of caving in and heading to the next flea market to get myself a set of wheels. But with the dual aid of stubbornness and determination, I persevered – until one evening, at a dinner party with friends.
A woman from the group was telling of the story of her good fortune a year before, when she had won the grand prize of a competition: a brand new bike. The only thing that bothered her was her old bike. She was ashamed to admit that once the new shiny bike arrived, she had abandoned her former two-wheel carrier to the bike shed, and although she kept intending to sell it, she had never got round to it.
My ears pricked up. Here was a bike that needed an owner. Here was a bike that was in need of some TLC. Here was a bike whose current owner would actual be relieved to see it being passed onto someone. At long last, the universe had delivered. I had found my bike.
A week later, we were finally united. We found her, dusty and saddle-less, at the back of the shed. With a little work here and there, she would soon be in perfect working order. Despite her shabby appearance I could see she was a lady, and to honour her return to freedom, I named her Liberty. It was love at first sight. The good karma continued in the local bike store where the owner, so moved by the story I told him about Liberty and I, threw in the repair work she needed and a secondhand saddle in for free!
I cycled home via the Tiergarten, the spring sunshine illuminating our way. I glowed with a sense of accomplishment. I was the proud owner of a bike, a bike with a story. I was comforted with the knowledge that this acquisition would be one would stay with me for the rest of my life because of our story, even long after Liberty moves on to be part of what I hope will be more stories to come.
Continue to the Staal’s Berlin Letters or read Martin Gordon’s The Right to Bike.