Our little nuclear family moved to Berlin in 2003 from Washington DC, where we’d been on a posting. We were about halfway through a lifetime of peripatetic wandering. Coming to Berlin, I’d hoped for a feeling of hometown to tuck itself in between my books, to help me get through the relocations that have inevitably followed.
Billy Wilder lived here in the 1920s, as did Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni, both at number 11.
That didn’t happen, and time hasn’t changed that. Not really. We lived first on Duisburger Straße: a vast old flat with Berliner Zimmer. Genteel street. Quiet neighbourhood. In 2005, we bought a flat on Viktoria-Luise-Platz in Schöneberg. It’s a gorgeous apartment. Light-filled with a small garden overlooking the fountain and square.
Local history seemed propitious. Billy Wilder lived here in the 1920s, as did Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni, both at number 11. Wilder had a tiny sublet on the third floor. Busoni had 5000 books on the fifth and a private lift to his ground-floor bar. Vladimir Nabokov lived just down the road on Motzstraße, one of the roads leading through the square.
But history is more than one thing after another. It’s pervasive and invidious, especially in Berlin. Named after the only daughter of Germany’s last Kaiser, the square seemed, with time, determined to reveal less flattering elements of Germany’s past. Schöneberg was a quarter developed and favoured by Jews. Unlike Wilder and Nabokov’s Jewish wife, most didn’t make it out. Nabokov’s Berlin work is seared with the anticipation of violence and crime and the perpetuity of exile.
The fountain pipes are home to one or two rats that sometimes cross the street into the garden.
Our new home had its own history of untreated war damage that led to constant and costly refurbishments. People picked my hollyhocks – until I put up envelopes containing their seeds and invited passers-by to help themselves. The lovely Italian restaurant next door made quiet evenings an unfulfillable summer dream (to be fair: generously dispensed Proseccos sweetened that pill).
There were petition-led fights over the planting up of the square, and a potential sponsorship from Wall AG. The fountain pipes are home to one or two rats that sometimes cross the street into the garden. Adding insult to injury, a tick once crawled up my trouser leg as I lay reading on the grass and put me on antibiotics for two weeks.
And yet, what quieter, more serene spot than the gardens of the Lette Verein at number six, where generations of young people (initially only women) learned a trade? And what a privilege to have met Ilse Middendorf, shortly before her death in 2009, in the spacious rooms where she instilled a respect for breathing techniques in the legendary Institut für Erfahrbaren Atem at number nine. And Olli, my favourite waiter and opera-buff at Café Montevideo. Olli, have you retired? I hope not.
The sight of two pairs of naked buttocks walking past our fence to a CSD event on Motzstraße, tidily divided by black leather thongs and affectionately linked by held hands, sums up my Berlin experience in what you might call a nutshell. Like no other city I’ve lived in, my nearly 20 on/off years in Berlin have taught me – quite literally – to take the rough with the smooth.
Eve Lucas has written on books and film for Exberliner since 2005. She also contributed to Monocle’s Berlin Guide and NPR’s Berlin Stories. She’s lived in Moscow, Washington DC and Brussels as a MAP (German Foreign Office speak: mitausreisender Partner) and currently lives in Paris honing a late calling as a painter.