It’s a weekday evening in February and Patrick* is sat in his office with a girl he met on Hinge. Perched on swivel chairs, they sip Pilsners awkwardly as their small talk echoes off the bare white walls. Empty Amazon boxes and piles of magazines are strewn around them. Relatively new to the city, this is not what the 23-year-old Parisian journalist had in mind when he pictured Berlin’s spontaneous, sex-filled dating scene. But Patrick has a Covid-cautious flatmate who won’t let him entertain at home, and he doesn’t feel comfortable heading out for a socially distanced walk in freezing temperatures or inviting himself over to hers. “I suggested she come to the office after work because I thought it was the least bad option. It turned out to be quite a bad option,” he admits, his voice tinged with regret. “It’s not a very romantic environment.”
Patrick isn’t the only one who’s struggling to forge romantic and sexual connections. Unlike the first lockdown, when the shock of Covid-19 encouraged many to engage in online dating, this time in-person meet-ups have continued as pandemic restrictions stretch into a semi-permanent reality. Even at its strictest, Germany’s lockdown allows you to meet with one other person from a separate household indoors. But the dearth of first-date locations has caused a host of practical problems, turning the city’s fluid dating scene into an awkward obstacle course that has forced Berliners to get creative, with varying degrees of success.
All dressed up with nowhere to pee
Denise, a 36-year-old UX designer and poet from Lisbon, found herself single two months before the pandemic hit. While spring and summer consisted of casual dates with friends, she launched herself into dating apps properly last autumn. “All the loneliness of not being intimate with anyone was affecting me. So I tried to meet more people and see where it would go,” she says. When the “lockdown light” was enforced at the start of November, shuttering bars, cafés and restaurants, Denise’s dating life faltered. She quickly grew tired of the Covid-friendly walking date that’s become a staple of pandemic times, a relic of Jane Austen-era court- ship rituals.
“It’s hard to see if there’s chemistry with the person because you’re so uncomfortable. You’re cold, you feel like a penguin in all your layers, maybe you have a runny nose,” she explains. “On one date, we were both desperate to pee but it was too cold to go in the bushes. The guy actually called a friend who owned a restaurant nearby, and the friend opened it up just so we could use the toilet.” Though Denise found this hilarious, it didn’t exactly lay the foundations for romance. “Then they took the glühwein away from us and things got even worse!” she says, referring to the alfresco alcohol ban that came into force in mid-December.
On one date, we were both desperate to pee but it was too cold to go in the bushes. The guy actually called a friend who owned a restaurant nearby…
However, it’s not just bad weather and a lack of toilets that can dampen the mood. “I think everyone’s feeling a bit pressured with walking dates at the moment,” admits Lucas*, 25, a student in political science from Bonn. “You’re talking the whole time, which can make the connection more truthful in a way, but it’s pretty exhausting. You’re not getting distracted by being in a bar or listening to music.” The lack of a backup plan also heaps on pressure. “If you’d had a bad date in a bar on a Friday night, you could always just call your friends to see what they were doing and head on to another place. You don’t have that option right now.”
Yet despite their flaws, walking dates are a welcome opportunity to get out of the flat for Rachel, a strategy consultant who moved to Berlin from London in December. A regular on apps like Hinge and Bumble, the 24-year-old has found dating to be an easy way to meet new people and settle into the city. “Given this one-person rule, it’s one of the few ways to see people that’s actually legal. And I live on my own, so it’s lovely to have a bit of social contact,” she explains. Compared to the UK, where stay-at-home orders and social contact restrictions were even harsher during the winter lockdown, Berlin’s one-person rule proved something of a luxury. “One of the things I love about the dates is not actually the date itself, it’s just putting on some makeup and feeling a bit normal again,” she laughs. “I don’t really care if it’s good or bad, I just appreciate it amongst the shitness of life at the moment.”
Yours or mine?
The dating game gets more complicated when brought indoors; not just in terms of the obvious Covid risk, but in terms of consent too. On a couple of occasions, Rachel has felt awkward about being invited straight back to someone’s apartment. “They were so clearly just looking for a hook-up, and it felt too transactional, too obvious,” she re- members. “The times I’ve gone straight back to theirs after a 30-minute glühwein walk, it’s turned uncomfortable quite quickly, and I’ve let it go further than I probably wanted it to.”
Without the safe, communal atmosphere of a restaurant or bar, she’s found it harder to opt out of dates she’s not enjoying, and also to set boundaries in terms of physical intimacy. “I tend to hold out till the second date to sleep with someone. But when you’re at someone’s house, that’s traditionally been the language and the sign for having sex,” Rachel says. “Obviously that’s not what it means to show consent in any situation, but ‘do you want to come back to mine?’ was the clear indicator that you might be interested. It’s harder to navigate that situation now.”
During the extreme cold snap in February, going for an initial walk wasn’t always on the cards. For many Berliners, this opened up the difficult question of meeting at their own apartment or someone else’s – a prospect that makes Denise feel uneasy. “I’ve never met anyone online who I thought was dangerous, but it’s a weird concept to bring someone to mine on a first date. You never know who you’re meeting. I know this sounds a bit paranoid, but it means they know where you live.”
The idea of meeting at theirs also doesn’t appeal. “In terms of going to someone else’s house, I’ve had a really terrible experience with that. A guy forced himself on me once and I felt kind of hopeless, I was somewhere I didn’t really know.” Denise has paused her dating plans until the weather improves or the service industry reopens.
Lucas, who is bisexual, has insight into both hetero and queer dating scenes, and says he hasn’t noticed as many complications when meeting guys. “In the queer hook-up scene, when you meet at an apartment you know it’s definitely a sex date,” he says. But whether he’s dating men or women, Lucas is worried about the virus. “People live in shared flats, so even if you’re just there for a hookup, you’re putting yourself and the roomies at risk by broadening the circle of infection.”
The lack of commitment you have in Berlin has grown over the past year. Nowadays, I feel like there are no boundaries to cancelling an appointment or a date.
An important factor of a first date for Lucas is trying to deduce how Covid compliant they’ve been. “Even during summer when infection rates were pretty low, I was still curious about how they were approaching the contact rules. I saw four friends at once recently, which maybe wasn’t the best decision, but I’m okay with that if another person is honest about it. If I get the sense they’re attending one of these illegal parties with 20 or 30 people and aren’t taking it seriously, that’s a no-go.”
The threat attached to physical intimacy reminds LGBTQ activist Tadzio Müller of the anxiety surrounding HIV/AIDS. “From the mid-eighties onwards, gay life was structured by a fear of the other. It gave it a paranoid atmosphere, and I see that today with Covid.” Müller is saddened by the impact of the virus on connections in urban spaces too. “To use a Harry Potter analogy, it’s like the corona world is filling up with dementors; they drain happiness and make everything colder. I feel like the dementors have fled Azkaban and are rolling free through our cities, ending playful flirtation on subways.”
Though the pandemic has altered the physical landscape of Berlin’s dating scene, it’s also intensified pre-existing behaviours. Denise is struck by what she terms “the horniness of the apocalypse”. “Everyone seems to be in survival mode. People are even more upfront about wanting sex on dating apps than they were before,” she explains. “For the first time on Tinder, I feel really objectified. It’s like you’re just on a menu and they see some food that looks nice.”
On the rare occasions that Denise has slept with her dates, this attitude has made its way into the sex itself. “Of course, men are not famous for their generosity with women they barely know. When you have sex with some- one for the first time, you’re not expecting a great performance, it’s more two people getting to know each other But this was just, ‘I came here, I had dinner, now I expect you to give me an orgasm, then I’ll go and text you again in two weeks.’ It was a bit disturbing.”
Denise suspects that people are transferring the immediacy of club hook-up culture onto dating apps, but without the enjoyment of a multi-sensory build- up. “At least when you’re in a club there are many stimulations; you’re attracted visually or by their sense of smell or something they said. You’re dancing together, maybe you’ve taken drugs. Even if it’s a one-night stand, the intimacy was created there. Now everything is so mechanical.”
Lucas, too, notes that the pandemic has reinforced the city’s “non-committal” vibe: “The lack of commitment you have in Berlin has grown over the past year. Nowadays, I feel like there are no boundaries to cancelling an appointment or a date.” While the dynamics of sex dates might not have changed, Lucas feels that the queer scene itself has been put into survival mode, due to the loss of safer spaces, sex parties and club nights. Müller agrees: “For us gays, our identities are created within subcultures. Dating apps are a functional replacement for some parts of the subculture, like meeting sexual partners, but they lack a lot of what makes up queer lives.”
All the time in the world
For some, the unique conditions of lockdown have enabled budding romances to flourish. Exberliner’s resident queer columnist Walter Crasshole, 38, has spent the past few years as a “happy-go-lucky, single-ish guy”, open to the prospect of a long-term relationship but sceptical that one would ever come along. In mid-December, however, an encounter on gay dating app Planet Romeo took him by surprise. “It was supposed to just be a hook-up, but he ended up being really, really cool. That’s what I thought the second I got there, and we just kept meeting up. Sometimes you find someone, your minds just meld and that’s it.”
Months later, Crasshole and his partner are in a stable, loving relationship, which he owes in part to the lockdown. “Without the circumstances in Berlin, maybe I wouldn’t have given it the attention it needed. I feel like I had time to really get to know another person and to settle in to who he was on many levels, as opposed to just jumping from bed to bed,” he smiles. Though he admits that others in his friendship group are struggling. “I feel I’m a rare exception, I don’t know how I got so lucky! It’s just the perfect time with the perfect guy.”
While the office date didn’t work out for Patrick, it sowed the seeds of love for Matty*. One evening in November, the 24-year-old Brit was due to meet Vera*, a 25-year- old student from Sweden; instead of their planned walk, he proposed an alternative. “I had to clear it with my boss first,” says Matty. “I was like, ‘I’ve got a Tinder date, can I use the office?’ and he was like, ‘Sure, go ahead’. I didn’t know if it was a weird suggestion, but I knew it was going to be better than us being really cold.”
Vera agreed. “I was sold because he said it had a stocked bar, and also I wanted to show off my outfit. But at the back of my mind I thought, maybe it’s just going to be a desk, a printer and a coffee machine, and a stocked bar just means a box of Sternies.” Located in a renovated art gallery in Mitte, Vera was pleasantly surprised to find that the start-up office had “a proper bar, like a bar at a bar”. The chemistry was undeniable and the pair ended up having sex on his boss’ desk (something Matty didn’t clear with his boss first).
Cut to spring 2021, and the relationship has gone from strength to strength. “It’s probably the healthiest, happiest relationship I’ve had in Berlin,” says Vera. “We would’ve bonded anyway in non-Covid times, but things got intimate more quickly due to lockdown.”
Couples therapist Agnieszka Kieres has witnessed plenty of these romantic highs and lows over the past year: “Lockdown amplifies problems for some couples, but for others it makes things better by removing distractions and enabling people to spend more time connecting.” However, she highlights possible trials to come. “When things go back to normal, that might be the test for those new lock- down couples, as much as the initial lockdown was a test for pre-existing couples. The change of circumstance could be challenging for some of them.”
Summer of lust
So what’s in store for the Berliners who didn’t cosy up during lockdown? Denise’s experience over the past year has deepened her disillusionment towards romance in the city. “I’m one of the rare birds of Berlin who’s looking for something monogamous and stable. But at this point, after being here for four years, I’m not really sure if this is the city for it,” she admits.
For Lucas, Germany’s limbo-like state makes it difficult to predict how the dating scene will develop. “We know about the danger of a third wave with all these crazy mutations, but it’s also getting warmer and restrictions are easing. When you go to a park, you feel people are craving physical attention. There’s a lot of energy nowadays, but everyone’s confused about how to handle the situation.”
As the pandemic has further fractured Berlin’s shaky sense of romantic commitment, Lucas isn’t sure about an oncoming “summer of love” – he thinks a summer of lust is more likely. “I really feel it’ll be the most hedonistic summer of our lives if they get the vaccination programme going. And like last summer, I’m confident the subcultural scenes will revive pretty fast, whatever the lockdown restrictions. We’re still in Berlin after all.”