Alone in Berlin

Excluding one short secondary school trip (because, really, do you even register that you’re in a different country on a school trip? It’s more like an extended lunch break), the first time I visited Berlin was on my own. Though I met people once I was there, Berlin was the first place I’d gotten on a plane on my own to go to—so it felt fitting that, given that I had some free time, I would choose to go to this city again solo.

Though it felt a little like coming home when my flight landed, my German abilities clearly had not returned since the last time I was here. I fumbled my way through buying a bus ticket (“Oh, Brits…,” I distinctly heard the bus driver mutter) and by the time I reached my hotel in Zoologischer Garten, in the west of the city, gave up with trying to check in to my room in German. The room was cozy but basic, but it was mine, and after the stress of travelling (something that never goes away, no matter how I often I fly), I was happy to be somewhere static for a while. The receptionist had given me a room on the very top floor of the hotel complex, and I could just about see the TV tower rising above the office blocks that surrounded our building. With the sun just going down, I decided to take advantage of the light and head into the city.

Since that first solo trip in 2015, I’d tried to come back to Berlin once a year, but this time I hadn’t been in the city for more than 12 months. But walking into the Berlin metro again, I was hit by that familiar scent peculiar to Berlin’s underground system. It’s a smell I can honestly say I’ve never encountered anywhere else. To me, it evokes bottles of Berliner Pilsner, strong sunlight, and sweat—but these might just be memories of that 2015 summer. Either way, it’s a homely smell, and something I’d forgotten about after being out of the city for so long.

I didn’t realise, either, how easy it would be to reach Mitte from my hotel. I’d usually stayed in either the south or east of the city, and on my phone’s map my hotel looked very far away from what I consider Berlin’s central hub—Friedrichstraße, Französischestraße, Museum Island. In fact, I made it into the city in just 20 minutes on an U-Bahn train, quicker than the time it would take to do that same distance in London. I headed straight for Gendarmenmarkt as the sun went down, eager to use the last of the light to get some pictures of the churches and Konzerthaus that line the square. It’s a place you don’t really expect to see in the middle of Berlin, a city that’s more modern than ancient. The Greek architecture of the Konzerthaus and the baroque churches are from another time entirely, and the square itself is almost hidden, set back a few blocks from the busy and touristy Friedrichstraße. I stayed a while to enjoy the peace of the square, then made my way home.

I had two full days in Berlin, with one other day spent in the small town of Görlitz, in Saxony. In actuality, I had booked this trip with no plans of what to do once I got there. London was tiring and stressful, I had holidays to use, why not go to Berlin? Now I was here, I felt simultaneously lost and content, trying to embrace a feeling of not having to do anything in particular. One bright, sunny morning, I hid away in the Alte Nationalgalerie, one of the only people in there when it opened at 10am. The Romanticism rooms on the second floor I had all to myself, before a hoard of schoolchildren ruined the peace—I couldn’t be too frustrated, though, knowing that their disinterest was exactly how I would have behaved on my own school visit seven years ago.

When I got out of the gallery a couple of hours later it was still bright, but a brisk wind was beginning to seep through the streets, making my hands and neck freeze. As the weather started to turn, I was also starting to become conscious of my status as a solo-traveller—I had nowhere to go without going back to my hotel, and I was reluctant to sit in a cafe on my own for hours. Instead, I kept on walking—my legs still aching from the long day in Görlitz the day before—from Hackesher Markt to Nikolaiviertel, along the river Spree. Here, the sun fell in dappled stripes across the cobblestones, and the buzz of the city, Alexanderplatz just the other side of the old buildings, reduced to a faint hum. The church in this square, the St. Nikolai-Kirche, is the oldest building in Berlin, though it’s been rebuilt so many times you wouldn’t know. I made a loop around the church, still a little self-conscious, but grateful to be in such a big city in the middle of the day and not encounter any tourists (unthinkable in London).

After lunch, I took the tube to Kreuzberg, hunting down a vegan supermarket I knew was here. It was late-afternoon and I was tired, buying all the snacks I could fit in my rucksack preemptively, knowing I was going to collapse on my hotel bed later on and just want to eat. Then I spotted it, the unmistakeable outline of a photobooth, one of many dotted around the city for tourists and late night party-goers. I fished €2 from my purse and laughed as the flash blinded my eyes.

The next morning, I sat at breakfast in my hotel and wondered what to do. I was flying back to London in the evening and wanted to make the most of my time here, but I was also feeling uninspired. The book I’d brought with me for the journey, Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, described to me the beauty of walking in the English countryside, and I suddenly felt trapped in the city. However much I wanted Berlin to be different London—which it was, in a sense—it was still a city, with three million other people. It was too late now to spend a day walking in Grunewald Forest on the outskirts of city, the closest I would get to open countryside here. Worse, the weather had turned overnight, what would have been a bright and cold day now simply grey with fog and damp.

In the end, I took solace in the streets just north of busy Alexanderplatz and Hackescher Markt, where I ate Hawaiian poke in a starkly lit cafe on Alteschönhauser Straße, afterwards crossing the street and trying coffee from Five Elephants. Once again, embracing the feeling of not needing to do anything, I went shopping for a while; headphones on, Spotify shuffling in my pocket, until it was time to pick up my suitcase from the hotel and take the train to Schönefeld airport. While it was, at times, awkward travelling alone for four days—something I’ve truly never done—really there’s no place I’d rather be alone than in Berlin.

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