Hans Kellett on being stuck in the swamp of Berlin
May 31 – “If Trump gets elected, I’m moving to Berlin.” When I read it on Facebook I had a flashback to 2006, around the time Neukölln had started to become an outsourced colony for the Williamsburgers of the world. I remembered a conversation with a new-intake expat: “I was so disgusted that they voted Bush in again you know what I did? I LEFT.” In a knee-jerk reaction I replied to the would-be US defector, “If Trump gets elected, you’re to stay home and join the Resistance.”
Upon reflection, though, why not throw in the towel and come to Berlin? After all, from the Hohenzollerns to Hitler, from the GDR to the BER, we have a standing tradition as the Eternal City of Losers. We’re sort of the Breakfast Club of Europe, home to the disenfranchised, the deposed and the generally incompetent. “If I can’t make it here, maybe I’ll scrape by there – it’s down to you Berlin, Berlin!”
Even the city's name – “Berlin” derives from a Slavic word for “swamp” and not, as often thought, from its heroic, heraldic bear. I put my feet down here for a two-week stopover in 2001 and quickly sank in up to my knees. Three-quarters of my adult life later, I’m still pleasantly stuck.
Back then, I knew almost nothing about Berlin. There had been a war here, and a wall. U2, Bowie, Iggy, Nick Cave too, but that had all been ages ago. I’d seen Wings of Desire and Run Lola Run. To be fair, at the time there wasn’t much more I needed to know. Berlin in 2001 was a dodgy mess of a town where nobody cared what anybody else did. Not because it was some wildly open-minded, alternate-reality New York, but because people genuinely didn’t care. Often about anything. I didn’t stay in Berlin because it was cool; I stayed because coolness was so off the menu that it came as a refreshing relief. If you asked the locals, it was already “not as good as it used to be”. After fifteen years I can assure you – no matter at which point in history you arrive, Berlin was always better five years ago.
If we’re all sinking into the same mud, then it means none of us washed up here in time to be one of those mythical cool kids. OK, so we’re a city of losers who got stuck and can’t extract ourselves from our swamp without outside help? Maybe that’s something we should run with. Let’s face it: in the current insane, international climate, not being a winner is nothing to be ashamed of.
We could even erect a statue: a Trümmertunte drag colossus atop the new airport, extending a bronze fistful of flyers toward the runway. We could engrave her mission statement into the crumbling sandstone base: “Give me your chronic smokers, your workshop impresarios, your start-uppers and your ukulele virtuosos. Give me your misspent youth, your Peter Pans and - oh fuck it, why not? - your Sanders voters.”
New Zealander Hans Kellett has lived in Berlin for over a decade and sings in cabaret duo Princessin Hans