I remember the first time. Of course I do. I had read about it, I probably knew what to expect. But still I wasn’t fully prepared and I was touched in a way that I never could have predicted. The way the street opens up to you straight from Alexanderplatz, the tall buildings, the towers at the far end, the tiles and ornaments, the mosaics and the Fernsehturm watching over you from behind.Karl-Marx-Allee: it was love at first sight. This was without a doubt one of the most amazing streets I had ever seen.
My first time on Karl-Marx-Allee (2007)
It has been some time since we first met. Eight years, to be exact. My travels took me further east – to Eastern Europe, that is. I visited beautiful cities full of recent history, such as Warsaw, Riga, Kiev and Minsk. It didn’t take long before I realised I have a ‘thing’ for socialist history and architecture, which is what made me decide to study history after getting my degree in journalism. And every time I was back in Berlin, visits I can no longer count on two hands, it felt like I was coming back to my first love: I came alone, with my new boyfriend, with my sister, with a group of friends…They all had to experience this fascinating, enchanting boulevard – even though I’m sure some of them had no idea why I preferred this enormously wide street to the small streets of Paris or the canals of Amsterdam.
The first picture I took of Karl-Marx-Allee (2007)
As soon as I possibly could, I stayed weeks and then months in Berlin. To research at the Bundesarchiv, the national archive that also contains the archives of the GDR, and of course to actually get to know the city and its complex history. I wrote my master’s thesis on Paul Robeson, an American singer and human rights activist who was hugely popular in the GDR and Soviet Union. People often ask me why the GDR fascinates me so much, but honestly, I’m not even really sure myself. It probably has something to do with the fact that its history is so recent and at the same time German reunification meant that the country simply ceased to exist. In a way it disappeared, and many of its traces have been carefully wiped out. But the people who helped build the socialist ‘dream’ are still here, and so are most of the buildings: silent reminders of everything that has vanished over the past 25 years.
They actually gave us the keys!
So did I think twice when a friend pointed out the ‘lottery’ that would offer me the chance to live in the middle of my favourite place in Berlin, this wonderful piece of living history? Nope. I started writing that same night and tried to put into words what the street means to me. I knew Paul Robeson once performed in the (now demolished) Sporthalle, when Karl-Marx-Allee was named Stalinallee and Stalin was still on his pedestal watching over the people of East Berlin. I combined this knowledge with my own experience of riding my bike down this impressive street with my eyes fixed on the Fernsehturm. My full essay will be published on this blog one of these days, but I can already give you a taste of the text:
Look at me: I’m famous! (Berliner Zeitung, 5.5.2015)
It’s cold for early October, colder than I’d expected. It doesn’t make the bike journey from Friedrichshain, my temporary Heimat, to Lichterfelde, home of the Bundesarchiv, any shorter. Still I’m enjoying this bike ride every day and my thoughts are wandering off to my research project. I can already smell the GDR documents and wonder what I will be able to get out of the piles of files today. I blow some warm breath into my gloves as I wait for the traffic lights on the corner of Boxhagener Straße. An old, crooked lady crosses the wide Karl-Marx-Allee. When my traffic light turns green, she has hardly reached the middle of the street. How long has she been living here? I wonder. Was she one of the model workers who helped construct the buildings of this street in the fifties? Once I crossed the street, I try to move my legs as fast as possible in an attempt to get warm. I stare towards the end of the Karl-Marx-Allee: the famous Alexanderplatz. While firming the grip of my feet on the pedals, I try to discern the Fernsehturm through the foggy air.
Impression of our living room, including Quisp
Finding our way eastwards
In the meantime I was making plans to move to Berlin, sometime after the summer. Not because I expected to win the competition, but because I really wanted to go back. I had lived in the Hauptstadt for three months while writing my master’s thesis and was hungry for more. My boyfriend and cat also seemed up for it, so why not take the plunge and try our luck for a year or two? At some point towards the end of 2014 I had started looking for jobs and apartments and I was improving my German by working for a German firm in Amsterdam. How we would do it I wasn’t sure, but I was convinced we would find our way eastwards in 2015.
And then I had this voicemail message when I got off an airplane after a weekend break in Italy.
With trembling hands I heard the wonderful news and within the next 24 hours my world was turned upside down. I HAD WON. WE WERE ACTUALLY MOVING TO BERLIN. Even when typing these words right now, in capitals, I still can’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it after the phone call on that sunny day in April, I couldn’t believe it after being handed two sets of keys and a lot of flowers the week after and I couldn’t believe it after moving all my stuff to Berlin a month after that – now a little more than a week ago. I’m not sure when it will start to dawn on me that I actually live on Karl-Marx-Allee, in an apartment that was once, sixty years ago, a dream of every citizen of East-Berlin and then, eight years ago, became my dream. I’m not one for superstition, but I have learned one thing over the past few weeks: dreams can come true… And it’s amazing.
Our beautiful Strausberger Platz from above