The first time I saw my bike I fell in love. A German man in his 50s, wearing a navy boiler suit, was riding it out of a garage near Prinzenstraße U Bahn station. I saw it’s purple fade design rolling towards me and I knew I would take it home with me that day.
You probably get the picture by now that everything in Berlin is a challenge of some sort. There’s always something that goes slightly awry, whether it’s ordering the wrong coffee or setting up an appointment to de-register from living in Berlin (Abmeldung) instead of registering (Anmeldung). I did eventually manage to become a legal citizen but I’m still wading through bureaucracy trying to figure out tax numbers and how much profit I’ll make in a year. (Answer = very little, sorry, Taxman). These hiccups are what you have to expect when you move to another country.
So it’s not surprising that it took me the best part of six months to buy a bike. Literally the first night I was in Berlin my German flatmate Julia was telling me I had to get a bicycle.
“You can’t live in Berlin without one!” she said as I nervously unpacked my pants and socks. At this point my only aim was to make it through a week without breaking down and wailing that I’d made a terrible mistake and could the UK/full time work with holiday pay take me back into its comforting arms, please?
A couple of months went by without a full-on breakdown but there was still no bicycle.
“You don’t know what you’re missing out on, you can see the whole city on a bicycle,” said Julia, who is the chirpiest morning person I’ve ever met and I found her cheerfulness quite infectious.
“I’m used to traffic on the left side,” I squirmed. “I wouldn’t know how to cycle on the right, don’t want to cause an accident.”
Julia assured me it would be fine and I’d get used to it.
I watched people cycling on the pavements, the roads, in the cycle lanes. I felt them whizz past me, getting to wherever they were going with purpose. I think I was just happy to be dawdling along at this point, with not very much of a clue where I was going, in Neukölln and in life.
I didn’t need a bicycle to get to German class. Was there anywhere else I really needed to be? Not really.
BUT THEN spring crept in, all cutely and blossomy, and I started thinking about taking my jumper off. This was, of course, about two months earlier than the Germans, who insist on wearing winter coats all year except summer. And scarves. They really love their scarves.
It was time for a bike. But how could I get one if I couldn’t even organise my own registration? It felt hopeless.
A streak of determination struck me at the beginning of June when I began my teaching course. The school was a 30 minute walk from my house…but a bike could do the trip in half the time.
I logged on to the Berlin local ebay site and scanned it for bicycles. I was warned that most were stolen bikes being punted off by thieves. Then I came across my future bicycle, which was in the Kreuzberg area. Perfect! I messaged the seller and we arranged to meet on Saturday at 12noon. I thought about the meeting the day before and was so nervous in the morning.
I already knew I was going to buy the bike even if there was something wrong with it because I’m too polite and panic in these kinds of situations.
The German man spoke some English and said it was his wife’s bike but she only used it for shopping trips. “She doesn’t want it anymore,” he said. Detecting a Scottish voice, he quizzed me on the state of affairs in the UK. “What’s wrong with that blond man and the woman beside him?” he asked about Boris Johnson and Theresa May.
Before I’d picked up the bike I’d taken out 120 Euro in cash at Hermannplatz, because I hadn’t worked out where the banks were near my new flat. I just wanted to do the deal because I couldn’t believe I was so close to achieving the deal.
I handed the money over, the German man adjusted my seat and it was done. I cycled off, ecstatic, my heart fluttering, back up to Bergmannkiez on my new wheels. I carried it inelegantly up the stairs to my flat and admired it. I took photos of it and messaged people as if it was a new baby.
Now the bicycle stays outside my flat, locked to a lamppost and I use it every day. We get to work in 12 minutes, sometimes 10. I’ve taken it all round the city on mini tours. It comes to the pub with me. Sometimes I take it out of Berlin but it’s got such thin wheels that it struggles on bumpy terrain. And the gears don’t really work.
We cycle up and down Kurfürstendamm, snaking in and out of the bus lanes, almost being brushed out the way by impatient taxi drivers. I wonder if this is how David Bowie felt when he said he went to Berlin to recuperate and lead a normal life. He used to talk about how good he felt cycling round old West Berlin.
It’s fun shooting down Bergmannstrasse when there aren’t many cars on it, watching people eat, drink and socialise. There’s a sense of freedom you feel with a bike and it’s partly down to not having to rely on public transport.
AND TEMPELHOF. It’s pure joy cycling down the old airfield’s runways and I’d recommend it to anyone visiting Berlin.
There’s one thing that scares me. Every morning I go to get my bike and I wonder if it will still be there. I know I shouldn’t think about crime (otherwise life would be a constant worry) but bicycle theft is so common in Berlin that most people I know have been affected by it at some point. I feel I need to be prepared for it.
I’ve often thought about naming my bike but I don’t want to get too attached to it as a material object. I think of it in the same way Holly Golightly does with cat in the Truman Capote novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Cat doesn’t have a name because Holly says she doesn’t have the right to give him one. They just came across each other, she says.
“It’s a little inconvenient, his not having a name,” Holly says about cat. “We just sort of took up by the river one day, we don’t belong to each other: he’s an independent, and so am I.”
My bike and I are just two drifters. But we’re having a wonderful time drifting together right now.