A queue for Covid-19 testing outside the Kit Kat club in Berlin. Photographer: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A queue for Covid-19 testing outside the Kit Kat club in Berlin. Photographer: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg via Getty Images

BooksFebruary 1, 2021

A Covid winter, holed up in Berlin

A queue for Covid-19 testing outside the Kit Kat club in Berlin. Photographer: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A queue for Covid-19 testing outside the Kit Kat club in Berlin. Photographer: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg via Getty Images

At times, the knowledge that a return to NZ won’t be likely for an unknowable amount of time can bring an achy sort of feeling, writes Emma Gilkison.

In Berlin, we are in the middle of a long, dreary Covid winter.

We’ve been back in lockdown since mid December, after the “lockdown-lite” of November. The parameters of the current lockdown have been further adjusted in small increments. On January 19, the government announced a handful of new rules aimed at curbing infections and an extension to the current lockdown until mid-February. For now, people are still allowed to commute to work as usual, and businesses are only required to offer masks, not to enforce them. Binding regulations to require that employers allow home office, for those that are able to, are only now being finalised.

There is a growing sense of frustration that the government won’t put in place stricter lockdown measures, particularly any that go against the interests of big business. With new, more infectious strains of the virus circulating, many people expect the current lockdown to last until at least Easter. Berlin has a Covid warning system of three “traffic lights” for seven-day incidence value, reproduction rate, and occupancy of ICU beds. Two of those, the seven-day incidence value and ICU bed occupancy, are still on red, while the reproduction rate traffic light is currently on green.

The outlook isn’t exactly sunny. It’s hard to remember the confidence we felt in the summer, when Germany’s health system seemed to have coped better than most with the first wave of the pandemic. We wore colourful cloth handmade masks, visited museums and swimming pools in limited numbers by booking ahead, and met friends for pizza at restaurants with carefully spaced outdoor tables. Avid swimmers booked ahead conscientiously and sometimes had whole pools to themselves, unheard of in pre-Covid times.

The kids in a mostly empty city. Photo: Emma Gilkinson

Now, during these quiet, soggy days of winter, there is not much to do apart from watch flecks of snowflakes dissolve around the stoic bare branches of the trees outside our windows. Psychologically, some of us feel like we have hit a Covid wall. Fewer cocktail parties on Zoom, more gloomgrams shared privately. As if to prove how gothic everything is, my family and I go for walks in graveyards, where a variety of conifers provide a bit of evergreen. There’s a park in our neighbourhood called Leisepark (Quiet Park) which is half graveyard, half playground, with climbing equipment scattered around among trees and gravestones. Luckily, even when forced to play in graveyards, children seem to be more resilient to the strains of Covid times. Homeschooling is a special form of hell, but the rest of the time our two seem to cope pretty well with this home life, whiling away the hours by constructing zoos out of the cardboard delivery boxes piling up like snowdrifts by our front doors.

American food writer MFK Fisher, who was in Switzerland as the second word war broke out, wrote a wry, upbeat and occasionally blithe treatise about eating and surviving in wartime called How To Cook a Wolf. She wrote, “Other wars have made men live like rats, or wolves, or lice, but until this one, except perhaps for the rehearsal in Spain, we have never lived like earthworms.” Here, she refers to the wartime experience of black out curtains and bunkers, that lent a sense of burrowing inwards. She suggests there can be a certain cosiness in shutting out the outside world and huddling in the kitchen to eat dinner, unless the house is actually falling down around your ears.

As we inch through this long Covid winter, her words are a reminder that Europe has been through scarier times. And yes, if you squint, you could see a certain cosiness and simplicity to our lives under Covid too. We are hibernating, though less like earthworms and more like fidgety squirrels with internet psychosis. Those who lost their jobs early on in the pandemic could make use of some of MFK Fisher’s tips on cooking in wartime, such as enjoying the simple comfort of a bowl of boiled potatoes with their skins on, served with butter, and of course, wine on the side. She suggests these accompaniments so often and with such gusto, I have started to wonder if melting butter into the wine wouldn’t be a handy shortcut appropriate to the Covid era.

While there is no threat of bombs today, there is of course an anxiety that one might catch the virus and become seriously ill. Hospitals are stretched, both financially and in terms of the mental strain on their workers. One of the most devastating impacts of the pandemic is the financial pressure on already poor and marginalised groups. Besides the increased stresses within those homes, the effect on many children’s academic progress is sure to be substantial, reinforcing divisions in a highly stratified society – where the school you go to dictates your ability to go on to do tertiary study.

Though it may be too little too late, some actions are being taken. In our district, a hotline has been set up for families experiencing difficulties with homeschooling and the emotions surrounding it, offering support from psychologists. In-person learning will be offered for students from socially disadvantaged groups, particularly first graders, during the week-long winter holiday in February. People working in tourism, hospitality and the cultural sector have also faced down a difficult year, and the impact will be felt for years to come. The Allianz der Freien Künste (Liberal Arts Alliance) issued a statement in mid-January saying that without more substantial financial assistance for self-employed artists, there would be irreversible consequences for cultural life in Germany.

Meanwhile, for people in steady employment who can work remotely, life under Covid is not too punishing. No doubt there are many who quite enjoy working from home in their pyjamas and not needing to rush to catch the subway. For others, the fact that they haven’t been to an in-person event in nearly a year – whether educational, musical or a work event – leads them to feel at best bored, and at worst frozen in some kind of diorama of the life of a 1950s housewife whose days consisted of peering out at neighbours through the blinds.

Graffiti in Mauerpark, Berlin. Photo: Emma Gilkinson

New Zealander Simon Ellery has been in Berlin for around a decade, running his sausage and cured meat business The Sausage Man Never Sleeps since 2014 and supplying some of the city’s best eateries. His business has been doing well this last year, aided by his YouTube and Instagram accounts, with a new focus on home deliveries more than making up for the loss in restaurant sales. Though he has plenty to keep him occupied, he misses family and friends in Dunedin and Ashburton and the simple pleasure of going out to a gig. “I saw pictures from a friend back home who went to a Shapeshifter concert – I don’t even like Shapeshifter, but I thought, man, I wish I could do that.”

He has turned to cooking as a form of therapy during the winter months. “Before this, I’d grab something on the way home from work. But now, within the boundaries of what’s allowed, I’m cooking for friends.” For him, comfort foods are casseroles and stews: “Put it in a Dutch oven, stew for six hours so, serve it with mashed potatoes and fuckin’, some broccoli or something like that.”

Jason Kava is a DJ and chef from Wellington who lost his job during the first wave of the pandemic. He lives just across Mauerpark from me, and says he has been dealing with the Covid winter gloom by taking his dog for walks along the wall of graffiti along the side of the stadium, where new pieces are thrown up daily, from portraits of deceased hip hop producers and rappers, to deranged Loony Tunes characters, to candy coloured murals of uteruses. In an approach to mental health that MFK Fisher would surely approve of, he’s been drawing on the uplifting and bright qualities of orange and red foods.

He squeezes orange juice by hand each morning for his partner Jenny and daughter Api from oranges that he buys direct from growers, and says, “For some reason the oil from the zest on my skin and the smell perk me up, and I leave the used rinds in a separate bowl for most of the day – it fills the house with a good orange vibe.” He also finds sensory solace in coming in from the cold to eat roasted tomato and capsicum soups, and gives Api halved pomegranates to tear apart.

Cabin fever. Photo: supplied

Ruth Buchanan, an artist from Wellington who lives and works in Kreuzberg, has a sole-occupancy studio she can still visit to have time away from the household and get work done. She is frustrated by the haphazard ways in which restrictions have been enforced, and the lack of texture and nuance around the implications for so many of us. “The domestic space has become a compression of all of society, a petri dish. The economy, education, welfare, well-being; all those spheres are compressed into that space now, and no one is talking about it. The domestic is not discussed at all.”

She lights candles at mealtimes and goes for epic urban walks, some days walking up to four or five hours, looping around the looming structures of Museum Island or Alexanderplatz, up to Pankow and back again. She often takes her nine-year-old daughter Eleanor with her. Like me, she would move back to New Zealand if the right opportunity presented itself, but a quick departure during the pandemic wasn’t possible without a job lined up, so she and her family have so far stayed on in Berlin where they have a home and are self-employed.

Ruth Buchanan. Photo: Supplied

At times, the knowledge that a return to New Zealand won’t be likely for an unknowable amount of time can bring an achy sort of feeling. The other day, I heard my daughter watching something on the TV, so I went through to say she’d had enough screen time. It turned out she was looking at an Apple Photos montage of pictures taken on various trips home to New Zealand – and the algorithm had chosen sad violin music to play in the background. It was odd to think that someone at Apple, perhaps inspired by the pandemic, had put that into the playlist of backing tracks, designing how someone would feel when they looked back at pictures of Tawharanui beach. The music was amusing in its heavy handedness, but for a second it worked, and made my heart twang in a way that would have surely pleased the programmers.

For now, freezing cold ponds are more our purview than surf beaches. Just after New Year, at the semi-frozen Teufelssee (Devil’s Lake) in the Grunewald woods, we saw a group of young women strip down and jump in. My five-year-old daughter, Romy, stared in fascination for an inappropriately long time. A few days later we saw more parties of winter swimmers roaming the track around Sacrowersee, an hour’s drive out of the city. The Scandinavian tradition of cold water plunges seems to have caught on in a big way, perhaps due to cold water therapy proponents like Wim Hof and the recent popularity of the Netflix production My Octopus Teacher, in which documentarian Craig Foster claims that swimming at very cold temperatures helped him manage his depression. Hoping to boost their mood and immune system in one fell swoop, Berliners are cycling out to the many silvery winter lakes that surround the city, running 15 km and then jumping into the water.

Young people in this city would, in normal times, more often be found sweating their problems away in saunas or nightclubs. Berlin’s subterranean KitKatClub, a destination for fetish and trance lovers since the mid-90s, is one of the many clubs that closed their doors last March. Its pool has long been empty of ravers, though its maintenance manager takes the occasional dip.

In December, the basement venue reopened as a Covid testing station. People who suspect they may be sick now queue under the watchful gaze of the characters in its neon tantric murals. On a hopeful or depressing note, depending on your perspective, some of the city’s many unemployed DJs are now playing a part in the city’s large scale vaccination efforts, which are slowly rolling into gear. The Arena Hall in Berlin-Treptow opened in December as the first of six planned mass vaccination centres. Under an initiative from Berlin’s culture senate, 400 people from the cultural sector who were without work during Covid have been employed at the Arena Hall. This group apparently, according to a friend, includes a number of deep house and techno DJs, formerly part of Berlin’s club culture and tourism industry, which is estimated to have generated €1.5 billion a year for the city.

A job in a vaccination centre won’t be a viable option for the majority of cultural sector workers, of course. And it might take until next Christmas for the number of vaccinated people to reach levels where life could start to feel “normal” again. In the meantime, we will still have to modify our behaviour, wear masks and distance. This expectation that people will voluntarily restrict their behaviour has seen its limits, with illegal dance events over the summer being organised by groups of young people with nothing to lose, as well as struggling venue owners with everything on the line.

Authorities blamed these outdoor “plague raves” in part for the rising levels of Covid last autumn, but now there is a growing outrage that people have been gathering unmasked indoors at businesses and factories for the entire year. Whether an attempt to survive financially, or a desperate grab at whatever chance is available for fun and joy, everyone knows someone who’s pushed the limits of what’s advised. Whether traveling to somewhere sunny or snowy as winter started, or spontaneously hugging grandparents, many people have readjusted their own personal calculus of safety on a daily basis.

MFK Fisher writes at the conclusion of her essay How Not to Be an Earthworm that in a real state of emergency, “no book on earth can help you, but only your inborn sense of caution and balance and protection: the same thing cats feel sometimes, or birds or elephants”. She goes on: “If you are not in a state of emergency, but merely living as so many people have lived for so many months now … use as many fresh things as you can, always, and then trust to luck and your blackout cupboard and what you have decided, inside yourself, about the dignity of man.”

Like the squirrels in Leisepark, we will continue to hole ourselves up until spring, hoarding streaming service playlists, reading books, cooking casseroles and waiting for the difficulties for so many of this year to finally be eased.

Keep going!