Essays by Timothy Lim

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A Year in Berlin

17 March 2024, Berlin

M says that you really only know someone after four seasons. I'd say the same goes for cities. Oh, Berlin, I have seen you in your corpse-grey of winter and your birthday plume of summer. You've seen me too, in the seasons of the weather and of the soul.

For about a year, I've walked around the streets and canals, with some breaks back in Norway. Now, I will attempt to write down my feelings while they are still fresh, for those, including myself, who may wish to see things as I have seen them.

Face to face

Coming from Oslo, I was shocked by the unrelenting urbanism of Berlin. Block after block, mile after mile, I faced waves of brutalism. I followed my brother to the city one Christmas, and the first thing we were confronted with was someone coughing his lungs out in the street.

I've always felt an ambient violence in the city, from the constant sirens to the destitute in the streets with their outstretched hands and weeping wounds. Sometimes, I found myself standing at bus stops, taking stock of the debris: broken bottles, cigarette butts, takeaway boxes, occasionally needles, or a condom. I wondered if any of this was necessary and whether being exposed to it is healthy for anyone in the long term.

The greyness of the city seemed to desaturate everything I saw. It made the concrete even rougher and the light even paler. When I lived in Northern Norway, the summers were so cold that I wondered if I would ever feel the heat of the sun on my skin again. In Berlin, I wondered if I would ever see true colors again.

Graffiti marks a lot of the buildings at the ground level and recedes as higher where the arm cannot reach. It's kind of like the city has been flooded and a tidemark human touch remains. I also noticed Berlin to be incredibly flat which means the sun is always setting behind a building. The memory of a horizon faded into an abstract concept. It was hard not to feel like a rat in a maze.

Cash is still used here, and I think it allows humanity to be expressed. The natural course of a day reduces your notes to coins (like buildings to rubble), which can then be passed on without too much thought to someone who really needs them. I enjoy that natural breakdown; it shows a passage of time.

Performative Hedonism

One of the things that repels me about Berlin is the inauthenticity I sense around certain lifestyle choices. In the same way small towns may exert pressure to conform to certain behaviours, I believe big cities do the same, and that people are swept up in both equally and uncritically.

I came across performative hedonism quite regularly. I was at a concert the other day, and the singer took a detour to speak about how they used to live in Berlin and party for a week without sleep, and asked the crowd to scream if they had done that too because "no one parties harder than Berliners." None of it made sense to me. It wasn't as much a cheer for fun but a cheer for identity: that yes, we do go that hard and yes, we are party animals. I found it kind of sad, to be honest—to be this precious about the thinnest of self-understandings. Oftentimes I just hear Dostoevsky's quote repeating in my mind: "Your worst sin is that you've destroyed and betrayed yourself for nothing".

It is only human to exist in the gaze of others, but it's important not to exist for the gaze of others. I asked someone in a bar why I should move to Berlin, and after exhausting the typical list of reasons, he ended on, "Well, at least if you tell anyone you live in Berlin, they would think it's cool." I looked him in the eye and asked very slowly, "Why would you think that I would need that?" To which he replied, his voice shaking slightly, "Well, maybe you don't need that, but I'm not afraid to admit that I do." I almost had a seizure out of shame on both our behalves when he said that.

Every place has a culture and a pressure to behave as to be part of that culture. In Oslo, I've overheard people speaking of their weekend trips to the cabin and skiing. In Berlin, I've heard of boasting of sexual escapades and drug-fuelled benders. In the same way that I think many people in Norway go to the cabin so that they have an answer to the standard question of "What did you do on the weekend?", I'd put my money on people pushing themselves harder in Berlin for the story as much as for any internal desire.

Like the sirens and the trash on the street, this performed culture of Berlin is somewhat inescapable — it's part of the fabric of the place, but in the same way that one can find refuge in calmer areas, I've found that can one rest and enjoy life in the haven in the presence of like-minded people.

Authentic Theatre

A place where I've found a little home has been Donnau115. It's a little bar at, you guessed it, the street Donnau 115. There's an open mic every Tuesday run by Chad, an American with heart of gold and a whip of a tongue when it comes to disciplining the crowd. He protects the space in which the performers express themselves.

Unlike a normal bar, everyone is at Donnau115 on a Tuesday for a shared reason: either they are performing, supporting someone they know or just really want to see some magic happen - a guy dressed up as a slice of bacon once. This shared purpose makes it incredibly easy to speak to people and make friends.

And there's the sheer amount of people. When you're performing it looks like you're just staring at a wall of faces and because they sit all around you it feels like you're wrapped in attention. It's probably the most overwhelming yet intimate feeling I've ever experienced.

I'm drawn to the open mic because there's so much honesty in what people are expressing. It's funny, because it's all a show, but the emotions that are expressed are so moving. Take heartbreak, for example. Many a song has been written from a broken heart and although that time or place has long since passed, the rendition of the song can be just as powerful as when it happened. It's a reanimation of a feeling passed and brought to the present.

It's like everyone is pouring their heart out, their creativity and endeavour for everyone else to share. We say that a performer captures our attention but it's really the audience that holds a performer. A stage dive is just a physical manifestation of what is already happening emotionally. It's such a wonderful thing.

I met someone in Oslo who did improv and what she said will always stick with me: "That person on the stage, that's not me but the emotions are. The emotions are true".

A Culture Of My Own

I've spent a lot of time in Norway trying to make it work, bending myself to expectations, to inhabit the perspective of those around me and presenting myself in a way that makes sense. The thing with being an immigrant (or any outsider, for that matter) is that you may understand what they expect and then you have the opportunity to give into that expectation.

In Berlin, I don't have to twist myself. I can speak as I wish, with all my flair and language. I had a Mexican friend in high school who didn't speak much English when she arrived. I remember her falling asleep quite often because she was so tired of translating herself. I also remembered how animated she got when she could finally speak Spanish to other Latinos and Latinas. She could spread her wings.

I think of her when I come to Berlin from Oslo. Many people meet at this place called English and whether they come from Guatemala or Siberia, they can speak and have fun with the language. It's a breath of fresh air for me. Norwegians are quite fluent but they gingerly put on the language as one might put on a hazmat suit and with all the grace that comes with that.

With language comes expression and then connection. I have enough fluency in Norwegian to make small talk and even to flirt but I can't quip, I can't pull off turns of phrase that really exhibit my character.

I enjoy being in Berlin because I don't have to explain myself. Or rather, that explaining myself and my story becomes a fun thing to do because there's a balance on the other side. I am tired in Norway of being the one who had come the furthest. It's all relative, of course, because someone coming from the outer reaches of Northern Norway would have had a lifetime of travelling to even get to Oslo. We all come from different places. We have all travelled to get here and there's a common understanding there.

I often say that all my friends in Norway are exceptions to the culture. They are abnormal Norwegians. I wouldn't say the same is true for Berlin. All the people I hold close are, of course, special to me but they are not unique to the city. I can imagine my Norwegian friends as constrained here and freer in other contexts. I've seen this while travelling with them but with my Berlin friends, it's clear that this is exactly where they were meant to be. This is the difference between being from a place and being of a place.

What next?

I can't say Berlin is the place for me for the next ten years or even five but it is definitely the place for me right now. Isn't that all that there is to know? To project what your future self may want is assuming that you know your future self. I think there are some broad strokes, like my future self wouldn't really want to be in a mining town in Siberia but by and large, it'd like to assume it's unknown.

I would say that there's some truth in following our curiosity and the challenges that come with that. Not all challenges are the same. I feel like my destiny is propelled forward in Berlin, I come alive. I am excited for the next day. I can't wait to see whom I will meet and how I will think differently. Cities are variation machines. Things can happen, unexpected things. Cities are for getting lucky in.

Having had some distance now and time to reflect, I feel like things happened in Berlin. Events that go beyond simple definitions of 'good' and 'bad' but they were deeply impactful. We grow through new experiences and there's just so much to experience there. I am resting now but I'll be back soon enough and I'll be thinking of this quote on the flight over:

"One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it's worth watching"

Let's see what happens.


  • I was inspired to write about Berlin by my friend Alex's post on it that I read a few years ago: In Praise of Berlin and Very Slow Travel
  • The Lammie Life's series on different cities is also something I resonate with and try to build upon in my own way, here are the links for their reflections on Berlin and London
  • I have written about Kottbusser Tor in my other blog which I use for hashing out ideas: How it feels like to live in Berlin