Notes from the Berlin lockdown, where the off-licence is essential

As the UK grapples to come to terms with indefinite lockdown, countries across Europe are way ahead of us. We asked a former Big Issue ace what locked down life is like in Berlin

Much like every other major city right now, Berlin is low on toilet roll. 

The similarities don’t stop there. My lockdown isn’t far removed from yours; all but essential shops have closed down, outings of more than two people are verboten and trips to the supermarket limited.

The main difference between my lockdown and yours is that the off licence is considered an essential service and, thanks to a last minute clarification from the Berlin Polizei on Monday afternoon, Tinder dates are considered a “plausible reason” to be out of the house. 

Businesses in Berlin were the last thing to shut down, closing slowly over the course of the last week. They’ll survive, probably, thanks to Kurzarbeit, or “short time work”. Under this hotly-touted method of halting economic downturn in its tracks, companies facing revenue problems can reduce employee hours, while the state tops up their net income to between 60 and 80% of the original sum. 

But the heart of Berlin is not a start up or tech giant like Kayak or Soundcloud that attract thousands of young millenials to the city every year. They will carry on somehow.

Berlin’s heart relies on its people, and more importantly, on their movement. So what happens when that movement comes to a spluttering stop? Berlin does what Berlin has always done. It fights back. A usually cynical, grumpy city unites, as it has done many times before, to weather the storm.

As Italy began its weeks-long lockdown, the state had just started to flirt with closures. First they came for the clubs.

The clubs officially closed on March 16 following an incident at the city’s Trompete nightclub. Accounting for almost a third of the total cases at the time, one partygoer infected a confirmed 16 others. 

Within hours of closing, club promoters had found an ingenious way to combat the issue – saving some 9,000 jobs, tens of thousands of artists’ livelihoods and a horde of soon-to-be incredibly bored Berliners.

The Berlin Club Commission (yes, that’s a real thing) and Reclaim Club Culture teamed up with some of the city’s biggest names to launch the United We Stream initiative: a 24-hour virtual club. This time I can enjoy all the fun of the clubs, without being faced with an all-black dress code, an intimidating bouncer, or the prospect of a mortifying walk past the queue with my tail between my legs as I swan off to find a less cool bar that will have me. 

By March 22 the measures to control the virus had infiltrated every corner of my life in Berlin as the restaurants and cafes I’ve built my daily life around closed, and the “only essential trips outdoors” rule came into force. 

I’ve seen Berliners uniting to adapt, like they’ve always done

It’s not easy being in lockdown. It’s not easy being in lockdown while living in a foreign country either. You’re removed from your previously reassuring safety net of people and places.  

I’ve come to rely heavily on daily interaction with my new group of friends here in Berlin, in a completely different way than I did in my home country. Like the early days of university, very quickly in a new situation you find that friends become your rock. 

In my case, they’re even my translator, my career advisor, my map when I get off at the wrong subway stop, the rational part of my mind when I think about packing everything up and moving back to Glasgow. 

Within hours of our partial lockdown beginning, my circle of honorary Berliners did what Berliners before us have always done: we fought back. 

The organisers of our monthly Bad Movie Night moved the event online, complete with a chat room to send snarky comments. Virtual coffee breaks have become a daily ritual. A WhatsApp group of daily dog pictures has been bustling. We’re exchanging shopping lists to hunt for each other’s hard-to-find items and cheddar (a hot commodity here!) and homemade treats are dropped on doorsteps like a dodgy drug deal on our separate daily walks outdoors. 

All around me I’ve seen Berliners uniting to adapt, like they’ve always done. 

On my daily walk earlier this week I spotted several bags hanging from a fence, on the city’s usually bustling Schönhauser Allee.

Each bag was filled to the brim; fruit, bottles of water, sandwiches, medicine, soap, dog food. 

These Gabenzäunen, or “gift fences” have appeared all over the city now. 

“Solidarität und Nächstenliebe sind so wichtig wie nie,” a message on one reads. 

“Solidarity and empathy is important now more than ever.” 

Berlin will overcome, like it has always done. And it will do it united. 

Image: Sam Katterfield