Letters from Berlin is a collection of twelve essays by writers, film-makers, photographers and artists based in different districts of the German capital. The essays are being released in staves, or weekly installments, by Berlin-based digital publisher The Pigeonhole.
Like all good start-ups, The Pigeonhole has managed to combine an old idea – serialising books (the model in Victorian times) – with modern technology. You can read on your Kindle, laptop or other devices, click on extra content like photos, sound recordings and videos, and interact with the writer and fellow readers as the book is released – or simply catch up with everything afterwards.
The first essay The Squirrel Principle by writer and translator Lucy Renner Jones, who’s been living in Berlin since the late nineties, was released last week. It starts:
After a morning run, as a friend of mine lay stretching on the grass in her local park, she spotted a red squirrel running up a huge oak tree. Clutched in his mouth was a coffee-to-go cup, plastic lid and all. Once he reached the first branch, he took the cup between his paws, flung aside the lid, and, head back, drained the last dregs of latte.
Yes, this essay is about Prenzlauer Berg, where even the squirrels are gentrified. Part of me clung to the hope that Renner Jones would pursue the caffeine stoked squirrel and, like Alice, fall down the rabbit hole of absurdity, or, at the very least, discuss her friend’s dubious mental state. Another part of me was resigned to the fact that this essay would, inevitably, be about the demographic changes that have affected this particular area of Berlin.
But this is not just another whine about the good old days. Renner Jones is honest about the ambiguity she feels as a Prenzlauer Berg resident. On one hand, she struggles with flocks of tourists, on the other, she admits she is part of the problem. She sidesteps buggies and wonders “why people can’t be more considerate,” while her own “daughter almost slices off their toes with her longboard.” Moreover, Renner Jones knows her topic. Her portrait of Prenzlauer Berg is filled with acute details, funny observations:
The most radical thing you can do here nowadays is give your kid a bag of crisps in public instead of an organic rice waffle.
I’ve been living in Prenzlauer Berg for a while and, being nosy, thought I knew everything about it. I was wrong. The Water Tower is not filled with luxury apartments; a housing commune on Lychener Straße had a yoga studio, library, and communal bathrooms you had to wait half an hour to use every morning; eighty-five per cent of the original population of Prenzlauer Berg has left the area since the Wall fell.
Gentrification is a particular Berlin neurosis (see my recent review of Berlin film Victoria) and, although I still mourn the loss of the latte-sipping squirrel, it’s probably apt that the opening essay of a collection about the city tackles the issue head on. I’m curious to see what insights and discussions the other essays, about districts of Berlin that I’m not so familiar with, will provoke.
The Pigeonhole are giving away five subscriptions to Letters from Berlin to readers of An Englishman in Berlin. To win, leave a comment below saying which area of Berlin you would most like to read an essay about.