Living in Berlin

Berlin’s Terrible Climate—And What It’s Doing to Us

Berlin, mid June 2014
Berlin, mid June 2014

Berliner grumbling is one of those standout local specialties, a corollary to Berliner Schnauze. I’m in a café on Graefestr. and ask the neighbourhood-born waitress whether there’s a specific word in Berlin dialect for meckern (to bitch and complain). ‘There has to be!’ she replies, ‘We’re so good at it!’ And, if the denizens of the capital are grumbling, you can bet it’s about the weather.

In winter, rain, cold and darkness is a given. But in summer, Berliners grumble about being cheated. A string of rainy days here produces strong reactions: it’s as if a debt has been accumulated by the skies above Berlin that hasn’t been repaid. ‘This summer is Scheiße, either too hot or too cloudy’, a friend tells me, with a shake of the head as if to mean, ‘We don’t deserve this’.

A young man from South of Rome came to Berlin earlier in the month, looking for work, and the first thing he asked me, with a look of fear in his eyes, was ‘how cold is it really in winter?’ I told him immediately that he was asking the wrong question.

But, since he’s asked, let’s start with the cold. Berlin is not that frigid in winter, at least by the standards of my Canadian childhood. I remember walks to school when my eyelids froze together, my neck-warmer iced where I respired, bits of hair still wet from my morning shower grew pointed, frozen, if they weren’t covered by my toque. No, a winter day in Berlin does not reach -40 C, excluding wind chill. January temperatures hover around freezing, which, with 75% humidity, is admittedly one the least felicitous temperature zones. But at least you don’t want simply to fall into a snow bank and die after a ten-minute walk.

Europe, of course, benefits (for now at least) from the Gulf Stream, which keeps it lukewarm, despite the high latitudes relative to North America. Berlin, thankfully, is not quite a continental climate, not quite wild Russia. Sometimes I almost think I can smell the sea, warming us, caring for us, even through it’s 200 km distant. You can observe flocks of seagulls in winter at the entrances to the U-Bahn. When walking over the Spree, I look down to the barges and remember that Berlin originally grew as a port, goods floating down to its access to the Baltic sea at Stettin, now in Poland. The water almost never freezes. It must have been two years ago that, from the Bode Museum, I looked out the grand windows, and saw the Spree bloated solid, shards of ice buckling, and the sky bright. It was a rarity, and I wished that Berlin were even colder in winter.

No, the problem is not cold, my dear Neapolitan. It is the darkness.

Those high latitudes mean Berlin plunges into almost Scandinavian levels of obscurity (sunset is before 4pm in December). Except in parts of Sweden, the cold sucks up all the moisture in the air, leaving those crisp winter skies. Here the clouds roll in creating an atmosphere that is not only dark, but also heavy––there is 90% cloud cover during the winter months. The Easterly position in the time zone means it gets dark even earlier in Berlin. At times, the darkness is touching, insulating. Stand on an S-Bahn platform in winter in the late afternoon in November, and all the light comes from the platform, reflected on the rails. You might be touched by the cold, minimal, simplicity.

But I’d prefer to be sitting on my balcony growing rosemary, and to be in a place where people are happy and not depressed. Berliners don’t hide how they feel, and in winter there are plenty of sharp elbows. I think of my Macedonian barber who, after his experience of the Balkan wars, eschews cultural stereotypes. But even he says that there are two kinds of people: those who have sunshine and those who don’t.

Now, it is June. The trees are finally full. It seems a miracle. We are no longer waiting to say, ‘today, I actually sensed an end to winter’. The payoff for those months of cloud, humidity and darkness, should be summer. Those much-awaited 17 hours of sunlight a day in June. Those highs around 25 C. I love the feeling, of coming out from a club at 4am and seeing the sky bright with the stirrings of dawn. I love the stillness of night, but under a firmament of Prussian blue.

Summer came earlier this month with a sudden rush. Our Southern visitor simply assumed that the temperatures we had around 35 C + were normal (maybe he’d think 25 C was pretty cold for June). But I wonder whether Nature used up all her fuel too quickly. The temperatures this week would have shocked our friend (he’s since run back home because he couldn’t find a job): cloudy with lows below 10 C almost every day.

I begin to realize that we live in a city where our memories of winter are stronger than those of summer. Winter was so dark for so long that we simply can’t forget it. After only four days of colder weather, the heat wave is almost erased from our minds. We begin to suspect that we live in a godforsaken climate. We grow crabby because Nature isn’t doing what we want. Not that She gives a shit.

The more winters I spend deprived of sunlight, the more I suspect I am becoming a Berliner. I notice how, when the sun comes out, I experience a character transformation. I almost feel like melting, or sobbing. We break into good humour and smiles, strip off everything, plunge into a lake, and feel blessed by the endless days. It’s our joy when summer comes––not how we act during those long silent months––that is the most obvious declaration, after our initiatory years here, that we are acclimatizing. We are so grateful for summer, precisely because we have been injured.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

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