Every summer when I come to Berlin, someone says, “Wouldn’t you rather be at the beach?” No. I want to drink beer from the Späti (corner shop) and marvel at the sudden appearance of disparate architectures. But increasingly, there are heatwaves.
If pressed, even these I can romanticise: everyone is carefree and dirty (even more so than usual) and doesn’t work (even more so than usual). I always end up crossing Alexanderplatz on a bike thinking, this is like a desert, but more than once I’ve run into someone I know in the bike lane, which renders the scene even more hallucinogenic. Still, I dread the heatwaves as if they are worse than they are. “They’re going to have to get air-conditioning,” I mutter with the rest of the Americans. The only real respite is, unfortunately, to go to the beach.
A couple of years ago my boyfriend, Jeffrey, and I attempted to circumvent an affronting forecast – this one produced the hottest temperature ever recorded in Berlin – by going to a lake in nearby Potsdam. To get to the lake, we had to bike for about 25 minutes from Potsdam Hauptbahnhof, which transformed into 45 minutes when we missed our turn. (Whose fault was it? I couldn’t say.) My speed on the bike, initially euphoric, began to decline in protest against the weather. When we were finally almost there, I hit a small rock. Because I was going so slowly, I fell off my bike.
In the ambulance, I revealed that I had no health insurance. The paramedic looked grave. ‘This will cost €300 or €400’
Hearing I was no longer clicking along behind him, Jeffrey turned around. At first he was annoyed, and then he was very concerned. The word later used to describe what had happened to my knee was “crater”. “Don’t look at it,” he said, and carried me into the shade. I had found a way to beat the heat: create a problem that is surmountable but nevertheless more significant than the heat, which I now barely noticed because I was covered in blood and tiny rocks.
Various authorities arrived. As the paramedics took my blood pressure and found it upsettingly low, Jeffrey was speaking harshly to a police officer, who was attempting to fine us because the path where I’d crashed was off limits to bicycles.
In the ambulance, I revealed that, to all intents and purposes, I had no health insurance. The paramedic looked grave. “This will cost €300 or €400.”
“Ha ha!” I replied. “I’m from the United States.” This is also why I had to wait seven hours in the emergency room, which, despite a stated policy prioritising European patients who thought they might have heatstroke over anyone with any ailment from outside the EU, did not have air-conditioning in any meaningful sense. Eventually Jeffrey had to speak harshly to a nurse.
“What did you tell her?” I asked when he returned.
“I told them you’ve been lying here with a dirty open wound for seven hours and that you can’t use the bathroom because every time you stand up you bleed through the bandage and almost faint.”
“How do you say open wound in German?”
It was still very hot back in Berlin the next day when I limped to a doctor to have my bandages changed and beg for antibiotics, which Germans hate to prescribe. Explaining that antibiotics were the cause of very bad things in the world, the city doctor daintily removed the gauze as I winced. He inspected the stitches and frowned. “Did a young doctor do this?” he asked, and gave me the antibiotics.
Nevertheless, I found it hard to be depressed. I finally had an excuse to go to the expensive vegan restaurant on the corner: it was the farthest I could walk. As I ate pea mousse with my leg extended into the sidewalk, looking hopefully at the weather app on my phone, not trying very hard to avoid tripping the teenagers who sped past on electric scooters, I reflected on what I’ve long known to be true about Berlin: you should never try to leave.