Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan on getting to know a city through its unwanted stuff.
Berlin is just noise.
At least, it seems that way moving from New Delhi, where I've spent the last year and a half, cowering, where I've spent the last thirty nine years (apart from a short four-year stint in Mumbai) digging in, firmly rooted, part of the ecosystem and so on. But life changes, and so must I, and I found myself trying to make sense of a brand new city where Life was not only just Going On, but also Being Lived.
Some cities buckle up, everyone retreats indoors and no one talks to anyone, and some cities, Berlin among them, begin to offer more and more public things in the open air, clubs turned into test centers and parks playing host to impromptu mini-raves and in all this, I discovered a Facebook group called Free Your Stuff: Berlin.
We are all so over Facebook and yet it is to Facebook I return when I'm brand new in a city, hunting for flats, friends, jobs and now... stuff. I joined on a whim, I didn't even have a flat at the time to put anything into, and yet, as the posts flew fast and steady, I'd shout across the room to my partner, “Oh look, a double bed!” “German textbooks!” “A cat tree!” I wanted all the stuff, the spirit of my grandmother who liked to hoard things “for best” in her in-built steel cupboard safe, the spirit of all my Indian ancestors who never threw anything away, because “you never know” and washed out plastic bags only to store other plastic bags in them, saved tins to put rubber bands in, saved boxes “for a move” even though we rarely moved. The Berliners were just handing over things; I loved that. I loved them.
And the longer I stayed—both in Berlin and on Free Your Stuff—the more I began to see the city being reflected in the group.
“We are in fact, yearning for the intangible feeling of comfort and the immense satisfaction only a handheld digital pet can give us. So here our plea to all those kind souls out there in this sprawling city. Does anyone have a functioning Tamagotchi they would be open to parting with?”
“GIVE: a soul in a jar, obviously a bit shattered. It's not mine, found it behind a techno club toilet, somebody must have lost it there. If somebody is missing his/her/whatever soul, please inform me (PM). Kind of want to get rid of this asap.”
“Approx. 40 Dolls: Scary or cute, you decide! This Chuckie collection was bequeathed to us by the last person who lived in our house. We already checked, they're not worth anything, even though a few are from the 30s and 50s with cards attached and everything. We just want them gone, as they're kinda creepy. But maybe one of you is looking for a serial-killer-doll vibe in your flat/office/cafe etc.”
It's through Free Your Stuff that I learnt about something called the Papphocker, literally a “cardboard stool” that folds, used by many German institutions for quick and inexpensive seating. Someone was giving away ten, “in case you're on a crowded U or at a club and want to sit down.”
It's also through the group that I began to learn about how people are hacking the housing crisis by bowing out of it completely, and asking folks on the group if they had a broken down van they didn't need so that they could “donate our rent to a vegan animal sanctuary [sic] and live off dumpster diving.” On this post, someone commented with a wiki guide to Berlin's trash. (Plus also a hack to break into rich buildings for their recycling, which may not be legal, so proceed at your own risk.)
We have finally managed to find a flat and now I'm returning to Free Your Stuff: Berlin with renewed vigor. I think I'd like a plant and a shoe rack and Christmas ornaments and a clothes rack and, and, and, but funnily, the more I look at all this stuff, the more I feel the need to give things away too. — By Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan