The music, tents, and outdoor parties are mostly packed away. The winter chill is creeping closer. The 30,000 square meters of parkland is privately owned but unused, corporately speaking. Squatters and travellers are free to occupy the area referred to as the Cuvry Brache (uncultivated land) or Freifläche (free space). Yet this space will soon be practically deserted.
Jamin, an Australian expat, is one of the few brave occupants who will dare to stay through Berlin’s harsh white months. He lives life day by day and loves that he doesn’t know what will happen tomorrow. Just in case he decides to stay long-term, he has built himself a two-bedroom cottage out of scrap material and with his own bare hands. Today he talks to Sensa Nostra about his decision to move into Cuvry and some of the challenges he has faced throughout this eye-opening experience.
Five months ago I met a man who lived at a campsite with a few friends inside the Cuvry grounds. He invited me to join them. It didn’t take me long to decide what to do. It was an attractive offer. No rent. No bills. Living outdoors for the summer surrounded by interesting people and wild parties. A friend of mine lived across the road and offered to store my valuables and provide a place to shower and crash whenever I needed. That same day I packed my belongings (I never own more than I can carry, even in Australia), bought a tent and made the move.
At the time I had been itching for a change but wasn’t ready to leave Berlin and the people here. Cuvry provided that change for pocket change, if you know what I mean. I was still living in the heart of Berlin, but I was on a new adventure. No electricity. No running water. No heating. I loved the freedom.
I could now work as little or as much as I pleased, and could spend the money exactly how I wanted — on healthy food and good times. I always hated to see my money disappear into rent and bills. My philosophy is that if someone can live happily in a tent, manage without running water and burn candles for light, then he or she should be able to do that. Even if you want to live in a city, you ought to be able to do it, for free. Living in a city shouldn’t dictate that we pay rent. Yet most of the time it does. Even Cuvry, which is one of the last Freifläche in Berlin, will be developed (or demolished) and converted into a corporate monstrosity in a couple of years. I realised soon after I moved in that I was lucky to be experiencing this endangered way of life.
Initially I planned to camp here for three months over summer, but those plans quickly changed. Soon after I moved in people started talking about constructing their houses for the winter. I realised it was possible to build a house from scratch without spending much money. The challenge became irresistible, especially once I realised that I would soon not have any money coming in. Business would dwindle as the weather cooled. I run a free city walking tour, and thus rely upon tips. It’s a tough gig when most people on the tour are poor backpackers. Recently I joined a larger organisation in order to secure a steady flow of customers. To their dismay I insist on keeping the tours free. Today I was lucky; I earned sixty Euros, which will last a week or two living the way I do. Forty was from one couple alone. I think they felt sorry for me after I pointed out where I was living.
So far I’ve managed to build the house for the price of the tools (200 Euros). The best thing was that by the time I moved into the house, the tent I’d been sleeping in was totally destroyed. The zipper was fucked, the seams were splitting and there were holes everywhere. I took it back to the shop and asked whether or not they thought the damage was normal wear and tear. To my surprise they gave me back the full seventy euros. I’ll have to spend this on something I can’t scavenge from construction sites.
Imagine how many times I’ve had to go out collecting material in my supermarket trolley in order to build, insulate and furnish my place. Heaps. After successfully making off with supplies several times without getting caught, I got cocky, I guess. I’d visited this particular site about twenty times and had completely emptied the place. I found a part for the chimney, a big trolley, six chairs and heaps of small pieces of firewood. The guys working there must’ve noticed and were probably pissed off that people were raiding the place.
One evening I was filling up my trolley really casually — I think I was even chatting on my phone. A guy came up and asked if he could help me. I said, ‘Nah, nah, it’s all good, cheers,’ and kept filling up my trolley. He then asked me to stop and said I couldn’t take anything. I tried to tell him that everything was okay, that I’d spoken to the builders and they were fine with me taking a bit of their garbage. That was when he told me that it was his building site, and demanded I leave. I told him I was practically living outside and desperately needed the wood to keep warm through the winter. He kept refusing and held onto the trolley until it was empty. What an arschloch.
I’ve worked in construction before and I know how this stuff works. The builders quote an inflated price for the job, not including the money they’ll make selling the content of the rubbish bins. It’s a questionable practice and ultimately a bonus for them. So the guy was being selfish. Plus what I was doing wasn’t strictly illegal. I never break into the construction sites. Well, not much anyway. I generally just take things from the bins. This particular time I was picking through a pile of stuff left on the sidewalk beside their bin, on public property. I wasn’t stealing. I’d never steal. I’d never take anything from inside the building site (except for the chimney I found — saved me sixteen euros).
Living in the park has been eye-opening. As a general rule: don’t trust anyone in the park. The Polish drink a lot, the Romanians have a ‘different’ sense of ownership, and there’s every single kind of drug imaginable being used and passed around for free. Yet I never feel unsafe.
During summer there’s a strong sense of community, but recently the atmosphere has changed. We arranged a community meeting recently. Several people showed up (you can tell immediately who cares about the space), but it wasn’t a success. Everyone had five minutes to talk, but it was taking fifteen as whatever was said was translated into two or six other languages. And then, of course, everyone wanted to debate each point… There were a lot of issues and I put it all down to winter. The weather’s shit. When people are cold and uncomfortable they start to behave in antisocial ways. That’s all.
I do trust a few people in the park. There are some really good, spiritual people. One guy, Thomas, I fucking love. He’s a crazy motherfucker. He’s 46, addicted to speed and could afford to live somewhere else but also chooses to live here. He arrived a week before I did, and was the one to invite me into his camp and the park.
I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to experience such a different way of life in a city that I love. I feel satisfied with my experiences here, and thus when the temperature drops I will happily admit defeat. I don’t feel compelled to use the house I have built beyond its capabilities. I have learned a lot about life and myself, and have grown comfortable with the minimalist lifestyle here. Yet I am also ready, when the weather demands it, to move onto the next adventure. I take life day by day, not knowing whether I will stay or leave tomorrow.