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Susanna Forrest | Longreads | March 23, 2023 | 3,474 words (12 minutes)
Twelve years ago, I lived alone in Berlin and the crows knew me. My particular murder kept watch in the park nearest my flat, a long green strip marking the course of the demolished Wall. The neighborhood was part of the former East, and at the weekends the park filled with locals and tourists browsing the flea market for GDR cookware, furniture, and ratty old fur coats. I once found an entire stuffed dog there, lying rigidly over a pile of the flotsam and jetsam of 20th-century German domestic life — porcelain sugar bins with gingham prints, brass tea warmers, and musty albums of abandoned family photographs. The Wall had fallen years before I moved there in 2006, and Berlin had not yet hatched its Silicon Allee of slick startups. When I first arrived the air still reeked of coal stoves in the winter, and a friend lived in a dingy unrenovated apartment that had heavy velvet curtains over the doors and dusty black coal pucks piled in the corridor. You reached it via the ruin of another apartment with ’80s posters still hanging.
For a long time, I told myself that I moved to Berlin in my late 20s on an unusually long-lasting whim after visiting a friend and picturing myself writing books in a spacious old tenement building. I was part of the cheap-flights generation of casual British EU migrants who sampled new cities and countries without thinking too hard. We didn’t need to. Our path was greased by budget airlines, a strong pound, low rent, and the internet, which let us work on our laptops in cafés that still served milchkaffee, iced Ovaltine, and rhubarb schorle rather than the later hipster homogeneities of avocado toast and flat whites. Earlier waves had immersed themselves in the city like a baptism, learning German, living in shared apartments with terrifying hippie rules, and getting jobs doing anything from teaching English to cleaning kebab grills. I and my fellow travelers hovered at the edge of the city, gazing at our screens. Many didn’t last long.
But five years on, in my crow-courting period, I was still there, and it was becoming less clear why. I had made an uncharacteristically bold move and left behind a functional if eccentric career in London because that trajectory of escalating job responsibilities, a mortgage, and a daily rattle on the Tube was suddenly not what I wanted. It had never seemed exactly real in any case — a fluke of luck, not something you could turn into a life. I was now writing books, which is what I did want to do, but there was no particular reason why I had to do that in Berlin. I still lived alone and worked from home alone and stuck to a handful of neighborhoods. I had hazily wanted an expanded life — living in different places, learning new languages — but that life turned out to require more of me than I could give.
I gradually learned enough German for my work and writing, but froze and stumbled when I was spoken to (or at). The state-run language courses were not designed to launch you into a German social life. Instead, we new migrants — from Bulgaria, America, Sweden, Italy, Turkey, and North Korea — gathered three nights a week and chewed over the language, which was presented to us in a series of “realistic scenarios” we might experience, such as traveling or trying to get a job like a good immigrant. Germans appeared in textbooks as Johanns and Marias driving their cars, eating bockwurst, and going to the cinema, rather than as three-dimensional people whom we could approach. The books told us about the German way of doing things, and German beliefs about citizenship and private lives, contrasted wordlessly against a great missing Other — us.
We had the outsiders’ shorthand mythology for these creatures, a mashup of quaint archetypes and international urban wisdoms passed from one to another: “Germans aren’t efficient, they are thorough.” “Germans don’t like to use credit cards.” “Germans eat cake and buy flowers on Sundays.” There was also a submythology for Berliners, who were said to be blisteringly sarcastic — one account advised trying to imagine Cockneys who’d gone through the German 20th century. Berliners, and especially East Berliners, who had gone through even more of that century, let you know exactly what they thought of you. If you couldn’t understand their Schnauze or “Snout” dialect (a mashup of German and linguistic pickings from the city’s history, including French and Yiddish), then it was maybe for the best. When an elderly lady shouted at me for standing on the pavement and looking up at a flat I was viewing, the submythology told me to take it as a rite of passage. Berlin says “Du Alta!” and fuck off.
Instead I met new friends via our blog RSS feeds and took to internet dating, but the connections I made were mostly with fellow migrants or people who lived elsewhere but wanted to imagine they could live in Berlin. I made a few German friends, although they often had one foot out of the city too. Largely I was alone. When the dates lasted more than one meeting, I chose men who were pulling the same avoidant trick as me. We flew in the same direction an impeccable distance apart, like birds in a murmuration. Hypothetically, each relationship came with a future Berlin life together, and I dipped mentally into these as though they were outfits I might try on without buying. It was safe to do this, because of course, none of these relationships went anywhere or required any kind of commitment to a life that was fixed. I hadn’t yet realized that this was my choice. I thought maybe I was bad at reading signs, but actually, I was very good at reading them. The problem was that I felt safer alone.
I staged this repetitive personal drama carelessly on the cracking, rumbling crust of a city trying to absorb a surfeit of history while sunk in its own recession. Unemployment was high, and public housing was being hurled overboard, thousands of units at a time. I read my British and American news online and ripped up the free local papers I found in my mailbox and stuffed the shreds in my wet shoes. I was waiting for something, aware that the city was changing underneath my own holding pattern.
Gentrification had been underway when I got there. What had been crammed tenements in the early 20th century and then crumbling, war-damaged flats under the GDR were now saniert and interspersed with independent latte outlets. The shoddy, shrapnel-chipped brickwork within the circling Ringbahn was covered with fresh plaster and paint and nobody had to pee in a closet toilet on the staircase anymore. The old tiled stoves were ripped out and replaced with central heating; the smell of coal smoke retreated further from the center. Once I found myself in an expensively renovated living room where the new architects had preserved the old bullet holes under glass as a conversation point. It was just across the road from my friend’s former flat with the velvet curtains, now a building site for new luxury apartments.
At weekends I walked the same neighborhoods for hours and thought in suffocating spirals about the avoidant men and whether I should go home and get a proper job. I let the city spool by unheeded in the background. The crows’ park was just five minutes away, so I was there often. It was a lung of sorts, but not an escape.
I started feeding the crows because I’d read that they could recognize individual human faces, and I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see if I could train them to know me by sight. I bought bags of peanuts in the shell and began distributing them in the park. I always took the same messenger bag, which had a print of crow silhouettes on it. The crows could make this out from quite some distance. I didn’t think about why I wanted these creatures, so busy in their own very different but overlapping Berlin, to acknowledge me.
They were not inky carrion crows but hooded or “fog” crows with powdery gray bodies, black heads, bibs, wings, and tail tips and the same elegant butcher beak as their cousins. Some were pied with white feathers, which were either a genetic quirk or a result of malnutrition — I tried to make sure that these birds got extra nuts. When I got close, I could see a fine lacy pattern where their bodies met their tails, an unexpected refinement. If I looked up at one in a tree, I found the same pattern on the underside of their stern. (I only had to have my coat dry-cleaned once.) In the spring they were glossy. They were always beady. They were the native Berliners with whom I interacted most.
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At first, I went every weekday morning, because at weekends the park filled up with the flea market, outdoor karaoke, and tourists who distracted the crows, but then I went on an irregular basis, once a week at most, and they all knew me. We had a routine of sorts, and soon it was unclear who was training whom. I kept buying peanuts. I kept going back. I kept responding to their cues. When I walked into the park a pair who were picking at beer-bottle tops in the grass would spot me and run and hop over like a couple of chickens, eyes bright and feathers ruffled by the wind, looking at my face and at my bag and back again. They would stop a few feet away and wait for me to reach under the flap of the bag and produce the goods.
Sometimes a few outlier crows found me as I was halfway down the road to the park and swooped down to perch near me on the barriers by the roadworks or waited overhead on the tram wires. I learned to recognize the sound of a crow’s feet landing on the metal top of a GDR-era streetlamp. Sometimes I was in the park before they clocked me. Once I found a row of crows and young rooks waiting on the fence of the dog run for me to pass. They seemed both readable and unfathomable to me, just like my experience of the city as I trudged along its pavements, but they were also company, and glad to see me without asking more of me than the peanuts.
A new wall had been erected at the top of a man-made hill in the park for graffiti artists to attack, and the air was often thick with aerosol and paint particles. Some days I could climb to the top of the hill before I heard the birds calling all over, and watched as they appeared — black specks in the distance over the blocky West German flats half a kilometer away, turning to black and gray bird shapes who circled me and landed in the poplars or skimmed up the slope to my feet, their bellies inches clear of the balding grass. Windy days were best: The currents of air made it hard for them to get close, but they soared like small, sooty eagles, their pinions spread. Once they arrived, the crow ethnography began.
They operated in pairs but also as a larger flock that seemed to my human eyes to have a strict hierarchy: I saw a crow leave a peanut right in front of its feet so that a senior bird could have it. I also once saw a large crow attack and roll over a young bird and pin it on its back, its chest exposed, and five or six other crows raced over and stood in a circle around them, cawing what sounded like disapproval. The large crow released its prisoner. One evening at twilight I discovered that they roosted en masse on the floodlights of the football stadium, putting in a performance of looping aerobatics and abrupt plunges before they turned in for the night.
In some ways, the crows and I were similar. They changed only when disrupted. I thought I should change my life but let inertia cradle me. But while they lived in a murder that was tight-knit and full of drama, my lack of connection had not led to some kind of fluid and expansive lifestyle, but instead, stagnation and solitude. Some friends peeled away from the city, returning home for careers and family. My own roost was starting to feel precarious as the gentrification around my flat intensified and cobblers and cafés were replaced with boutiques selling designer pastel-gray baby bowls and Scandinavian cookware. I had an old rental contract that remained low but all around me the housing market was contracting and my building was growing scruffier, edging us closer to another renovation that would turf me out. I didn’t really want to think about whether I loved my Berlin existence enough to live “beyond the ring,” as people put it, as though the neighborhoods outside the Ringbahn were cold rocks of planets that rarely glimpsed the sun. This was not a hypothetical future I had tried out. If I did live there, away from my friends, what would the rest of my life look like? What would change?
I was heading home one Monday when I heard a great squawking behind me and turned to see a kestrel flying low, a vole dangling from its beak and three hooded crows on its tail, angling and twisting like TIE fighters. They all vanished into the trees. Shortly after that a woman walking her dog came up to me and asked if I fed the crows. I was surrounded by a dozen crows at the time. I said no. “You should not feed them,” she said, not fooled, “because there are many of them and the kestrel is all alone.” I saw her point. For a beat we stood facing each other off, crazy crow lady meets crazy kestrel lady.
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After the birds had found me at the foot of the graffiti wall, we would go on a 10-minute walk around the park, with them following me. At first to overtake me and keep up they flew arcs to either side of me. Then they realized that they could take a shortcut and fly over my head. One afternoon I was walking down the steps cut into the hill when I bent over to pick up a stray peanut, and a crow flew so low over my back that had I stood up suddenly it would have crashed into me. Then they flew so close that my hair lifted in the draft of their wings.
In spring they were nesting, and crammed peanut after peanut down their bulging throats to regurgitate later. The pair at the park entrance collected a nut each from me and then swiftly buried them before coming back for more. In the summer the barbecuers returned to the park and there were leftover chicken wings abandoned on disposable grills, congealing pizza slices on the benches, and bratwurst ends in the bins — fat times for corvids. In the winter they were a little too intense and we started to get all Hitchcock.
I once saw one — which looked a little embarrassed — picking at a heap of sick on the pavement, and it occurred to me that it was right that crows should thrive in Berlin. Their coloring was camouflage for a place of gray skies and ingrained coal dust. The city’s emblem is a bear, and back then there was still a mumbly old brown bear in an actual pit in the city center. But it seemed to me that the fog crows were the city’s real objective correlatives: tough, savvy, garrulous, snouty, and cynical — an urban species that thrived on cold currywurst, vomit, and warm football-stadium lights. They might have no concept of Berlin but were inseparable from it, hanging over the buildings and streets and memorials, making their own territories and marking the seasons.
My own territories were still fixed, but something was shifting. I felt I had made the wrong choices, that I should have wanted something more conventional, more easily understood, more boxes ticked. My life had little structure and few limits, and, unlike the crows, I was not thriving on the surface of Berlin. When I walked home alone in the dark the city seemed to expand overwhelmingly into the night. The ends of side streets faded into soft but profound darkness. Apartment windows were lit with red-shaded lamps that barely disturbed the black. Familiar neighborhoods gave way to unfathomable streets and then to suburbs, extending infinitely away from my feet on the pavement. The longer I lived alone, the nearer the fading point came to the edge of my world.
One bright morning I walked down the park in a cloud of 20 crows. A wild-eyed man, still unraveling from a heavy night in some club, came running up to me to say that what I was doing was incredible, and I stammered that it was only peanuts. Shortly after that, a young crow misjudged things and flew into the back of my head. I scaled back my activities.
I can’t remember the date when I stopped the performance altogether — or broke whatever mesmerism they had me under. I had tried feeding crows from my balcony too, watching them carry off the peanuts to bury in my neighbors’ window boxes. Then they learned how to untie the mass of knots I’d used to attach the metal bird feeder to the railing and dropped it into the courtyard, three stories down, so I gave up before they injured someone. I thought they had the same callous intelligence as orcas. I had not formed some kind of magical connection with these Berliners; I had just bought a lot of peanuts.
The real end, though, was when I paused halfway up one of those shady, yellow-painted Berlin stairwells and saw a crow on a branch outside slowly and methodically breaking a pigeon’s neck peck by peck.
I left Berlin two years ago. I don’t have a neat turning point for you — there was no self-help book or revelation or moment when the crows made me understand I had been doing everything wrong. I simply met someone and, for once, it felt safer to be together than alone, and when I took that leap toward connection, my life started to change rapidly and concretely. I left my old flat as my landlord finally tried to raise the rent and I moved in with the new boyfriend; I got pregnant; I happily moved to another country for his new job — still a migratory bird after all. I landed somewhere between convention and that expansive, restless life I had hoped for.
Meanwhile, the door to Berlin shut behind us. The housing market was finally in crisis, and it felt as though Berliners had gone to ground in the pandemic, clinging and retreating into their dingy, L-shaped living rooms like hermit crabs as rents rose and the queues outside apartment viewings stretched into the thousands.
You cannot skim the surface of a place and expect to belong to it. You cannot skim the surface of your life and inhabit it fully. To stay in Berlin alone I would have needed to strike out into that darkness at the ends of the streets and grasp what it meant to take root, grow old, and die in a place. The crows were not little harbingers of this mortality; they were just busy being corvids — my uncanny Berliners, my unfamiliar familiars. They stayed in place and lived according to the seasons, but it was the murder that animated their lives.
A year after that moment on the Berlin staircase, I walked to the park with the crow bag without thinking. One lithe, smallish crow found me and followed me. I walked up the hill and along the foot of the graffiti wall, inhaling the spray paint that taggers were busily dispersing into the atmosphere. The crow came with me. I walked down the steps to the pavement that ran where the Berlin Wall used to stand. It hopped over the flagstones. I walked down the scarred grass toward the exit, and the crow kept me company. I crossed the road and it winged over and landed on a power box next to me with a metallic click of talons. I apologized to it and went into the nearest shop to buy peanuts.
It was still waiting when I came out.
Susanna Forrest is the author of The Age of the Horse (Grove Atlantic, 2017) and If Wishes Were Horses (Atlantic Books, 2012). She writes a Substack newsletter called Amazons of Paris about women who were stars of the 19th-century circus and lives with her family in Sweden, where there are rooks instead of fog crows.
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
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