I spent the first five months of this year on a writing residency in Singapore. I knew nobody out there, and in the longueurs of solitude and tropical heat I daydreamed often of Berlin. I was glad to be moving back there with my girlfriend in the summer: we’d left in early 2021 after the winter Covid lockdowns had backed us into a wretched, twitchy, paranoid corner and decided we were better off in our native Ireland. In my Singaporean fantasies of Berlin, one of the memory-films I liked watching, in nostalgia and anticipation, was a blurry sequence of recollected views from the window of the Ringbahn, the train line that circles the city from Ostkreuz to Westkreuz.

When I first moved to Berlin in 2018, I discovered that an enjoyable way to get an atmospheric visual reading of the capital was to ride the Ringbahn, getting off where I’d got on after an hour spent going nowhere and everywhere, looping the loop, coming full circle. The Ringbahn’s S-41 and S-42 trains run in opposite directions around the city on the S-Bahn railway which, in contrast to the U-Bahn, runs mainly overground. The internet tells me that 400,000 people ride the Ring every day, embarking at its 27 stations. On my laptop there’s a folder of photos I took in my first year here, labelled “Ringbahn”, which contains evocatively gloomy shots, taken from the train window, of speed-blurred buildings framed by overcast skies, the faces of passengers reflected in the glass amid smears of electric light. I’d posted some of the photos on Instagram with cryptic captions – images of my loneliness in the city during that period. I’d felt a fraternal chime when I read somewhere that Iggy Pop had also enjoyed recreationally riding the S-Bahn after he moved to Berlin in the ’70s to get clean with David Bowie (his song The Passenger was inspired by these rides).


On my circular journeys I’d begun to conceive of a novel I might write about the Ringbahn. The idea never came to anything, but for a few weeks I’d taken notes and sketched a tentative outline. The novel was to be set over a single night on a Ringbahn train as it circled the city hour after hour (Berlin’s superb public transport system runs all night at weekends). It would somehow involve the concept of circular time – perhaps bringing in Nietzsche’s dizzying idea of the Eternal Recurrence – and would possibly end with the narrator realising that he’s been dead the whole time and is condemned to circle Berlin on the Ring for all eternity. To research the novel, I felt I would have to ride the Ringbahn all through the night at least once, taking notes on the people I observed as the train sped in circles till dawn broke over the suburbs and graffitied outer wastelands of a city that still seems in some lingering sense post-War. To stay alert I’d have to rely on amphetamines – not difficult to source in Berlin – or, less debilitatingly, on Mate, the highly caffeinated soft drink popular in Germany (pronounced mat-tay, like the South American yerba mate brew that inspired it). I never got round to this nocturnal research, perhaps because riding the Ringbahn on a journey to the end of the night would have meant foreclosing the very thing that made the line so agreeable, namely the views from the windows. On the Ringbahn at night you might as well be looking out at a black wall.

When I moved back to Berlin early this summer, after a few weeks cherishing the pleasures of a capital that was now buzzing with post-pandemic energies, I boarded the Ringbahn once more, with nowhere in particular to go. As ever, I got on at Ostkreuz station. This time, I had in my pocket the blessed €9 monthly train ticket, valid throughout Germany, that the government introduced in a trial run for the summer months as an eco-friendly incentive and to ease the cost of living. The clockwise S41 train arrived before the anticlockwise S42, so I took that. The train pulled out of Ostkreuz on its elevated line overlooking the fringes of Friedrichshain (and some of the city’s better nightclubs: About:Blank; Renate; VOID). As the train glided over the river Spree I entertained the frivolous notion that it was the frequency of the letter ‘k’ in their language that gave the Germans the catastrophic delusion that they were a master race.


Kreuzberg, Ostkreuz, Neukölln… There’s power in the sound of it, the feel of k hard in your mouth, the letter’s angular shape. Rolling away to one side as we headed south was Treptower Park, with its stretch of river where Berliners like to swim during heatwaves. Deeper inside the park is the spectacular Soviet War Memorial – the first place I always bring friends when they come to visit Berlin. It’s impossible to approach that triumphalist monument and not be filled with stirring, reckless emotions: moved by the dead glory of the communist dream; humbled by the 7000 Russian soldiers who are buried there. (Altogether, 80,000 Russians died in the Battle of Berlin – a vicious endgame in which, in the late Mark Fisher’s memorable phrase, “reality itself had gone psychotic”.) It’s illegal to display the swastika in Germany, and the only place I’ve ever seen one is on the Soviet War Memorial’s centrepiece: a colossal statue of a Russian soldier holding a huge sword like that of a manga or video-game character, and in his other arm cradling a German child. A broken swastika lies crushed under the soldier’s boot.


Beyond the park and further along the line is Sonnenallee in the heart of Neukölln, formerly the station where clubbers disembarked for Griessmuehle, another storied nightclub, now closed down to leave the ghosts of collective ecstasy roaming the vacant industrial space by the canal that once shook with techno rhythms. Then it was on through Neukölln station, and Hermannstraße, and past the expanse of Tempelhof airfield which has long been repurposed as a venue for picnics and skating, kite-flying and cricket-playing; and then out into Schöneberg and all the way round to Westkreuz, at the far end of the Ring from Ostkreuz (and near to an enormous brothel on multiple floors called Artemis, which a few years ago was raided by hundreds of cops on suspicion of human trafficking). Beyond Westkreuz, the train rattled on through the city’s northwestern reaches, past stations whose names mean little to me in areas of the city where I’ve never had cause to venture. Exactly an hour after I set out, I was back at Ostkreuz, considering going round again in the opposite direction.

At risk of confirming myself as a naievely jubilant lifestyle migrant, after three years living in this city I can’t but think of Berlin as a European paradise deserving of the mythos of liberation and experimentalism it has accrued since the motorik 1970s, through the post-unification techno clubland of the 1990s and 2000s, and just about into the rapidly gentrifying 2020s. Famously, you can do pretty much anything you could conceivably desire in this town. There are the fetish parties, the gruelling techno marathons, and every sort of decadence and hedonism, if that’s your thing. Or you can just take walks along the canals and by the remnants of the Berlin Wall; or spend a Saturday by one of the lakes dotting the city’s forested fringes; or visit art galleries, and monuments to the abyss of late-European history. But what I suggest you do is buy a takeout coffee, play some cavernous dub-techno or futurist ambient or euphoric motorik on your headphones, and circle the capital on the Ringbahn, coming right back to where you started and then going round all over again.

Rob Doyle’s most recent books are “Autobibliography” and “Threshold”

More Like This

Get a free copy of our print edition

Letter from Elsewhere, Life

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Your email address will not be published. The views expressed in the comments below are not those of Perspective. We encourage healthy debate, but racist, misogynistic, homophobic and other types of hateful comments will not be published.