How living with (and without) coal has coloured my experience of Berlin
If I can pinpoint any smell that I associate with Berlin, it’s the smell of burning coal. This is something that I have experienced in Berlin, but nowhere else. My first flat had kohleheizung (yes, that means coal heating) thanks to four coal-burning stoves throughout. I had the great fortune of being in the bedroom with the ultra-finicky stove. It was hard to light, and even my Irish flatmate who grew up with coal stoves found it difficult to light, but once it was actually lit, it needed to be topped off with more coal and prodded with a long metal poker (I still never learned the actual word for this) every few hours. I would wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of my alarm, reminding me to throw more coal on the fire. There was also a ventilation door that needed to be opened when more coal was aded, but it needed to be closed after a few minutes, otherwise the air circulation would put the fire out. The whole thing was laughably annoying.
Arguably the worst part about living with this coal heating, though, was trudging up and down the stairs to our shed in the cellar to retrieve the coal. It was pitch-black in the cellar. It smelled musty. It looked entirely like the sort of place one would expect to be attacked and murdered by a serial killer in a gory B-movie. My hands would be blackened from this short journey up and down the stairs, and it never did tone my arms in the way I hoped it might.
I became so used to the smell of the coal that I didn’t even notice it. That familiarity crept up on me, too. It wasn't like I ever thought, “Hmm, so this is what burning coal smells like,” to begin with. Suddenly, I didn’t know that there was any other way to live – even though almost no one I knew in Berlin at the time had coal heating, and almost a year later, I know even fewer people with kohleheizung.
As winter approaches, it’s getting colder outside, though apparently not as bad as what my family in Detroit is experiencing. A few weeks ago, I took a short walk from my internship to a small vegan cafe to pick up a sandwich. Given the early hour of around 2pm, it was remarkably grey and depressing outside. While walking, I found myself in front of a building, stopped in my tracks and sniffing at the air. I was immediately aware of that familiar smell: coal. I moved to a different flat in April (luckily one with gas heating) and can’t recall the last time I smelled burning coal. I had forgotten what it was like.
This might seem like such a strange and small thing to pick up on, but that smell of coal is something that I have never encountered anywhere else. In my hometown, the thought of heating a house with a coal-burning stove is unfathomable. To my parents, and to my friends in the US, it was unbelievable that anyone in Germany, let alone in its capital city, could live this way. It’s only now that I am coming up on my second winter in Berlin that the smell of coal seems significant. The fact that I can walk around in the city and immediately tell which of the altbauen (old buildings) use coal heating is funny somehow. It serves as a reminder that, despite it being the capital city of the political and economic powerhouse of the EU, Berlin is still a city in transition, its different parts modernising at varying rates.