How I ditched London and became a writer in Berlin

Former Berlin resident Sarah Kisielowski tells of how a move to the German capital provided the inspiration she needed to write her first novel.

How I ditched London and became a writer in Berlin
File photo: DPA.

“I’m going to become a writer,” I told my boss in London. I’m moving to Berlin to write a book.

A month later at my farewell party, he gave me a bunch of flowers, along with a pat on the back for being 20-something and following my dreams. Ten years later, my dream has come true, and looking back, moving to Berlin had everything to do with it.

A lot of people come to Berlin in search of creative input, hungry for the history and artistic freedom that the city has to offer. They hang out in cafes and bars and explore the romantic urbanism that makes Berlin so addictive: the tree-filled neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, the industrial wastelands, and canal-side haunts.

All these people from different countries and backgrounds come together, bound by the city as it perpetually writes its story on the lives of its residents.

“Berlin was different when I moved here,” many people say, and yes, in 2006 when I turned up with a backpack and a job as an English teacher, the city was different: the Communist Palast der Republik still stood on Museum Island, more people seemed to speak German, and there were a lot more outdoor parties. But I was different back then too and to me, everything in Berlin was new.

I picked up my first bike for €10 off an elderly lady in my Altbau and, by the end of my first week living in Kreuzberg, I was cycling around the streets of my Kiez like a pro, and falling in love with the city.

There was so much to write about: the smells and sounds of the streets, Kofte from the Turkish market and fresh rolls from the bakeries. Characters popped out of every kiosk, they slept on the stones of war memorials. Stolpersteine before many houses marked the homes of former Jewish residents, and the dates they were terrorized by the Nazis.

Street names like Grimmstrasse were an ode to the fairy tales of the German storytellers the Brothers Grimm, who lived in the city for two decades. And U-Bahn station names like Frankfurter Tor marked an old route out of the city towards the provinces of the East.

With so much for my imagination, I spent my first year simply living and experiencing my new environment. I connected with most of the people I met through a shared love of music and literature. Their book recommendations still remind me of the places where we first discussed them over a Milchkaffee and cigarettes, warming up from the cold. Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler is a café on Kottbusserdamm. Talk Talk by T. C. Boyle is a tram ride half-way-down Petersbergerstrasse. And then my favourite: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut: a bitter night walking along Eberswalderstrasse.

Photo: David Benham/Private.

Being half-German myself, there were some things about the city that seemed familiar from my childhood trips to see my grandparents: pumpkin seed bread and poppy seeds – favourites of my mother; then there was the chocolate bars we’d been sent as children; and the sound of the language itself.

But so many things were different from home: the apartments in Berlin were enormous and full of the smell of coal. When winter came the canals froze in Kreuzberg, and I felt for the first time that I really knew what winter was.

Lost in a dark and snowy world, I began to write vignettes of the characters and places I came across: the abandoned factories and buildings, inside which I would sit for hours, scribbling away on scraps of paper.

I read Döblin and Isherwood, and went to flea markets to buy a fur coat. I watched films by German directors like Wenders and Herzog, and spent afternoons on the S-Bahn observing life. A homeless man sat on the stairs at Treptower Park, begging each day for breakfast. The sound of a violinist filled the vaulted ceiling of a station as the horsehair of his bow glided across the strings.

The people and cold of the city breathed humanity into my everyday life in a way I’d never seen before.

And I too had to survive, in a flat with no real heating. I didn’t make a lot of money from my teaching job, but it was reliable, and enough to pay the rent. Looking back, I hardly had anything, but in other ways I had so much. I was rich in only a way that living in Berlin can teach you. On my days off I explored the city, then went home and wrote all night. And gradually I became a Berliner with a common sense of belonging running through my blood.

Four years later, I returned to London and began to write. I wrote eight hours a day for three months. The story started from a photograph, a vision, and ended in a book. It took four more years of research and return trips to Berlin to finish my debut novel. But now that it’s done it, it feels like only last week that I first cycled down Wrangelstrasse with the leaves of the linden trees crunching under my wheels.

Fulfilling a dream takes hard work and perseverance. The people of Berlin gave me the inspiration to do that. Of course, every city has its stories, but none more so for me than Berlin, where every doorstep holds a secret, every face is lined by the past.

The Last Tenant by Sarah Kisielowski tells the story of Daniel, a young man who travels to Berlin in search of family. But when his grandfather disappears, Daniel must dig through remnants of the past to find out the truth about his family's history. Find out more at

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OPINION: ‘These are the things that make Madrid a celebration of daily life’

Did you know that a gin and tonic tastes better in Madrid than anywhere else in the world? This is just one of things that makes Spain's capital a place to love, according to author Soledad Fox Maura.

OPINION: 'These are the things that make Madrid a celebration of daily life'
Photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash

Sometimes Madrid feels like a huge, sprawling city (i.e. if you’re on the M-40 highway), but if you manage to stay within the central part, and walk or use public transport, it can feel like a collection of charming, connected villages or small towns. I love the latter incarnation of the city because of its human scale, and the way it reflects organic urban growth.

When I was little my mother and grandfather would often point out a newly developed area, and tell me “There used to be nothing there. La Castellana was a dirt road where children went roller skating”or “The bus route that now goes to Pavones used to end right here at the Retiro Park. That was the end of that part of the city.”

Where there was nothing, new apartment blocks were built so that people could move out of crowded neighborhoods like Chueca. Flash forward a generation later and many of the people who grew up in those contemporary utopian developments with grassy areas and swimming pools would do anything for an apartment in Chueca and other central neighborhoods that came into their own and became the height of trendiness.

There were many empty building plots or solares in my childhood. These made the city seem even sunnier and brighter than it nearly always is. Over the years I have come to love new small neighborhoods that I have lived in, and discovered others along the way. Some of my favorite places are lifelong standards. My Madrid is a mix of a primal blueprint and constantly adapting to novelty and my changing tastes.

For many years, I studied flamenco at the Amor de Dios dance studios on the Calle Santa Isabel, just across from the Filmoteca de Madrid.The studios are on the second floor of the Mercado de San Antón. I always looked forward to walking through the market, seeing the varied stands, and enjoying the aroma of one of the best olive vendors in Madrid. Once upstairs, there was nothing but flamenco. Small and large studios, showing their wear and tear, but fully functioning and packed all day with students, mainly local, but some international, learning bulerías, or guitar, or cante jondo, or how to play the flamenco percussión instrument, el cajón.

The windows of one of the small classrooms looked onto the inner courtyard of a convent. I always wondered what the nuns thought of the racket we made. For an hour a day I could feel like a true bailaora and I always left the market with a delicious purchase, or some flowers, and a feeling of exhilaration. I hope that Amor de Dios—temporarily closed–survives the pandemic. It is such a magical madrileño institution, thanks to the hard work, passion, and arte of generations of teachers and students.

A perfect afternoon-evening for me would be a dance class with sevillano Juan Fernández, a movie at the filmoteca, and a quiet dinner at Vinoteca Moratín. Another favorite is the Renoir Retiro cinema (great selection of V.O. films) and then a bite (or two) at the bar of Catapa.

Photo: AFP


Of course I love the Prado, Thyssen, Reina Sofía, Caixa Forum—all so spectacular and so conveniently located in the same part of the city–and many other smaller museums. I have spent many hours at the Prado preparing to teach Spanish painting, and I don’t think there could be a nicer place to work. The museum’s library is also beautiful. 

I have a special weakness for Casa-Museos, like the Lazaro Galdiano and the Sorolla museums. It’s always wonderful to imagine how artists and collectors lived, and these beautiful properties with their gardens are like time machines that take us back to a luxurious version of Madrid where people lived in palacetes much like the hotels particuliers of Paris.

The Biblioteca Nacional is also one of my favorite places to study Spain’s past or find books and documents unavailable elsewhere. Just having access to the building and its collections is a privilege. The Residencia de Estudiantes is a semi-hidden cultural center with rosemary and lavender-lined walkways off of the Calle Serrano. It’s where Federico García Lorca, Buñuel, Dali (and many other notables) lived as students. Tip: not only does it have an intense program of evening events, it also has a wonderful, peaceful, sleek restaurant.

Madrid is a celebration of daily life. Basically, give me almost any madrileño barrio, and this could be defined as simply as a city block with a panadería, a farmacia, news agent, a couple of bars, a butcher, and a frutería, where my morning errands and breakfast (and sometimes even a second breakfast) can be taken care of, and I’m off to the races.

But nothing beats a mercado. After San Antón (which I have renamed the Flamenco market) my favorite is El Mercado de la Paz, built in 1882. It is not in my barrio, but it is close enough to walk to and once a week I go to have lunch at Casa Dani and buy a few special things.

Casa Dani, reknowned for its pincho de tortilla, is a small restaurant in the middle of the market and has no windows to the outside, but this doesn’t stop it from having the best menú del día in Madrid. The options change every day, but I can go for months with a salmorejo, lubina, and fresas con naranja. The affordable menú (which is not just menu with an accent on the “u”, but “prix-fixe”) changes daily and once in a while I will go for the sopa de cocido or the extravagant arroz con bogavante. One must arrive early or be prepared to wait in a long line. The construction workers and local office people who are regulars know exactly when to show up and accompany their meals with tinto con casera or cañas.

Photo: AFP


After all this eating and/or research at a library, I need to clear my mind, and get some fresh air. Many of my favorite destinations are just across the Retiro Park, so whenever I can I walk under the horse chestnut trees that line the wide promenades. The Retiro is large enough for me to take different routes every day. In May the book fair, Feria del Libro takes over and I like to go early in the morning before it gets mobbed to make my way through the infinite maze of vendors that set up shop. In other seasons, the international bookshop Desperate Literature on the Calle Campomames is a must.  Books, a park, and a pincho de tortilla just about cover the basics of an ideal life for me.

Look up at the city’s sky and it is an ever-changing series of blues that become lavender-tinged at sunset. The evening is the perfect time to wander around the Madrid de los Austrías—the gardens of the Príncipe de Anglona, the tabernas on the Cava Baja, and the lovely artisanal jewelry workshop that Helena Rohner has on the Calle del Almendro. Just the name of the street makes me happy. 

On another note, Madrid is a very easy city to love and leave. There are many nearby escapadas to be taken. Especially by AVE. The high speed train has revolutionized life in Spain, and in under 3 hours you can leave from the Atocha train station and be in the center of Barcelona, or in Sevilla or Córdoba. In 20 minutes you can be in Segovia (from Chamartín Station) and in the heat of summer I like to go to La Granja, just minutes from Segovia and home to an eigtheenth century former royal summer palace. The palace’s gardens are at an elevation of close to 1200 meters, and the temperature is notably cooler and clean. Even in August.

I often remember Langston Hughes’ description of Madrid during the Civil War. Bombs were falling, but people were out on the streets, and in bars drinking a beer if they could get their hands on one. After the 2008 economic crisis, a foreign journalist friend came to Madrid and was indeed skeptical about the financial woes of Spain, “All the bars and terrazas are full. Doesn’t look like a recession to me,”she said.

Madrid has survived difficult and tragic times—the Civil War, a decades-long dictatorship, financial and political crises, and most recently, the pandemic and the lockdown. It is mourning and witnessing ongoing Covid-19 deaths. And yet, madrileños are out on the street every day getting to work, looking after their families, and still enjoying the daily, simple pleasures the city offers. El mundo sigue.

On a final note, a gin and tonic tastes better in Madrid than anywhere else. Visitors have pointed this out to me over the years, and I agree. The tonic is always served in a little bottle (and not from one of those sad soda guns) and the lemons are fragrant. Is there more to the secret? Some people say the water in Madrid is especially delicious, so the ice also has a geographical advantage. Salud.

Soledad Fox Maura is a Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Williams College. She has recently published articles in El País and Lit Hub, and her first novel, Madrid Again, was released in November 2020 by Arcade. The  MAdrid bookstore Desperate Literature will be hosting a virtual book launch on December 19th. More details HERE