Cuvrystrass: Before The Fire

Diarmuid Brannick lived in Cuvrystrass, one of Berlin’s biggest squats, for a period of time in 2013. Here, he tells all about his life altering experience in the now destroyed infamous squat.

“I am sitting outside now, securely boarded up with the earth moving machines inside. It will be become “Cuvry Campus”. But we knew it as Cuvrystrass, or the camp (we being any motherfucker who just showed up and claimed a place for himself or herself.)

Some brought tents, some brought sleeping bags. Some brought absolutely nothing at all. Others built cabins and weird little houses from whatever they could steal off the construction sites or lift from the skips on and around Skalitzer and Schlesisches str.

Cuvrystrass was a refuge I suppose — a big gravelly, half field, half yard patch of land just by the river. It was home to the hopeless outsider, the fugitive, the junkie, the homeless bum, people like Daniel who had escaped from a mental hospital in the north of Germany. Punks were there, Polish street thugs, Romanian gypsies, the odd refugee tired of the manically crowded conditions at the protest camp by Gorlitzer park and a few other characters who were so bizarre they go beyond any attempt at labeling.

All magnetized to the place by the irresistible force of no rent to pay and no rules to follow. It was wild, chaotic, and often violent. It was the last free space in Europe, the last outpost of common land, like some mythological pirate cove. The police did not go inside and fires burnt through the night; all this in the center of Berlin, opposite universal studios on the river, one of the most prestigious locations in the city.

Cuvrystrass by William Veder

© William Veder/HEREYOUARE

Moneyless Manifesto

Following Mark Boyles’ “Moneyless Manifesto” brought me to Cuvrystrass. What would it be like to disavow and discontinue using the state-issued single currency, the euro? Since I was completely broke at the time, it was a very fucking easy step to take: from practically no money at all to really no money at all.

I went two months and three weeks shunning money like it was the spiritual equivalent of Yersinia pestis bacterium and about four months living in Cuvrystrass.

My first day there was in the middle of July 2013. I walked in the gates and sat down by a fire with two dudes who turned out to be Patrick and Tony.

Patrick really was “a man you don’t meet everyday”. I mean, to get kicked out of Cuvrystrass takes a lot, and he was kicked out not too long after I first arrived. You might get woken up at three in the morning to him singing IRA songs at the top of his voice (“go on home British soldiers, go on home”). He took a shit on a guy called Francois’ head when he was asleep one night. I remember clearly another night about 25 Turkish lads with sticks and torches came looking for him. Cops were after him, everyone was after him: for something he did, something he took, something he said. He was the epitome of chaos and nonsense and wild energy like Johnny Boy from Mean Streets, but much, much madder. In one moment he was absolutely charismatic and commanding, in the next, incomprehensibly insane. I would be very surprised if he is still alive.

Anyway, my first days Patrick was there, Tony was there, Daniel who escaped from the mental hospital was there, the Argentinian guy who thought he owned the place and his girlfriend Mika, the Italian anarchist girl and a few destitute old Polish boozers. Then, as more and more people came, areas started to form and would build up, only to be destroyed one way or the other, reformed again and so on. Cuvrystrass was in constant flux.

Cuvrystrass by William Veder

© William Veder/HEREYOUARE

Oh, and the gay American guy was there at the beginning, too. He was outspoken, confident, and pretty well able to deal with the place. He of course was also mad and had taken it on his own initiative to advertise Cuvrystrass by spray painting warnings about the mark of the beast, mandatory micro-chipping and the impending apocalypse on the pavement outside and around the camp and as far up as Warschauer bridge. The solution of course was to…

Join the resistance, Stop World War 3, join Cuvrystrass

So I suppose somebody seeing this call to arms and deciding to visit would be expecting some well organized community, a crack squad of revolutionaries and perhaps a flourishing permaculture garden in the spirit of self sustainability.

Instead, they would find themselves in a dump surrounded by a bunch of Polish dudes with shaved heads and bruised knuckles shouting “kurwa” at each other, Daniel walking around in a pair of boxer shorts with his knob hanging out, going up to every person he didn’t recognize asking if they had beer or could give him money for one.

Daily life

Everyone had a fire. Then there were public fires burning by the spree and in the communal hut; the “Moloka”, where people who just wandered in could join. On any given night there could be 20 fires going in the place. Fires were where you would meet new people and generally find who in the camp was similar to yourself (i.e. relatively sane). Our fires were started with pages ripped from Gossip Girl books, and the Holy Bible and other nonsense publications collected from the street or donated by some misguided do-gooder.

All wood was thrown into the flames, didn’t matter if there was paint or enamel on it or chemicals inside it: it got burned. I mean, this was really the only wood that was available. My first night smelling those fumes a few feet away from me, I thought “how the fuck can they sit by those fires?”.

There was no water supply within the place, so for 70 or 80 people living in there, getting water was a challenge. I mean it was and it wasn’t — there was a water pump across the road but the water coming out of it tasted so fucking gank that most people I knew wouldn’t go near it. Thinking about it now, though, a lot of people must have used it. Still I never saw many at it. And that’s what Cuvrystrass was like, you never really knew what the other people were doing, only what you and the people you were associating with were doing.

Cuvrystrass by William Veder

© William Veder/HEREYOUARE

So I got my water from the curry wurst place nearby and sometimes when that wasn’t possible, I would go all the way up to the water fountain at Kottbusser tor two tram stops away.

There was one kind of makeshift compost toilet. Besides that, it was shit in a bag and throw it in the bush, or just shit in the bush and piss anywhere you liked.

Living in a place like where we lived really made you, within a very short time, totally different from the average person. You’re getting bitten by rats in the middle of the night and pulling pieces of wood out of your toes, travelling a kilometer and a half to get water to cook some porridge and they’re, well, you know what they’re doing. They seemed soft and spoiled, overly timid and reserved. Like something was dead inside them, or had never come alive, their dog shit personalities the result of having everything handed to them, day in and day out, their entire lives.

Before I knew all the soup kitchens and drop in centers to get food, I was really fucking hungry a lot of the time. I felt like I was in another dimension, a little bit dazed, weak, and surrounded by maniacs. If you don’t know what it’s like to go hungry, you don’t know anything.

The Way It Was

Tony gave me food when I was hungry. I liked him a lot and the cooler, easy-going people would tend to congregate around his fire. I mean, he was moody and aggressive but he was a funny bastard — a black German, one of his parents was from Africa, I think. At some point he developed an infection from standing on a nail and his leg became swollen like the fucking Elephant Man and he needed to walk with a crutch. The infection spread to the other leg and he couldn’t walk at all. It looked really bad, I mean really, really bad, so he was resigned to sitting on a chair by his fire completely immobilized convincing who ever appeared to get him what he needed, like i.e. speed and beer.

To me, garlic is infallible. It cures everything, kills everything.
So I told him one day “listen,you need to get as much garlic onto the infected areas as possible and deal with it or you’re gonna lose your legs.” He looked straight at me unflinching, incredulous, and without an attogram of doubt in his voice, dismissed the idea outright, saying “Niggers don’t lose their legs.”

Cuvrystrass by William Veder

© William Veder/HEREYOUARE

Too Hot

At the height of the summer, on the hottest days, I would just lie down from exhaustion in the fetal position anywhere I could find shade, so much so that Mika once said she never saw me standing up. Then there was the spree and after the initial aversion it became mandatory. This filthy river that has been barred to swimmers since 1925 even had a diving board into it. At Cuvrystrass, we had everything before us; we had nothing before us.

Women

By my first day there it was over with Vusala, who I fucking loved. Then I met this soulful, sweet girl by Tony’s fire one night. I remember lying with her in the moloka, she had a phobia about her ass being touched, the different issues people bring into intimate relationships. She told me she wanted to see what it was like to be a prostitute, to have that experience. Another girl I met, Lisa, can’t remember how, was a kind of posh girl who would travel to Paris a lot. The first night we slept together in her apartment I didn’t wash and the very next time she met me she was wearing sunglasses, saying I gave her an eye infection. For most of my time in Cuvrystrass, I slept in a sleeping bag underneath the big mural and if, I remember correctly, masturbated quite a lot.

Cuvrystrass by William Veder

© William Veder/HEREYOUARE

Wakey Wakey

Sophie was the most intelligent person in the camp without a doubt, a beautiful young philosophy and neuroscience student, an anomaly in Cuvrystrass who introduced Plato’s hierarchy of forms to me. One morning she was sleeping in this guy’s hut, both of them in bed together when they were woken up by a couple of the Polish lads pulling the walls down to use as firewood.

The Dream Is Over

Then there was the time when this kind hearted “out there” type of guy who would have been more at home at a Rainbow gathering showed up. He was there a few days before I saw him juggling in the open ground. I asked him how he found the place so far. He said he loved it, which I was very surprised to hear. Anyway, not too long after this I came in the side entrance one morning to find him sitting on a couch which had been randomly placed in the middle of the camp, his head had been shaved, he had a black eye and cuts on his forehead, and was holding what was left of his long curly hair in his hands. He looked to be confused, dazed, in a trance. Seems the Polish lads had “befriended” him, shaved his head and beat the shit out of him the night before. They broke that poor young boy, a day later he was still confused and not himself. I saw his fist was bruised and said “well at least you threw a punch,” which drew a smile from his vacant face. I took him to the water that night. To me, like garlic, cold water is the cure for everything and though it was summer, depending on what the day was like, the water was often cool enough in the evening. Anyway, he took all his clothes off, took some deep breaths, got into the water and did what I said. After holding his head under the water for as long as he could, he re-surfaced to breathe and seemed to be rejuvenated somewhat, then he says “it’s time to let go.” I started to panic, thinking he meant he was going to off himself. I explained in very unapologetic terms that if he did do anything to himself it would be on me, and my life was already a fucking mess and I didn’t have the shoulders to carry any more. He looked at me for a few seconds, climbed straight up out of water and, completely naked, sprinted out of the place into the city, into the night. A few days later his parents came all the way from Sweden to take him home.

Ideas to Change Your Life

I threw in the towel and started using money again in October, making a little book called “Ideas to Change Your Life,” which I sold on the streets for three euro. It gave me enough money to be able to choose my own food, to buy gas canisters for the communal cooker at the top of the camp, and basically make life a little bit easier on myself. But it wasn’t that much easier and by mid-November I had had enough: too many days thinking why am I alive at all. Cue Danzig’s “tired of being alive.”

I had been in touch with the Iceman Wim Hof for a few years over email, he’s also mad, like everyone mentioned in this article, and I asked him if I could attend his training in December, with no idea what I would do after even if he said yes. He did say yes and in not too long, I was in a beautiful Polish mountain village enjoying the luxury of hot saunas and pristine natural (if freezing cold) waterfalls. I stayed at his house/training center until summer. Cuvrystrass became a memory as life rolled on.

Cuvrystrass by William Veder

© William Veder/HEREYOUARE

Let it Burn

An anti-capitalist battleground it was not, more like a light taster of what to expect when systems collapse.

My entire concluding commentary and advice is this: learn how to fight.

When the niceties of civilized society have evaporated, you are left with a lot of primitive energy and you need to know how to deal with that. There will be violence and you will need strategies for the various types of situations that arise.

There was a camp meeting at one point near the end of my time there that mostly consisted of the Poles complaining about the gypsies and some other stuff I can’t remember. Like everything in Cuvrystrass, it was a debacle, a fiasco. I asked when the cops came to shut the place down if anyone was willing to fight for it, only one person said they were. Nobody (with the exception of Mika and maybe her boyfriend) gave a shit about the camp or the others living there. So when I met Tony walking down the street a couple of years later when I was back in Berlin, and he told me that there had been a big fire and the cops let the place burn down, I thought “good.”

That’s how I saw it. But to Jacob, a young man who had crippled himself with a failed suicide attempt ending up in a wheelchair with a smashed lung, it was different. He made a regular pilgrimage from some distant part of Germany to Cuvrystrass to see the famous Blu mural, to visit the place. He looked like an angel to behold and to him it was a beacon of freedom, of free expression, of creativity, and of protest. On the day I met him, the sun blasted through a clear blue sky and I suppose on that day like every day in there, and from where I write this now, we were and are bound by nothing other than what we can do for ourselves.

Learn to fight.

Note

“I see pictures of the place from before I was there and after I left and I don’t recognize it. This article covers the time period July 2013 – November 2013. All names have been changed. Thank you Maya and Maike!”

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Diarmuid Brannick in conjunction with Maxomedia launches Bodywork For The People this week. BWFTP aims to connect massage and physical therapists with homeless shelters, day centers and other providers so as to make wholistic bodywork available to those living on the street.

More info: bodyworkfortheppl.com

Julien Lacheray Founder of HEREYOUARE, he loves dollar pizza, especially after a night spent on a rooftop or in a basement, always up for a bike race in the city before going back home.
  • Lee La

    Wow, I just timetravelled through your words and experienced how it must be living at this place. Thank you for this!

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