Joab, your website publishes notes from all over Berlin. Do you remember your first note?
In 2004, I left Munich for Berlin. To discover the new city, I took my camera everywhere I went and captured anything that seemed special or different. At the Eberswalder Strasse subway stop, I came across a color copy where a certain Felix was seeking a Johanna, telling her (and the world) how happy it would make him if she got in touch. The note was truly charming and the entire crossing was covered in these color copies. Somehow, I could identify and found myself taking one of the notes, which was not really in my nature. The framed copy still graces my wall.
What exactly prompted you to take a picture?
Knowing that the note might disappear in a day or two, I simply wanted to preserve it. And I thought that my friends might appreciate it, so I wanted to have a way to share it with them.
And when did you decide to start the actual blog?
I guess when I realized that others – beyond my friends – might also find these notes amusing. What’s more, I wanted to cover all of Berlin, not just the layers that I see myself. By now, I get around ten submissions a day and have a huge archive for publication. Most of my readers are not even Berliners: Approx. 35 percent hail from the city, but the rest is scattered across Germany and even abroad.
How do you explain this keen interest in innocuous notes, far beyond the city limits?
They deal with universal topics. Although they were written or drawn in Berlin, people in Erlangen also suffer from heartbreak and those in Munich from stolen bikes. Berlin is no more than a platform or catalyst to frame and communicate these topics.
Scanning the notes on your website leaves readers with a relatively clear picture of Berlin: It is like a map of hot topics, humor, and issues across the various neighborhoods. Was this your intention for Notes of Berlin?
In the beginning, it was more about the notes themselves; about a moment and message. Somehow, it developed into this personal travel guide for individual hoods by showing just where – on which street or square – a particular note was found.
As part of my Master thesis, I analyzed 500 notes. And those who know the city a little won’t be surprised that most soft toys got lost in Prenzlauer Berg, leftist messages were mostly found in Friedrichshain, and that notes on the clash between established residents and new arrivals tended to pop up in Neukölln. That was really interesting to see and is reflected in the sheer number and diversity of the notes.
What is the blog’s most important aspect?
I wanted to capture the city’s character and this works all the better when people submit plenty of notes from different districts.
For the past three years, I have published at least a note a day. This frequency is important to me because I want to show that notes are alive and thriving.
Many people think that I home in on witty or funny notes, but that’s not really the case. Sure – I post a few amusing and bizarre examples, but that’s not the site’s prime intent. Berlin itself is not always fun, but home to a huge variety of different topics and stage of mind, ranging from unique and amusing to thoughtful and multi-faceted.
This might sound a bit lofty, but in its own way, Notes of Berlin affords a glimpse of the city’s soul and that of the residents who write and publish these notes.
Do you focus on specific themes?
From the beginning, it has been my aim to present an unfiltered view of Berlin. In some ways, it is also a sociological project and aims to show how the different themes change with time. The notes themselves reflect these changes. First the push against Swabians, then plenty on hipsters, now a lot of notes on rising rents.
Not to forget the countless of declarations of love – Berlin really does seem to be a city of singles and lonely people. On the other hand, what other options do we have to reconnect with others if you haven’t exchanged words or phone numbers? A note might put you on the right track.
So, how did it all start out? Did you just walk around looking for great notes all day? Or is it all a matter of luck?
When I moved to Berlin, I took pictures of all sorts of things, but soon ended up focusing on notes. Now, it is no longer even a choice or deliberate decision – my subconscious simply takes over. I always have a camera or cell phone on hand and like to take different routes on my way to the supermarket or to see friends. I am always on the lookout for great finds. But it is not something you can force. Sometimes, you spot three amazing notes within 20 minutes, on other days, a six-hour hunt won’t yield a single note. The city does what it likes and often takes you by surprise.
By now, people send you notes from all over the city. How do you select the ones for publication? What makes a good note?
Usually, I decide on first impulse and gut feeling. Overall, the topics should not be too niche or specific as I don’t want to provide a particular political platform. I aim for a broad variety of topics that reflects everyday culture. Naturally, some themes crop up time and again – just as they do in public notifications. I do try, however, to mix it all up a bit from day to day.
Generally speaking, something about the note needs to catch my eye and mind – whether design or message – something needs to click. That’s quite a subjective experience: Notes of Berlin is shaped by my taste and my view of the city.
And what is your personal perception of Berlin? Do the notes really capture the city’s spirit?
To me, some of them really do: I find Berlin idealistic, naïve, always searching, absurd, creative, bizarre, romantic, lonely – attributes found in many notes.
One note that combines many of these attributes – and also graces my wall – is an illustrated apartment search by a mother with three children. Her beautifully detailed drawing pinpoints what she offers and what she is looking for. This note always makes me happy – she has managed to make me see an everyday topic in a completely new light. She has her own attitude and approach – and that is part of Berlin’s DNA. Here, people pursue individual approaches and try to find their own way. This makes the apartment wanted note a typical Berlin phenomenon, both naïve and hopeful. That’s another Berlin characteristic: People arrive with a backpack full of hope and a notion of finding what they are looking for.
Did the illustrator/mum ever get in touch? Or do you ever hear from other note writers?
The apartment wanted note is from the early days of my blog when few had heard of Notes of Berlin, so she never contacted me. Yet every few weeks or so, people do write to the site. Many are incredibly flattered and positive, but some have asked me to delete their notes.
A few weeks ago, a guy heard a woman sing on the U8 line and even exchanged a few words, but forgot the title of the song. I reposted his note and the girl actually got in touch via Notes of Berlin. I connected the two, so they could meet up.
Are you interested in the real stories behind the notes or do you prefer to rely on your imagination?
For my book, I met up with a few of the note writers to explore their backgrounds and stories. I find it all very interesting since these stories often deviate a lot from what we might expect.
While these short stories offer fascinating peeks behind the scenes of everyday Berlin life, the notes are only the spark and starting point. You reveal a completely new layer when you share the true stories behind it all.
Do you think Notes of Berlin only works in Berlin or could you imagine taking the concept elsewhere?
Over the past few years I did some research and realized that Berlin is the perfect place for public notes, based on several premises. Berliners are a little rough and ready by nature, outspoken and eager to voice their views. The city also offers the right mix and clientele, serving as a platform of inspiration for other regions and cities.
While places like Hamburg might come close, Berlin clearly leads the way. You won’t come across a hand-drawn apartment wanted note in Munich – and you won’t think of offering home-baked bread or a crate of beer in lieu of a deposit. In this, Berlin’s character and creativity remains unmatched.
So, is there a city next on your list to be “written up”?
It takes incredible amounts of material to pin down a city – something that seems almost impossible in other cities. At the same time, I receive some incredible submissions from all across Germany and while I would like to share these as well, I don’t want to mix the notes with those from Berlin. The result will be Notes of Germany, launched in May 2014, designed to capture a great range of notes that might not represent Germany itself, but highlight more human insights.
I do hope, however, that over time the different regions will become comparable across different topics and themes. Once we have enough material, readers might be able to compare how people in Regensburg, Hamburg, Berlin, or Hamburg go about recovering stolen bikes. That’s definitely next on my list – I am really looking forward to the new platform.
So do we! Thanks so much for your time and interesting insights – and all the best for Notes of Germany and related projects!
Interview: Lia Pack
All the photos, incl. the header image: By courtesy of Notes of Berlin