Oh dear. It’s already March.
So Berlin. The name of the city has rather hazy etymological roots; apparently ‘Berlin’ means either ‘bear’ or ‘swamp’. But for me, it will forever conjure up images of fireworks, jam doughnuts, liquid mercury, David Bowie, barbed wire, vast open spaces, currywurst and graffiti.
I was in the German capital for about a week and a half over News Years. The primary agenda of my visit was tourism, the secondary, reconnaissance. For the past few years I’d been hearing all kinds of wonderful things about the city. Berlin is said to be progressive and dynamic, and have an open and creative culture. It’s at the forefront of science and it’s the place to be for the arts. Rent is cheap and opportunities are many. With this kind of reputation, it’s no wonder the city is flooded with idealistic Gen-Y ex-pats hoping to act, sing, paint, study, invent, hypothesise or smoke their way to a brighter future. The allure is hard to ignore, and I’d been curious for some time about the possibility of living in Berlin.
The city pretty much nailed all my expectations. It was just as cold and windy, as large, as gritty, as unpretentious and as unconventional as I’d feared and hoped. Not long ago I wrote about how Paris’ Shakespeare & Co bookshop provoked in me a kind of panic at the number of books I want to read in this life, but don’t have time for. Well Berlin induced a similar response, but on a much larger scale. This was due to the vastness and the significance of the history to take in, the infinite number of things to do there, and the existential-crisis inducing question of whether or not I should quit work in Spain in order to hole up in a cheap East Berlin flat and dedicate myself full time to artistic pursuits for the next year or so. I’d live solely on doner kebabs and marzipan, cut my own hair with rusty scissors by candlelight, and to survive the winter I’d dress in layers of eclectic clothing from the flea markets. (If I could find an Underwood typewriter that would complete the picture, but I think the only thing I’d be likely to pick up is lice.) I’d fill my evenings with hours of fascinating conversation in the dingy bohemian bars, and fill my days trying to wash the smoke and sweat out of my clothes.
Future planning aside, Berlin is a pretty good spot to hang out in the present, and to reflect upon the past.
There’s nothing like doing a walking tour of a city with a history buff as a guide*, to give you a vivid and lasting appreciation of what has happened there. It beats travel books and history books and Wikipedia hands down.
Our guide was Finn, an Irishman who had lived the past 5 years in Berlin, and was doing a PhD in either film or history or perhaps film history. He ticked the boxes and took us to all the big sites, and then some. Had we been doing a self-guided tour, many of the interesting places would have slipped under our radar, such as the carpark that now covers the bunker where Hitler committed suicide. Finn told us terrifying stories, funny anecdotes, trivial facts, snippets about art and architecture, and was full of witty little observations about Berlin and its populace. Considering we were walking for about six hours, in the freezing cold, around a city that is basically a mess of unattractive and unfinished buildings, it was no small feat that he kept us happy and entertained from start to finish. If you’re going to Berlin, I recommend you do a walking tour with Insider Tours and if possible, ask for Finn.
*This reminds me of another remarkable tour I once did of Paris. The guide was a kiwi drama student, who single handedly re-enacted the entire French Revolution for us. Perhaps storytelling and the oral tradition hasn’t quite died… tour guides are our modern bards!
I digress. About Berlin.
Currywurst: Is the local hangover cure. It consists of a naked hotdog smothered in ketchup and curry powder. The story goes, that during the cold war, German soldiers traded bootleg alcohol with British soldiers (stationed in West Berlin) for curry powder (and presumably with the Americans in exchange for ketchup). Some little old German sausage vendor had the horrific idea of mixing them all together and feeding the result to drunk soldiers. In my opinion, currywurst is the world’s one and only argument against multiculturalism.
Berliner: Internationally known as a jam doughnut. When President Kennedy made his famous speech to the people of West Berlin, he tried to tell them that he was one of them. What he actually said in German was ‘I am a jam doughnut’. Fortunately, they loved him for it. When JFK was assassinated, the people covered the steps of the US embassy with hundreds of sugar coated berliners.
New Years Eve: I went to a small house party where I was introduced to some curious German traditions. Or perhaps just the curious traditions of our host.
First we watched (several times over) a short black and white film called ‘Dinner for one’. It’s a Chaplin era slapstick, about an old lady celebrating her birthday with her butler. Unfortunately her other friends are all dead, so the two of them must drink on behalf of the absent guests. It’s very silly, very repetitive, and there are numerous rules for watching it that mostly involve drinking (ie drink every time the butler trips over the lion-skin rug).
Then we played with blei, some kind of mercury or lead- like substance that probably shouldn’t be sold to children. You melt a lump of the mystery metal over a candle until it liquefies, and then dump it in a bowl of cold water. The blei solidifies rapidly, and the shape is used to predict your future for the coming year. I ended up with a blobby looking bird that had a dangerously sharp beak. Unfortunately the interpretations booklet was all in German, my friend’s translation made no sense, and in the end I lost the metal thingy. Perhaps this is telling. My 2013 will be nonsensical and lost in translation.
After dinner, Dinner for one, a random piano recital, blei, hoola hoops, and some kind of frightening liquor with ‘real gold’ flakes, we went to join the mayhem outside.
For a moment, it seemed to me like Berlin was once again a warzone. Everyone, everyone, was launching fireworks, without rhyme or reason or timing. We weren’t even in the city centre, just the main street of a (pretty awesome) East Berlin suburb. The night was literally lit up by pyrotechnics which lasted for hours. It was frightening and dangerous. It was so much fun. And I am so lucky to still have my hearing and all my limbs in place.
Grunewald forest: Sometimes it’s nice to escape for a bit of fresh air.
A walk in Grunewald forest is a good way to get out of the city without leaving the city. Parts of it are, however, full of startlingly happy and healthy looking German families all running around and walking dogs and throwing Frisbees and being terribly active.
I preferred to sit under a tree.
Tempelhof Airport: Another hive of sporty activity. Tempelhof was an abandoned airport, until it was re opened as a public space. The day we went there, it was buzzing with skateboarders, cyclists, kites, inland windsurfers (or whatever they’re called), and unfortunately, segways. It was all fun and games until we got caught in a flash thunderstorm.
David Bowie: Our tour guide was kind enough to email a list of books, films and music to check out, all in relation to Berlin. I’ve just finished watching Cristiane F, which is based on the West Berlin heroin scene in the 1980s, and has a soundtrack by David Bowie. It’s pretty gritty, to say the least. Both the film and music have etched themselves on my mind, and kinda merged into my memory of the city.
Graffitti: With so many abandoned buildings, and so much to be said, Berlin is one of the world’s best graffiti hot spots. Check out the gallery below.
The Berlin Guggenheim: A bit of a disappointment. After my fabulous experience at the Bilbao Guggenheim, I was so excited to see the German equivalent. However, it was much smaller, a modest building that was almost impossible to find (the streets were full of scaffolding). It was showcasing an exhibition of modernist paintings… not one of them made an impression on me. Apparently the space is usually occupied by single features of installation art on a rotating roster.
“Topography of Terror” exhibition: A must see. This exhibition is a detailed chronological documentary of Hitler’s Third Reich, housed in the old Gestapo headquarters. It’s frightening, fascinating, and free.
The Gates of Babylon: The Pergamon, on Berlin’s ‘museum island’, showcases an impressive collection of antiquities, middle eastern and Islamic art. Its main drawcard is the Ishtar Gate, one of the eight principal gates to the ancient city of Babylon. Understandably, there’s some debate as to whether or not this impressive relic should be returned to modern day Turkey. Debates aside, it’s pretty cool to walk through.
Flea Markets: Berlin has a booming second hand scene. The numerous flea markets were literally swarming with people rifling through the trash and treasure, and joyfully carting off furniture on the back of their bikes in the pouring rain.
To sum up… what more can I say? Berlin was a great place to visit, and I still imagine it’d be a great place to live. The only thing that I didn’t like about the city was that people still smoke in bars, a lot. I must’ve gotten soft, because this really bothered me. I suppose it’s a bit contradictory, wanting raw and grungy but then turning my nose up (or away) at the first whiff of nicotine. Though I’m sure that if I lived there, I’d toughen up quick smart. And it’s definitely a fair price to pay for the music. (The music! It’s all about the music.)
However, for the moment I’m pretty content where I am, and creatively, I’m not quite ready (or bold enough) to make that jump, to bite the bullet and have no job and focus full time on doing… exactly what? Hmm, still a bit of thinking to go there. And then there’s the language question. Learning German does appeal me, but it’d be silly to switch, just when I’m most loving Spanish.
So Berlin, it seems you’ll have to wait. But I won’t be forgetting you anytime soon.