The Maddest Place On Earth

Its 11pm on a Monday night, I havent slept in 3 days and my vital signs are being checked by a paramedic. Berlin can have this effect.

Less of a city and more of a giant, sprawling street party, Berlin is undoubtedly the cool-capital of Europe. A town for the young – or young at heart at least – it’s an independent collective, controlled by no-one but owned by the people, for the people – a people bursting with creative passion, political fire and lust for life.

This city moves faster than most, it’s like a surging tidal wave in perpetual motion, constantly rolling into unchartered waters. Everyone here is a creator, a designer, an artist, a lover of life. Shops open at will, beers are casually cracked in the early afternoon and lunches linger on late into the day. But it’s when the night comes down that the city really comes alive. After midnight strikes, the sidewalks explode with colour, music and madness.

An old man plays upright piano and drinks red wine on a street corner, graffiti artists spray-paint shop walls in public, hip-hop funk bands perform under bridges, a ping-pong game takes place in the middle of a busy city pavement… it’s a wild wonderland where anything goes. It seems to be accepted here that nothing has to make sense, everything exists for its own purpose, art for art’s sake. It’s a bohemian dream – real, raw and gritty – and at the same time a refreshing breath of unfettered freedom.

I arrive on Monday, fortuitously meeting fellow couchsurfers on the bus from Amsterdam, who know the place well and point me in the right direction along the city’s intricate public transport network. Riding the S-Bahn to Humboldthain in the north, I meet Stella, my couchsurfing host.

For the uninitiated, ‘Couchsurfing’ is a concept whereby travellers can contact people online from anywhere in the world and request accommodation wherever they roam. Before travelling to Berlin, I put out an open request and was soon contacted by an 18-year-old medical student by the name of Stella.

I meet her at the train station where she welcomes me with open arms. Stella invites me into her home where she lives with her Polish-speaking mother, younger sister and turtle named Mizchy. She gives me the keys to her house, offers me her bed as she takes the lounge, while her mother cooks me the best meal I’ve had in a long time. I am stunned by how generous, congenial and trusting she is. We form an instant bond. Stella takes me on a guided tour around town, telling me about the city’s complex history and giving me the lowdown on the new Berlin.

My first few days in town slip by too fast. I view the great monuments of past empires – Brandenburg Gate, The Reichstag building, Victory Column, the Berliner Fernsehturm – admiring these extravagant historical symbols of victory, power and progression.

I walk the wide streets of the former Soviet zone in the east under colossal slabs of buildings – grey, stark and imposing – they reflect the iron-fist mentality of their Communist designers. Wandering unknown districts for hours I stumble across artists residences and housing squats that sport giant anti-establishment slogans like ‘Fuck the Police’, ‘ACAB’ and ‘Fuck Off Media Spree’. As I discover, many of these blocks are actually well organised self-sufficient communities occupied by political activists, feminist groups and independent artists.

One of these is the Koepi building in Kruetzburg, which resembles a kind of post-apocalyptic fortress like something straight out of Mad Max. The occupants hold weekly activities including film nights, creative workshops, martial arts classes, gigs and parties, and many are active members in community issues, commonly participating in local political affairs.

On Friday I go to an open mic night at 7 Stufen – Kneipe/Galerie, an underground bar decorated by a local artist with brilliant cartoon caricatures of blues and jazz legends. The artists perform out on the sidewalk, and the level of talent is incredible. Highlights are a bluegrass band’s version of ‘Wild Horses’, a cover of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Nine Hundred Miles Away From Home’ and a great tongue-in-cheek country song called ‘Baby You Hit The Jackpot With Me’.

After an acoustic singer/songwriter performs a mellifluous, heartfelt tune sung in German, I ask Stella,

”That song was so sweet, what was he singing about?”

”He was singing about taking a shit.”

I sit and talk with a fifty year old Scotsman for a while and at the end of the evening  he is dragged onstage at the crowd’s behest. Unbeknownst to me, he’s an ex-rockstar now living in Berlin, and he dedicates me a brilliant sing-a-long version of Tom Waits’ ‘Innocent When You Dream’.

Saturday I explore the uber-cool suburb of Friedrichshain, venturing into an open stretch of land by the train-yard that’s littered with decaying buildings, vacant lots and abandoned railroads. Strewn amongst the rubble are lazy afternoon bars, cafes and market stalls. I walk into Badehaus Musiksalon where Balkan accordian gypsy jazz eminates from the sundeck speakers. I share a drink with Elena, a lively Spanish women who works as an editor for the UN in Geneva and offers me places to stay with her friends back home.

That evening, I’m contacted by Girvo, an Australian mate, who I’m unaware is also in Berlin. We head to a rooftop barbecue at a loft apartment resided in by a couple of local architects and photographers. A few more congenial Berliners join the party and we share good food, drinks and conversation ten stories up. All of us climb onto the roof of the apartment complex and look out over 360 degrees of Berlin, across scattered redbrick chimneys, church spires, tv aerials and smokestacks, that all fade to silhouettes as a simmering orange sunset falls over the former Prussian capital. Later in the night we head to the launch of Machete Death Gallery, a new tattoo parlour on Boxhagner Street, where I’m obliged to accept free beers and jagermiester shots from the local artists and piercers. We head off soon after and spend the rest of the evening traversing Berlin’s iconic club-land.

Night blurs into day as we slide into the early morning and head to a riverside park, diving into the warm shallow waters. We watch barges dreamily float by, cut our soles up on the thousands of freshwater mussels underfoot but don’t mind. It’s the perfect european summers day – 27 degrees, a light NE draft and dense white cumulus puffs billowing across the sky. I spend all day in the park sipping German weiss beer, sprawled out on the soft, rich grass as hours pass by unnoticed.

As darkness descends we hop a limo-taxi back to an apartment, watching a hollowed ripped-back sky from the passenger seat, and take turns hanging out the sunroof to feel the coolness of an early evening breeze brush past.

Kicking on into the forgotten hours, we get lost in Janice, Jimmy, Bob, Beatles and Stones…let the night take us over until another morning comes creeping in. Around midday we jump the train out to Schlachtensee, a pristine lake on the city limits surrounded by dense verbiage in all directions. We walk for half an hour looking for a deserted spot but end up next to elderly German nudists and American tourists. Still, it’s the perfect after-weekend recovery, and I drift the day away in cleansing waters of translucent green.

Wednesday on Warschauer bridge I meet the Sad-Eyed Girl from the North Country, we buy a bottle of warm merlot and go down by the water, where urban pirates and party boats cruise by on the River Spree alongside the Berlin wall. Walk arm-in-arm down street art galleries, where redlight chinese lanterns illuminate the alley, city dogs unleashed bound up and down and revellers venture out searching for the heart of midnight…

Stroll under the bridge past jump-jiving buskers and dancing feet to Club der Visionäre on the canal…

Clamber across fences down onto a secret wharf and watch shimmering firelights dance in the waters reflection…

Listen to the Man of Constant Sorrow till late into the morning.

On the weekend, opting out of attending the free open-air rave, ‘Fuckparade’, I head to the slightly more toned-down but just as intriguing ‘Suppe & Mucke’, a community-run soup festival in Friedrichshain.

Arriving with bowl in hand, I line up at one of the many soup-tents and am dished up a generous serving of organic goodness from the smiling sweethearts at the Raw-tempel stand. Everything completely free of charge, the street festival hosts live music, political discussions, children’s games, market stalls, theatre and facepainting. The non-commercial event encourages sustainable local development, promoting socio-cultural and community projects, and is championed by the vernacular phrase ‘Support Your Kiez!’, ‘Kiez’ translating roughly to ‘neighbourhood’.

Throughout the rest of the week I run into Sydney band, Lust, at a hostel, who coincidentally I hung out with 2 weeks prior in England. Meet an Australian girl there also, who is a psych-trance music artist, interior decorator and part-time stripper. Get a broken-bottle beer with a Canadian agriculture student bound for Copenhagen. Eat mammoth $2 noodles with a Mexican MBA drug fiend. Listen to Adele with an Israeli businessman. Perform an impromptu song with an anarcho-punk pianist. Trade riffs with a Bavarian blues guitarist. Sit on the sidewalk with Estonian beggars and their dog. Play chess against an Italian girl in a waffle-house. Improvise songs with a homeless North American. Watch French gypsy John-Phillip dance in the square then later get arrested for drunken disorder. Meet Melbourne girl singer-songwriter in Hackesher market and guard her equipment while she hides from police for illegal busking. Drink homemade sangria in Gorelitzer Park with festive Catalonians. Talk with a true beauty in a cafe over coffee and cigarettes just like Otis…

It’s a walk on the wild side with Berlin’s best.

Next day I make the hour journey south to the neighbouring centre of Oranienburg to witness Sachsenhausen, a former Nazi concentration camp now turned museum open for public viewing. The camp was mainly used to house political prisoners, but also held a large number of jews, homosexuals and criminals during the period from 1936 to 1945. During this time, more than 30 000 people lost their lives at the camp.

Walking down leafy country roads to get there, I arrive in the early evening and there are only a few other visitors within the walls. There is a stillness in the air and a lonely silence that seems to hang over the camp as the last rays of sun touch the ground. I first enter the prison block, and after a few seconds inside, sense a strange tingling sensation in my head, followed by a noticeable suffocating pressure on my chest. It’s an odd and discomforting feeling.

I view the prison latrines, shower block and janitors closet, all sites of numerous deaths and shocking brutalities. I get outside and walk along the camp walls, where firing squads would shoot tens of victims on a regular basis. Descending into the execution chamber I stand in the original place where killings were first committed in the camp. I read about the chilling means of mass murder such as the mobile gallows, firing slots, zyklon-b showers and gas trucks.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of being here. An unsettling mix of intrigue, melancholy and disbelief, it is surreal to say the least. I leave with a sense of defeat, only able to reccuringly ask myself the obvious and confounding question – ‘How?’.

Next afternoon lifts the spirits as I finally find ‘The Australia Shop’ and stock up on overpriced but worthwhile luxuries of Vegemite, Milo and Timtams to introduce to my new German friends. That night drink red wine at a lesbian bar and watch a transvestite busker perform a bizarre original song – something about space aliens, of course. I eat the worst schnitzel of my life and learn the colloquial term for a ‘beergut’ in Germany is a ‘Schnitzel Cemetary’. Enjoy a ‘Hemingway Special’ – probably the best cocktail of my life – over in one of the nightlife capitals, Oranianburger street. I get a taxi home with Germany’s quickest cabbie and listen to Paul Kelly’s ‘St Kilda to Kings Cross’ then crash out for my final night in Germany.

After only 2 hours sleep, 6am comes way too soon. I straggle up in the jingle-jangle morning, stumble out, say my goodbyes to Berlin and dread the impending 26-hour bus trip to the south of France…

Thanks to Matt Girvan for photos


The Freaks, the Nerds, the Romantics…

I’m sitting in the basement of a gay bar getting drunk with an ex-british Army officer and a German born call-girl named Ava. This is not the opening scene of a Jim Jarmush film, it’s my first night in England.
After over 30 hours in transit that included 2 flights, an hours’ delay spent melting in 45 degree heat on a Dubai runway, and a barely made midnight bus ride across the country, I finally made it. My destination – the one-and-only, second-to-none, internationally renowned, undisputed world-famous mecca of all things punk rock and/or roll…
Situated on the north-west coast of Britain, the city of Blackpool is the UK’s most popular holiday resort. It’s also home to the world’s largest punk concert, the Rebellion festival. I’ve journeyed along with thousands of others, who make the annual pilgrimage to the four-day event, to come and watch the world’s biggest and best punk bands together under one roof at the historic Wintergardens theatre. This year’s festival is the biggest yet with over 200 bands, twenty thousand people and a lineup featuring some of the most influential punk groups of all time.
I arrive Monday morning and there’s still two more days before the festival kicks off. So what do you do when you’ve got time to kill after arriving in a foreign city that you know nothing about, where you know absolutely no-one, and have zero knowledge of the customs, culture and undercurrent of the place? It’s obvious – find the roughest looking bar in the worst part of town and proceed to drink like a fish, of course.
This is where I meet Sam and Ava, two friendly Blackpoolians that invite me to get a cab with them back into the city centre for cheap drinks at their favorite club. The venue is ‘Mardi Gras’,  an underground gay bar in the heart of town. Out in the beergarden, I strike up a conversation with a polite young gent that’s sitting smoking next his mother who’s a dead ringer for an elderly Marlene Dietrich.
”So you’re from Australia yah?” He asks in a polite southern English drawl ”I like Home & Away and Neighbours…have you ever met Madge Bishop?”
I laugh and tell him I haven’t but that I have in fact met, or at least exchanged a casual greeting with Ray Meagher, the actor that plays the iconic Alf Stewart.
After a bourbon and coke I decide it’s time to move on and so proceed to wander the streets of Blackpool, taking photos of the quaint architecture that surrounds the city centre.

An hour later, I hear strains of live music echoing from down a bricked alley. I follow the sound into a tiny Irish bar called The Galleon. The band is just a 3-piece – drummer, vocalist and guitarist – no bass player, keys or second guitar to fill out the sound. Seeing another guitar onstage I offer to back up the guitarist with some rhythm. He’s all too happy for me to get up, so I belt out a few covers with them, drunkenly winging my way through songs I’ve never played before and some I’ve never even heard.
After the set I head straight for the bar where I meet Tony, a 45-year-old Northern-Irishman who tells me he has spent half his life in prison for his part in a car-bombing that left two policeman dead during The Troubles in Belfast. I’m not sure whether to believe him but judging by the jailhouse tattoos on his hands and the scars left from bullet-wounds he shows me on his forearms, I’m inclined to give Tony the benefit of the doubt. The most confounding thing is how genial, passive and non-intimidating he comes across, certainly not the portrait of a killer that I’d expect.
With him are two older men with similar body markings, probably in their early sixties, who I find out along with Tony, are former members of the IRA. Their accents are so thick I can only decipher the conversation by picking up sporadic key words, and the fact that we’ve all had about ten pints of Guinness each does no favours. One of the men is less welcoming than the others and it’s not until I join him when he spontaneously bursts into lines from ‘Black Velvet Band’ that he warms to me. He’s shocked that I know all the words to this traditional Irish folk ballad – but not as shocked as when I immediately echo it with verses from ‘Fields of Athenry’. I grab the acoustic guitar and we perform heartfelt renditions of both followed by the classic ‘Danny Boy’. After another Guinness the Irishmen wish me well as they head off, before I search my way through the maze of red-brick alleys back to my hostel – which happens to be run by a bloke who’s sister lives in Dapto, 5 minutes away from where I grew up. Small world.

Over the next couple of days I witness the first rumblings of the storm that’s about to hit the town, as the streets gradually fill up with an array of punks, drunks, skinheads and other interesting allsorts from the world over – including a host of friends from the Sydney crew back home. I spend most of the time in the lead-up at various bars meeting the diehard devotees that have blown in early for the pre-parties. And seriously – Dr Suess has got absolutely nothing on the people you’ll meet…
There’s the paraletic-drunk fatman ‘from Stonehenge’. He has spiral seashells for earrings, a mambo button up with fishnet undershirt and wears pants that hang below his bare asscheeks. He performs for me ‘The Stonehenge Call’ – an earpiercing top-of-the-lungs war cry that lasts for several minutes, gradually rising in pitch at indeterminate intervals. Done in the middle of the day. In the town centre. In front of holidaying families and other terrified passers-bye. This is before he gets even drunker, ending up in a corner hysterically gushing tears for an hour or more.
There’s the collosal German-giant, ‘Mulch’, who tells me of his favorite local brews, including microbrewery beers with alcohol percentages that make vodka look weak. “You drink one beer…”, he says laughing, “- and you cannot drive my friend!”
There’s Skinhead Luke, man about town and friend to all. He also happens to be an ex-neo nazi that’s just been released from a 5-year prison sentence for inflicting grievous bodily harm upon a sex-offender.
There’s SuperTonya, the Norwegian nurse that works in middleastern war zones and who’s just spent two years living in Mexico City fighting alongside the Zapatistas. She tells me tales of being held at gunpoint and getting drunk with foreign diplomats at embassies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There’s old Ian who’s a hobbyist ‘bottle-digger’, which I learn is a hobby that involves searching the ruins of old buildings and vacant lots for antique glass bottles. He tells me of the most prized item in his collection, a black-glass soda water bottle dated 1842, that made its way from his home town of Hull out to New Zealand where it was dug up by a friend of his and returned to it’s place of origin.
There’s Kaco the Iranian Kurd, who lost his entire family during Saddam Hussein’s mid-80’s genocidal campaign and as a result became a Kurdish Freedom Fighter at fourteen. He tells me of some of the brutal history suffered by his people, including the 1988 chemical-weapons attack that left 5000 dead in one day. I am lost for words as he shows me photos of rifle-wielding women and children who are fellow freedom fighters for Kurdistan.
There’s ‘Wattie’, the red-mohicaned Glaswegian with missing front teeth.
There’s the face-covered tribal-tattooed warrior with Ethiopian ear-stretchings.
There’s rudeboys, teddy’s, greasers, rockers and rebels in every direction, all melding into a kaleidoscopic sea of misfits as far as the eye can see.
All these crazy cats and more, and the festival hasn’t even begun yet.
I spend the next few days crawling the bars and traversing the town, walking for miles in every direction to explore the landscape and get my bearings.
The city itself is like one giant circus. Blackpool strikes me as some kind of  mutated British version of Coney Island so its no suprise when I find out they call it ‘The Las Vegas of the West’. It is a swarming neon mass of carnival rides, amusement parks, themed attractions and casinos. The stretch of road along the foreshore is nicknamed ‘the Golden Mile’ and is littered with an eclectic bunch of characters, who peddle their wares to English families that flock here in droves for their summer vacations. It’s a panhandler’s paradise where everyone is hustling to make a deal. Carnies, pushers, peddlers and silver-tongued spruikers all ply their trade out on the street, trying to seduce pedestrians with the synthetic lure of bright lights and shiny objects.
Whilst navigating my way through roaming hordes of British tourists I’m approached on the sidewalk by Gypsy-women offering ‘lucky charms’. I pass fortune-teller and palmist ‘Romany Melvania Lee – daughter of the famous Gyspy Rose Lee’ who promises to reveal the secrets of my fate in love and life.  Novelty stores display stuffed animals, tourist memorabilia, adult toys and all means of glittering paraphernalia. Street vendors are selling cheesedogs, black pudding, doughnuts and ‘Blackpool Rock’ – a popular hard boiled candystick that displays a word or phrase throughout it’s length. There are ferris wheels, horses-and-carts, rollercoasters, trams, ferries and ocean piers sparkling luminescent with grand attractions that dazzle the eye and tempt the hand.

Over the backstreets on the other side of town though it’s different aesthetic. Decaying tenement buildings, council flats and rows of dilapidated terraces cram the city. Chavs, junkies and roughnecks roam the streets. Teenage mothers push prams, gangs of streetkids fight on the corners, pairs of swindling crooks loiter and lone figures lurk in the shadows.
Stray into certain areas of Blackpool and it feels like you’re in an open prison – great for playing ‘Spot the Con’. I’m warned to keep on my guard and with good reason – during my stay a friend of mine is held at knifepoint on the promenade and another one pick-pocketed at the Blue Room. Apart from the odd hawker hitting me up for spare change though, I run into no real trouble. Except for when I get caught by a police officer unknowingly pissing on the police station . Luckily he’s a decent chap and lets me off with a warning…
Once the festival kicks off it’s a riot of filth and fury. Besides the music and the people there’s punk art exhibitions, punk film screenings, punk markets and even the dubious ‘punk’ yoga. I watch countless incredible bands (Last Resort, Subhumans, Social D, Slackers, Jaya the Cat, 7 Seconds, Buzzcocks, Real McKenzies, Stiff Little Fingers, etc…) but probably miss even more due to the sheer volume of acts on the bill. I’m especially disappointed that I miss some of the intriguing lesser known acts such as Jake & The Jellyfish, Gimpfist, The Fuckwits and – the obviously brilliant – Barnyard Masturbator. The final day culminates with Rancid as the festival headliners, indisputably owning the stage as they smash out a 30+ song set of greatest-hits for the capacity-crowd.
After all is said and done I say goodbye to Blackpool’s neon wonderland and good riddance to its white ghetto. The week has been a blur of new places, parties and people, and although it’s hard to leave behind, I feel it’s a necessary measure that must be taken in order to prevent dying of liver failure.

On a drizzly English night I take a final walk around town, passing the Bonney Road Markets, ‘Booze & News’ corner store, Mr T’s Amusement Arcade, Mickey Finn’s Traditional Fish & Chip Shop, Funny Girls theatre, Ma Kelly’s Cabaret, The Pump & Truncheon and more of Blackpool’s glimmering sights and sounds. I tread the white brick surface of Talbot Square, as glowing streetlamps cast amber shades across the pavement. I pass underneath strings of coloured laterns that tangle their way along the silver promenade above the tram lines, and everything shines iridescent off the rain-soaked streets. As the light fades into a burnt-tangerine sky, I breathe in all the magic and mayhem of the rainy Blackpool summer evening for one last time. Choruses of chants from rowdy footbalI gangs echo in the distance as the air gets thick and heavy. A violent electrical storm breaks, thundercrack and lightning flash bringing hell down from above as street crowds scatter for cover. I spend my last night in an Albert street hotel room with a girl named Disaster.