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