I was going to skip Germany altogether; I’m not one for sausage and beer. Plus, my main reason for going, Neuschwanstein Castle, was under renovation and offered obstructed views only (and turned out to date from the late 1800s, too new for my fairytale castle). But when I saw Cédric’s photos of the East Side Gallery, I decided to make a stop to a city I never planned to visit at all: Berlin.
Am I glad I did! It’s by far the most interesting place I visited. And how else would I have learned that Germany is basically America? It’s wealthy, spacious, and has an abundance of warehouses on the outskirts of towns. It doesn’t get more American than that.
As the train rode through Germany’s flat, forested landscape, I noticed that it looked exactly like Pennsylvania. Not Maryland, not Virginia, but distinctly Pennsylvania with its brown and green shades. When the Germans set out to see the world, they must have arrived at present-day PA and exclaimed, “This looks familiar!” and just stopped there.
I arrived in Berlin Hauptbahnhof, an impressively huge modern complex that made me think, yup, this is Germany, alright, and was delighted by the diversity of people walking through the station and the busy yet casual atmosphere helped by all the sun spilling down through the glass domed roof. I could settle here, I thought, reluctantly taking to the city at once.
But outside, Berlin was a completely different animal. I stepped out to cracked concrete streets and crossed a bridge above the unsightly S-Bahn tracks to get to my hostel, getting my first taste of delicious Berlin street food next to said S-Bahn. Everything still looked ravaged. Unlike most central and eastern European cities it didn’t have a fresh coat of paint over its historic face. It’s one of the poorest capital cities, in one of the wealthiest nations. Most of the people walking the streets were young and had dreadlocks and tattoos. Unlike many cities, you don’t need to dig to see its counterculture; it’s out in the open: squatting communities, posters for shows plastering the entire city, politically motivated street art and pointless graffiti on every corner, the smell of weed and people smoking it everywhere.
With only one full day there I didn’t even step foot in the city center (Mitte) or visit Checkpoint Charlie. I took the Alternative Berlin free walking tour and got a very one-sided view. Therefore I feel the need to add the disclaimer that Berlin isn’t only what I’m going to spend the next 1,000 words describing; it’s a cultural, higher education, and business center of Europe with hundreds of galleries and four universities. And it’s huge. I saw but a tiny corner, relegated to the once-sketchy Turkish part of town that’s now the hipster capital with some of the most amazing kebabs in the world, Kreuzberg.
Our guide was a young Scottish guy named Callum who, like much of Berlin’s ~15% foreign population, moved to Berlin three years ago to be part of the biggest electronic music scene in the world. Along with this Berlin is known for its huge club scene, where loose regulation lets clubs go for an entire weekend without closing. He told us of times when he’d go to a rave on Friday night, go home to eat, and come back later on Saturday to continue. Often they are in all kinds of abandoned buildings that are at once darkened and silenced when the police show up to bust the party. Twice, we stopped for him to greet someone leading another alternative free walking tour, mentioning an upcoming rave that Thursday, a protest set to take place on Friday, and a reportedly unmissable outdoor concert on Saturday. I lost count of the number of times he said, “If you guys are here on Friday/Saturday, this [some edgy event] is a must.”
The casual juxtaposition of these things almost made me laugh out loud. I wondered what a Berlin artist’s calendar might look like:
Thursday: improvisational theater at the squat, 6pm
Friday: protest in the park, 3pm; rave in abandoned police station, 11pm. Meet Melanie for currywurst.
Berliners pride themselves on fighting to maintain their city’s free and non-commercially-centered lifestyle, we’re told, and protests against the encroachment of huge corporations that would turn it into any other city, and who are slowly accomplishing that with such feats as the mammoth O2 World complex (hosting Lady Gaga and Metallica, among others) visible from the East Side Gallery are frequent. It’s a thorny issue since the city does need money and these complexes bring a ton in, while the arts scene is not commercially geared.
A bit of background is due here: the city was built for 9-10 million people, but something like 3.5 million occupy it now. The many housing complexes that were built and never filled due to a post-war economy that never recovered as expected, and those that were evacuated during the time of the wall, including some government buildings, led to an influx of squatters in the 1990s who settled into these buildings and formed communities at the core of a huge burgeoning counterculture scene in which music and the arts flourished.
If squatting is a vague notion to you, as it was to me, it might be because it’s barely tolerated in the U.S. Elsewhere, there are squatters’ rights, and if they occupy a property for something like twelve years, it becomes theirs. The government often let them keep a property if in return they renovated it. It’s a another sensitive topic: some squats leech off of society; others have become self-sustaining communities that provide free services, concerts, cheap food halls, and galleries, like Supamolly, the first squatting community which evolved into a “living experiment” and concert venue to survive. It even has its own website with event listings and a page on Yelp and is a huge attraction.
Most of the squatting communities have been closed down, but Berlin’s alternative culture still thrives. We walked through graffiti-covered courtyards that are popular recreational complexes open on weekends, with outdoor stages, a rock wall, bars, and markets; a squatting community next to a school of classical music; down Oranienstrasse, a trendy street of bars and art galleries that you must walk down if you go; around sites with prominent street art (unfortunately we didn’t catch anyone in the act); and finished at a hangout called the Youth African Art Market (YAAM) at the end of the East Side Gallery. It’s a beach bar partially constructed of wooden planks, a place to relax and get a drink, a massage, and probably a lot more. There were only a few people there when we sat around a table with drinks, the scent of weed wafting toward us from the other side.
Afterward, I strolled along the East Side Gallery. Berlin isn’t so much a city you look at as partake in, but this is one gallery you must visit to feel history’s still-beating heart. Every artist who painted on it has probably made it big since then. Line on resume: 1999: painted mural on East Side Gallery for 10th anniversary of the fall. “You’re hired. Come teach at our university.”
It’s what lies behind the wall that quietly astounded me. That stretch of grass by the river that once was “no man’s land” where people escaped across and were sometimes shot trying is now a sort of park where people hang out against the backdrop of the wall’s graffitied backside. Like many once horrible places it’s now unnervingly peaceful (how could a place like this be such a calm oasis?), maybe because it’s largely remained untouched and the air left to clear as after a storm. I spent a while here, strolling by the river, watching boats glide across with people piled on them, and getting briefly accosted by a dirty older man.
One of the best stories I’ve ever heard which I think embodies the best of Berlin involves the Berlin Wall and a Turkish West Berlin resident named Osman Kalin. One day in 1983, with clear vision unobstructed by human constructs, he observed an undeveloped plot in “no man’s land” as a nice grassy space free for the taking. Without knowing that the land was in East Berlin territory even though it was on the Western side of the wall, he planted a garden and built a patchwork treehouse from the scraps and old furniture people dumped there, raising his family. Once the two sides were reunited, it was your typical tale of demolishing whatever stood in the way of a new road to be built. One version says the two sides swapped land and gave his property to the Western side, letting the road go around it; another says the land was technically church property all along and the church let him keep it. Either way, the house is still there with a tree coming out of its wall and he still lives his summers there, gardening and going along like it’s nothing. I wanted to take a photo as we walked along the road that carefully bypassed it, but since it is someone’s home we were asked not to, and I found this photo of it online.
For dinner, I trekked through the busiest part of Kreuzberg to the kebab place Callum recommended. I’m not sure if Konyali was the place he meant; he said it was a nicer restaurant, and of the five kebab places on that corner it was the nicest. Would he have mentioned the more distinguishing green awning and whirling dervish on the sign? Either way, it was the best döner kebab I’ve ever had. My plate of meats and sauces and lettuce for a measly 4 Euros probably weighed in at 3000 Calories, but boy was it worth it.
The center of Kruezberg was a lively, busy, less hip and more Turkish area that seemed worthy of exploring, if I’d had the time. But with just an hour of sunlight left, I went to nearby Gorlitzer Park, which was bustling with people juggling, playing instruments, or just sitting around. Somehow, Berlin itself feels like a huge park. Life seems to revolve around one entertainment after another. I liked that Europe was less oriented toward work and more toward enjoying life than the U.S., especially the workaholic east coast, but here is a sense of living for the moment and going nowhere. Another concert, another piece of art on the walls, another protest. To what end? I found myself asking. In my book I wrote about an apocalyptic bubble where time stops existing, and the main character’s life becomes an endless series of indie concerts in which all the indie bands recombine into differently named indie bands, and after 20 successive concerts he goes crazy from pointlessness. Berlin is the closest real-life example to this state of being caught in an infinite haze I’ve encountered. There seemed to be no overarching plan, no forward-propelling goal to strive toward but merely the desire to keep things as they are for their own pleasant sake, a gathering of a million smaller alibis that collectively made this garden of tiny flowers. It just didn’t didn’t sit with me. I’m not anti-concert; I’m merely pro-life-balance. At the end of two days, I no longer felt as I did at first that this was the place for me.
Everyone goes around doing as they please. Life is loosely regulated. “Your Ideal Career” questionnaires ask if you work well in unstructured environments and now I have a clearer answer, but I certainly hope to end up in Berlin again one day, if only for the döner kebabs.