Friday, July 4, 2008

Berlin, Written 26 June 2008

I’ve never been interested in Germany. I don’t really know why, considering I’m someone that’s interested in places I don’t even know I’m interested in. For some reason, it’s never drawn me. So when I met Arnaud in Japan a few years ago, a French illustrator living in Berlin, it was really the first time I’d given it any thought. But I still wasn’t convinced. During my trip planning, I asked if it would be possible to meet in France…but no, so it was decided: I would go to Berlin.

Perhaps the lack of expectations and the complete ignorance with which I entered the city was what made my experience utterly rich and incomparably genuine. After I arrived from my long hitch from the Czech Republic through Poland to get to Friedrichshain, we directly left to catch the last bits of light and did a big loop through the area, walking about 2 hours. What I saw; electronic music blaring in the park with small groups of people dancing unabashedly (reminded me of Lapa), little makeshift barbecues in the park, trash on the ground, graffiti all over the walls (much of it unimpressive), people wearing all different colors and styles and hairstyles and makeup, lots of green, people jogging, cycling, walking…in a nutshell, nothing that I thought Germany exemplified.

Monday morning – to Arnaud’s QG – quartier generale – Tres Cabezas y un Amigo, a small café with lounge chairs in front. Armed with an acai power and a sandwich, I sat and read Japanese children’s books. What? Yeah, it was great. Probably from too much adrenaline, the previous night I hadn’t slept until 5.30am, so after breakfast I had a little siesta, then did my first research about Berlin until Arnaud was ready for his lunch break. We walked to Nil, a Sudanese restaurant where I had a big vegan platter for 4 euros…a little ice cream and coffee break for him after, and then we were off on our ways.

I went down to Kreuzberg and walked along the river westward for awhile, before heading up to Jannowitzbrucke to meet Fernanda. We went to one of the famous beach bars, where there are spots along the river where people actually set up sand and beach chairs, ping pong tables and volleyball nets, and there’s music and drinks. Not too bad, if you have to be stuck in a concrete city nowhere near the ocean.

We then spent a few hours with Marius wandering around, checking out different bars and areas – this is one of the things that really made me fall in love with Berlin. Everywhere you go, there’s some hidden doorway or alleyway that looks like it holds nothing, but once you walk in, this whole new vista is opened up to you…it’s pretty special.

We ended up in Warschauerstrasse at a great little bar with old furniture from the Communist Era, and had currywurst and kofta kebap thrown in – the most commonly eaten foods in Berlin today, I imagine.

Tuesday I was determined to be a good tourist so after a leisurely breakfast off I went – headed to Museumsinsel, Museum Island, where 4 of the important state-owned museums are located. There is a great-value 3-day museum pass which allows entry into all the state-owned museums for 3 consecutive days – if you have a student ID it’s only 9.5 euros. Fabulous deal.

So I wandered around the museums there, and was really impressed the Alte Nationalgalerie collection as well as the Islamic Art in the Pergamon Museum. The replicas of Assyria and Aleppo made me shiver, and really brought back strongly the sensation of wanting to go back to these places.

I went to meet Eva, who I had met in Laos in February 2007. She had been reading 1984 and I started speaking to her on a hostel veranda in Vientiane, almost instantly the topic of Burma came up, and within hours I had convinced her to head up to Ponsavanh with me. So we shared this huge mezze platter at a Lebanese spot in Kreuzberg, then went to meet Fernanda in Jannowitzbrucke. Turned out we were headed back to Kreuzberg for the Turkish market.

WOW. WOW. Wow. Along the river in Kreuzberg, the Turkish market represents for me, what Europe may look like on a much larger scale in not too much more time. Kreuzbeg has the third largest Turkish colony outside of Turkey, and it is really apparent when you go to this market. Turkish men have produce at impossibly cheap prices, calling out in German and Turkish…Turkish women roll their wheeled carts through the street paying no heed to others, rolling over feet and bags and whatever else may be in their way without a second thought. It was really a fabulous market, and even though I was leaving Berlin in less than 2 days, I somehow ended up with a lot of fruit and vegetables. I mean, 5 avocados for 1 euro…there was manioc…I couldn't help it. This small area of Berlin exhibited so much life and energy and vitality…it was really amazing.

Eva and I continued to Gorlitzer Park, apparently the druggie park of Berlin. Shirtless muscled guys practicing hakky sak in one corner, lots of black people hanging around the park, the scent of burning cannabis lingering in the air…there are some bare grassy areas where people lounge, and that’s where we hung out until Arnaud came to meet us.

Pizza and ice cream, then to Mobel Olfe, a gay bar that totally welcomes heterosexuals and is quirky, eclectic, laid-back, and extremely comfortable. I was quickly being won over by this city which has obviously been strongly affected by its impossibly complex history of the past century yet looks forward unabashedly and does it with confidence and style.

Wednesday I did more museums – Potsdamerplatz area, over to the Brucke Museum, and the Gemaldegalerie…then to the C/O Galerie in Oranienburgstrasse, which was displaying easily the most emotional exhibition I’ve seen in the past year. A series of photos with captions about the condition of women in India, specifically in Delhi – I felt the blood in my body moving again. I’d forgotten that feeling.

A quick meeting with Eva in Kreuzberg in a floating bar while the streets raged with the Germany vs Turkey Euro Championship game, and a relaxed cooking evening. All good.

So what is Berlin? Charming, unexpected, green, wild, evolving, laid-back, relaxed, creative, open, cultured, inexpensive, and extremely welcoming. 10/10.

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