As most people are aware the Germans are known for things like efficiency, having a sense of order and paperwork. Oh, they love paperwork. Mostly you can live here unaffected by the famously rigid “alles in ordnung” (all in order) sensibility but from time to time you need to play the game. In particular, one thing that absolutely must be done is register your address at the Citizens Registration Office or Bürgeramt. Every time you move house you must register your new address within 14 days. I still don’t know the purpose of this, why every single person needs to register their address with the civil authorities - but I just know you have to do it. To me, it seems like a leftover relic from the East German system, a hangover from the days of Communism when everybody and everything was accounted for.
What adds to this feeling is the process - how you actually register. It is totally archaic and involves having to queue at the crack of dawn outside a building so you can meet with an official and get the relevant paperwork. They don’t have an online registration system. I repeat - it is 2014 and they don’t have an online registration system.
Recently I had to visit the Bürgeramt (my 6th time - I am now a professional) and fortunately I live just around the corner meaning I get an extra 20 minutes sleep. So I arrive at 7.15am - the place opens at 8 - and there are already 6 people in front! With 45 minutes to wait I busied myself people-watching the growing queue. Most interesting was the family in front - there was a mother, father and girl about my age holding a stack of papers. They were so well-dressed, I thought they might be from Hamburg. The mothers lipstick matched the colour of her shoes and her silvery hair did not have a strand out of place. Her daughter had a big leather tote bag which she carried on her forearm, the way celebrities do and I noticed her nails were a summery pastel pink. They looked out of place on the gritty corner of Wildenbruchstraße and Sonnenallee. I wondered why the daughter had brought her parents along to such a dull ritual as visiting the Bürgeramt, but then I saw she took out her iPhone and snapped a photo of her parents in the queue. Perhaps she had bought a house and was registering her address… what else would warrant parents and photos in the queue for the Bürgeramt?! The father seemed utterly amused by the situation, particularly the ever-growing queue which he kept eyeing with a smile. Even his stylish black plastic glasses couldn’t hide that giggle in his eye.
Admittedly the queue was getting long, over 30 people at 7.45am (standard!). Such a mixed bag of people too - everybody bored and impatient. There was a pretty girl in a floral dress, whose boyfriend had the icy jaw of a Russian. He looked like he might kill anybody who would come near her. There was a Turkish man who stood nervously, looking over his shoulder constantly until another man arrived, kissed him twice on the cheek and exchanged a cup of coffee for a stack of papers. Then the nervous man left and the other man stayed in the queue with the papers. And then there was a group of 4 or 5 very tall black guys who stood closely together and spoke quietly in an African dialect.
Soon the doors opened and everyone plodded inside, up a flight of stone stairs in single file. At this moment, the word Communism came again to mind. Whilst waiting on the stairs I noticed the mother and daughter in the Hamburg family had the exact same eye colour - a greenish-hazel. It was identical - they could swap eyeballs and nobody could tell. I suppose you notice these things when you wait a long time on a boring set of stairs with lots of other people.
After waiting some time I arrived at the desk, stated my case and was given a number and instructed to wait down the hall. After another hour or so I met with the official, reassured her that I had an appropriate visa and viable rental contract and was eventually given that elusive piece of paper with the Bezirksamt stamp on it. Finally!
You experience a kind of joy when you leave the amt with that piece of paper. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s 9am and the world hasnt woken yet but you already achieved something. Or maybe it’s that it feels so damn good to get some paperwork done, signed, done. Or maybe it’s that you walk past all the bored, fidgety people on your way out and realise you are totally free and don’t have to wait anymore!
OK so I live south-side, borderline ghetto, Neukölln deep. Most of the time it’s fine and I don’t really notice the trashed up streets, overwhelming Turkish population or boarded windows. Thankfully I don’t live on the main drags Sonnenallee or Karl-Marx Straße with their bustling pedestrians, honking cars and screaming shisha bars. Those streets drive me mad, too many people, too much going on. My place, my little corner of the world is tucked away, parallel to the action in a neat little “kiez” or neighbourhood - close enough to the Neukölln buzz but still surprisingly quiet. Plus it’s cheaper down here, on the southern part of Weserstr. But really the coolest thing about this hood is the local characters. There are several, each with their own particular charisma and strangeness. They bring a certain life to the streets, a sort-of subliminal life that you don’t notice at first. It bubbles away in the corner of your eye until one day you start to catch the routine, see the local people and all the mad little intricacies of their lives…
The action happens on the corner of my block - Finowstraße ecke Weserstraße. There is a spätkauf (späti culture discussed earlier in my blog: http://odetoberlin.tumblr.com/post/29425979706/spatkauf-culture-you-wouldnt-think-of-it-as-a) right on the corner, with a table and chairs for it’s patrons. This is where they gather, some alone and pensive as they sip coffee on rainy Sundays and others who come together as a group. The main gang is headed by a friendly man in his sixties. I say friendly because a couple of times he has said “Schön Tag” or “Guten Abend” to me as I pass by. This is more friendly than a lot of Germans I have met. He has the face of a retired actor - a smart looking man whom I can just imagine playing a cop or doctor on a 1970’s TV sitcom. With knowing brown eyes, he peers over the top of silver-rim glasses with a look that is somewhere between stern and amused. I believe him to be very wise. He wears a series of faded polo shirts, each the same cut and style just different colours, brown, white, pale blue and so on. I always notice how his bushy moustache adds a dash of comic appeal to his look. Sometimes when older men have moustaches I cant tell whats going on there, whether they are smiling or frowning or even growling. Well I am fairly sure this man - lets call him Hans - has a permanent half smile going on there beneath the bush.
Anyway Hans is the ring-leader and for a time I was convinced he was some sort of drug dealer. Mostly because he has this merry band of junkie-type followers who are never far from his side. One time I even saw them opening the car door for him, like local royalty. I also thought I saw money exchange hands but it could have been keys. Hans sits at that table every morning and evening during the summertime. When I leave for work at 8.30am he is there tall and sturdy, seated in the middle, with the Tagesspiegel newspaper laid out before him and a paper cup of hot coffee. A couple of the junkie types are usually there too, looking tired and defeated - heads in their hands. Actually junkie might be too harsh, they look relatively harmless - perhaps they are just drunks. Anyway this is why I think he is the ringleader. He always has his shit together, looks clean and somewhat in control as his merry band of junkie-drunks seem to fall around him. And when I pull up on my bicycle after work, around 7.30pm, he is always there - as if he never left. I make eye contact as I pass by and he peers over his glasses, giving a little secret nod of the head. Like “yes. oh yes it’s you. you’re ok”. It is strangely comforting to see him in the mornings and evenings, I trust him like some sort of guardian of our block. Dear Hans, the local king, the wise old gate-keeper…
(Learn more about the kiez characters of Finowstraße - to be continued in KIEZ LIFE - PART 2)
I was riding my bike down leafy night-time streets when I caught him peeking at me from in between the buildings. Huge, silver, incandescent - oozing light in to every street corner.
I crossed Pannierstrasse… in to the kiez. I particularly love this cross-section, as you go over Pannier and make your way down Weser. It feels like you are crossing over to the wrong side of the tracks. Which for some reason, I find kinda comforting. As you leave the glamour of the Reuterkiez street life behind, it feels like you can throw off the shackles, let your hair down… it feels like you are free. I like whizzing down there on my bike, black cobblestones stretching before me, junk all over the streets, dark bars, loud Turkish music wafting out from the spaeti’s. Even the graffiti gets messier, more scribbles than art. I like the energy of this area, and that feeling of crossing over to the dark side. I somehow feel safe in the unsafe zone.
And then, finally when I get home I throw open my windows, looking up. And there HE is - always there no matter which side of the tracks you’re on. That glorious gift of the night skies, smiling at every chance, my unruly moon!
Oh yes, im back by the way. It’s been over a year but let’s not mention that. ;)
As soon as the temperature creeps over 8 degrees the ice-cream parlours of the city sweep the floor, mix fresh batches and throw open their doors for ICE CREAM SEASON. I thought ice cream was big in Australia what with the hot weather and beaches and all. Berliners take it to another level. Any day the air is tinged with a hint of warmth you will find queues down the street with people spilling on to the pavement, pockets jangling with coins and mouths watering for a tasty eis kugel. There are countless shops, from your friendly neighbourhood Mr Whippy style van-version at Tempelhof to the more upmarket café-style ice-creamery Fräulein Frost in Kreuzkölln. Flavours range from peanut butter to rhubarb to honeycomb to peppermint. You name it, somewhere in Berlin will have it.
Ice cream culture is what marks the warmer months here. Add an open-air party, picnic by the canal and beers in the park and you have a Berlin summer right there. Although 2013-sommer hasn’t quite kicked off yet, the eiscafes are open and ready for business. Already it has become a daily habit of mine… it’s dangerous, delicious and it means summer is on it’s way!
Even dogs get their own ice cream (seriously – this was taken at Eispiraten in Friedricshain)
Dancing with friends during a heavy rain storm, singing Edith Piaf’s ‘Je ne regrette rien’ at the top of our voices. Hair lying in messy, wet strands on our forehead as our clothes are soaked to transparency. Nearby a group cheers on the spectacular lightening show with beers and laughter. Having pizza with the owner of a successful start-up company on the rooftop of hyper-exclusive Soho House Berlin. A new moon hanging above us and the TV tower twinkling in the background. Chasing the little boy I babysit around a Dahlem park, until we fall in a heap, laughing and covered in mud. That evening attending a fancy wine tasting event held at the Hotel De Rome on Bebelplatz. Standing on the terrace and looking out over the site of the infamous Nazi Book Burnings while rubbing shoulders with an elite crowd of diplomats and ambassadors. Partying on Gneisenaustrasse during Carneval de Kulturen and being approached by a stranger who liked my freckles and wanted to take portraits of me. Turns out he is a successful art photographer with exhibitions throughout Europe and Russia. Singing with a friend in loud, operatic voices as we ride our bikes through Kreuzberg. Working as a waitress at Yohji Yamamoto’s vernissage during Berlin Art Week. Offering Yohji himself some sushi and watching the uber-stylish art-fashion crowd as they wander about, their outfits sharp and fabulous against the cavernous white exhibition space. Drinking a beer with a stranger who passed by as I was graffitiing a wall! Spending the night dancing up a sweat at an old swimming pool complex that was badly bombed during the war but is now home to hardcore, underground techno nights.
… and on it goes. Sometimes I spin about how seriously bizarre life can be here in Berlin. You can never anticipate what is around the corner. I don’t know if it is me, or just the general madness of the place but each day has a new story to tell…
There is only one part of the world where this is de rigeur and that is charming old Europe. In my early Berlin days I remember being kissed twice, once on each cheek when meeting people. It felt so chic! Like I was part of an elite Parisian art circle, where people sat around smoky tables discussing wine and politics. It took a while to get the hang of… I would always hesitate awkwardly after the first one, not knowing whether to move my head to the side and so always ended up bumping cheeks and turning away in embarassment. Now it’s normal. I kind-of forget what it’s like to kiss someone once. In fact now it feels almost impersonal!
THE TRAIN ANNOUNCEMENT VOICE
In the early part of this blog, I wrote about how exciting it was to hear the announcements on the train in German. The very sound of the official male voice saying “Einsteigen bitte” used to THRILL me. It sounded so unusual, so foreign. It’s funny the little things you appreciate when settling in a new place. I found the train voices so exciting! Nowadays, after one thousand and thirty three u-bahn rides I no longer get the same goosebumps. Most of the time I don’t even hear it. But when I do… my heart warms at the memory of the simple excitement those words used to bring.
THE ART OF LAYERING
I moved to Berlin during the fall and remember being in awe of the way people dressed. It was like they all had some private manual on how to look good when snow will wet your boots and an icy wind will bite your cheek the second you set foot from the house. They were all so stylish! And warm! How were they so stylish and warm? I looked like a dishevelled street rat, so many messy layers all wrapped up like a stuffed sausage. And I was cold. Always cold. It’s like part of the education in Northern Europe, like they take lessons at school on how to dress appropriately but with style. I was in awe when I first arrived. But slowly I learned. Piece by piece, I am far more aware now of what fabrics insulate, what fits well and what articles give a nice shape but still keep you warm. A a few years and two nordic winters later I have finally learned the careful art of winter layering!
Tschüss was originally common in Northern Germany but is now used all over the country. It means goodbye in a casual, informal manner and in Berlin it is used everywhere, by everyone. I thought it sounded hilarious when I first arrived. Something about the way the innotation goes up at the end like a cheery melody. So even if you are a deep-throated man you almost sing out the phrase like a happy little girl. Sometimes it even gets extended to “ Tschüssy!” which just kills me. Nowadays I say it on auto-pilot without even thinking! Ah what! I have become one of them! ;)
Ah the pristine powder that accompanies us during those long winter months! Little white teardrops that fall from the heavens, soft and innocent like a dream. Icicles hanging from the rooves and snow sitting in wintery sweet piles on awnings, bridges and bicycles. Having grown up on a sunburnt island many miles away, when I first arrived in Berlin the snow blew my little Australian mind. I thought it was sooo magical. Now after the bitter 100 year winter and snow storms that continued well in to April, the white stuff has lost it’s charm a little. I mean it will always be beautiful, but now when the heavens open their white halo I recall the months of bitter icy struggle and no longer run around in circles like a delusional child!
"There has never been anything like this in Berlin in late March since snow measurements began in 1895"
Friedemann Schenk, Weather expert at the Meteorological Institute for Freien Universität
Just recapping the fun times of the last 6 months! They say it was the coldest, longest winter in over 100 years with record-breaking weather that lasted well into Easter. I can vouch for that. It felt like we didn’t see the sun for months, the grey hung low, the air prickled with ice and the snow became a permenant fixture at our feet.
It’s been over 6 months since my last post. And there has been good reason for that. I have experienced what can only be called a ‘life metamorphosis’ during this time. A breakdown of the familiar framework that shaped my existence and a deterioration of all that I thought I had. But as I have learned… from breakdown comes rebirth. Awakening. A new perspective… and most importantly a hint of things to come.
Berlin literally chewed me up and spat me out again. It started during the dawn of winter, in the inevitable November greyness that descends upon this great Northern land at the closing of the year. I had it all in November, a job, a visa, friends, apartment, social life. Tick Tick Tick. It was “alles ok”. But inside something was sinking. The source of the struggle was unclear at the time, but as I walked the now-familiar Berlin streets it didn’t feel right. Which made no sense because seemingly the goal was reached and I had finally built myself a life here. But there was something gnawing, a termite chewing away at my spirit… effectively this termite ended up destroying it all. It manifested a life change so great, so defining, that it forced me to re-evaluate everything. Around this time, an unforeseen circumstance threw me in to a tailspin that 6 months later, I am still trying to work myself out of. Basically, after months of hard work I lost my job and therefore my visa and status in this country. This was completely unexpected. As someone who has been defined by their job for 10 long years, and being that I was in a foreign country… far from home… this loss was palpable. Being left without a regular income, without a stable position in Germany and with very little savings was an unexpected whirlwind change. At this point all the comfortable barriers of my existence were broken down. I spent the early days of winter crying snowy tears as the greyness became a permanent fixture overhead. By January it was back to square one. No visa, no job and no idea what the hell to do.
I started to make outlandish plans to leave Berlin and go to India. To live in an ashram and study yoga and meditation, another of my life’s burning goals. Being an insanely impulsive human I made all the moves to do this, including getting rid of my apartment, selling my furniture and clothes, pulling every last penny together and basically packing up my life. India was going to be the answer to my problems, it would put to rest that little termite of uncertainty that I had felt when I was employed. That unsettled feeling is what I now believe actually manifested the loss of the job i.e. subconsciously bringing this change upon myself in order to shake things up. To force the choosing of a new path. And going to India was the first step in that new direction. As a closet hippy that had hid my love of spirituality and new age philosophies behind a desk job for over a decade, India was going to be my spiritual awakening. My chance to explore what I always knew deep down was my passion.
It’s strange. How sometimes you can physically feel a shift inside. When you listen to your heart and can almost hear that cosmic voice from deep within. That is your instinct talking. As I got closer to my departure date, I felt that shift and slowly began to realise that maybe the decision to leave wasn’t right. I couldn’t pinpoint why… it was just a feeling. I would walk the Berlin streets and feel a great sadness as India loomed ahead like a big, grey February cloud. With this came a desire to belong again. The holiday period was over, and the initial novelty of moving to a new place had died down. But my roots had made their way in to the Berlin earth. Perhaps I had to really face the prospect of leaving, but I began to realise that I wanted this city to not just be a stop over on my way forward, but my future.
And then… 3 days before my Saudi Airways flight left Europe for New Delhi there was a panicked, tearful phone call to my twin soul in Australia. It was the final straw. After an hour of talking and crying in to my croissant I made the snap decision to stay in Berlin. Not knowing what the next steps were, just knowing I couldn’t get on that plane. And so the Saudi flight left on 4th February 2013 less one very confused Australian female passenger.
Now, several months later I am still rebuilding. It has not been easy. The job market here is volatile and I have been forced in to unreliable minimum-wage work. My lifestyle has changed drastically and I no longer party on weekends, buy new things or eat out at restaurants. When I think back it’s amazing how differently you cope with the world behind the stability of a regular paycheck. Trying to live on nothing is a daily drain, but it’s something I have committed to doing until I can get a job with a part-time schedule. Something that will allow me the space to work on a passion project that is linked to my fascination with new-age philosophy. The goal has been set pretty high and at the moment things are hard. Many times I have thought about giving up and going back to Australia. But, even against the pressure of my loved ones who also want me home… something has kept me rooted here.
The thing I am beginning to realize is that I didn’t need to leave Berlin and go to India in order to have a spiritual awakening. In fact I am experiencing one right now. With the no job, no money, no visa situation along with a relationship that turned out to be completely destructive and dysfunctional, life has been a daily battle. The last months have brought so much pressure, financially and emotionally and I have had to push myself to the very limits of my humanity in order to survive. Its amazing the myriad of emotions that can be experienced in a process like this. It started with depression. Then anxiety. Then anger. Then a great sadness and sense of loss. Then purposelessness. And much, much more. It is only now that I am pulling myself off the rollercoaster and putting one foot on the ground again. After so many “why-me” tears, I have finally decided to turn within. To look inside for the answers, instead of basing my identity and feelings on my “life situation”. And what I am finding is that it doesn’t matter what chaos each day brings, as long as you can learn to let go and connect to the peace inside. The magic of the universe lies within each and every one of us human beings and no amount of materialistic stress can compete with the power of this. It is potent and it is there, now, within you. This learning is linked to Buddhist philosophies about the debilitating state of materialism, which is essentially the belief that matter is the only reality in life. One of my favourite Buddhist proverbs says it best: “All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.” So no matter what your life situation, inner peace and happiness is available to you now. This is hard to digest when your day to day reality is so damn worrying but it is a truth I have been forced to learn.
Yes, life’s ups and downs are a journey… but the real journey is the one inside yourself. Ultimately, it is the destruction and rebuilding of your own personal character. These last months have brutally tested my resolve but I am now emerging a stronger person who is slowly finding their inner calm. I have learnt to plug in to the universal energy the way you put a power cord in to an electrical socket. When you do this everything melts away… no matter how bad… and you begin to feel empowered rather than overpowered.
Today, I am still trying to get that visa, sort out that job and find the suitable apartment. Life is shaky, nothing is confirmed and I am still uncertain. But I’m learning to let go and simply move with the meandering watery flow of each unique earthly day.
Ironically the backdrop to this phase of enlightenment has been the city with the dark, shadowy energy, the city of Berlin. No holy Ganges river here… just the dirty old Spree. Go figure. I guess now I know one thing for sure. It’s the same feeling from almost two years ago (which I wrote about at the very beginning of this blog)… I am meant to be here. Berlin is my home away from my home. It is no longer a non-stop whirlwind of parties and new people. It has taken on a different feeling now… less novelty, more reality. Sometimes I long for that buzzing excitement of moving to a new city, that feeling of new-ness and the possibility to explore forever. But at the end of the day, what I have now is far more valuable.
I have found my little corner of the world. That unsettled feeling I experienced last year was a test. It forced me to evaluate my position and define my future path. Even though I am not set up here yet, now I know. This city is my future path. It is a place that I feel inexplicably connected to, that drives me, feeds my spirit and then tears me apart. A city that tests my limits and pushes me further than I have ever been pushed before. There is comfort in realising this because I know the forceful, sometimes-harsh nature of this city will push me toward my goal, my truth. It is my India, my spiritual awakening.
Berlin is not only my home but one of my life’s greatest lessons.
[ The soundtrack to this “lesson”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bz9JmpULP3o ]
Isn’t it awesome when a moment in your life feels like a scene straight out of a movie? I had a very cool experience like this recently when riding my bike home from work. There is this scene from ‘Berlin Calling’ that I love. Well, it’s not even a scene more like a flicker of an image but its just something that resonated with me. It only goes for 3 or 4 seconds but is powerful in its simplicity.
It is a shot of the TV tower at twilight. An ominous sky frames the scene as a flock of birds that look like bats come in to view, flapping their way in circles around the dome. It is accompanied by a dark, repititious techno beat and the eerie sound of crows squawking in the night. It really feels like Berlin to me and perfectly captures the energy of the beginning of a night out in this gritty city. So one recent Friday eve I was on my bike, and rounded the corner at Alexanderplatz in to the concrete square that sits at the base of the TV tower. People were criss-crossing everywhere hurrying along, on their way in to the night. I looked up and saw a darkening sky and a group of crows flying above the city, circling the curve of the great dome which was glowing silver against the inky-grey sky. In my head, the familiar techno beat from Berlin Calling started up and suddenly I was there in the movie, standing at the foot of the TV tower feeling the cold, dark promise of a night out in Berlin. It was such a wierdcool moment and I smiled inside at the strange familiarity of it all.
One Friday eve during the last days of summer, I was walking Oppelner Strasse when I saw a group of people enjoying a dinner party on the street. They had literally moved their entire indoor dinner party setting outside and on to the street – tables, chairs, wine glasses, candles, music, friends and children playing at their heels. It was warm and lovely and all I could hear was laughter and the clinking of glasses. I watched them for a second, taking in the scene. Their table was glowing with happy energy, the sky above was black velvet, the air smelt like lavender and in that moment I really felt the spirit and love of this little group of friends.
It was the last of those balmy evenings where the streets are alive with people and icecream and smiles… and as you walk you can literally see the collective human spirit blossoming, flourishing in the warm night.
A few weeks back I had the best Monday of my life. It was a hazy August evening – the sun lay low over the city spilling it’s hot light in to every street corner. The heat wrapped Berlin like a blanket, heavy and oppressive. I went for a walk with my best friend along the Görlitzer canal – the light flickering as it found it’s way through the trees and across our faces. We stopped by a graffitied bridge and found a little iron gate with steps leading to the waters edge. We took a seat and named it our “secret spot”… it was private, off the main pathway and allowed us to take one step closer to nature. All the way down the canal you could see people tucked in to the trees, in their own “secret spots” reading, eating, resting their souls in the yellow afternoon haze. A moment later a tourist boat went by, I could see the great flag of Germany at it’s helm and people taking photos of all the life that breathed along the banks of the canal. After it had passed, in a sudden fit of summer energy we decided to strip down and go naked swimming in the (dirty / brown / inner city) canal! And so we did. Two crazy girls at 8pm on that 30 degree evening jumped in to the filthyrefreshing water. It was a magic moment, green weeping trees hanging low, the graffitied bridge above, a group of white swans floating by and our naked freedom in the dirty brown water! Oh Monday!
I have decided that Berlin is an adult’s playground.
As I was walking the Sunday streets I saw people weaving through the traffic on their bikes, dodging and swerving across the city – to meet a lover, have a coffee, read a book in the park, do their thing. I saw a dreadlocked rastafarian sitting outside a bakery with his feet on the table smoking a cigarette and tearing in to a croissant at the same time. I saw a group of party-goers sitting in an ominous circle outside a club, drinking stale beers and holding each other in the morning sun. The blank walls and apartment buildings were splattered with colourful graffiti. Each wall – somebody’s statement to the world. I saw two September lovers by the canal, lost in each others embrace. Looking up, there was a group of twenty something guys, drunk on life, sitting on the roof of a bus shelter, legs dangling over, singing sad morning anthems to the world. I heard whistles blowing and a voice through a loudspeaker and suddenly there was a procession of people, protesting, united in their passion & opinions.
It was then that I saw the city as a veritable playground –like a place where children go to play, a place that is fun and full of endless possibilities, where freedom rules and you can do as you please. Berlin is the playground except it’s adults that play there. You can do or be anything you want, see whoever you want, write all over the walls, climb the bus shelters, dance till dawn, everything is free and open and it’s up to you how you wanna play it…
I had just been on another trip – a two week ball-out around Eastern Europe and had arrived back yet again. I was walking over Ann Micheal Brücke – a bridge the crosses the river Spree, feeling dazed and weary when I stopped in the middle of the bridge to pause. You know how in life sometimes you just need to pause. I looked out and saw the great TV tower with its mirror ball dome and spiky antenna. The river was lined with warehouses and factories, crumbling industrial relics of another time. Green weeds, graffiti everywhere, the gentle brown river and the sound of techno music wafting up from an open air party on the shore. I could hear people laughing as they meandered along the water on a wooden raft, clinking beers, the sky grey and low above them. And there she was… Berlin. In all her dirty, twisted glory. And it made me smile.
Tucked away in quiet street corners are the parks and gardens, little flashes of greenery that make this city beautiful. There are grand, weeping trees, rusty old swingsets and daisies at your feet. In the summer, the parks make a perfect setting for open air parties and bbqs and peace time. Görlitzer Park is my favourite – people sit in that great sprawling park well in to the night, laid out in the grass breathing warm air and sharing secrets under the summer moon.
Görli is great because it has such a mass of life in it. There are the drug dealers who line the gates, lanky black men who whisper “marijuana” when you walk past. There are the Turkish families spread out on blankets the size of an apartment, prepared with all sorts of salad and drinks and cold meat. And the children run in circles and play until they fall in a heap on the ground, exhausted and giggling. Then there is the woman who dances topless in a stoned stupor. Or the man who pushes a shopping trolley packed with stereo equipment, computers and other junk. Or the 4 year old kid who uses a full adult size skateboard and rides the hill like a pro. Or the gypsys who run around frantic, collecting bottles for recycling payments. There are all manner of freaks in this park. The other day I watched a black man with dreadlocks dance interpretative style on his own in the corner of the park. Eyes closed, ipod in his ears, completely unaware of who was watching, he dipped and rolled and swayed and danced his heart out for more than an hour. Eventually sweating so much that he took his shirt… and his pants off. It was brilliant. I am so grateful for these parks.
I walked out of the station wide eyed and bedraggled. Taking dreamy cautious steps in to the mess that is life. Chaotic and colourful there were people swigging beer on the street and fairy lights and traffic and pizza slices on the staircase of my building. And it was beautiful and madness and home. It felt good to be home but I was missing a certain someone. And it had started raining – grey hot teardrops on the window of the taxi. Why does it always rain in the saddest of moments? Its as if the heavens open up and your tears pour out. I don’t know. Arriving back in Berlin after a week in the pristine Nordic countryside can really mess with your head.
Last week I was stepping on a plane bound for Denmark and I looked out across the tarmac and saw a brilliant sky – metallic orange and I smelt the air, it was warm and heavy and I could hear the whirr of engines and cars and planes and the breathless, exuberant madness that is this city. And in that moment I didn’t want to go, I was sad to leave her… beautiful Berlin with her sky of gold and heart of sin.
Recently it was May Day in Berlin – a day that marks an ancient pagan ritual for warding off evil spirits but today is used for workers protests and demonstrations and… partying. So off we went. My group set upon the Kreuzberg neighbourhood nervous for the potential riot but amped by the scene. It was heat and sweat and mayhem, thousands of people, open air parties in every park and great giant speakers just out there on the street pumping techno and reggae and jazz and all kinds of music. There were live bands set up on milk crates, and people dancing on rooftops and eating bbqs lying on the road. The polizei stood around smoking and taking it all in. Lots of jumping and swaying and laughing, arms flailing around in the afternoon sun.
You could literally smell spring, and feel everybody throwing off the shackles of a long winter. Fried food and beer in the air, the energy buzzing, it was the street of life. And the epitome of the great Berlin spirit with it’s mix of progression and madness and that famous burn for freedom, oh and youth, it was the very essence of youth. Chaotic, messy, loose, don’t give a shit, we’re here to HAVE FUN.
Second instalment in my series of stories from the u-bahn
7pm on the U1 and it had been a warm day. Stepping in to the train car I was met with joyous screams and looked up to see a crazed man pacing the carriage, squealing ‘WOOOO!’ and ‘HEE HEHEHE! HEEEE!’ as he ran back and forth, wild eyed and frantic. Everybody in the carriage sat engrossed in their business as if nothing was happening. It was extremely loud and distracting – I searched for a seat. I found one opposite a beautiful black boy, who had killer eyelashes and that enviable clear, toned skin only dark people seem to have. I thought he might have been famous, but he never looked at me once. Nearby stood a young Spanish girl who did look at me with hot eyes and an ass the size of a watermelon. No, two watermelons. It was the biggest ass in the world but she wore it with punk and grace and that famous Spanish sass. Next to her was a Japanese German rich brat who wore Gucci loafers and carried a Louis Vuitton tote. He ran fingers through spiky black hair and talked loudly in to a fully sequined iphone decorated with a ruby studded kitten face. At the next station the crazed man leaped off the train, I could hear him hooting outside the carriage. Then he screamed one final gut curling scream and I turned to see he had pressed the emergency button on the platform and now some sort of siren was going off and I was sure the cops or security were going to come soon.
The train rattled on and Senorita with her hot eyes kept staring and the black boy ignored me and the Japanese German kept talking loudly in to his sequined phone and the older man next to me was taking photos of the floor with his blackberry and it was just the usual chaos & weirdness of an evening trip on the Berlin underground.
It’s strange how Berlin just creeps up on you sometimes. You could be walking along perfectly normal and then suddenly you turn a corner and there are neat little buildings lining the street, the sun is shining brilliantly through bright green leaves, pink blossoms glow at your feet, the road is cobblestoned, glossy and dark and the whole scene is flashy and gorgeous like a diamond in the new spring air.
It is late afternoon at Kottbusser Tor and the streets sizzle with brilliant Turkish energy. There are fast moving women dressed in hijabs scolding wayward children and carrying bags of groceries, groups of men who sit in circles on little black stools drinking coffee, huddled together, waving their arms and sharing stories and the sun is red and ominous as it casts lengthy shadows across the land. Down the road, fruit stall salesmen greet you as you walk by juggling apples and making small talk, winking with a cigarette dangling from their lips. Great slabs of hot, sweaty meat roast on kebab stand skewers while families gather at the mosque ready to pray. There are bizarre wedding dress shops with mannequins dressed in layers of puffy satin and shisha bars that blow fruity smoke in to the afternoon air. Parts of Kreuzberg & Neukölln can sometimes feel like downtown Istanbul. Often I am deafened by the sound of loud, consistent car horns. HONNNNK! HONNNK! HONNNK! No matter what, I always jump and turn to see what the raucous is. But its always the same – a convoy of cars, honking repeatedly, shouting and jeering to celebrate a couple’s wedding day. It always and never surprises me.
But my favourite are the mens cafes. There are so many of these in my neighbourhood. Its always a blank, undecorated room, white walls, bland office-like carpet, plastic tables and chairs. They are strictly for men only. Well I don’t know this for a fact I cant read the signs but there are never any women in there. Its like a genetlemans club or something, minus the sleazy connotation that probably brings to your mind. The men just sort of sit about and chat. Often you see them playing card games and they are always smoking something, shisha, cigars, rolling tabak. In the background some ancient TV drones on with a soccer match or cheesy Turkish pop videos but nobody ever really pays any any attention to it. They are really there to gather and socialize. These little cafes are everywhere, nearly one on every street corner in Neukölln. They smell of coffee and smoke and energy and life. I think they are just the best. I think I would really like to have one for myself and my friends… but of course you know… womens only!
Im going to start including a few little snapshot stories from the ubahn. I find it such a fascinating place – teeming with life, full of weird and wonderful characters.
Its 3pm on the U8. The usual street magazine seller hops in to the carriage and starts his monologue about the magazine for sale, hole in his trousers, flat voice, dead eyes fixed on nothing, hoping for a dollar. A bored looking mongrel of a dog rests at the feet of a dude wearing a sergeants army jacket and a wild mop of curly hair. The carriage isn’t that full. A big girl is sitting in the four seater opposite me, by herself. She is holding a tiny red purse which she fidgets with constantly, zipping and unzipping it. I notice her tight black tshirt displaying a bulge of backfat, and black stripey adidas track pants and wait for it white kitten heels. All scuffed and scrubby looking. Her hair is stringy and she looks tired. She is staring at me. Then she is staring at the man next to me. A strange, sullen, but slightly mischevious look on her face. She adjusts her tshirt. Her tshirt slide back up over the bulge. She coughs loudly, still staring at the man next to me. The man next to me is texting and doesn’t even notice. Two stations fly by. She continues to stare. In a sudden movement, she gets up, leavers her empty fourseater and comes to sit opposite the man and me. Still staring at the man. Her eyes have a manic glint to them. She starts twirling her stringy hair with one little finger. Staring staring at the man. The man keeps texting texting. Her lips curl in to a smile. Another station passes by, She kicks her foot out so it brushes his leg. And comes dangerously close to mine. He doesn’t flinch. Eyes on the iphone. She keeps staring. Alexanderplatz. In another sudden movement, without so much as a glance back at the object of her fascination, the girl gets off the train.
Last week the season turned, you could feel it. It was Sunday. The sky was blue, bright cornflower blue, for the first time in weeks. The air was fresh and alive, and the sun appeared soaking the earth with its warm rays. I had a beautiful peaceful moment to myself on the balcony. I sat face to the sun for a long time, eyes closed, listening, just breathing it in. The birds were back from their winter journey, so for the first time in a long time I heard their singing. There was the twitter of German children on the street below, excited and laughing in the brand new air. I cannot describe how much the sun lifted my spirits in that moment. Made me realize quite how grey and long and dark the winter is, and how your eyes just adjust to the bleakness after a while. When Spring arrives and the grey begins to glisten, it practically lifts your heart to the heavens making you feel more alive than ever.
One afternoon it bombed down with snow, and the lake was frozen and everybody came out to play in the cold German afternoon. There was ice hockey, skating, sledding, sliding, snow fights – and a little ‘boot haus’ on the riverbank that played classical music; the melancholybeautiful sound wafting out across the lake. Here, you could sit amongst the snow and eat apfel strudel and drink gluhwein and even though you were cold you were warm in your heart.
You see them sitting on the u-bahn, fidgeting fingers, slitted eyes, jaws clenched. They are the real deal. They are the punks. And I mean it, these are not the faded Australian stereotype that you might occasionally catch sight of around central station. No these guys live and breathe punk, it’s their life, you can tell. They have shaved heads, mohawks, always black hair. They wear gnarly leather jackets with silver studs, tight inky denim jeans and big romper stomper Doc Martens that stick out from their skinny legs like clown feet. They have piercings, tons of piercings, mostly a bunch of silver rings lining the ear. Their t-shirts are ripped and faded, their hands wrapped around beer in brown paper bags. They always hang in groups, mostly 2 or 3 but they never say a word. They just stare straight ahead, bombed out, a little bit crazy but still totally sure of themselves. Sometimes they have these huge arctic wolf type dogs on leashes that rest at their feet on the train, quiet and watchful.
The punks aren’t scary though, they mind their own business, nobody is there to stir shit. I like to watch them from the corner of my eye. They fascinate me, they live their subculture fully – they are the realest punks I’ve ever seen. I bet they live in art squats and listen to some newer, more hardcore version of the Sex Pistols. I mean I respect it, it’s kind of extreme but they really know who they are.
Berlin in winter is very grey. It is all shades of grey. Light grey, dark grey, medium grey, lots of grey. The commonplace Soviet style architecture is also very grey, not just in colour but in style - if you know what I mean. This is why the new generation has painted the big, blank walls in colourful graffiti – to add character, to brighten, to lift the dull, monotonous grey grey grey. So, when the snow comes it’s as if an artist took out her brush and painted over the grey, colouring it white. The blandness fades and light prevails. The buildings, roofs, sidewalks, awnings are blanketed in fresh white. It’s as if overnight the grey is balanced and everything is pure.
But then you see the buildup on the roads, the road snow, and it is black and dirty and ugly. Or the snow that is covered in gravel by the city authorities so people don’t lose their grip. It becomes tarnished by cars, by people, by us - mother nature’s virgin gift to the world covered in human soot. This is why I think that whilst the pristine powder brightens the city and washes out the grey, the snow looks most beautiful when it is settled amongst nature. The trees the grass the earth, this is it’s home where it’s meant to be. Walking the city, you catch a little patch of snow covered nature amongst the urban decay, a park or a few trees and suddenly everything crystallises, and looks magical and real, like a proper winter wonderland.