A friend of mine once complained about Europe. “It’s all the same”, he said. “It’s all very first world, developed, they all speak similar languages. If you’ve seen one country you’ve more or less seen them all.” I like to respect other people’s opinions but for anyone who shares this one, I’d just like to say that, after spending a week in Berlin, I can say with some certainty that you are very wrong.
I remember the first time I came to Berlin – my favourite places were a laundromat-cafe and Dr Pong’s. The laundromat-cafe (the name of which I can’t remember) was wonderful – it was like the interior of one of those old American houses straight out of Pleasantville, and while it had lines of washing machines and dryers on one end, it also had huge comfy couches and free Wi-Fi and the most amazing chai lattes on the other, so that you could put your laundry in and then just sit and chill, drinking chai and reading a book/spending two hours stalking peoople on Facebook until it was all done.
Dr Pong’s, on the other hand, was a dingy ping-pong bar, where you’d grab a paddle and everyone in the bar would play round robin ping pong, walking in circles around the room until there were only two left to play a proper game. Dr Pong’s was tiny and dingy, and you’d inevitably end up talking to half the people there – playing numerous rounds of ping pong together while knocking back cheap German beer just tends to get people in a chatty mood. I’d planned only to go there once but ended up returning every night. The only thing I’d change was the point at which I accidentally walked in on a drunk guy masturbating in one of the bathrooms, which didn’t have a lock. Piece of advice for anywhere you go in Berlin really – always knock before you enter a bathroom.
Of course, you could argue that all of Europe’s capital cities are famous for their quirkiness, and you’d be right. Nothing quite compares to Berlin though. Old Soviet-era buildings have their insides renovated and turned into clubs and bars and stores, with facades still full of bullet holes. There’s shiny new buildings next to ancient bombed out shells of apartment blocks, most of them now covered in colourful grafitti, some of it with underlying political messages, some of it just pretty. There’s squatters villages and artist residences, and little galleries everywhere. The fact that there’s still so much damage from the wars and constant construction all over the place (over 100000 build-sites, someone told me – although I haven’t checked the veracity of that claim so don’t quote me on it) means that people treat the city like a canvas, and are constantly painting and chalking and drawing and sculpting everywhere.
It’s such a whimsical city, and it almost feels like a really dark, drugged-up version of Alice in Wonderland sometimes, with all these hidden places that you need special passwords to get into and random structures just erupting out of the landscape. Did you know there’s a store there that looks like a delicatessen but in which everything is made out of fabric? Who on earth thought ‘oh, I bet there’s a huge market there for what are essentially plush-toy versions of meat and cheese’ and decided to create a store based on that concept – and how are they surviving financially?! There’s also this chain called 2theloo, which is basically a toilet shop – but not one that sells toilets, one in which you go to use toilets and buy toilet related products. They have different types of toilets, all with their own unique decor, so you can choose according to your preference, and a coffee corner so you can chill in peace while your companions go about their business.
And then, of course, there’s the nightlife, which Berlin is famous for. You can find clubs – good clubs, with good music – open pretty much 24/7. It’s intense. We went out on Friday to this place called Greismuhle, which is made up of a couple of run-down rooms, a few dirty toilet blocks – which, strangely enough, people go to to hang out in – a great sound system and hectic lights, and – my favourite part – a huge outdoor section that’s got a giant tree house and swings and a big bonfire and other random bits and pieces, right next to a river. We went there at 4am, which is when most Berliners head out (why they go out so late I’m not yet sure – but I’ve been told that’s what you do if you want to avoid the sleazy tourists). We danced till 10am, then sat by the river, in the sunshine, which, in all honesty, is the most disconcerting feeling – I definitely prefer to keep my nights out to the night time, and when the sun comes out I want to be at home in bed.
I’d just like to proudly point out, however, that I did not go to bed, but instead spent Saturday with my friend Anton, from Barsinghausen, who’d driven 5 hours to spend half a day with me before driving all the way back, and Gen and I then went and checked out the balloons they’d put up along where the Berlin Wall used to be, to commemorate 25 years since it’s fall. I don’t mean to be an ingrate or anything, but I’ve got to say that those balloons were the biggest let down. We walked along the path next to them, and there were all these balloons that were popped, and people occasionally pulling them down, and it was just all rather anti-climactic. They didn’t even do anything other than being lit up, and there wasn’t anything else accompanying them other than a humongous souvenir store.
But getting back to the Berlin night-life – we spent the next night (same hours) at Ritter Butzke, at the DIYnamic Showcase (DIYnamic being an up and coming techno record label) – and it was killer. Nowhere in the world is techno as good as Berlin. Nothing in Australia even compares, not even a little bit. Don’t come to Berlin if you don’t like techno, because it’s inescapable. They even had Paul Kalkbrenner playing at the festivities the next night, when they released the balloons at the official 25-years-since-the-fall-of-the-wall ceremony. There is techno everywhere, and it is good techno – the kind they crack out at major music festivals in Australia – and everyone will be dancing to it, and I mean everyone. You don’t go clubbing in Berlin to sit and talk, you go because you’re into the music. Although there are bars (and, we saw on our way to Ritter Butzke, restaurants even) that are open at 4am, so you could go there if sitting and chatting is your thing. But in Berlin you can go clubbing entirely on your own (a lot of people do!) and have an amazing time because all everyone cares about is the music, and they’re all there, gathered like disciples in front of the DJ, moving in this trance state as if they’re completely consumed by the beat.
So that’s Berlin for you. I feel like I haven’t really done it justice, and I could definitely write for pages and pages more – about all the strange people you meet, about how it pulls in people from all over the world, about the immense number of yoga classes and bowling alleys that are absolutely everywhere, about the fact that you can smoke indoors and that a lot of people use matchboxes instead of lighters – but instead I’ll leave that to your imagination or till you come visit someday and see it for yourself. I ended up coming out of it with a cigarette burn on my left arm, a pulled muscle in my left leg and a whole lot of glass stuck in my boots. Now tell me that that’s like every other place in Europe.