Where to begin with Berlin? Growing up with Rumtopfs, beer Steins, bratwurst, and sharing a bed with a Berliner bear bigger than I was – it was written in the dust that I would visit eventually, taking my mum back to a city I felt she never seemed to get over.
The “hip” neighbourhood Kreuzberg became like a second home in a very short space of time. Like all European cities, the best way to get to know a place is using your feet. Our first day was a sunlit and warm wander around the borough, taking as much as we could in on such a nice afternoon. Kreuzberg was once surrounded on three sides by the infamous Berlin Wall and was one of the cities poorest neighbourhoods. The evidence lies in an architectural landscape that feels like someone has hit ‘pause’ at a time of soviet repression. Box-like buildings deck the wide-spread streets and still show décor of another time (one of the easiest to spot being the blood red flag of the Soviet Union). A lot of the wall still remains, no longer segregating, but still multi-functional, much like Berliners themselves.
Being the most wonderful time of the year (or thereabouts) there were a few Christmas markets still propped up in the occasional Platz. As a sucker for all things stocking mulled wine, we found ourselves in a couple. Just a ten-minute walk away from Kochstrasse, Gendarmarkt was the first to be conquered and it was the most modern take on a Weihnactsmarkt – with the BEST vegan soups in the ‘hood. Gendarmarkt is otherwise a square with an ensemble of architecture, such as both French and German churches and the Konzerthaus. It is also the home of the German poet, Schiller – or at least his statue.
It was after a wild goose chase in search of a market in Wilmersdorf (that incidentally closed one month before, “my bad”) on which we found the City Christmas market, which ran around the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church – this in itself is quite something. One side towers with stained glass windows. The other still shows the consequence of war, being bombed out into a shell. What a juxtaposition to think of, when underneath the church’s crater, all the good stuff the Christmas season brings was being seen, heard and tasted in traditional wooden huts. The market was a bit like being a kid and finding a candy store. A candy cane store. Ran by Santa Claus. Selling Glühwein.
My mum is blessed with the talent of talking with her hands and knowing more than enough German to get herself served a bar. She got yakking with a stall-holder selling handmade moving sand glass pictures and a sketchy looking cigarette in his hand. He shared his experience of Berlin since moving from Hamburg some forty years ago. He recalled laughing and sharing everything with his neighbours. If someone were out of sugar, you’d nip next door and use the neighbours’. “That’s just how things were.” But that was then, and he felt the mentality changing.
Some of my fondest highlights of Berlin was sometimes pretending I wasn’t a tourist – eating (vegan) Kuchen oder Törtchen und Kaffee für Frühstuck mit meine Mutti, trying to speak German and Thai coming out of my mouth, meeting people with fresh perspectives and a fire inside them, as well as discovering new places and catching up with old friends in apartments that weren’t our own, but gave a true insight the lives of the locals.
“One night and morning in berlin –– best city for clubbing”, said the queen of all sounds techy, Ellen Allien. Apparently, Berlin is kind of famous for its clubs, or something? It’s true. Berlin’s an Electric Ladyland. Techno is deathless in this city that genuinely doesn’t seem to have time to sleep. Such an intense connection with music relates to the fall of physical borders and Berlin’s reunified identity. Abandoned warehouses and factories became spaces breathing life again with music and a newly found freedom.
Of the few we ventured to in our short time, Chalet was everything I could want in a club. In York, there’s a “nightclub” called Mansion, which from the outside is a swanky townhouse; the inside lacked ventilation, a good sound system and a decent layout, but the drinks were cheap and kept a pretty tight community. If Mansion were a teenage boy, Chalet would be a poster on his bedroom wall. In a hall that dates back to the 19th century lies tiny rooms with appetising sounds and visions. Outside in the courtyard is a giant bonfire, which was pretty perfect for talking-time and making friends in the 1c weather. My favourite dancing spot was in something a little similar to a conservatory. Synthesizer happy-cum- electro minimal sounds were a sweet, sweet soundtrack to a sweet evening.
Another ticked off the list is the infamous KitKat club on an Electric Monday. Warum “infamous”? Turns out, KitKat is frei-fur-alle sex club – though we swear we went for the music! Coming from the conservative club scene of Korat, where most are in their Hello Kitty PJs by midnight, the sight was a real eye-opener. Many people seemed to come in from the cold with coats, only to remove them and their thick jumpers and reveal leather harnesses and waist-jackets. By 2am, the club was swinging (heh) but throughout, there’s always the option to chill out and chat. My companion (not my mum) and I were happy to just sip our way through a meal’s worth of Jagermeister and have a serious boogie, watching people around the dancefloor gradually get more heated and less clothed. Oh, there’s a swimming pool too… if KitKat didn’t already ooze eccentricity.
New Year’s was right down to the last hour a complete mystery. All we knew was that we were booked in for a slightly pricey Vietnamese hotpot served by the sassiest waiters I’d ever come across. After that… who knew? Locals’ advice suggested heading for the rooftops, but the determination to get our money’s worth of cooking our own food was too strong and we left the restaurant quite late, heading for the nearest square. When the clock struck twelve, Berlin went bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S. The occasional firecracker being thrown in the U-Bahn tunnel suddenly turned into a pyrotechnic medley – some fireworks whizzed off balconies; on ground level men seemed to remarkably (if not stupidly) take turns with their mates holding a golden shower firework tin in their hand at full arm-length distance. The only time of the year Berliners are allowed to buy fireworks is a 3-day period before New Year and I think this is incidentally the time the city loses common sense – and possibly arms – the most.
Half an hour passed, parties disbanded, things died down – people headed to house parties, clubs or perhaps bed… We saw the wee hours creep in from Salon zur Wilden Renate. Getting forever lost inside its maze was a genuine concern every time I needed the toilet. My night (or early morning) in Renate was like a 5-hour tumble in a fairground funhouse. For that night, Renate was the watering hole Titty Twister. Some rooms had live sets and (a lot of) sweaty bodies, some had feline-looking creatures draping over the bar pouring vodka into our mouths. The chaos didn’t seem so tangible from the huge, chilled-out open-air courtyard. We took the occasional breather in a boat outside (yup… a boat…) or by a sofa, huddling with friends of nearly a decade, as well as the kind that you have for just a night out. The craziest thing was that Renate was actually open for 35 hours… Which not all the coffee in the world could make me stay for.
This is not to say that all that glitters is clubbing. Berlin is somewhat the definition of a cultural“melting pot” and the history of the city and its people is everywhere. I was enriched in Roman and Greek mythology in the Neues Museum, learnt about opinions old and new on a walking tour by a Romanian, ate my bodyweight in Germanic dishes in pubs that still smelt a little of cigs and fresh Sauerkraut. I was framed in the slight violation of the holocaust memorial on behalf of my companions. I slept in random people’s apartments (praise the lawd for Airbnb). I saw a space princess take the S-Bahn at 8a.m. and a woman completely lose her shish-kebab in the middle of a department store. Berlin is efficiently unpretentious and gritty and brilliant. When there’s some leaves on the trees and my toes don’t feel like they’re sticking together from the cold, I’ll undoubtedly find myself there again.