It was taking me a while to find the bar. It was supposedly atop the fifth storey of this shopping mall carpark, yet when I got to the fifth storey, all was silent. I wandered for a minute or so, trying to find signs of life. Bars usually aren’t hard to find – lots of drunk shouting, laughter, lights, loud music. But this just looked like what you’d expect a carpark to look like at night; dead quiet, and empty. Maybe this girl I was meeting was just setting me up for a kidney robbery. I mean, if this was a scene in Breaking Bad, you’d already know someone was going to die in the next few minutes.
I got in the elevator for the third time. A girl was in there, heading up to 5. I asked her if she knew where the bar was.
“Yeah I think we’re going to the same place,” she said. Her accent was thick, German.
The elevator doors opened. As we stepped out, she pulled out a knife, stabbed me and proceeded to extract my kidneys.
I followed her across to the other end of the carpark, where we came to a small off ramp. We walked between a few parked cars, like going through a Narnia closet, up a winding slope and eventually around to a little booth that stood guard of a huge open air courtyard. The courtyard was empty, of course. It was freezing outside. Except for one girl on her lonesome. She was sitting on the benches by the doors, long dark hair, wrapped up from head to toe. I knew her face only from her Whatsapp picture, but I recognised her straight away. I smiled, and she pointed at me, almost shyly. I guess it can be a little nerve-wracking meeting the 337th coolest blogger in the world.
As I walked towards her she stood and outstretched her hand.
“No let’s hug!” I laughed, opening my arms. Handshakes were for job interviews.
We opened the doors and stepped inside. Immediately I felt a gush of music and warm air. It was packed, noisy, smoky. I stepped over to the bar.
“What are we drinking?” I asked her.
“Do you drink wine? We can get a bottle of…that tempranillo is really good.”
Within seconds a bottle was plonked in front of me, and with wine in hand, we looked around for a place to sit. There wasn’t a single spare seat in the joint.
“Do you mind sitting outside?” she asked. “It’s a little cold though.”
I pursed my lips, making my best “pffft, cold” face and followed her out onto the terrace. It was empty out there, and silent, and we sat alone by the railings, overlooking Berlin in the night.
“So tell me about your trip!” I asked.
Fernanda was a long time reader of mine, who I’d chatted with on email over the years. She, too, had wanted to quit her job and see the world, and naturally had had many questions for me. When she finally made the leap, she’d kept me updated at most stages of her trip – when she started saving, when she hit the road, moving to Germany. And now we were here, meeting halfway across the world in a Berlin carpark.
I sat there for the next half hour listening to her stories from the road – through Asia, India, Europe. The funny thing about travel is, you always end up with all these stories, but nobody ever wants to hear them. Most people judge, or just don’t care, and you end up telling your tales to nothing but a pair of glazed over eyes. You can only rant about that lady at work with your closest work colleagues, you can only talk all day about your car with another petrolhead. It was the same with travel. Only another road junkie will sit there and listen to all your stupid stories. I listened to every word.
I woke up late the next day. Fernanda had left a text on my phone, asking if I’d got home okay. It was only my second day in town, I still barely knew how to buy a subway ticket. I texted her back quickly, my head pounding, and told her we should never drink tempranillo again. Then I headed into the hostel kitchen.
I sat in front of my laptop for most of the morning, being anti-social, until a Greek girl came and sat next to me. Her name was Athena. She was very…chatty. Eventually I gave up trying to work and just sat there talking to her. As you do in hostels, we told each other our life stories, and then went to the supermarket together. You’ll be surprised how often you sit in a hostel lounge with someone and then go to the supermarket together. It sounds odd, but it’s almost a daily occurrence. If you’re not sightseeing, what else is there to do other than talk and eat?
The moment I walked into the supermarket I had to do a double-take. The first thing I saw was vegan cheese, then vegan sausages, then vegan yogurt. I quickly sniffed my basket to see if that was made of tofu as well. Logic would tell you we’d just walked into a vegan supermarket, but sure enough there was real bacon in there – it was just hidden away in the far corner, where the dirty omnivores congregate. I’d soon learn this was standard Berlin practice. Land of the tofu eaters.
I don’t know how we decided to bake cookies that day. Maybe we were just overexcited that the hostel had an oven (that’s rare). And it was cold. So cookies. We came back to the hostel that afternoon and baked cookies. Then it became a thing for the next few weeks at the hostel. Wake up late. Do nothing. Bake cookies.
Athena wasn’t actually a traveller. She was planning to move to Berlin, and was in town for a few days trying to find an apartment. Over the following week, I learned this wasn’t unusual. In fact, it was the norm. Half the people in my hostel weren’t travellers. They were people trying to live in Berlin who couldn’t find anywhere to stay. Every day they were going to interviews with landlords, and scouring through Facebook groups and websites, trying to find a room. And they couldn’t find one.
But even stranger was, these people didn’t need to live in Berlin. They didn’t have families here, or jobs, or chains of any sort. They could’ve gone to Amsterdam, or Madrid, or anywhere else in Europe. But they wanted to live in Berlin. Just because. And it seemed like half of Europe was trying to do the same. One girl in my dorm said there were two hundred other applicants to the room she went to interview for. Two hundred.
The natural question was, why the eff do all these people want to live in Berlin?
A few nights later, a Berlin regular checked into the hostel and offered to take us out. Late in the night we got to this one club, no idea what it was, it looked like a 1980’s haunted house. Before we arrived, he turned and rounded us up, like kids on a school camp.
“Okay, to get into this club, we have to go in pairs. They won’t let us in as a group.”
Weird. Maybe some kinky Berlin thing. Anyway. We paired off. Weirdness elevated as the bouncer looked at me very seductively for five long seconds, but the first four of us got in without any trouble. The others, however, seemed to be dragging. After ten minutes we went out to see what the deal was and found them all standing outside, looking pissed off.
“They won’t let us in.”
“They said we won’t fit in here.”
Over lots of angry chatter the next morning I’d learn this was another of Berlin’s trademarks. If you want to get into the club in Berlin, you can’t dress up. If you’re in khakis and a button down, you’re getting bounced. If you’re a supermodel dolled up in makeup and high heels, you’re getting bounced too. You won’t fit in here. Have you ever seen a nightclub turn away a pair of magazine-model looking ladies? You’ll see it every night of the week in Berlin. Of course, some people groaned about it. I thought it was funny.
By now I was starting to figure out this swarm of Berlin’s loyalists. It was like a little counter-culture oasis, for people who were sick of the pretty girls and the rich boys eating all the cake. Nice suits and pretty faces didn’t get you a free pass here. In fact, they almost sent you to the back of the line. And people in Berlin liked that. They loved it. They loved it so much they were all uprooting their lives and moving to Berlin. Berlin was the anti-Hollywood. It wanted something different.
The following day I decided to stick around in Berlin for a week or two. I’d been on the road non-stop for months and, after my tour of Europe’s north and east, I felt ready to just be a hostel bum for a while. Our hostel, the U Inn Berlin, felt like the perfect place. There are two types of hostels really. There’s the family hostel, where everyone knows each other and it’s like a summer camp. And there’s the factory hostel, where everyone is just there to sleep and nobody gives a shit. U Inn was a family hostel.
Over the days that followed I got to know all the other drifters that had made the hostel home. Tatiana was some Belgian girl who made tote bags. Julien was a Quebecer who studied some political thing. Mitch was an Aussie who was just around all the time. Billy was the Irish guy who worked reception. Natalia was a Portugese girl who…I actually have no idea what she was doing. She was in school, I think.
Collectively, they were the perfect picture of the typical Berlin expat; chilled out, liberal, kinda doing something with their life (but not really), trying to find an apartment with no success, vegetarian (but not really), trying to learn German, smoked the odd joint, and of course, just barely on the right side of bankrupt.
I had no trouble fitting right in.
A few days later, Fernanda offered to give me a tour of her Berlin.
I headed out to meet her at one of Berlin’s many subway stops. Now, the Berlin subway is kind of interesting. There are no controls or gates, you just wander straight onto the platform. It all runs on the honesty system. And sometimes (sorry Berlin), you just can’t afford to pay three euros for a two minute ride. So every other day, if I was only going one or two stops, I’d sneak onto the train and be on edge for the entire ride, examining every middle-aged man’s face, wondering if he might be a ticket inspector ready to (metaphorically) pull my pants down.
On this day though, tour guide Fernanda had told me to buy the day pass, as we’d be roaming around a lot. So my trip out to meet her was calm, and peaceful. Every middle aged man who stepped on the subway had me hoping he’d pull out a badge and start checking tickets. If one buys a ticket on the Berlin subway and doesn’t get checked, did he really buy a ticket at all?
It was still quite early in the morning when we met. Well, around 10 or 11 – early is a relative term when you’re travelling. I followed her around a few corners, into a neighbourhood that was quiet, and polished, filled with wide roads and decorated with street art. The name was Kreuzberg, I think.
“See how they actually paint on paper, and then they paste it up?” she said, scratching at a piece of street art.
“That’s because you’re not allowed to paint on the buildings, so that’s how they get around it.”
Sure enough, it was pasted up, like wallpaper. I wondered how the hell she knew that. Surely a guidebook, or a local friend. It was too covert to be noticed just walking along.
As we wandered, and chatted, Berlin felt very grey to me. Very slow. Very cold. Every now and then a small pocket of colour and energy would pop up somewhere, maybe a congregation of food trucks, or a bustling intersection. And then it was back to grey and quiet. I guess that was expected of such a large, sprawling city. Or maybe just a symptom of the winter.
One of these colourful and energetic pockets popped up when we got to Dead Chicken Allee. It was pretty inconspicuous; I would have never found it on a lone walkabout. Obviously it was no secret though – it was filled with visitors wandering up and down, many with cereal box sized cameras around their necks. If you were a street art fan, this would’ve surely been your first stop in town. We spent the next hour loitering through the alley, examining the pieces people had left on the walls. Some had painted murals that took up entire sections, others just little doodles hidden amongst the noise. I always loved street art – examining what people felt compelled to leave behind. Sometimes a painting only takes a few minutes to make, but it’s an entire lifetime that hides behind it. Where that person came from, her beliefs, her pain, her regrets – it’s in that little picture, if you look hard enough.
By the end of the afternoon we’d walked a double marathon around Berlin. On and off the subway, some market exploring, all sorts of monuments that I can’t remember right now. Eventually the evening start to set in, sun fading, and rain had started to fall.
Fernanda already had a place in mind. We jumped on a bus, packed from top to bottom, and hunted down some favourite restaurant of hers. It was a Vietnamese place, small and chic, dimly lit with a fusion like decor. Berlin’s Asian food scene, and just the food scene in general, would surprise me over the coming weeks. There was a bit of everything, all cheap, all trendy, all delicious. In true Berlin style this particular place had veganised all my Vietnam favourites, but after days of hostel eating, I let loose and gladly splurged on some hippie Vietnamese food. When in Berlin, do as the people-trying-to-live-in-Berlin do.
After chowing we decided to hit a free comedy gig across town. Comedy is big in Berlin. It’s big in all the artsy cities. Almost every night there’s a free gig happening somewhere. As a comedy fan, I was pumped.
We got there just as the place was packing out, and nabbed two of the last seats in the joint. A roster of comedians came up and did their thing – some okay, some really good. Of course none of the performers were from Berlin. None of them were even German. And of course, they told jokes about this. Nobody speaks German to you in Berlin, because nobody in Berlin is German. Nobody knows what’s inside a Berlin nightclub, because nobody has ever been let inside one.
If you ever want to see what’s really under the layers of a culture, have a listen to the comics. They tell the abstract better than anyone.
On my final Sunday in Berlin, Fernanda and I hit up the famous Karaoke Sundays at Mauerpark. We arrived early, with a lot of scattered seats still free. This had been at the top of my Berlin bucket list.
Mauerpark Karaoke goes like this. There’s a huge outdoor auditorium by the Sunday market, Roman-esque, ringed by a concrete grandstand, at least twenty rows high. It fills with a couple thousand people, at least. Some dude sets up speakers and a Macbook with a bunch of karaoke songs on it, and then from early afternoon until sundown, anybody who wants to sing just puts up their hand. They get called down, do the suspenseful walk to the stage. Then for 3 minutes, they’re a superstar.
Things move slowly at the start. He opens up the mic, the crowd is silent.
And then someone.
“Ahh we got one! Yes, sir, come on down.”
Everyone turns to look at him. He’s a middle aged guy, fifty something, looks like a dentist, red hiking jacket, hispanic. There are a lot of smiles, whispers, as he makes the walk. He reaches the stage and he and the host have a private giggle while they scroll through the songs. Everyone waits, intrigued. Who is this brave dentist looking guy? Then the music comes on.
Brown Eyed Girl.
He starts singing. A little nervous, but he’s good. Lullaby voice. The crowd cheers. He warms up a bit. A minute in and people are bopping. The chorus comes on. The crowd sings along. Everybody’s smiling. Then out of nowhere, he busts a little riff. Sha la la la. The crowd goes wild. For three minutes, the guy’s a rock star. And then the song ends. The crowd farewells him with love and applause, and he wanders back to his seat.
It’s an English guy, a sober one, maybe thirty. It’s his wife’s birthday. He sings her a love song. I don’t know what it’s called, but it has the words “I love you” in abundance. The crowd melts. Love is in the air at Mauerpark.
Next is an Australian guy. Lanky, blonde, kinda goofy looking. I can’t pick this guy. Could be a dud, could be legendary. Music comes on. Born to Run, Springsteen. The crowd grins as soon as he opens his mouth. He might be the worst singer I’ve ever heard. But his energy. Electric. He’s possessed. He bangs his head. The crowd cheers him on. He goes harder. This isn’t even music. It’s a train wreck. But it’s the best kind of train wreck. He starts working the crowd. It’s painful. The crowd is roaring with laughter. They love him. We love him. I look around, thousands of faces are painted with smiles and happiness. This is what Mauerpark is about. The song softens a bit. He’s building up to Springsteen’s famous 1,2,3,4. He screams it so loud he nearly breaks the mic. It’s totally off beat. The crowd erupts. The song winds down and we’re in awe of what we’ve just seen. This guy’s officially become a legend. Cemented in Mauerpark history forever.
A few days later, I boarded a night bus to Switzerland. Three weeks in Berlin was refreshing, charming, unexpected. But I left still unsure of what the place really represented. On the surface Berlin felt like a place of all love and all acceptance. A place for everyone. But I don’t think it’s for everyone. It’s a place for the ultra liberal, the ultra free, the ultra open-minded. Backpackers will love it to its core. Accountants will wonder what planet they’re on. The Wall Street guy will flee and require daily therapy to recover. Despite what the Berlinites will tell you, not everyone fits in here. But what Berlin offers is identity. Uniqueness. A place for the other guy. It’s not for everyone. But if it is for you, there’s a good chance you will fall in love and never leave. Just like the rest of them.
To a beautiful Berlin, and all the memories,