20.08.2010 - 24.08.2010
Taking one of those semi-high speed trains to Berlin we left Calw at 8:30am and arrived at 3:30pm. I didn’t realize Germany was so big. I mean, to a Canadian it is all relative, but still. Calw is quite far south, hugging the northern edge of the Black Forest in the hills that eventually become the Alps. In contrast, Berlin is in the north, not so far from the Baltic sea and Poland.
A.’s family had found us a place to stay. D. was A.’s uncle’s ex-girlfriend’s friend (seriously), an artist with a penchant for film making, especially of the experimental variety. Speaking English with a hilarious German- Irish accent, she was the kind and quirky type. She was free spirited with a boisterous laugh and unnervingly positive attitude. She took us into her one bedroom apartment in Kreuzberg and put us up in her bed. As a native East Berliner, she gently guided us through our four days in her city.
This is me on D.'s balcony in A.'s sunglasses:
Outside the unsurprisingly sanitized downtown core, Berlin is beautiful and grimy. The bombs of WWII and the scars of the Cold War have left their mark on the city, leaving it feeling sagging but defiant. Graffiti and street art proliferates. On every flat surface basic tagging flourishes between political stenciling and high concept street art. This abandoned boat on a Kreuzberg canal falls into the basic tagging category but impressive in its large scale:
The not-so-distant history of Nazism (and the rise of neo-nazis) means that the city’s punks and activists are more vigilant about overt racism and fascism. Anti-Nazi flags hang in shop windows (this is simultaneously reassuring to me and unnerving that it is even an issue). Along the canal people wander clutching hands and beer bottles. Everyone is an artist and you can tell. Like Toronto or NYC, artists mark the early waves of gentrification into new areas. They bring not only higher priced rent and coffee art but also artist collectives and a vibrant night life. According to D., this happened in Kreuzberg years ago.
Post-arrival, our first stop was a bustling Turkish market along the canal which was full of tightly packed stalls overflowing with food and clothing. Men peddled their wares to the throngs of hipsters and tourists who blended in with the thriving Muslim community. Everyone was weaving and elbowing their way down the line. We bought bulbous blackberries, huge Turkish flat bread, fresh eggs, delicious feta cheese and spicy garlic olives. D. Was nice enough to take our goods home and A. and I gorged ourselves on veggie burgers and Berlin beers before hanging out in a park. Here you can see where the church meets the communist Fernsehturm or "television tower":
In this park we saw (literally) eight-ten rabbits grazing calmly. Like Paris, Berlin’s streets and parks are always packed with people just hanging around. There is nothing really analogous in Toronto so A. and I found it seductive and welcoming. Nonetheless, the long train ride had taken its toll so after a while we returned to D.’s and passed out early.
I’m not going to go into great detail here, but let’s just say I was having some stomach issues prior to leaving for Berlin. I had been managing the nausea and discomfort through distraction and the odd Imodium. Unfortunately, this didn’t last. Our first night in Berlin I was overcome with a magen (stomach) situation that kept me up (and in the bathroom) most of the night. In the morning I bee-lined for the pharmacy where, with the help of D.’s German, I stocked up on every over the counter product I could find. The Germans use something called Kohle (literally coal) which you dissolve in water and drink throughout the day. Using the Buckley’s mantra I went through four rounds of the black liquid and finally felt like a person again though one that barely ate. Here is me on my pretzel fast:
Since I wasn't doing so good between exhaustion and nausea, we took our second day slowly. We wandered idly through the downtown, fighting off the much welcomed heat and less welcomed tourists. We passed through the Museumsinsel, Brandeburg gate, past the Reichstag, the Holocaust Museum and Tiegarten. For most tourists this is what you come to see. I'm going to spare you the requisite pictures but suffice to say the tour encompassed German national history, some pride, and some guilt. Instead of those shots here is A. in a fountain outside one of the museums on Museumsinsel:
The next morning we went to Mauerpark which is located in Prenzlauer Berg. According to my Wikipedia research, Mauerpark translates to "Wall Park," and refers to its status as a former part of the Berlin Wall and its death strip. During the cold war, Mauerpark was located at the border of Prenzlauer Berg and Gesundbrunnen district of former West Berlin. Nowadays, this park thrives on youth and an outdoor market on Sunday which we went to. Hundreds of people were crammed into tiny aisles looking at other people's junk and new designs. This was not the first time I had been in this market, J.D. and I had come three years ago and I purchased a bronze swan that currently houses my toothbrush in Toronto.
Another phenomenon in Mauerpark is karaoke in a makeshift amphitheater on the lawn. This is no small event. Hours before it starts, hundreds of people stake out their seat early for the largest-scale karaoke I have ever seen. The way that it works is that at the bottom of the crowd some brave soul gets up and sings and dances (or randomly gesticulates) their way through a song. The crowd cheers or jeers, usually singing along. I briefly considered losing my karaoke virginity (just kidding):
Afterward, we wandered around Prenzlauer Berg with beers in hand (like many European cities, the streets are for drinking in). D. told us that it is now difficult to tell what was East and what was West Berlin since the wall came down. The major differences have mostly melted away, especially for an untrained eye. But, she said, one way you always know you are in the former East is if you see these street lamps (though they don't exist everywhere in the former east):
In Prenzlauer Berg we also found this particularly derelict church which had recently opened its doors to a noise band performance. Outside of Cuba, I'd never seen a church in such (pretty) disrepair:
In the evening the three of us went to the East Side Gallery. At 1.3 kms long it is the largest outdoor gallery in the world. This is the last remaining (standing) chunk of the Berlin wall, stripped of the barbed wire, trenches and other violent accouterments that would have adorned it twenty years ago. Still, it was sobering to see. While some walls are built to keep people in (like this one), others are built to keep people out (like in Israel/Palestine or the U.S. border with Mexico). Nonetheless, it seems so incredibly obvious to me that while there are always dubious justifications for these barriers, walls largely function to tear communities apart and instill/reinforce fear and xenophobia. Seeing the remnants of the Berlin wall reminds me that the world’s other walls will also be one day (soon, hopefully) torn down and relegated to another sad moment in human history. Simplistic, perhaps, but a good sentiment:
The art of the East Side Gallery was commissioned after 1989 and so it is largely retrospective or interpretive. This is the famous image that graces many a postcard, showing Leonid Brezhnev (the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and Erich Honecker (leader of the GDR) kissing. The piece is titled "My God, help me to survive this deadly love":
As we walked along the wall it began to rain thick heavy drops that drenched us. Soaked and exhausted from the day’s sun we walked back to D.’s house for wine and sleeping.
On our last day we woke up early and went to the Pergamon Museum which houses Berlin’s Near and Middle Eastern (and some Greek) and Islamic art. It is a reasonably sized museum with some really neat stuff. One of the prized possessions is the Pergamon Altar (2nd century BC), a frieze that depicts the battle between the Gods and Giants:
Moving into the near middle east, here is a lion from Ishtar's gate, the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon (now a province of Iraq):
After the Pergamon we found an amazing little French restaurant that provided a set three course lunch for 7.50 Euros. The food was really tasty and the portion size perfect. As we ate the sky opened up and dumped more water on us. After eating we braved the rain and went through Kunsthaus Tacheles, a self-organized art collective in an old department store. Here is a soggy A. in the courtyard:
We spent our last afternoon roaming the streets, shopping in small boutiques and saying goodbye to Berlin for now. I'm not sure I could live there but I'm looking forward to the return.
We woke up early the next morning and headed north towards the Baltic sea or what the German's call the Ostsee. I have a thing for new bodies of water and since I'd never seen it we used up a journey on our Eurail pass to get to Wismar. More to come...