Welcome to Berlin
Cynthia scored couchsurfing hosts for us in Berlin, so we we arrived in this city with a clear plan on where to go. We stood at the base of the U-Bahn for a while pointing at signs, trying to phonetically pronounce street names and locate them on the map. Cynthia figures it out and we head westward. We arrive at a hip little cafe with an outdoor area and she announces, “this is our hood”. The plan is to meet our hosts here, after they get off of work. The neighborhood is Kreuzberg.
Corinna and Suk-Han are our lovely hostesses. They do what any good hostess would do and join us for a beer. We order takeout from the Thai place and get acquainted. Corinna is from Austria and Suk-Han is from Paris but born in Hong Kong and her parents are Chinese. Corinna works as a graphic designer for digital media. Suk-Han works as part of a Think Tank and has a side project called “Changing the Change“. Corinna was talking to us about Naomi Klien’s “No Logo” which totally surprised me. It seemed that she likes to consider American politics and read smart books to better understand what the fuck we are thinking. This is more than I expect from most Americans, including myself. I’m impressed. Our hosts apologize for their apartment, but when we head up from the street, just a few meters away, we found it to our liking. It was perfect.
They have walls full of art (modern, political commentary, lesbian sub-culture, their own). They have a cozy living room, just off of which we had our own room. Can I just say, Cynthia and I have the best CouchSurfing Juju ever! We sleep well and rise early to check out this city.
So this is Berlin?
I don’t really know what I expected in Berlin, but I had a good feeling that I’d find something there that would justify having skipped Florence for it. I think that I pictured short hair, tight pants and combat boots. No wonder… I learned about the German culture through TV and movies, which mostly focuses on the Nazi era… of course I knew better, but those were my automatic images. What I find instead is a Bohemian culture, full of artists, and laid back people (reminiscent of San Francisco). Now, I’m told that Berlin is the exception in Germany and that elsewhere I might find more of what I expected. I wonder how the history of this place has inspired what this city has become. I wonder if after the US goes through our tough times and ever comes out of it, it will wake us the fuck up like this.
If it doesn’t have graffiti on it, it’s not in Berlin
As C and I headed out we were immediately snapping pictures of murals and street art. We found a foot bridge and made our way to the East Side Gallery, a gallery of street art, murals painted on a half mile or so of “The Wall”. We had our journals stamped at one of the old checkpoints along the way for 1 Euro (a big tourist “YES!”).
We stopped for lunch at a cafe in an area full of Boutique shops, cafes and the like. Here we are greeted by a waiter that doesn’t speak a lick of English (not very common), or maybe he was pretending so that he could charge us so much for water I’d wished I’d had wine. Our meals were superb. After that we wandered the streets looking at whatever’s path we crossed.
Shops, parks, markets, and people. It’s a full day. I bought a dress! The owner of the shop was my long lost sister. After wino happy hour at the park, Cynthia and I headed home and cooked a meal for our hosts.
A real Kreuzberg Experience
One of my main focuses in Berlin was to check out the electronic music and the club scene, which I’d heard a lot about. Bar 25 by day and Panorama Bar by night. I’m told that there’s no use to show up to the night bar before 4am, so I decided to take a nap. It was hard, as Turkey had just won the football game and it was total chaos just outside the window, for 5 hours strait. I managed, though and I even accidentally slept until 2:30am, when Cynthia headed to bed. She joked that it was strange to see me in bed before her, which inspired me, even more so, to get the hell up.
I dressed and hit the streets. I had no idea where I was going, so I stopped into the bar downstairs, Sofia. A patron and the bartender both helped me by making Xs where I could find places to dance. I learned that Watergate is the name of the closest reputable club, and I headed there. I decided to save the recommended spots for Saturday night. When I arrived, I was informed that it was closed for the night. I could hear the music still going on inside and I tried to win the bouncer over by explaining that I’d just arrived in Berlin and only wanted to go inside for a few to check things out. He explained, “this is not a zoo where you can walk around and check it out. You come here to Party.” I answered, “Well, I am here to Party!”, but it was too late… and I didn’t want to go in their STUPID club anyway.
Some Turkish guy on the street hit me up for conversation. It was obvious that he couldn’t speak my language at all and he was definitely not my long lost soul mate… but I thought he might be worth following for a bit. I let him buy me a beer at a local pub, and he proceeded to buy 6 of them… hoping to take our party elsewhere. He asked me to hold four in my bag and headed back out onto the street.
There I noticed a group of people walking by and thought, “those are my people,” on instinct. Obviously, I wasn’t too keen on my current situation and so I took control and announced that I would like to head back to the bar. He was confused and so I used hand gestures to explain that I wanted to meet people and TALK, instead of simply listening to his attempts at speaking to me in German and visa versa. We got to the bar and I stuck with him for half a second and then handed him two of the four beers in my bag and immediately turned to the guy behind me.
“Do you speak English?” my favorite question these days. I was in luck. I met with a handsome man with very kind eyes and we began a nice conversation about traveling, work, Denver… his name was Omar.
After a bit, he asked if I wanted to step outside. He pulled two chairs up to a table full of people. I hadn’t realized this before, but these were my people! How did I manifest this?
First, I met Lina and Egbert.
Lina moved here from Denmark 18 years ago. She came to Berlin traveling, probably in her early 20s and decided to stay. She’s worked in Real Estate and has since found opportunity in working with the recent influx of apartment buyers who are selling them to the Dutch. She consults with them, directing the contractors who remodeled the apartments and continues with the interior design work. Sounds a lot like what I’ve done at home for myself at home… I am intrigued. What a beautiful woman! She’s a sweet spirit who happily shares stories and connects with me. She goes to sit on Omar’s lap. Their sweetness is like that of lovers, but they are only friends. I suddenly miss mine.
Egbert is a conversationalist. Right away, I sense a kinship in spirit. He has a German and British accent combined, so it sounds almost Scottish. His head is full of history and stories, which he shares with enthusiasm. I learned that there were no phones in the East. They just left notes at the door in boxes made for it. It sounds so nomadic and free and fun. He’s got bright eyes, which are most stunning in real life, but the photos don’t do them justice. He works as a programmer with a big company called SAP. His work has him traveling a lot, where he’s stuck in some hotel room with nothing but the television to entertain him. Because of this, he’s got lots of American TV culture to relate with me on. Luckily, most of it was old, so I can relate. The conversation is fun and easy and I find myself laughing… a lot.
Omar doesn’t talk much. Egbert tells me that women tend to approach Omar and he takes over from there with his gift of gab. He tells me that Omar is a part time landscaper… and Omar himself told me that he works in the cutting room at a TV station.
Then I met Wolfgang. I could see him watching me out of the corner of his eye, but hadn’t heard him speak any English, so I wondered if he did. When I introduced myself to him, he corrected me on the pronunciation of his name about five times. He enjoyed my struggle. Everyone gets a kick of hearing me trying to speak with a German accent. It’s embarrassing, but I’ve been told that it’s actually kind of cute. Finally, he gave up and accepted an attempt. He spoke my name back to me as “Tennis”. He was obviously fucking with me… which made me laugh.
I pulled the remaining beers out of my bag and offered one of them up to my new friends. When those were gone, I headed to the bar to get myself another. The Turkish guy swooped in, still holding out for me, I guess. It was probably 5:30am by now and full daylight. I offered to buy him a beer, the least I could do. He pointed at me and himself and asked “sex?” Ha ha! he knew a few words, after all. See ya!
When the bar started closing, Egbert and I were fully immersed in conversation. Our chairs were gathered by the determined bar keeper and my new friends said their goodbyes. I don’t remember who it was, but someone invited me to join them for pizza. I was honored. We made our way to a famous little corner pizza shop. It was directly across from where Cynthia and I had landed the day before. I could almost see us standing there in the afternoon light of the day before, all confused. Now the place felt kind of familiar. It’s crazy how long my days seem lately. Like a baby. Everything is new.
“Where’s Wolfgang?” I asked. Someone laughed and clued me in that “his name is not Wolfgang.” Of course it’s not.
Nothing closes here. I ordered up a little gorgonzola/spinach pizza and a water for Egbert, who had said he was going home to bed at least three times so far. I tried to pay Omar back, but he refused with a smile. The kindness of strangers is such a magical thing. I felt part of this clan.
I’m sure that it was odd to them, how much I was laughing… but I was so happy and so stimulated… so alive! I even wanted to take pictures in the bathroom.
We closed the pizza joint. Again, I said goodbye to my new friends. “Wofgang” who had joined us again at some point said “we are going back to someone’s place to continue. You should not go home,” and so I accepted and followed along. We stopped for 40s of beer on the way, 1 Euro each. He told me that he didn’t like Americans and I pointed out that he had just invited me back to the flat. I seemed to have become an exception. I asked him for his real name, which was Stefan. He had recently been filming for a movie in the Bahamas (totally forgot the name), which is how he explained his current shaggy look. He had traveled to the Bahamas by sailboat from New York. He recited the names of the states he’d passed on his journey and I helped him out a bit. Sounded like an adventure.
A small Utopia
We arrived at the flat. We headed up to the 3rd(?) floor where Egbert and Omar share a place. They are friends from college, but had recently reconnected as single fathers who only had their children every or every-other weekend. Lina was in the same boat. They sometimes get together with their kids, but this was a rare weekend where they were all free to go out together. My good luck.
The apartment is large, like the others I had seen in this city and probably inexpensive as well. I was amazed by the prices in Berlin. The two bedroom place that we were staying in was only 400 Euros/ mo. which translates to just under $600 dollars. To live in this city???
So their flat… on one side there were large windows that overlooked the tree tops, so lush you could see nothing else but the sky. It was like a green heaven. But, I’d only seen the half of it. Egbert said he was going to bed, again, but I had to see the rooftop garden first.
This building is at, what was once, a dead end. Just behind it is in the Spree (the river), and then beyond that is one of few remnants of The Wall. Not many wanted to live there before the border was dissolved. People had squatted this place and later hired legal help to buy it. Omar and Egbert weren’t part of that, but possessed some of this history through living there now. The rooftop garden which Egbert does his part to keep, was incredible.
These aren’t rich people, but the amount of care that has gone into this space, the garden below and the other roof tops I can see from this perspective shows so much pride. They have a little utopia.
Lina and I headed out at the same time. I said a quick goodbye because you could only share so many heart-felt goodbyes with people you just met. I gave a few of them my card and a link to this blog. I hope they are reading! Lina gave me her number and invited me to contact her the next day and anytime during my stay. Love to her!!!!
I was home by 9am, smiling and ready for bed.