The Buzz of Berlin

TVtowerAfter a recent trip to Berlin, I asked myself why I haven’t yet written an entry about the great German capitol, which has become a modern explosion of art, culture and expression. After all, I did live there from 2008-2009, and I’ve been back at least once a year since – sometimes twice.

By now, I’d like to think I have plenty to say about the city that pushed me on my way from ignorance to knowledge; before I moved there at the age of 25, I had never even been to Europe.

Plus, there’s so much history there. Anything that had been blown to smithereens has at least a museum or a plaque to tell you of the stories that happened right where you stand.  I could write on a number of different aspects that are in keeping with the spirit of Vintage Bodhi – the Brandenburg Gate, Napoleon’s march on the city, the art and culture of the 1920s, the Wall, the subterranean bunkers, the TV Tower; the list goes on and on.

So why have I not yet written about Berlin? Perhaps it’s because I felt that, by writing about its past, I wouldn’t be doing its present justice – the present that I feel a connection with and that keeps pulling me back, year after year.

And still, each year that I return, I feel like I’m looking at a whole new city – that while I’ve been away, it has sneakily transformed yet again, never allowing me to tie it up and put in a box for presentation. Its grittiness, its rawness and its elusive spirit is what keeps me – and many others – intrigued, and it’s that aspect that I’d like to cover for this entry.

A shifting locus amoenus

Berlin's neighborhoods

Berlin’s neighborhoods

“Locus amoenus” is Latin for “pleasant place,” and in literature, it is typically a beautiful, ideal garden area with trees and water. There are parks scattered all throughout Berlin, but the city’s central locus amoenus is called Tiergarten (Animal Garden), a huge park that can be likened to NYC’s Central Park – though in Berlin, you’ll typically find nude sunbathers who are not afraid to let it all hang out.

Looking at the layout of Berlin, one can easily see that it’s set up in a hub and spoke pattern, with a clearly defined middle – the neighborhood is called Mitte, meaning “middle” – and nearly two dozen neighborhoods branching out from there. In German, you would call your neighborhood your “Kietz,” and in Berlin, each Kietz has a life of its own.

When I first lived in Berlin, I moved to Prenzlauer Berg, an area adjacent to Mitte. After reunification in the early 1990s, this area became the center of the Bohemian youth scene, with mohawks and spray paint in abundance. However, gentrification has become a recurring theme in the city, and the neighborhood is now running amok with strollers and farmer’s markets.

Feeling a little out of balance, Joachim?

Feeling a little out of balance, Joachim?

When I lived there, it was where many people wanted to live; the restaurants are great and it’s within walking distance of Mitte. But rising rent prices and the unsettling feeling that a Baby GAP is going to open just around the corner have pushed many tenants out to look for other, more authentic neighborhoods.

At this point, I should probably introduce you to my friendly German flatmate, Joachim, who will randomly appear throughout this post. Joachim was one of my flatmates when I lived in Berlin, and he has since become one of my very best friends – even living in Brighton, where I live, for a period of time. He’s back in Berlin now, and I usually stay with him when I’m visiting.

What’s great about Joachim is that in regular intervals, he’s moving into new flats and getting new jobs, so he’s a perfect mirror to the shifting landscape of Berlin.

Last year when I stayed with him, he had moved into a flat in “Kreutz-kölln,” which is an amalgamation of two areas – Kreutzberg and Neukölln. And this year, he was sleeping on a mate’s sofa in Neukölln (more on that later).

The area of Kreutz-kölln is fast becoming the hot place to live. It’s retained that beloved grittiness, while offering the best of cafes and art galleries for the young Berliner looking for some authenticity. The really interesting thing is that a mere 5 years ago, I was warned not to go to Neukölln alone, as it was perceived as being dangerous.

Now, everyone is flocking to that area, and I must say, Prenzlauer Berg is looking a bit boring by comparison. But Berlin’s pace is fast, and I’m wondering how soon it will be until Baby GAPs and Starbucks go up in every corner of Kreutz-kölln.

A jolly genus loci

A random display of acrobatics in the Holzmarkt

A random display of acrobatics in the Holzmarkt along the river

There’s a stereotype about Berliners that they’re unfriendly and gruff – the term “Berliner Schnauze” is used to describe this type of off-putting behavior. But I’ve never really experienced this aspect of the people of the city. Yes, the genus loci (spirit of the place) is fast-moving, but there is a sense of openness in the people I’ve come across. Maybe I’ve just been lucky and have somehow managed to avoid the assholes!

Here’s an example of what I mean: as mentioned earlier, Joachim, having just returned from the US after a few weeks and currently in between flats, was staying on the couch at a friend’s flat, who was away the first night I arrived. As I’m nearly 6 months pregnant, Joachim kindly let me sleep in his friend’s bed. My second afternoon, feeling tired and…well…pregnant, I decided to go back to the flat alone for a little snooze.

"How long is now?" asks a philosophical bit of street art near Mitte.

“How long is now?” asks a philosophical bit of street art near Mitte.

An hour into my nap, a man walked into the room and jumped a little bit in surprise, which woke me up. “Oh, hi,” I said, “I’m Joachim’s friend. Did he tell you I’d be staying here?” “No,” said the stranger with a warm smile, “but that’s ok, go back to sleep.” (Typical Joachim hadn’t mentioned me staying to his flatmate.) There I was like Goldilocks, a stranger sleeping in his bed, and he didn’t mind at all. In fact, he slept in another room during my whole stay so I could be comfortable in his bed.

But it wasn’t just his generosity in letting a pregnant stranger take over his room for a few days, it was his authentic, kind spirit. He radiated openness and acceptance before he even walked through the door. And he’s just one of many examples of this. For some reason, I imagine a Brit or an American in the same situation giving off a vibe of either being a pervert or being annoyed.

And then there’s the artistic side of the city. I remember my parents visiting me shortly after I’d moved to Berlin and asking whether my neighborhood was safe, given all the “grafitti” adorning the walls of every shop, every step and every surface that could be found. Berlin boasts some of the world’s greatest street art, and it can be found in every Kietz.

But street art aside, there’s a desire for self-expression among the inhabitants of Berlin, whether through doing acrobatics in a beer garden, scrawling a poem on the S-bahn walls or playing an instrument “just because.”

One evening during my last visit, Joachim’s friends put on a night picnic in a park, complete with candles. One of his friends was playing the guitar and would pick up random bits of our conversations, creating a song and lyrics on the spot. My favorite in particular was “I would if I could but I can’t/don’t mind if I do.” (Ask me about this sometime and I’ll tell you about it off the record.)

Candlelight picnic in Neukoelln with friends

Candlelight picnic in Neukoelln with friends

Later, when I stood up to go back to the flat and the guitar-playing friend realized for the first time that I’m pregnant, he made up a song on the spot about my baby.

I was tired after my last trip to Berlin; the city asks a lot of your feet, and being quite pregnant, I was ready to get back to my lazy English life. But I left feeling like I got to know a new corner of Berlin where, 5 years ago, I would have never ventured.

Though the next time I visit, I’ll have a new little companion with me and will need to start exploring the kid-friendly aspects of the city, I know Berlin will extend its hand and welcome me to whatever new pocket or Kietz I come across.

Me, with my bump in Berlin, September 2014

Me, with my bump in Berlin, September 2014

Me, after I first arrived in Berlin, September 2008

Me, after I first arrived in Berlin, 2008

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