Pablo squinted into the darkness of the park entrance. A masked man emerged with languid menace, spraying something in his face. He clasped his eyes and began coughing.
I grimaced, paralyzed in anticipation.
The man marched forward and swung a punch that floored Pablo, before spraying more of the substance in his eyes with sneering brutality. Having made his point he strut off down the street, joined by the rest of his gang, who emerged from the park.
What the hell is going on, I thought. Is this what passes for normality on the streets of Berlin? I was now on alert, paranoid that a masked man could leap out from any corner and spray noxious substances in my eyes too.
“Shit. Are you alright?” I said, jogging over.
He was slumped against a rubbish bin, tearful but chuckling to himself. “That fucker.” He said, blinking rapidly and grinning. “It’s just a bit of pepper spray, my friend.”
I offered an arm and he heaved himself up. So stoical after a seemingly unprovoked attack, I thought, what’s the story here?
“Does this happen a lot?” I said.
He squinted, his eyes burning. “It’s an occupational hazard here. Everyone carries pepper spray.”
I looked over at Sam, who nodded. “They say the best thing for it is milk.”
We were on a späti crawl in the Friedrichshain district of Berlin, a low cost alternative to bar crawl, where crawlers travel between spätis – the convenience stores ubiquitous in Berlin, selling beer, liquor and snacks.
We had been on the streets for a few hours now, stopping at several spätis. The group of around twenty of us were now heavily intoxicated and a raucous energy permeated the procession.
I had come to Berlin on the recommendation of my friend Sam, who had moved to city a few years ago and raved about the wild culture of this part of the city. A reputation it was so far living up to.
There was a sense of anarchy on the streets now. Here we were, a group of twenty drunks marauding around the streets with glass bottles, while pepper-spray wielding thugs waited in the darkness. Whatever happened to the love of order that Germans are famous for, I thought.
“This would never be allowed in England.” I said, cracking open another bottle of beer.
“This is Berlin. Things are different here.” Sam said.
“I guess you have been on a lot of these then, living here?” Si said to Sam.
He smiled. “I’ve been to a few. They go all over the place, through different districts.”
“How is your German coming along.” I said. “You’ve been living here a couple of years now, haven’t you?”
“I can converse a bit.” He said. “But to be honest, most of the people at work speak English.”
Pablo recovered his swagger after a couple of minutes and led us through the midnight streets again. We approached what looked like a gated industrial area. Music boomed from various graffitied buildings. There was a free-spirited dynamism about the place. A group of teens in leather jackets pushed each about playfully. Smashed glass littered the floor. Maybe anarchy isn’t so bad after all, I thought.
We eventually lost Pablo and the rest of the späti crawl in the crowd and decided to settle down with our beers.
“Cool place.” Si said.
“Yeh, this is more like it.” I said. “This is the side of Berlin I was looking for.”
“Feels kind of lawless.” Dave said. “I like it.”
We danced and joked for a while, revelling in the stylish urban decay and wild energy of the place before heading home just before dawn.
Change comes from within…
The panhandlers on the bridge linking Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain had laid out baskets labelled ‘Heroin’, ‘Beer’, ‘Weed’, ‘LSD’ and ‘Magic Mushrooms’. Longhaired rockers and punks with neon mohawks bustled to and fro. There is a sense of possibility you feel in these sorts of neighbourhoods, that you could chance upon a secret gig or political demonstration at any moment.
Kreuzberg, an area of massive Turkish immigration in the sixties and seventies, has kept its decrepit charm despite the recent gentification and remains at the heart of Berlin’s vibrant art and music landscape. Turkish kebab shops and vegan cafes nestle between grafitti-strewn brickwork. Huge street art murals loom unexpectedly from apartment walls.
The unmistakable stench of dried urine wafted from every pillar as I walked across the Oberbaum Bridge towards Friedrichshain.
“Tourists are ruining the place, eh?” I said. “Stinks of piss everywhere.”
Sam considered for a moment. “It’s just as likely to be locals to be honest. It’s a busy area and everyone gets drunk round here at night. Lots of homeless guys about too.”
“What was that place last night called, Sam?” Brad said. “Suicide Circus?”
“Oh RAW Gelände? Suicide Circus is one of the clubs there.”
“I would be up for going back there.” Si said.
Mike had joined us after flying in that morning and we set off towards the remaining section of the Berlin Wall. A patchwork of bizarre murals, political slogans and territorial scribblings littered the former icon of division and repression.
Sam left to go to work and the rest of us took the U-Bahn to Alexanderplatz, a large square bustling with activity.
Dave chuckled. “I just saw an advert for an English language school whose slogan was ‘We have ways of making you talk’.”
The sky-piercing television tower lurked beyond as we trailed out of the station.
“Do you want to go up there then?” I said, pointing to the tower.
“Not for fifteen euros.” Si said.
We walked West, taking in the majesty of Berlin Cathedral, the Red Town Hall and the Reichstag. The manicured lawns and immaculate sidewalks a stark constrast to the embellished austerity of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg borough.
“Where next satnav?” Mike said.
Si, the eponymous satnav checked his map. “The Brandenburg Gate is just south of here.”
We traced the boulevard of Unter den Linden, eventually arriving at the imposing Brandenburger Tor. There was demonstration going on, flag-waving and bullhorn chanting.
“What flag is that?” I said.
“Not sure.” Dave said. “Iran I think. No idea what its all about though.”
We took a left and soon came upon the holocaust memorial. A grid of funereal slabs, the banal similarity of each block suggested perhaps the identity and humanity stripped during the horrors orchestrated, for some, still in living memory. A shudder ran through me as I tried to imagine what it would be like for the people sentenced to torture and death for no reason other than the twisted antisemitic theories of the Third Reich. The shocking evil that humanity can sink to given the right conditions.
The afternoon of wandering in central Berlin had proved illuminating. A cursory glance around the place had already made visible the tumultous history of a city torn apart and stuck back together several times. After a long walk and with so much left to see, we headed back to the apartment.
Raw nerve endings on Warschauer straße
We had been drinking heavily from bottles of courvoisier and rum and playing cards. We staggered out into the street around ten. The streets were alive with hollering drunks. Laughter echoed from cafe entrances. After a few more drinks in various establishments we ended up outside a bar near the RAW Gelände.
“I’m so drunk.” Mike said. “So, so drunk.”
He put his head in his hands. “Where is Dave by the way?”
“No idea.” I said. He had wandered off twenty minutes ago, looking for a toilet as far as I remembered.
Dave appeared a minute later, as if summoned from the ether.
“Where were you?” Brad said.
He paused for a minute as if trying to concoct a plausible lie. He sighed and realized that he might as well come clean. “I tried to go home.”
I pulled a confused face.
“But I got lost.” He said. “So I came back here.”
Everyone erupted in laughter. Brad shook his head in disbelief.
Everyone was far too intoxicated to know what was best for them, so I thought the only responsible action was to head to RAW Gelände and immerse ourselves in the festivities.
We passed a group of three women trotting in the opposite direction.
“Ladies..” I started, ostensibly to ask directions.
One of them shot me a look of derision. “I have pepper spray!” she said matter-of-factly before marching on.
I grinned, admiring her candour.
Outside the railings of our destination, Brad was accosted by a black guy who was pacing the street. “Coffeeshop, my friend?”
He walked off down the street with the guy, having a discussion of some sort. I’m surprised the dealers are so clandestine in a lawless place like this, I thought. Brad returned and we traipsed into the grounds. The place was even more packed with people that night, bass boomed from several clubs, large queues jostled outside, cigarettes and glass bottles in hand.
Brad watched the rusty gates at the park entrance. The black guy slinked in after a while, his eyes darting about warily. Brad sauntered over and shook hands with him. It feels almost too relaxed, I thought.
I didn’t see them at first. Grunts echoed from the passageway before what appeared to be four polizei emerged and bundled Brad and his new friend to the dirt without mercy.
“Get on the floor”. They screamed in chorus.
They frisked their quarry while the rest of us looked on, frozen in disbelief.
“Wait, are they even police?” I said.
“Just security, I think.” Si said.
One of the guards stood up after a while and shook his head. Another held up two empty palms. They stood for moment before marching off down another alleyway, almost as quickly as they had appeared.
Brad dusted himself off and we retreated to the grassy verge from the night before.
“So they didn’t find anything?” Mike said.
Brad said nothing. He rummaged around in the back of his jeans, then placed something in his pocket.
The sense of lawless freedom I felt had been diluted with vague paranoia, after the recent brutality.
“Your nerves must be jangled.” I said. “Perhaps a smoke would calm you down.”
“I’m fine.” He sat back and began to roll his remedy.
“Too right.” I said. “Those thugs can’t dampen our spirit.”
I cracked open a can of beer I had bought from a späti along the way. Political discussion and alcohol being perfect partners, I waded into the conversation Dave was having with a local about Brexit.
We returned to the apartment around four in the morning after a night of drinking and talking gibberish in the park. Everyone sank onto the chairs around the dining table and stuffed their faces with takeaway food. A wave of tranquility washed over me. I slouched further in the chair and closed my eyes.
“Now then!” came a voice behind behind us.
We all turned with shock.
Sam stood grinning on the window ledge, an evil glint in his eyes. He had climbed in through the open window, from the street.
“What are you doing here?” I said.
He jumped down from the ledge and walked into the main hallway. I heard the click of the front door and a few seconds later he emerged with a unkempt, drunken man. Supporting the man as he staggered in, he guided him into the spare chair at the table.
“I was talking to this homeless guy” He said. “Seemed like a cool guy. So I invited him here.”
Mike looked at him in disgust.
“His name is Michael.”
Michael stirred from his stupor, eyes barely open. “Hey.”
Everyone greeted him, except Mike who stormed over to his bed in the corner of the living room and pulled the covers over.
Michael yawned. Sam tapped his fingers on the table and grinned.
“Have you got any plans for tomorrow?” He said.
“Nothing concrete.” Si said.
“There’s an open air karaoke tomorrow which is pretty cool. They do it every Sunday.”
“Why not.” I said. “We can drink some beers. Belt out some ‘I will survive'”
“Cool. Its on.”
He yawned and reclined on the chair.
“Do you mind if we both stay here tonight?” He said. “Its a couple of miles back to my place and its freezing outside.”
“Go on then.” I said.
Michael dragged himself up and walked over to the sofa next to Mike’s bed. “Am I okay here?”
Mike tossed in the bed and exhaled with vitriol.
“Make yourself at home.” I walked over to my bedroom door and chuckled, before pulling the door shut.
Oppressive clouds lined the sky as we hopped onto the tram towards Mauerpark.
“There’s a flea market near the park.” Sam said. “Might not be so busy in this weather.”
Rain pattered on the window as the straßenbahn jerked through the city.
We hopped off and sidled through the sparsely populated flea market. The rain had stopped.
“Must be a slow day.” I said.
“Yeh it’s usually better.” Sam said.
“Where is the park?” Mike said.
Inside the gates of Mauerpark, artists and musicians lined the main path. Two kids with plastic keytars sang out of tune. A smiling woman danced around making giant soap bubbles that floated about.
A crowd had congregated around a drummer, who whipped up a mesmerizing beat. We two-stepped for a while, revelling in the flower child energy of the place.
“This way.” Sam said, pointing up the path. “The karaoke is just up there.”
A large amphitheatre appeared to our right, packed with people. We managed to find a spot on the peripheries. A woman at the centre was belting out the lyrics to ‘Time Warp’ as the crowd cheered her on.
In the lull, a stocky grey-haired man strode into the centre with purpose and took the mic. He stood calmy, waiting for the music to start.
The music began. “And now, the end is near…” He sang in a rising baritone.
“This guys comes every week.” Sam said. He chuckled. “Sings the same song every time.”
He continued, his incongruous voice filling the coliseum with emotion. The crowd cheered with every long note he held.
“I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried…”
I wondered what brought him here, every week, to sing the same song. This inconspicuous old man, with his disorderly hair and little grey moustache. Was he simply enjoying his status as a local celebrity? Or was this some kind of redemptive ritual? Whatever his reasons, the crowd was entranced.
“The record shows, I took the blows…” Umbrellas popped up around the amphitheater as drizzle began to fall.
The music rose to crescendo. Every member of the crowd held their breath.
“And did it myyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay.”
Euphoria filled the venue as the man took his bow to joyous applause.
Distant thunder rumbled as the applause dissipated. The drizzle became torrential rain and everyone began to scatter out of the coliseum.
A guy with long hair ran onto the stage and screamed “I am God!”
Ich bin ein Berliner
Berlin had been an extraordinary mixture of old and new. Its historical context almost always seems within close proximity, probably due to its pivotal role in the story of 20th century Europe. Of course I could never come close to comprehending the social and political upheaval that the last century had wrought on the city, especially having only visited a small portion of it, during a long weekend trip.
The other side I experienced was the bustling, progressive milieu of modern Germany. A centre of commerce, technology and art. Cynics might talk about the commoditization and romanticizing of the cold war era struggles and the hipster colonization of trendy areas. But so what? Stomping through Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain, I felt a vital energy. Local punks discussing politics with digital nomads. The striking street art all about, the idiosyncratic bars, the hedonism of the späticrawls and the pumping techno in the RAW Gelände.
Perhaps some consider it a cultural loss that a person can now move to this part of the city, without a word of German in their vocabulary and thrive. But chatting to its denizens, I began to see a place that people flocked to for its freedom and possibilities. A constantly evolving cultural climate. An intriguing river to dip into, as a fleeting traveller and one that leaves you wanting more.