I’m pretty ashamed at how long it has taken me to write up my Berlin trip (8-11 July) – horrendously poor effort on my part! I’ve reached dizzying new heights of procrastination these past couple of months. Anyway, here it is…
My pre-trip impression of Berlin can be summarised as follows: it’s a bit of a playground for the young and bohemian, with myriad café-bars, a vibrant contemporary art scene and crazy nightlife. My fellow travellers and I did have a number of experiences that supported this characterisation; however I have to stress that the city is so much more than that, with its diversity of neighbourhoods and its powerful sense of history – palpable when you walk through certain areas and past particular buildings. It is by no means a ‘pretty city’, having to a large extent been reduced to rubble during the Second World War and rapidly rebuilt, and moreover according to two divergent ideological designs (‘Westen’ vs. ‘Osten’). Yet this adds to, rather than detracts from, its character in many ways.
Another thing I appreciated about Berlin was how unpretentious its inhabitants are compared to say, Londoners, Parisiens or the Milanese. In bars and clubs there seemed to be no great impetus to dress or act a certain way; Berliners were far more preoccupied with having fun than posing – an admirable quality to possess!
But enough flattery – here’s my run-down of the trip.
On our first full day we started out at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: a concrete maze comprising over 2,700 slabs. Engulfed by cold, grey concrete and losing your sense of place – not to mention your friends, who may sneak off and try to scare the shit out of you! – can be quite a chilling and alienating experience. Strolling through the Tiergarten, which is a park that is to Berlin what Central Park is to NYC, we marvelled at an art installation that paid homage to the homosexual community: a tiny screen playing various man-on-man embraces on loop, encased by a comparably large concrete cube. Past the Brandenburg Gate, we paused in front of the Reichstag and took stock of this impressively imposing building. We continued on, tracing the River Spree for much of the way, until another great building gave us cause to stop and linger for a little while: the Berliner Dom.
Late afternoon found us at the somewhat elusively-located C/O Berlin, a modern art gallery housed in Berlin’s former Royal Post Office. A poster for Larry Clark’s Teenage Lust exhibition depicting a woman’s ‘lady garden’ hung incongruously above the entrance of the grandiose, traditional-looking building. Still, we weren’t adequately prepared for the shock factor of Clark’s photography collection, which sought to capture and, in a sense, reinvigorate the spirit of teen exploit, with drug-fuelled youths indulging in sexual exploration while allowing a photographer to witness and consign their memory to future generations. Clark openly admitted that part of the raison d’etre of creating the collection was so that he could revive his own care-free teen days, vicariously living through his subjects.
A friend pointed out something to me that made her deeply uncomfortable about the entire exhibition, which I too found hard to swallow: were the girls high on narcotics consenting parties to the orgies captured so matter-of-factly on film, or was there something more sinister at play? Was Clark an impartial witness to borderline rape? The photos of youths shooting up on heroin were also disturbing, and pretty difficult to actually look at without turning quickly away (although this is partly due to my fear of needles…).
Moving swiftly on – without dwelling too much on the most unsavoury aspects of the ‘Teenage Lust’ exhibition – Rafal Milach’s ‘Seven Rooms’ transported us to another ‘dark place’ – this time the suburbs of Moscow. The Polish photographer’s series of intimate portraits showed the tension between the old Soviet mentality and the new ways of thinking engendered by Putin’s Russia. Taken as a collective, the seven subjects of the exhibition appeared to be a microcosm of their conflicted nation: in video diaries, they revealed their fervour for their newly-found freedoms, their cynicism about how Russia is governed, their desire for the pre-’89 sense of comfort and community. One particularly poignant quote summed up the general sentiment of the exhibition for me: ‘The difference is that once upon a time people knew what they had to say, but they couldn’t say it. Now you can say anything, but no one knows what to say.’
After dinner, a few of us wound up in a bar where the clientelle sported a total disregard for the smoking ban – something I noticed a fair bit in Germany and was not all that surprised by, having learnt about the efficacy of the tobacco lobby there (one of the more interesting articles I had to read for a Public Policy class back at uni focused on the German tobacco industry’s use of the Nazi past to equate anti-smoking legislation with fascism…).
Another day, another facet of Berlin to explore. With the mid-afternoon sun beating on us with considerable intensity, we explored the Topography of Terror outdoor exhibition. Annotated photos, newspaper clippings and signage from the 1933-145 period laid bare the Nazi-driven horrors of totalitarianism and extreme racialism, against the backdrop of a segment of the Berlin Wall. As a Jew I have heard so much already about the atrocities committed against those of the ‘alien’/ ‘intruder’ religion, so it was particularly interesting to find out about humanitarian crimes committed against other minority groups, most notably homosexuals.
Being a travel nerd paid off when it came to deciding what to do for the Big Last Night Out: my online research had thrown up a couple of options, including a techno night at a club named Cookies. Tuesday night in Berlin is apparently as buzzing as Friday night in London, with the majority of the clubbers there partying until five or six in the morning. Without going into too much (incriminating) detail about the night/ morning, we arrived back at the hostel at 10.30am the next day a little dazed but in high spirits after a pretty surreal – but thoroughly enjoyable – ‘last hurrah’ in Berlin.
No rest for the wicked – after showering and a quick nap, we had to vacate our room, leaving us to wander round the Bauhaus Museum and then the Tiergarten in a state of delirium! Luckily the museum was compelling enough to keep me awake; the former Bauhaus school’s novel framework for approaching design and the progress its students made in diverse fields of design, from architecture to stage design, are truly inspiring. The museum also stood as a reminder of the liberal hotspot that Berlin was in the early twentieth century and how creativity thrived there, until Nazism extinguished it so brutally and systematically.
John F. Kennedy is famed (and shamed) for remarking, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ – translated as, ‘I am a jelly doughnut.’ Maybe that really was the sentiment he wished to express, and history has wrongly judged him. In any case, four short days in Germany’s capital city left me feeling a little like a wannabe ‘Berliner’. There are many great things I love about the sprawling metropolis that I call home, but I think Berlin could teach it a thing or two.