Location: Berlin, Germany. July 21st - 28th
There is something really fucking cool happening in Berlin. Over the past few days I've stayed at three hotels in two different neighborhoods and walked through even more than that. Something happened to me in this city... I was... gasp.. interested.
I was intrigued by the people, the style, where I would live if I moved here and what I would be doing. You can feel the creative energy of this place walking down streets at night, keeping in time with the street performers.
If New York is savvy, employed, wealthy and quasi refined.... Berlin is a younger, hipper, broke as hell (seriously the city is in crazy debt), more free thinking, artistic and all around awesome sidekick. A New Yorker dreams of making it. A Berliner dreams of making something. Copyright that.
We've all heard it - that in the last decade New York has gotten so expensive that the artists are literally leaving the city. Art can't flourish because artists can't afford to live there. I mean, that is some sad news. Even Brooklyn boasts some of the city's most expensive zip codes now. It's the G word - gentrification. And sure, I'm a part of it. But all that, my residence included, that hasn't happened to Berlin's art, club kid anything goes scene yet. Sure, it might (I did start looking up jobs here). There are, after all, neighborhoods that you would not have stepped in 10 years ago that today look like Chicago's shopping stretch on Armitage. But, so much of the city is a stark and beautiful contrast to that. And it is awesome.
My first neighborhood experience was called Friedrichshain in East Berlin. Think of it as a Brooklyn's Brooklyn. The East Village in 2000. When you get off the U Bahn train at Warschauer, you are outside and have to walk up a few flights of stairs. You walk over broken beer bottles and are surrounded by hair the color of every shade of the rainbow and a lot of people wearing whatever they damn well please and quite frankly, a lot of tights under shorts with combat boots.
Finally on street level, you can swing a left and walk to a remaining portion of the Berlin Wall which, now known last the East Side Gallery, is a famous canvas for its art and the statements featured within. Or, you can swing a right and walk past an amazing outdoor music venue / gallery / beer garden / street art mecca called Urban Spree which will lead you on your way to Boxhagener Platz, a place that feels like Tompkins Square Park and is lined with tattoo shops, stores and cafes.
When you are walking around this neighborhood even if it is 11AM but especially if it is 5PM, the entire population appears to be holding a large bottle of beer and is walking or hanging out on the street.
Berlin, being a cyclist's dream, means that girls with round, ironic sunglasses, purple hair and wearing blue tutus will bike by you (holding a beer) only then to stop and flop down on the sidewalk to listen to a street musicians. In this neighborhood, Friedrichshain, one has limitless musical options it seems. Rockers, strummers, beatboxers, rappers and DJs abound along Warschauer Street, which hovers over train tracks and links the two train stations, the S Bahn and the U Bahn.
Over the few days I was staying in that neighborhood, I was treated to:
1. A man playing a modified didgeridoo. He explained that his friend, a physicist, thought that the shape of a sax would work better. He somehow then rapped via a messed with didgeridoo. People went crazy. Shirts came off to boogie better.
2. A guy was layering beats via what looked like Abe Lincoln's coal stove. It was a wood box and it looked to have a chimney. He was playing the electric drums and even a trumpet. Then someone who sounded like Sia hopped on the mic and began to sing. It was phenomenal.
3. A band covered the Bee Gees in an emo sort of way. It worked. But, they had no chairs or stands for their instruments so both the guy who was playing the keys and the dude with the snare drum had to sit on the ground. #problems
I've never actually seen such a free reaction to music. Whether wiggling or krumping, people just went with it. Drug enhanced moves? Maybe yes, maybe no. In any event it was very awesome and to me, very uniquely Berlin.
Leave The Louboutins At Home
Berlin is a different kind of fashion statement. You'll see more people wearing a coat with tails with a pair of high top black-on-black chucks than you will see rocking a label. And I love a good label. I'll confidently choose the Chanel ballet flats, if able. But honestly, you don't want those on your feet here. In large, that is part of what makes this city so interesting. What ARE people wearing is a question that you actually want to answer every day. And, the answer is phenomenally different than anything you are seeing in your supposedly "artfully curated" Instagram feed.
Case in point? I'm sitting in the club room at the Soho House in Berlin. A girl with purple and bleach blonde hair is rocking shiny pleather leggings, turquoise metallic boots, an asymmetrical gray sweater and black leather vest with thick ribbing on the shoulders. Her hands have roses tattooed on them. #boom. I have a peach scarf on, leggings that (thank god) I packed and a denim top. #minusboom. See where I'm going with this? Sometimes we think a certain kind of valuable sense of style comes from 5th Avenue. Berlin is here to flip you a dispassionate middle finger for ever entertaining such dribble.
Why Currywurst is not the worst, after all.
I love a good food tour in a foreign city. What better way to introduce yourself to the culture you have more than likely just flown into? On the beer and currywurst tour I learned a few things. First, your wurst can come with skin or without. Without means that a light egg coating surrounds it, a function of during the war when using any sort of casing was out of the question due to the supplies available. Second, this is just a sausage in an awesome curry-esque sauce but tasting much more savory and worchestshire inspired than you favorite thai food. Get some fries and dip them into mayonnaise while you eat this, and you'll be spot on.
The gist of staying in the Mitte
The Mitte (mit-ah) is likely the area you would opt to stay in if you read a guide book. And, if you do this, you are going to be able to run out and buy a t-shirt at Urban Outfitters if you need one. But you can do that now. So, what is the draw? Sure, you can probably very quickly and easily get to some of the main sights of Berlin given Mitte's central location. But, you can get anywhere in Berlin quickly and easily via the train and Berlin boasts some fascinating neighborhoods. Friedrichshain, Prenzlauberg. Kreuzberg. Neukolin.
So, stay here or don't. If you do? For the love of god don't pick something sterile or worse, stupid. I did this for one night, at a hotel I had heard interesting design notes about and I grumbled my way through the entire experience, judging the other patrons- slash-old nerds. Stay at the Soho House where the tourists aren't and where the hot Berliner working a top hat and pocket watch is. And, as far as Friedrichshain is concerned, you want to be at the Michelberger. Period.
And last, a nod to history
I have no idea how much anyone really knows about the Cold War if they are my age and don't really remember their 90s history classes all that well. I had some assumptions about its general temperature. Coming here and learning more about the wall, the divide of East and West Berlin not to mention East and West Germany was amazing. Again, it was a place where I found myself actually involved. What is also interesting is how we've painted a picture of what it must have been like to live in the USSR in our minds. Horrible, right? Not necessarily. When the wall came down, a lot of people had their happy lives ripped apart. East Berlin commerce was essentially ruined, in favor for the West. Some folks say that they would gladly go back to when life was more divided - speaking only in terms of wealth and the stability they felt then versus now.
Interested? I hope so. I'd live here in a hot New York minute. Faster than you can say pass the schnitzel.