Starting with the obvious:
The last time i was in Berlin i’d just about reached German drinking age, which is to say i was fifteen or sixteen. This was a couple <cough> of years before the wall came down, and, i guess, it all changed.
My memories of that time are a little ‘hazy’. What i remember is a night out in Kreuzberg with Kai, his brother, and a japanese guy called Toshi. There was a nightclub with an entrance that was literally knocked through the wall of an abandoned building, a guy with no arms getting beer money out of a pouch around his neck, a couple in a kebab shop wearing bra’s and suspenders under open trench coats, rides through the city in Toshi’s vintage Benz listening to Joy Division, The Birthday Party, Cocteau Twins… i remember a flat in an Altbau, with hugely high ceilings, where all the ‘crockery’ was (stolen) chemistry (pyrex) glassware. Standing at the wall (probably at Müllerstraße, in Wedding) watching the guards watch us… wondering what they were thinking and probably wondering what i thought.The pictures from that time are of a young me with chubby cheeks, spiky crimped hair, in faded goth uniform and a waistcoat.
All in all, i suspect i thought i’d died and discovered that there was indeed a gothic heaven… It was therefore with some trepidation that i got on the ICE from Hamburg and made by my way back.
After arriving late on Friday night and checking into a business hotel in Tiergarten, Saturday morning found me walking through the Brandenburg Gate, and into ‘the east’. I don’t actually remember visiting any of the major checkpoints all those years ago, and was surprised to find myself a little giddy at the prospect… the rest of the day we spent wandering around Mitte, wondering at what was left of the old, and ridiculous amount of new. In the evening we went up to Prenzlauer Berg to visit the exhibition that had provided my excuse to return.
Sunday morning we wandered around Kreuzberg, from Kottbusser Tor, across the Oberbaumbrücke, to Warschauer Straße… It was somewhere around this time that it hit me just how crazy the whole Berlin ‘conflict’ really was – Germans shooting Germans for trying to cross a strip of land, or swim a river. Standing on the banks of the Spree really brings it home to you how close and arbitrary the borders really were. People dying, families and communities torn apart, and all for what?
The afternoon looking at Helmut Netwon’s White Women, Sleepless Nights, and Big Nudes didn’t do much in the way of providing clarity. If anything, they provide the ultimate contrast between a capitalist west still blissfully unaware of it’s limits and a socialist experiment gone wrong.
The city itself is a beautiful mess. Photographically it’s amazing. All at once managing looking decadent, dissolute, crumbling, renewed, effortlessly wealthy, and defiantly poor, both sprawling and dense. The faces, the languages, the looks, are all astonishingly varied.
[It’s obvious that there are a lot of americans / english around. They give themselves away by being far louder than everyone else in the most inappropriate times and places. Somehow it never seems to occur to them that they are the only ones exhibiting zero consciousness of their surroundings…]
All of which left me wondering why i was “slumming it” out in provincial Hamburg, with it’s tall, blonde, well mannered (if slightly aloof), wealthy, hanseatic citizens? The answer is that if i was ten years younger, and it was ten years ago (hey, why settle for less when you’re dreaming?!) i’d move to Berlin, live a little, and not worry too much about all the big city stuff that annoys me so intensely in London, Tokyo, Paris, etc.
It might still happen, it’s the most vibrant a city has felt to me in years.