We began our trip in Berlin on a whim. (And by whim, I mean that we found cheap plane tickets there while hunting for European destinations.)
Yet the closer we got to departure, the more assured I was in our choice. Bloggers called Berlin an easy jumping-off point for visiting hubs to the south, which is where we were headed. Friends who’d been gave fantastic if entirely unspecific reviews, along the lines of “I love Berlin” or “you’ll have a great time,” when we told them we were going.
They were right. And yet, I suspect such reviews prove true for nearly anyone who visits the city. And for entirely individual reasons.
That’s because Berlin is all about indulgence, no matter your passion (or budget). Love music or art? The city’s got you covered. Want delicious food and drink? No problem. Want to create? Go for it. Here’s a can of spray paint if you’re so inclined.
Love learning about history? Perfect. Because you’ve got roughly 200 museums, palaces and memorials at your feet. These include world-class collections from ancient civilizations, found at the Pergammon Museum, to monuments of modern traumas, like the Berlin- Hohenschönhausen Memorial.
Greg and I visited the memorial, a former prison of the East German Ministry of State Security (MfS) in the outskirts of Berlin, on a chilly, overcast afternoon. It was used by the MfS (“Stasi”) to house over 11,000 political prisoners from 1951 until reunification. Originally built as a food store and canteen block, it was taken over in 1946 by the Soviets, who used it as a detainment camp and then a prison.
When they took over, the Stasi made things a little better for captives, who had been housed in dark, air-deprived cells and physically tortured by the Soviets. But Stasi tactics were pretty damn savage too. They included: interrogating prisoners at all hours to ensure constant sleep deprivation, putting them in isolated cells, prohibiting them from engaging in physical activity, and feeding them lies (like telling a husband that his wife, also captive, had turned on him).
East Germany eventually “sold” many prisoners to West Germany, whose ransom provided helpful cash flow for its failing government. Occasionally, however, the Stasi would kidnap defectors from West Berlin in vans made to look like the modern-day start-up catering outfits, and then bring them to the prison for processing. (This would happen after they drove around for several hours, so as to confuse the prisoner as to his or her whereabouts. Which were, as it turns out, a mere couple of miles from Berlin’s Wall).
Within the prison, the Stasi used cameras to monitor their own guards. This is one small example of East Germany’s paranoia. This paranoia was so intense that roughly 180,000 citizens were recruited by the Stasi to report on their friends, family, neighbors and colleagues. Over 69 miles of paperwork exists of their record-keeping.
East Germany didn’t get down with political freedom. Yet life there wasn’t entirely awful.
(At least, not for those willing to play by state rules.)
Citizens got health care and housing support through the government, though many became home repair experts out of necessity. Food staples were issued via a coupon system, though shortages weren’t uncommon. The government also guaranteed and covered expenses for vacations (though destinations were limited to “friendly countries” like Poland and Bulgaria.)
Their rides weren’t all bad either.
We learned about these and other elements of East German daily life at the interactive DDR Museum.
The exhibits on jobs and education were especially fascinating. The GDR provided free daycare, which was basically a play pen for communism. So much so, that even “potty breaks” were taken collectively…on the same bench.
I also learned that East Germans were paid roughly similar salaries. (Which weren’t much). And, while many women worked, gender norms persisted at home.
Yet, in some ways, women had more autonomy than those in the West. They held sales and business jobs. Abortions were legal. Childcare was provided. Even after the wall fell, sexual satisfaction among women from the East remained much higher than that of women from the West.
Some governments might stand to learn a thing or two.
From Hohenschönhausen to the somber Holocaust-Mahnmal, and all the memorials in between, it’s clear Berlin remembers.
It’s clear Berlin pays tribute.
(It’s less clear, purposefully so, where exactly Hitler died. Leo, our guide on the excellent Sandeman’s Free Walking Tour Berlin, had to point out the former bunker to us. Long razed, it’s now a grassy patch in front of a boxy apartment building, where tenants’ dogs do their business.)
We’d do well to remember like Berlin. Remember that systemic horror began with economic depression and anger, amplified by the siren call for “racial solidarity.”
Remember that ideological differences led to ruthless pursuits of power. Which led to the literal separation of families.
By a wall.
I needn’t remind you of the resulting devastation.
Anger and false nostalgia are a toxic blend. And they can poison a society into pursuing false ideas of grandeur. By any means necessary.
Despots like Hitler and Stalin (and others headed in that direction ) fuel this pursuit with policies and propaganda. In the process, they divide countries and families. They destroy.
Berlin memorializes its victims. It does this so its people don’t forget the devastation wrought by ruthless pursuits of power.
It does this in hopes that we all learn from history. So that we don’t repeat it.
Berlin may have come to terms with its past. But it’s grappling with the present.
Reunification and capitalism spurred a construction frenzy in the 90s, while creativity flourished, making the city a major draw for those looking to express themselves in any medium, shape or form (and for cheap).
All of this creative energy made the city stupidly cool. Graffiti ricochets off buildings and onto playgrounds. Funky record shops, fleamarkets (flohmarkets), and art installations abound. As do excellent combinations of tattoos, hair styles, and piercings.
Berliners are so cool, you could almost forgive their obsession with dressing like they raided your (or your mom’s) closet in the 80s. Seriously, do we need to resurrect scrunchies?
Of course, the “cooler” the city has gotten, the more people want in on it. Former artist enclaves like Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzberg are gentrifying at BMW-on-the Autobahn speeds.
The booming tech scene and influx of tech folks, as well as more conservative Southern Germans (called “Swabians”), has been a major contributor to Berlin’s gentrification. Property prices in Berlin have risen over 20% in the past year.
My OnlineSOS colleague Terri and her partner Rich, who’ve lived in Berlin for a year, told us over drinks how difficult it was to find a decent place to rent.
“There are usually dozens of people at a showing and you basically have to be prepared to hand over the money right then,” she said.
Many Germans are fighting these changes. This week, Google pulled out of a tech start-up incubator project that would’ve gone up in Kreuzberg.
While Google’s spokesperson said the change of heart was due to “talks with many stakeholders,” many speculate that locals’ two-year “F*ck Off Google” campaign was part of the reason.
Seems like the protest spirit here is alive and well.
The gentrification wave has hit Berlin’s immigrants hard, too.
Coffee shops, boutiques, dry bars and pet salons have taken over former immigrant enclaves like the Turkish-heavy Kreuzberg. Many of these ‘hoods now feature wealthy young Germans toting babies and farmer’s market produce. (Although I love that so many of them were dads).
“How many store owners here just picked two nature-sounding nouns at random?” I asked Greg, walking by yet another bespoke cafe named Beet and Birch or some such.
(Coming from SF, though, it’s hard to hate on this when you crave familiar food or have food allergies. If you’re a coffee-phile, vegan, or gluten free, Berlin has you covered).
Berlin’s education system is also battleground for gentrification warfare. Peter Schneider, in his excellent essay collection Berlin Now: The City After the Wall, describes how, in the largely immigrant district of Neukolln, some newly arrived Southern Germans started their own daycare center to avoid having to place their kids with immigrants.
Furthering the friction is the fact that many immigrants haven’t assimilated. There are cultural reasons, sure. Yet Germany currently faces a huge teaching shortage, and migrant students are performing well under success rate of their native German peers. Couple that with rising cost of living in Berlin, and the situation, much like ours in America, seems grim.
For all its growing pain, though, there is so much brilliance in Berlin.
Especially if your passion is electronic music. For this, Berlin is Mecca.
Stores and cafes even have curated electronic selections. When Greg tried to Shazam a few tracks in cafes here and there, nothing came up. It’s on a whole different level here.
So are the clubs.
You’ve heard about the club scene here, I assume? It’s insane. And like anything worth tackling, it pays to do your homework. We consulted Terri, along with Reddit threads and blog posts, before venturing forth.
The biggest pre-club help was Terri’s tip to buy presale tickets (“helps to avoid the headache of lines at the door”) and to consult the Resident Advisor app for lineups.
But the biggest pre-club entertainment was reading online reviews about Berghain.
Berlin’s clubs are notorious for their door policies. These policies curate the crowd (and, I assume, keep bro numbers low).
But they also mean you may stand in line for hours just to get turned away. Chunks of the internet are dedicated to deciphering bouncer Sven Marquardt’s door policy at Berghain.
Most tipsters suggest wearing black, and to avoid checking your phone in line, but Sven won’t reveal what makes or breaks a hopeful’s chances. (I also wouldn’t push the dude too hard. He doesn’t look like someone who tolerates a lot of shit).
In any case, as you can imagine, most 1-star reviews are from people who’ve never set foot in the place. Like this one here.
We played it safe and bought pre-sales to Dominik Eulberg at Ritter Butzke. A once illegal club that took over a former factory, the place has three dance floors. The structure was indeed factory-esque in its boxiness and brick.
Yet the details were gorgeous–steam-punk-esque light fixtures line the walls and ceiling, while an open courtyard lined with prayer flags allows for conversation and cigarettes under the stars.
Terri’s partner Rich advised us not to show up til 3 to see Dominick. (This basically meant screwing up my sleep schedule for two days afterward because #thirty.) But it was well worth it. We left for the show around 2:30 via the U-bahn train, accompanied by everyone from your grandma to that kid you babysit. Seems like no one here has a bedtime on the weekend.
I didn’t know anything about Dominick, other than what seems to be an obsession with birds. But the guy put on quite a show. The crowd’s energy was palpable, and moreoever, it was about the music. There was no “scene” here like there is in the U.S.; no women hobbling on three-inch heels in a circle of girlfriends, no guys dressed in blazers trying to hit on anything that moves. Other than some idiot in a full onesie who was snapping selfies, there weren’t phones out attempting to record each moment.
Yes, there were some packs of dude-bros who likely wouldn’t have made it past Sven, but I suppose that’s the liability of pre-sale events. Still, for the most part, it was just music, and people, on a Berlin Friday night that was probably like any other.
We left around 6:30. Around half the crowd had gone by then. This led to a fun guessing game for the rest of the weekend, as we rode the U-Bahn and S-Bahn around the city: who is going home, who is going out? (Seemed to be about 50/50).
I didn’t expect to love Berlin for its food as much as its music.
I was wrong.
This is less due to ethnic German cuisine than it is to the culinary riches brought by immigrants. I’m referring mainly to the city’s Turkish residents.
Turkish food is everywhere here. Doner kebap stands, of course, but also full service restaurants and bakeries. We found one of the latter near our hostel, and bought a delicious cheese-and-spinach-stuffed bread thing for 2 euro that filled us up for hours.
The scene isn’t limited to Turkish food. Berlin has a huge Vietnamese population (due to the influx of refugees to the West and communist guerilla trainees to the East during the Cold War). Vietnamese restaurants are accordingly plentiful.
So are options from really, well, anywhere. We went to Markethalle IX for “street food Thursday,” which offers everything from Japanese okonamiyaki to Pakistani pakora to Nepalese momo to Spanish tapas. Best of all, everything is fairly cheap, meaning you can get a full meal for about 9 or 10 bucks a person.
Of course, if you do want German fare, there are plenty of options. After standing in line for two hours in the freezing cold for the Pergammon Museum (and then spending another two hours inside to get warm), we were famished.
“What about this place?” Greg suggested, showing me a photo of a pork leg that looked to be the size of my head.
“Looks great,” I replied, and off we went.
The restaurant was completely dead when we got there around 4, save for two dead-looking souls at the bar. Having the dining room to ourselves, though, was a lovely change of pace; a cozy interior and pints of beer a welcome respite from the cold.
Our waiter assured us the place, called Zum Schusterjungen, is usually packed at night. As a spot Bourdain had visited in his Berlin episode of Parts Unknown, this wasn’t surprising to hear. We ordered the classic pork knuckle (served with potatoes and mashed peas) and the beef roulade with beets. Needless to say, after that much (tasty) food (and dark German dunkel), Greg started to fall asleep at the table.
The bill was under $40, meaning we could at least feel good about our budget, if not our self-inflicted food comas.
Our friends were right. We loved Berlin.
Gritty, cosmopolitan, creative, brusque but ever tolerant.
I think you’ll love it too.
(And, if you go, read Berlin Now: The City After the Wall by Peter Schneider and Rory MacLean’s Berlin: A Portrait of the City Through the Centuries. And this helpful overview of Berlin’s clubs.)
Lots of love to Alexandra & David and Terri & Rich for the info & connections!