Sunday, July 28, 2013

SEVERAL TIMES ON THIS TRIP WE'VE ARRIVED IN NEW PLACES WITH THE IMMEDIATE FEELING OF, "HM. I DUNNO." After particularly great legs (Bali) it can be hard for the next place to live-up (Thailand). After wandering the city centre on our first full day in Berlin, we sat at a pub and both slumped simultaneously. "This isn't Paris," I said. "I was just thinking the same thing!" Jeff replied. Obviously it's ridiculous that we'd even say such a thing, or that comparing Berlin to Paris to Athens to Singapore is something we do now. But here we are.

I've spent the equivalent of months in New York and now we've been to Paris, so what's left? How could any city even measure-up to those? And on day one in Berlin, I wasn't sure it was possible.

Our friend Paul promised the city would reveal itself. Or maybe we'd open-up to it. Whatever the case, day two started to feel right. We began to understand the city a bit more, getting familiar with the multi-syllabic subway stations and the underlying melancholy. It's a city steeped in full-blown horror. Chicago has seen some stuff. The gruesome days of Roman gladiators were rough, surely. But Berliners were living it within my lifetime. It's a city coloured by those decades of limitation and subsequent rebellion. Here, art and culture are elevated to religion, and, as my friend John noted, sex is currency. Everywhere you look there are signs of a strange polarity, and you'll certainly stumble over a placard reminding you of the once-literal bisection.

I think I almost expected active mourning, or at the very least, some obvious rage issues just beneath the surface of everything. I thought this city would brood. But, after a week (and I'm an expert now) this is not a place mired in sadness. It's a decidedly young-feeling city determined to eke out a new identity. I imagine winter has its own disposition, but, like Toronto, Berlin should be judged at its best, in the height of this record-hot summer.

(Visit my Instagram feed for details on some of the above images. I try to give a bit of context for the different places and monuments. Instagram is my real blog.)


1) Berlin is hip, but accessible. It feels like Toronto, except German-er. We've been discussing how cities fall on the Glamour Spectrum. Some are like New York and Paris, others like Toronto and Melbourne. Berlin is in the latter group.

2) The city is currently experiencing a 30% unemployment rate. 

3) Word on the street (and the internet) is that Berlin shuts down in July. It's extremely hot, so I get it. We saw 50-year record highs during our week, between 35 and 40ºC (95 - 104ºF). Painful without air conditioning. 

4) The Metro is efficient and clean. Though not cheap. It's up there with Toronto in terms of price-per-ride.

5) If you're into photography (particularly commercial fashion) you must visit the Helmut Newton Foundation at the Museum für Fotographie. They are currently exhibiting his World Without Men (women, personal + commercial, runs until October 13, 2013) and on permanent display is Private Property - his personal effects, letters, cameras, notebooks. So interesting. My favourite part was a wall of faxes he'd sent and received, notes to editors and friends, famous fashion stalwarts. Before email, pen-to-paper. Quite special. 

6) Our apartment was in a grey area between Kreuzberg and Neukölln in a largely Turkish neighbourhood. Apparently the döner (Turkish pita wrap) was invented right down the street. Because of the large Turkish population in Berlin (they were invited en masse after the War to work) it's said that Berlin sees döner sales of 2.5 million Euros a year. #carbloading

7) On weekends there's an outdoor market (arts, crafts, vintage clothing, etc) on Maybachufer east of Kottbusser Damm, along the canal. Worth a walk-through if you're in the area. There are others across the city as well.

8) 30 minutes on the U7 will take you from Alexanderplatz to a Wannsee, a lake outside the city. It's super popular in the summertime with locals. We were hopeful and decided to make the trek to avoid the record-breaking 45ºC Sunday heat. The train was efficient and easy. Then we arrived to find a gate/lineup situation. You have to pay 4.50€ to enter after waiting in a 1 hour queue. We stuck it out. Then found the beach to be mucky, shallow, overly-warm and completely crazy-busy. The water was so gross I couldn't even force myself in. Canadians are spoiled by beautiful, huge, clean lakes, which I knew. But that fact was illustrated beautifully today. 

9) For obvious reasons there are a tremendous number of blondes here. It's overwhelming.

10) The Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park was interesting. It's a 25 acre, incredibly austere site with several statues, sarcophagi, and monuments to the fallen Soviet soldiers of WWII. Its sheer vastness is a reason to visit. I did find it rather jarring, however, that such an ostentatious memorial should stand in, what was once, the western fringes of East Berlin. Precariously close to the "death strip" - a no man's land on the east side of the Wall where at least 171 hopeful escapees were killed by Soviet guards. While I certainly don't dispute the contribution of the Soviet army during WWII, I can't shake what their government went on to do to East Germans during the subsequent decades. It's all kind of a gigantic irony-mindfuck. Over the years there have been many petitions to have the memorial dismantled. While I'm conflicted, I certainly don't think it should be destroyed. But perhaps the quotes from Stalin emblazoned on every surface could be reconsidered.

11) The Bauhaus Archiv is terrific and really well-curated. My only problem was the gift shop. I mean, gift shops are counter-intuitive in museums and galleries at the best of times, but particularly here. The entire time you wander, listening to a rather-good audio tour, you are hammered with the fundamental principles of the Bauhaus movement. (Form + function, design being a service to the people, efficiency, and affordability of materials/mass accessibility to good design, etc.) and then you're invited to buy "the Bauhaus Lamp" (Wagenfeld, 1924) for 425€ ($580USD). Now, this isn't meant to be a controversial statement about the value of these pieces, culturally, or their quality. I get it. And I'd encourage anyone who loves the lamp to pay ANY sum being asked for an original. I just find it disingenuous to sell them at the Archiv. Leave it to Design Within Reach.

12) Hope you like currywurst.

LOCATION: Berlin, Germany
DATE AND TIME: Sunday, July 28, 2013 7:00PM Central European Summer Time/Sunday, July 28, 2013 1:00PM EST


Location: Berlin, Germany
Accommodation: Hidden Gem by the Canal 
A super-stylized apartment in a great, up-and-coming area. The owner has assembled a crazy house of quirky knickknacks, taxidermy, artwork and vintage charm. The building itself is an old 6-storey walk-up (we got used to all 71 steps. Ugh.) A bit of noise in the morning (near a school), but safe and family-friendly. Lots of restaurants, shops, bars, and conveniences within seconds of the front door. Would highly-recommend.

Keeping the budget in-line, we ate at home or street food for the most part. But we had some cheap-eats Indian food in Kreuzberg at Aapka. Seating outside right along the canal. Quite nice. We also had a decent Italian meal at a local spot called Sippi Osteria. Literally at the bottom of our building, we'd walked by its busy patio many times before stopping to eat. Cheap wine, good food. Our friend Jack met us for drinks at a Berlin favourite, Cocolo Ramen, and we snacked on some really excellent dumplings. He's lived here for 2 years and is a regular, so I recommend this place highly (by proxy). 

In terms of grocery shopping, I'd recommend Karstadt. It's a much nicer shopping experience than the variety of "discount" stores located throughout Berlin (Aldi, Lidl). It's more expensive, but much better quality and a far superior shopping experience. (I take grocery shopping very seriously.)

Berlin is a booze-friendly place. You can buy wine, beer, and spirits cheaply all over, including corner stores. We had a couple of drinks along the Spree at a walk-up bar in Treptower Park. A great place to people-watch. 

Roses Bar is a must! It was our friend John's only recommendation and we were not disappointed by the pink fun fur walls and moody lighting. A dykey Brit expat named Gabrielle served drinks and gave shoulder rubs. 


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