Thursday, 14 August 2014

Berlin - A Strange Millenial Wonderland

Guten morgen from Berlin!

I arrived at Berlin Haptbahnhof on July 19th. What a sight. Berlin Hbf is largest train station I have ever been in and a striking  open-concept design; you can see everything unlike the Paris monster stations buried in a network of tunnels and low ceilings. It's all open concourse, with 2 levels for trains: the upper most floor and the lowest floor. The upper level holds 10-12 platforms of local S-Bahn - one of two metro systems in Berlin, it different a from the U-Bahn by being largely above grade. Regional commuter trains also connect here. The lower floor is the big intercity trains and high-speed lines: 8 platforms all around 400 metres long. Between the two train platform levels is 5 stories of shops and other services. Two 20-storey office blocks also straddle the station in a cantilever fashion to add to the enormity.

The scale of the station is impressive: the S-Bahn tracks and intercity tracks approach the station from nearly perpendicular angles, meaning it's a giant footprint to hold all the different 300 and 400 metres long platforms. It is probably one of the larger buildings built in the world in the past 10 years:

The train from Amsterdam had a problem with air conditioning meaning my car went up to 40 degrees and they evacuated it. So I was forced to spend 3 hours in the air conditioned bar car drinking expensive water (3€ or 4.50CAD) and cheap hand-crafted German beer (2.50€ or 3.75CAD).

I actually don't know how Europeans handle it, it's nearly impossible to stay hydrated. It's 35 degrees and no wind in Berlin today, I literally haven't stopped sweating in 2 days. And I mean change-a-shirt-every-6-hours-sweating , not just a little too much sun sweating. Water doesn't exist in the city, it's always a weird request it seems. Might have to stick to beer.

A patio beer in the uber-cool Kreuzberg area of Berlin:

Coming off the train in Berlin is daunting compared to the other cities I have been too. Berlin is simply huge. Unlike Amsterdam, Dublin or Rennes, the station is central but that doesn't mean much. You can't simply wander into the streets without knowing where you are going because it's endless in each direction. Berlin - due to it's near total destruction 70 years ago and 40 additional years of bizarre, super-powers-locked-in-a-ideological-battle-influenced land use policy for the remainder of the 20th century has made the city quite spread out. There are many areas of huge activity but are all scattered in the inner city with no real focal point. 

A remenant of the superpower battle over Berlin. This piece of wall straddles the north part of the Berlin-Mitte area, which was formerly in East Berlin:

The scale of the maps are also deceiving. Again, unlike other cities, it was not a comfortable walk to the hostel. It was a gruelling 35 degree trek down strangely empty roads of new offices and modern Berlin-Mitte - largely rebuilt from post-1991 era - to the hostel.

The hostel is amazing. German house music plays 24-hours a day, it features a garden patio pool, lounging chairs, bar service in both ground floor and the rooftop patio. For 22€ a night it's cheaper and better than my apartment.

Rooftop patio view:

I met an Aussie and we went around to the Brandenburg Gate: 

Reichstag (German parliament):

 and over to the ever popular Kreuzberg area, which is very close to the Berlin you may be imagining; mega clubs, street art and graffiti, discotheques, hidden alley underground parties and heavy euro-beats on every corner. If you go prepare to be asked if you need help about 100 times: note these are not helpful people unless you want cocaine.

Kreuzberg street art:

Berlin feature a whole new level of grit; some of you may remember my rants about enjoying Hamilton's grittiness or Montreal's  graffiti. Forget everything I said - assuming you were listening anyways - those cities might as well be the polished white floors of the Van Gogh museum compared to this. Garbage, trash and spray paint coat every inch of the city and most subway stations / trains. Everyone drinks in the street, so hundreds of bottles - smashed or otherwise - are everywhere. It is very common to grab a beer in a bar or club and just walk out into traffic to the next spot. Unusually people also like to sit in the street. Literally on spaces like where a car would park, people in clubbing clothes just lying in piles of trash waiting for the best clubs to open. Strange.

There is also apparently no police force or social rules at all. Random yelling on the trains, blatant vandalism, smashing bottles, free expression and constant vigilantism against any sign of oppression from a higher authority - be it the police, government or anything else. Curvy Village in Kreuzberg is a perfect example of this: essentially a free-expression shanty town that exists on a large empty lot. Garbage and debris are piled high, all manner of people live in it's walls in an expression of anti-authority. No rules, no codes, no norms. Weird people doing weird things in weird clothes - or sometimes none at all. Signage covers the walls in a few languages detailing the struggle against the "oppressors", the local Berlin civic building code authority that periodically tries to evict people from their shanty-town structures made of garbage and bits of debris. The oppressors failed their last attempt five years ago to evict them and residents are set on seeing them fail again. A strange place indeed.

Kreuzberg at night at Gölitzer Bahnhof (station):

The clubs are what people say and more. Germans don't go to them until 2 AM or so, and they are often open until sunrise. If you go before 12 you will find most aren't even open yet. And they are just crazy euro-techno, drug-fueled dance halls featuring all options for club goers. A very popular one has a secret entrance that is a naked club - literally they give you a bag to put all your clothes in - but you wear shoes still. And they still screen out people if your shoes aren't good enough. It's crazy (I didn't go in by the way).

I get the feeling that Berlin is a city that literally almost falls apart and collapses into anarchy on a nightly. Every morning it's almost like the city itself says "woah, that was a close one ... I didn't think we were going to make it. Let's try again". It strikes me as a very Icarus-too-close-to-the-sun place. Yet somehow it works.

The Fernsehturm in the Alexanderplatz area. At ~380 metres high is one of the highest towers in Europe and the world. For the Calgarians, think 2 Calgary Towers stacked on top of each other:

A very tasty and common street food of Döners, yet another variant on the kebab/schwarma/donair food group found the world over:

Bode Museum on Museum Island, a collection of national galleries and art museums:

One of the coolest things I went to was the decommissioned Templehof Airport, famous for the Berlin Airlift. Originally built by the Nazi regime as part of their "world capital" project of grand public buildings and spaces, Templehof is now a heritage site with the runways remaining intact. Interestingly the area has be retooled as a giant-scale park. Runners, cyclists, kite-surfers and anyone else can come there. I rented an electric scooter and zipped around the runways. It was a blasty-blast!

The original terminal build is intact and open for tours. Supposedly one of the largest buildings in the world at the time of its opening and one of the best examples of 1930s architecture around:

A final note: a theme in this trip is a constant conversation people have about what place is the best in Europe. The consensus - and nearly everyone I have met has said this - is that Berlin is to our generation as Paris was to our parents. It's the place to see and be right now. The more I hear it, the more I agree. Paris is beautiful, but feels like it belongs to someone else. Berlin is definitely a world leader in arts, culture and general attitude for young people. Every step and breath in this smelly, sweaty, dirty city feels that way more in a strange way. 

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