I’ll be in Berlin next week, a city I have much fondness for. Here’s an essay that I wrote about Berlin when I was 25. I was a little more wide-eyed and optimistic then, sure, but the general sentiment still holds strong.
(circa October, 2005)
So, Berlin. What to say? I lived there for a while, during which time I realized how much raw potential there is in Berlin to do what you want to do. A one-bedroom apartment in Berlin can be had for four hundred bucks a month or less; it’s amazing what becomes possible when that’s the case. Suddenly it’s a totally viable career option to be a DJ or a freelance writer or an artist. I knew people who made as little as a thousand bucks a month who were living pretty damn well. And that’s the sense of vitality that I loved about living in Berlin, this sense that anything was possible. And that’s something that’s very hard to get in New York, where everything seems to have a price tag attached. Yes, I missed New York City terribly. I missed Chinatown. I missed Brooklyn and Queens. I missed spicy food. I missed the amazing confluence and clashes of diverse cultures and people and commerce and hip-hop blasting from cars at 4 a.m. and misery and rich and poor and disco and that view of the skyline you get when you take the N over the Manhattan Bridge. I missed how late things were open in New York. I missed 24-hour diners. I even missed the people in New York who were just trying to make a fast buck. But I also realized this: in Berlin, you could build the life you’ve always dreamed of living. You could drop everything and take a train to Warsaw, or fly to Paris for a weekend on what it’d cost to take a taxi from Brooklyn to the Bronx.
Berlin at night is quiet. So quiet. It really freaked me out, actually. Sure, there are people on the streets, hanging out at bars, cafes, going out to clubs. But street life is quiet. People don’t just loiter on the streets, really. You don’t see people with boomboxes so much. You don’t see people blasting their music so much or breakdancing in subway stations or shouting on the streets or yelling “Fuck you!” so much. And I love that about New York. There’s this strange, stiff sense of politeness to day-to-day affairs in Germany. The most-used words, as far as I could tell, are “bitte” (please), “danke” (thank you), and “genau” (exactly). Yes, please. Thank you. You’re exactly right. Goodbye. Have a nice weekend. I liked that everything had a thin veneer of civility, but I also wanted to see it stripped bare.
Pretty much all the nightlife, cafes, all the stuff you’d want to do if you’re reading this blog are centered in a few different hip areas of the city: Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain, and Kreuzberg. I lived in Prenzlauer Berg–which is where a lot of New York and British expats live–mostly because I found a nice apartment on Craigslist and that’s where it happened to be. But after a while, it wore on me. It was nice, yes, and hip, and full of cute green parks and indie boutiques–but it was also full of stroller-pushing hipster parents shopping for organic produce, sort of like Park Slope in Brooklyn. Not that I’ve got anything against stroller-pushing hipster parents and their impressionable young offspring, but there were just too many of them. It felt a little too white-bread for me. I found myself increasingly drawn to Kreuzberg, home to the majority of the city’s massive Turkish population–the only really visible minority in Berlin. I love everything about Kreuzberg; it’s just so beautiful. The sky looks brighter in Kreuzberg, to me. The colors of the graffiti look more oversaturated. I love the way the murky river looks, snaking through parts of the neighborhood; I love the mossy green overgrowth of everything; I love the loud Turkish markets. Walking through Kreuzberg in summer is like tripping on acid. Kreuzberg is also home to Hard Wax, the legendary techno record store owned by Basic Channel.
I spent my last night in Berlin by myself, trying to reconcile my feelings with the city. Berlin and I, we’ve had an on-and-off relationship for years now. I fell in love with the city when I first visited it as a teenager, on that night train from Amsterdam to Berlin. That train landed me in Zoo Station in the West, and in my first rambles through the city, I landed in Kreuzberg. It was the first “alternative” district I experienced in Berlin; it was where i had that first delirious feeling that I’d landed on something that was both pretty punk-rock and somehow mysterious. I remember going to the SO36 on Oranienstrasse when I was a teenager; I remember the Turkish drag queens; I remember walking across the street to the funny French cafe, La Bateau Ivre, which is still there…I remember walking along the glittering path of the U-Bahn through Kreuzberg 36, after the trains stopped running, following the train stops–Gorlitzer Bahnhof, Kottbusser Tor, Schlesisches Tor. On my last night in Berlin a week or so ago, I traced my steps from when I was 18 years old. I walked along the same path under the trains, thinking and thinking. Thinking how my life had changed since I was 18, and how Kreuzberg was still there, and how much I already missed it. I walked over to Hard Wax–in the back of a brick alleyway, up a few flights of graffiti-covered creaky stairs–and bought a few techno 12″s. I wended my way down Paul-Lincke-Ufer and through the Kottbusser Damm, which probably has the most heavy concentration of Turkish people of any thoroughfare outside of Istanbul. Streets jam-packed with people trying to sell you anything and everything, much of the action happening in little makeshift stands. Sickly-sweet baklava, funny ceramic pots and plates with groovy blue curlicues on them, silky cloth, big creamy blocks of feta cheese, the surreal greenness of vegetables. People yelling, 1 euro, only 1 euro, their voices echoing through the hazy summer air.
It was in Berlin this time around, too–my third time in Berlin in the past twelve months–where I felt really moved by art and architecture again, and started to really appreciate it again, in a time when I think we’re all a little too desensitized to the power of art and amazing buildings and spaces. More songs about buildings and food, as they say. It’s been a while since I’ve been blown away by a gallery opening or a museum exhibition. It’s not that I don’t like them, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen one that really made me drop to my knees and think yes, this it it–this is mind-breaking, this is what I’ve been waiting for. The art scene is so omnipresent in Berlin. Art almost gets prosaic and dull that way; it becomes something you expect, like you’d expect indoor plumbing or coffee in the morning. After all, when it’s affordable enough to be an artist, everyone wants to be one. So it follows that Berlin is awash in art, much of it good, much of it bad. New York has that problem too to some extent, but it’s more tightly constrained by the iron rules of commerce.
Some of the best art in Berlin is street art. The funny wheat-pasted murals hidden behind Friedrichshain alleyways, the moss-covered psychedelic graffiti clinging to wet stone walls in Kreuzberg, the deliciously overthought design and typography of some of the tags left in random bathrooms. I went to a cool street art exhibit in a Kreuzberg museum, but I liked seeing the street art in its original context–that is, on the streets–better. One of the graffiti pieces in the exhibit had a sign on it that read “Do not touch.” Someone I was with said, “That sucks. What’s the point of graffiti if you can’t touch it?” He was right, of course. Graffiti isn’t just about the visual; it’s a tactile sensation, too.
The art project I saw there that moved me the most was called “Der Berg,” wherein a group of artists built a giant mountain-like structure inside of the crumbling, decrepit East German parliament building. I wrote about this in that New York Times article I linked to earlier on this blog, but that article didn’t really get to how I felt, to the enormous maelstrom of feelings I found myself lost in. So, back to my long-term relationship with Berlin. The Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic)–that crumbling, massive building–will be razed soon to make way for a dubious and expensive government development project, and it’s hard to see it go. The first thing you had to do when you walked into the Palast der Republik and into the “Der Berg” project was that you had to walk over the area of the building that used to be the premiere East German theatre. Now it’s empty, and there’s a real sense of faded grandeur to it.
You walked over these dodgy industrial metal rafters and looked down into the theatre and saw giant cast-concrete letters that some contributors to the “Der Berg” crew put there, that read “Ceci n’est pas une montagne.” Word to your mother, Magritte. . .
. . . this was all while hearing music. Music from the opening of the Palast in the ’70s, old East German dance music, quotes from when the Palast first opened, and audio clips of an old man in a gruff old-man voice–the original architect of the building–talking about the painstaking process of how the building was built. You could call it a stab at cheap ostalgie, that weird misplaced/displaced sense of nostalgia for the days of communism and the old East Germany, but it wasn’t. It was just sad. Sad and beautiful, in its own ungainly way.
Then you made your way to Der Berg, the mountain itself, and chose one of three paths to scale the mountain–the way of the mountain climber, the pilgrim, or the philosopher. Like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book come to life.
Over the period of about two weeks, I embarked on all three ways up the mountain at least once. “Der Berg” was part comedy and theatre routine, part obstacle course, part Rube Goldberg device. It was also one of the most inventive uses of space I’d ever seen. There was no way anyone would allow this to happen anywhere except Berlin. There were too many safety risks involved. (This, of course, made it more fun.)
Back to the building itself. Seeing this glowing and grand mountain construction inside the Palast made me love art again. And seeing the Palast–ugly and boxy and industrial, ’70s and orange, but beautiful and modern and heartbreaking at the same time–made me love architecture again. Standing in front of the hulking, hollow shell of a building and seeing your own face reflected in its pockmarked copper glass facade was a powerful and oddly moving feeling.
I knew Rem Koolhaas had talked a lot about the Palast in the past, so I wanted to interview him for the article I was writing. It took me several days to track Mr. Koolhaas down for an interview, and when I finally did, it was nighttime–me in my office in Berlin, exhausted and pining for dinner, and him in a car in Rotterdam, in between business appointments. He was on a cell phone, and he called me on mine. The Holland-to-Germany phone reception was terrible, and his voice cut in and out, crackling through layers of digital static. I was nervous–who wouldn’t be, interviewing Koolhaas?–and I could hear my heart beating faster. The interview questions I’d prepared suddenly felt stupid, and sounded so flat as I said them.
The interview ended up going fine, even if it was a bit stiff and formal. At the end, I asked him how he felt when he first walked into the building. He said something like, “Let’s turn this around. How did you feel when you first walked into the building?”
I was utterly unprepared for this. I was interviewing him; this was an interview about him and about the building, not about me! I didn’t know what to say. “I. . . ”
I faltered. I knew how it made me feel. The building made me want to cry.
“I never felt so. . . overcome by a building before,” I said into my cell phone. I felt stupid as the words spilled out of my mouth, but I couldn’t stop them from spilling. “The minute I walked in, I felt…I never felt a building’s power like that before. I never felt so affected by a building before.”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s exactly it. That’s how architecture should make you feel.”
For a brief fraction of a second, I suddenly felt a deep connection between me and the famous Dutch architect at the other end of the line. That we understood each other, somehow.
Then the interview was over, and I hung up the phone.