Friday, 18 June 2010

The world outside Manchester part 1 - Berlin

Often, my reasons for wanting to visit new places are based on nothing more concrete than an obsession with music/films/books produced there. I've long wanted to go to Berlin, intrigued by films like Wim Wender's dreamy Wings of Desire, which is set in sparse black and white high above the city (blooming into colour when the angels who are its main characters make human contact), made a couple of years before the fall of the Berlin wall and, later, Goodbye Lenin, with its new take on the reunification of Berlin. As a teenager, I had a fixation with the music of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Brian Eno and Nick Cave, who are among the musicians who made Berlin their home in the 1970s and 1980s and produced some of the more experimental music of their careers.
None of these preconceptions prepared me for how big, colourful and green Berlin is today. Almost every surface in the city is covered in graffiti, from scrawled tags on shops to huge murals on walls facing onto building sites. This self-decoration reaches a pinnacle in the art squat Tacheles, on Oranienburgerstrasse. A huge, old building with massive windows overlooking the city, it glows with layers of paint built up over the years, and even the windows are coloured with a patina of graffiti - from the inside, the effect is rather like looking out from the coloured sweet windows of a gingerbread house. There's a general air of shabbiness in Berlin - all the streets are covered in a fuzz of green; weeds growing unchecked from in between the cracks of pavements, plants climbing up the front of buildings and grassy strips following the route of tram tracks down the middle of roads like green islands.
I stayed on a boat on the River Spree in a hostel called Eastern Comfort, a short walk over the grand, redbrick Oberbaumbr├╝cke Bridge - past, if you're lucky, jazz and punk buskers competing with the roar of the traffic - from the district of Kreuzberg, the main Turkish area of Berlin and also an area full of fashionable shops, bars and cafes. The most exciting hostel I have ever stayed in, it swayed from side to side whenever another boat went past - an especially disconcerting sensation whilst standing in the shower.In Berlin, you're never far from reminders of the city's divided past, and this was especially clear whilst staying in Eastern Comfort. The hostel has a sister boat moored on the other side of the river named Western Comfort as, when Berlin was divided, the area over the river - including Kreuzberg- fell into West Berlin, whilst the other side of the Spree was east Berlin. On a free boat tour of the river organised by the hostel, the captain explained that the water belonged to east Berlin, meaning that no-one was able to enter the river without being shot at by patrol boats. This led to four children from West Germany drowning near the site of Western Comfort as no-one was able to go to their rescue. Today, a floating pool on the Spree provides views over both sides of the river. The captain also told us about the redevelopment of Berlin - there are frequent protests against private property developers building new hotels and apartment blocks by the river, led by those who think the waterfront should be accessible to everyone, as well as against things like McDonalds. One of the areas of Berlin which has famously become gentrified is Prenzlauer-Berg. I visited for a giant Sunday fleamarket - think of the biggest car boot fair you can imagine, combined with a festival atmosphere of people selling homemade food and buskers, from jazz bands to three young boys armed with guitars, reverb and a rudimentary drumkit, trying to compete with a mass outdoor karaoke session.
Next to Eastern Comfort, a section of the interior wall remains, now turned into Eastside Gallery, daubed with colourful murals and messages of peace by artists from all over the world. It's possible to follow the route of the wall, with reminders of the American, allied presence, like Checkpoint Charlie, still standing. A rusty, rugged patch of the wall remains in Kreuzberg, with faded though poignant graffiti like 'To Astrid maybe some day we will be together' still visible, and holes looking through to the street outside where Berliners started chipping away at the wall when the fall was announced. Displays on boards in this area describe the human stories of the wall, remembering those who died trying to escape.
Another memorial, near the Reichstag (visitors to the Reichstag can find out about the history of the German Parliament as well as look out over the city from Norman Foster's recent glass extension), remembers the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Smooth, grey concrete blocks, growing gradually taller, draw you down cramped corridors, over a rising and falling floor, as if in a maze. In the centre, where the blocks are tallest, it's a bit like being lost in a dense forest, bleak even on a sunny day and quiet despite the busy roads which encircle the memorial. Across the road is a real forest - the massive Tiergarten which provides a huge urban park in the centre of Berlin, complete with canals and lakes, as well as more formal rose gardens and long boulevards. You could spend days exploring the Tiergarten, or just use it as a green shortcut to other areas of the city.

After the Jewish memorial, it was strange to go to another exhibition of oppressive corridors and small spaces - a Bruce Nauman show at the Hamburger Bahnhof modern art gallery, part of the Berlin Biennial. As well as permanent displays on Fluxus and twentieth century artists like Anselm Kiefer and Dieter Roth, Nauman's work was on show based around constructions of tight corners and corridors leading to nowhere, lit by neon lights.

Berlin is also full of smaller galleries, particulary concentrated in the area of Mitte, around Auguststrasse. In Weisser Elefant, viewers had to put slippers on over shoes to enter a recreation of a 1960s East German apartment, exploring the concept of the ideal socialist family unit based in pre-fabricated housing. One of my favourite galleries was in a comic book and zine shop called Bongout on Torstrasse. In the back is an exhibition space, featuring a display of cartoons and giant, colourful comic books, whilst at the front are gig posters and artists' books and zines. Here, I picked up a flier which told me about a tape music gig at an artists' space in Neuk├Âlln, an area just past Kreuzberg.
Altes Finanzamt is home to a collective of nine artists - eight Portuguese and one Spanish - and hosts gigs, discussions, film screenings and exhibitions*. I went to see Brooklyn based tape composer Aki Onda, who makes music out of found sounds like bird song and street noises, as well as the static of radios and the clicking of cassette players turning on and off. The following day, I returned for a dinner cooked by the artists (Gazpacho soup followed by mushroom and asparagus quiche then chocolate brownie), before a screening of a film about a group of football fans who built their own stadium.
Berlin is one of the most vegetarian friendly places I have ever visited, going out of its way to provide veggie and vegan options, as well as being home to some great vegetarian cafes and restaurants, including Hans Wurst in Prenzlauer-Berg, a vegan cafe which is dedicated to DIY and also sells zines and records and, in Kreuzberg, the veggie fast food joint Yellow Sunshine, where I tried crispy vegetarian schnitzel!

All the bars (and even a Mercedes showroom!) were showing the World Cup on TV screens outside on the street, and following Germany's defeat of Australia, the whole city celebrated in a massive blaring of car and taxi horns. Pedestrians are outumbered by cyclists in the city, and cyclists too joined in with a mass tinkling of bells.

*I gave them some copies of the Shrieking Violet fanzine for a zine fair they are holding at the end of June