Berlin. How do I even begin to describe the feeling of being in a city like Berlin? The history, the sights, the food, the people, the very atmosphere. It is all at once inviting, exciting, energising and overwhelming. I had no expectations of Berlin. I’d been once before, when I was 14 years old, so I was pretty sure I knew what I was getting into. I wasn’t just wrong, I was literally ignorant of the city I thought I understood so well. I guess I’ll start at the beginning of my journey, though my first impressions were somewhat negative and completely, hilariously wrong…
Of course, the first photograph I took in Berlin (well, the first that wasn’t a selfie), was of the magnificent Brandonberg gate. Hardly surprising condidering it is one of the most impressive monuments in the city. However, I saw alot of Berlin before I saw the gate. I saw the East. I lived, in fact, in the East. As East as it’s possible to go while still living in Berlin… okay, not quite. But Lichtenberg is definitely very geographically East, and as I learnt more and more about Berlin’s divided political history, it really began to feel like the East. The East of the city remains grey, its buildings tall and almost oppressive while somehow seemingly sparse in their distribution. The street ‘art’ appeared to me far more of the kind that I would describe as ‘criminal damage’ than freedom of expression, and on that first day I truly wondered if I’d be brave enough to leave my flat after nightfall.
But then I got to know Berlin. The more time I spent there, the more I saw. That graffiti? I realized it had deep roots in Berlin’s history. Some street art was comissioned, designed specifically for a certain place and paid for. Some of it wasn’t, and yet was protected and conserved due to its cultural richness.
I began to see street art everywhere. Sure, on the streets, but also in less likely places, inside restaurant gardens, on the ceilings on bathrooms, inside clubs, on the sides of peoples homes. I came across urban spaces awash with art, its day-glo effect surreal against the backdrop of the grey East.
Among the creative spaces, there are nooks and crannies full of exciting things to discover. A swimming pool that floats on the river made from an old barge. A gold telephone box that provides a one song disco for three people. A rooftop bar situated above a shopping overlooking the city, playing soft techno and hosting live jazz nights on different days of the week. An abandoned airport open for the public to skate/bike/walk around. I think one of my favourite moments in Berlin was spent in that very airport. I was resting on a bench after an hour or so of roller blading down the runways, when I heard a man with the most beautiful, soulful, old fashioned voice. He was singing along to a portable piano that he was playing, right there in the middle of the airport. Some passing locals stopped to listen too, and said that he had wheeled the piano there earlier that day. It was a moment that could only ever be experienced in Berlin. A moment so unexpected, bizarre, isolated and wonderful that I hope I remember it for as long as I live.
There is so much to see and do in Berlin that it is almost unbelievable. How about a flea market followed by an afternoon getting drunk in an amphitheater, singing kareoke with 300 other people? A walk through a war monument with architecture that looks beautifully, tragically post-apocolyptic? Clubbing to industrial techno in a blacked out, sound proofed, box of a room for 3 days straight? A bagel in a book shop? A swim in a gorgeous lake in the middle of the city? Dancing the tango with complete (professional tango dancing) strangers? Queing for 2 hours or more for the world’s greatest kebab? Breaking into an abandoned themepark at 6am in the morning so you don’t get caught? The longer I stayed in Berlin the more I came to see that for all of its history, trauma, and rebuilding, it is today a city so culturally rich and vibrant, a city that feels so young and exciting, that I will have a tremendous job trying to find its equal.