The first thing I do when visiting a new city is find the meeting place of a free walking tour. Tours such as these are the best way to get yourself acquainted with a new city and have worked wonders for me in cities such as Sydney and Dublin. They allow you to find your bearings, and only cost what you can afford. Perfect for us poor students!
Being in Berlin, I wanted to be led off the typical tourist trail and emerge myself in Berlin’s complicated history and learn more about its famous street art and underground nightlife. I stumbled across this website: http://alternativeberlin.com/subculture-berlin-free-tour, a tour which promises to take ‘you beyond the tourist destinations to the heart and soul of the city‘.
We met our guide (aptly named Mari Juana and also a trapeze artist), in the shadow of the Television Tower, the epicentre of Berlin’s tourist led commercial district. Luckily Mari Juana immediately swept us away, tutting as we passed Bratwurst peddlers and Starbucks chains, leading us towards the old Jewish quarter and Rosenthaler Straße. We had ambled through this area the evening before, amazed at its abundance of street art and hidden decorated courtyards. Although we had stared at the various art for quite some time, we had no idea why they were there or the artists behind them. Mari Juana filled us in, with a personal favorite being El Bocho’s ‘Little Lucy’, a series of pieces strewn across the city. This cartoon character had been re-appropriated by El Bocho, turning into the sadistic killer of her cat companion. Whenever you saw Lucy you had to find the cat, and work out its unfortunate fate.
Mari Juana also showed us a Banksy, encouraging us to photograph it as a momento. A great Banksy fan, the iPhone came out immediately and I began snapping away. Mari Juana started to chuckle, ‘It’s a fake!’ she gleefully exclaimed. Yup, we all fell for that one! A street art connoisseur I am not…
The next stop was my favorite courtyard of the lot. The courtyard accommodated Haus Schwarzenberg, a building housing many of the most well-known artists in Berlin, as well as being one of the only legal places to graffiti in the city. The legality of street art here had, of course, encouraged thousands of fantastic pieces, you could explore the walls here for hours, even Mari Juana said she found something different every time she came here.
We took a break here to admire the art and take our fill of pictures. We chatted to Mari Juana for a while, learning about her amazing life. Growing up in recently desegregated Berlin, Mari Juana had been introduced to the emerging underground rave scene by her boyfriend of the time. She relived tales of parties only accessed through hidden doors in the floor of public toilets and squats hidden in old-soviet mansions. She lamented this lost world, blaming the emerging influence of international corporations which had begun to dull down Berlin’s wild-child personality. Berlin is a city which is ever changing, for better or for worse.
After our break we jumped on the U-Bahn to Kreuzberg. If I were to parallel Kreuzberg with somewhere in London then it would definitely be Camden. Quirky and alternative, Kreuzberg is home to the Berliners everyone has been talking about, the punks, the hipsters, the young media crowd… Yet it is also home to Berlin’s Turkish population, meaning that kebab shops rub shoulders with alternative clothing stores and art galleries with shisha bars. It is definitely the place to people watch, but do it subtly, these people don’t like being a tourist attraction.
One of the most inspiring stops in Kreuzberg is the treehouse, built by and home to Osman Kalin. Mr Kalin built the treehouse after finding a loophole in land ownership between East and West Berlin. As the wall was not built in a straight line, Mr Kalin found a patch of no-mans land and decided to build a treehouse and garden there using recycled and unwanted materials. Being on the Eastern side of the wall, West Berlin couldn’t do anything about it and East Berlin made him their poster-boy as a victim of the capitalist regime. When the wall fell, Mr Kalin battled to save his treehouse and finally the local church found paperwork showing that they owned the land and allowed him to stay. And they all lived happily ever after… A truly inspiring story about the power of the individual, one of the many unbelievable stories to add to Berlin’s unique past. We were lucky enough to spot Mr Kalin relaxing in his garden surrounded by family and friends. What a hero.
Somehow in my research on the city, I had neglected to realise that we were going to be there for one of the most important and crazy celebrations in Berlin’s pretty jam-packed calendar. May Day traditionally celebrates International Worker’s Day. Due to Berlin’s communist history, this day is historically synonymous with violence and protest, with protesters in 1987 forcing riot police from the Kreuzberg District, an achievement wildly celebrated. There hasn’t been any violence since 2010 and now the day is simply another excuse for an infamous Berlin party. Turkish food vendors line the street, music of all genres blares from official and make-shift stages, cocktails are consumed and thousands party along the streets. Like most parties in Berlin, this is a 24/7 affair with revelers still standing in the early hours of the morning. If you want to party like a Berliner, you’ve got to have stamina.
After thanking Mari Juana and profusely apologising for our meagre ten euro tip, we were unleashed onto the streets, ready to stuff our faces with Turkish Kofte and dance to heavy metal bands. When night fell the party raged on with newsagents turned into al fresco bars and locals dragging their laptops onto the street, blasting their favorite playlists and drawing in their own partying flock. It really was spectacular.
Being a massive house music fan I scouted out a stage featuring a crazily talented DJ and Turkish clarinet player- quite the unlikely duo- and later rubbed shoulders with the locals under a railway bridge with an amazing beat-boxer who had drawn quite the crowd.
This was the real Berlin, the Berlin who denied its past the right to dampen their spirit, who were intent on creating a better and fairer future for every inhabitant. Berlin is like no other Western city I have visited before. Here the people were proud to be different, proud not to be in the hands of America and consistently resisting the pull and financial reward of the autonomous multinational corporations. These people were prepared to fight for their individuality and fight for their city in a way I have never seen before. And I sure hope they win.