The Delights of Berlin

Early this month, I went to Europe, for the first time in my life. It’s an overrated place. I never understand why people kill themselves to go there. All the time I was there, questions from a folk tale kept ringing in my head; anansi the spider went to paradise, but why did he not talk about what he saw there? More important, why did he return to earth? Before I offend my German friends with a list of why I hated their country, I’ll tell you about the things I enjoyed. I was in Berlin, for about two weeks, hardly enough time to form an opinion of a place, only enough time for me to learn four words, nein, tanka, nikut and kut. Or they sounded like that. I checked with google translate, and the words are probably nein (no), danke (thank), nix gut (no good) and gut (good).

Grafitti art on the East Side Gallery, on what once was the Berlin Wall

The last two words I learnt from a Kurdish guy. I forget his name. He ran a chicken doner kebab place near the central railway station, Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Doner Kebab is a Turkish fast food. This guy made it with chicken cooked on a vertical rotisserie, and wrapped in a flatbread. He called it Turkish Pizza. If you ever visit Berlin (or Europe), a doner kebab is one of the delights you should look out for. It’s often sold in roadside fast food stands, which are run by Turkish immigrants. There is a whole lot of them in Germany. I heard that they are the largest group of immigrants into Germany. It’s one reason the EU doesn’t want to accept Turkey into their community, for they think there will be a deluge of immigrants. I think the best thing to do is to open the gates. The spiders will flood in, see that Europe is not the paradise they believe it to be, and go back home.

Outside the doner kebab, Berlin Hauptbahnhof

And this kebab guy taught me two German words. He said, ‘Deutsch nix gut, Turk gut’. So I’m not the only one who thought Deutschland wasn’t heaven, but more of that in the next post. In this one, I’m telling you about what I enjoyed there. The delights of Berlin.

The Kurdish guy and his rotisserie

I wouldn’t have found anything more than doner kebab if I had not run into a french woman who has lived in there for six years now. Marie. She is an artist, a theater practitioner. We met at a party. I seemed to be attending a party every night. I told her I wanted to see the non-tourist places in Berlin, and she was kind enough to be my guide for a night.

Turkish pizza and Turkish tea.

According to her, Berlin is the cultural hotspot of Europe. Artist love it for it has a vibrant underground art culture, plus it is a cheap city, which makes it easy for artists to survive on their dreams. I must say that I met more non-Germans than Germans in Berlin, maybe because I was moving in the art world. They come from all over the place, France, Ireland, Netherlands, Italy. I sadly never met any African artists while I was there, but I would have treasured such a meeting.

Seeing that I was eating nothing but doner kebab and the horrible currywurst, which is something of the national fast food in German (a sausage, basically), Marie took me to a place that blew me away, and that made me, for a moment, wish to live in Berlin. A restuarant called Clarchens Ballhaus. They dance there every day, starting about ten pm, but we were both too tired to try it out. I had a German meal, Kasespatzle, which is paster served with cheese, roasted onions and apple compote. I didn’t like it a bit. But I loved the atmosphere of the restaurant. It reminded me of OR2K in Kathmandu. The old building, the candle lights, the music, the hum of conversation. Too sad it didn’t have the kind of aphrodisiac menu and the whiffs of marijuana that made me fall in love with OR2K.

The Clarchens Ballhaus is in an old building, with an old style facade. One of the few that survived the blitz of the second world war. The whole city was destroyed at that time, but some buildings survived, and  this was one of them. Or so I was told. Being a freak for architecture, these old darlings made me like Berlin.

The building housing Clarchens Ballhaus.
Below, inside the Ballhaus.

After dinner, as we walked back to the train station, when I told her that I was in love with monsters and all things fantasy, she took me to the Monster Cabinet. A bar. I was curious about what kind of bar would be called a ‘monster cabinet.’ Outside, it had a huge monster. You drop a coin into its belly and it performs a weird robot dance, with its eyes rolling out of its head in a grisly fashion. Total fun. Marie said arty bars in Berlin has something unique about it, a thing to set them apart from the others, and for this bar, it was monsters. I’d recommend visiting such a bar. There is lot of them in the city.

Inside the club, the atmosphere again was nothing like what I had seen before. I can’t describe it. Take a look at the pictures. It’s worth a thousand words. They had a bicycle pinned onto the wall, and there were faces of monsters all over the place. The lights, and the (was it wall paper or just paint) gave the place a feel of a sci-fi movie set. In fact, it reminded me of one of my favorite fantasy films, The Mirror Mask. We sat down for a drink, and were surprised to realize that there was a projector beaming a film onto the wall. Cartoons. No sound. We had to listen to the electronic music. I thought that very weird. Why would they show cartoons in a bar? 

Maybe they noticed no one was watching the cartoon, for they switched to erotic music videos, and we got our cue to leave the place. I’m sure later in the night, the videos changed into something pornographic.

Like I said before, this Monster Cabinet is in an old house, a relic, called the Haus Schwarzenberg. There was a notice asking for contributions to keep the place afloat, for it was supposed to be an important place for artists. We went there in the night, so we couldn’t visit the gallery, but the corridor leading to the bar was covered with graffiti art.

The street to Monster Clarinet. While in other cities this might be
an unsafe place to walk at night, Marie said Berlin is such a safe city
she feels comfortable walking alone in such streets at midnight.

I like Berlin for it’s graffiti art. I was told there were works of Banksy somewhere. I went hunting for them, but couldn’t find anything. Or maybe I saw it but just didn’t know it was Banksy. Still, to crown off my visit, I went to see remnant of the famous Berlin Wall. There is a gallery on it, called the East Side Gallery. As the Wall came down in 1990, some one thought it would be a wise idea to preserve a section of it. And of course, looking at a plain wall, inspite of its hostirical significance, wouldn’t be fun, so they invited artists from all over the world to paint. It makes a visit to the Wall worth it. Of all the tourist places in Berlin, I totally enjoyed this, partly because I didn’t have to pay anything, but just walking down the street, looking at the fabulous paintings, and at people posing to take photos, brought a smile to my face.

The most famous painting is that of two men kissing. Its based on a photo of two communist leaders kissing in 1979. One is Leonid Brezhnev (Soviet Union) and the other Eric Honecker (East Germany). The painting is by Dmitri Vubel, and is titled ‘My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love’. The painting has been defaced by both sides in the gay debate. When I visited, I found a man and a woman kissing in front of it, to the delight of spectators. I don’t know if they were trying to make a statement, or if they were just having fun. 

A couple kissing on the Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery.
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