Sunday, April 4, 2004

(My Berlin photos are finally up, click on the headline for the latest)

The Berlin Experience (or “Birds of a Feather Flock Together” an entry for )

After doing Dublin as a solo tourist it was great to go with a flatmate to Berlin. Also, as the flatmate in question is Italian, my pig-ignorant English-speaker status was not an undue encumbrance as his friends were used to speaking to him in English. Two non-German speaking flatmates stranded together in a foreign capital. Excelllent.

But what a group of friends! S. the Italian sociologist spent a summer in Berlin recently and met a really eclectic group of people. I met a correspondent photographer straight back from assignment in Haiti (having seen his Iraq photos on S’s laptop), a fashion designer in her third year of getting an original label off the ground, a medical intern and S himself was staying with a record company promotions officer who routinely sends him batches of free CDs. (Also, in true college-life style, a woman we knew from the grads at college was a native and was able to hang out with us a bit.)

S’s artsy friends seemed pretty much the scene in Mitte, the central district of the old East Berlin, artsy and based around internal migration (most people were not from Berlin, but had moved there because it was cool). It had, for want of a better analogy, terribly Brunswick Street.

Top things about Berlin (for an Australian most comfortable in Canberra and Melbourne): for Western Europe, it’s dirt cheap (ie Australian prices), I had a fabulous hostel, there’s a very lively bar scene – and they have trams!

Actually, the main thing I enjoyed after a English winter was three days continuous sunlight.

Berlin has a really interesting character. I tried as much as possible to exempt myself from the obligation to be a comprehensive tourist and just hang out with S and the locals where I could (though I did take in the Jewish Museum, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and the old National Gallery. In a moment of spectacular incompetence and irony I could not actually find the secret police museum at the old Stasi headquarters.) What did I notice, other than the reassuringly familiar metallic whale-song of tram brakes?

Berlin seems a perpetual construction site. Communism imposed an architectural time-bubble on the East, resulting in a lot of buildings with facades like grated chocolate bars, and redevelopment and restoration proceeds at a frightening pace. Also, there are a lot of vacant lots with rubble (the legacy of bombing?), converted to community uses like kids’ playgrounds. The light has a chalky quality, the sky white with dust and the centre is intensely modernist and concretey. It’s one of the first places in Europe I’ve seen park-corners thoroughly trampled, Australian-style, into hard, messy packed earth and dusty plants.

But it has a vitality I really like: not enough trees to alleviate the raw building, but a real zest and relaxed pace of life. As S said to me, you suspect no-one in East Berlin has a full-time job, any time of day the cafés are crowded.

I liked it, and I liked getting behind the scenes. The first night we dined in a local pizzeria in Christburg (where the pizzas were seriously wider than the narrow tables, two easily feeding five people) while the photographer-friend regaled us with tales of Haiti and somehow drew me into an impassioned discussion on the rule of law and merits of international law.

A great three days, which would not have been the same without a flatmate tour-guide.

PS Naylor: a new instalment of Elliot's adventure went up Friday, which even features a handy summary of the plot so far (more or less) and something of a revelation for our amateur detective.

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