Saturday, 2 January 2010

London Loves.....Berlin

Happy New Year. Happy new decade. Happy new life. Happy holidays. Happy new blog.

Apologies for my extended absence. It’s been a month since the last London Loves. I haven’t been idle.
In that time I turned 30, was made redundant from my job and then re-hired (within the space of a week), had laser eye surgery (watch this space) and, it being the Yuletide (whatever that actually means), ate/drank/consumed/laughed/cried much more than one does for the entire rest of one’s annus. (I said annus not anus. It’s Latin. The Queen said it once, remember? Everyone thought she was cool and hilarious.)

Also in the past month I visited the most amazing city. Which I shall now eulogise about.

To celebrate my coming of age. Well, at least my coming of age thirty, I took five of my friends to Berlin for a weekend of revelry. It’s safe to say we had an incredible time. It’s difficult not to have a good time in Berlin. While Londoners are never shy about praising other parts of the world, this city deserves particular mention as it reminds us Londoners that London is not entirely the focal point of the universe we often assume it is and, while London is still the greatest city on earth, we can still learn a thing or two from our neighbours.

The overriding fact that sticks in my mind is the liberalism of Berlin. In no other capital city have I felt such a lack of inhibition. No ridiculous ‘no alcohol’ rule on tube trains, the vast majority of bars and clubs we visited did not enforce the smoking ban, we saw very few police officers, at a football match we attended home and away fans mingled sitting next to each other and celebrating goals openly without any fear of reprisals, nobody objects to you starting off your day with Glühwein mit Schuß (Mulled wine with a shot of rum, whisky or Amaretto), in fact alcohol generally is very cheap and the culture of drinking is far more happy and relaxed than it can be in London. People just being their natural selves. Like Parisians, but less vain and arrogant. (Sorry, Parisians. You know I love you. x)

The general sense is of a fine blend of party town and tradition. And what fine traditions. Sausages to die for. Beer to die for. Massive Pretzel bread type things to die for. But enough about food (one probably shouldn’t write a blog when hungry or it may turn into a culinary review).

The historic buildings are stunning. One wonders how any of it survived the end of the war. At times you feel ‘this is what Rome should look like’. Classical, monumentalist, epic in grandeur, composition and size. The Olympicstadion, for example, is unrivalled by any football stadium I have been to, including the San Siro, the new Wembley or the so-called Theatre of Dreams. Approaching the stadium, still very much as Hitler planned it to look in 1936, one is essentially approaching a coliseum. The two columns 100 metres high supporting the Olympic rings. Lights shining through them to add to the majesty. The grounds contain the old swimming pool and other Olympic buildings kept intact yet seemingly unused. Unlike Rome, one is not disappointed by this coliseum when one enters its vast cavity. One is instead awed and daunted by the sheer size (75,000 capacity), the genius of design, the vastness.

The history of Berlin is staggering. During the course of a five hour walking tour (which was only meant to last 3 hours. In the snow) we paused to stand on the spot, now a non-descript car park, where Hitler, Eva Braun and the Goebbels family killed themselves in 1945 as the Soviets approached. We saw the remaining sections of the oppressive wall and heard the horrific stories of separation, desperation and death it brought about. We saw the stunning Brandenburg Gate (quite a good place to hold a night rally apparently). We saw where the Nazis burnt the books. We saw the controversial, beautiful, beguiling, undulating and deceptively capacious Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, built in 2005. Across the road, within site of the memorial we noticed a glittery, shiny sign with the word ‘PLAYBOY’, embossed in pink writing. Wandering over to investigate we realised the famous pornography company was setting up for a party that evening. Sadly we weren’t invited. It was however a neat summation of Berlin’s modernism directly adjacent to memorialism.

We also saw the balcony where Michael Jackson dangled his little baby out of the window (was it called ‘Blanket’ or did I dream that up?!), but we don’t have time to go into that now…

As well as the sheer beauty of classicism, the East of Berlin has its own kind of beauty. Clearly former Soviet Bloc in its uncomplicated layout and basic architectural design; industrialism, graffiti and railway tracks rule supreme here. Yet, I noticed that while London revels in erecting horrible, already dated modern buildings for apartments, shops and office blocks, creating a hideous juxtaposition with the Victorian splendour, Berlin had far better taste. Any new, flashy buildings there were did not hid behind the timid pretence of timelessness which has characterised British urban town planning since the 1980s, but rather embraced their kitsch plasticity, their fundamental use as platforms for sponsors, adverts and logos, their unashamed nod to capitalism.

Kitsch and colossal are themes running through the heart of Berlin. Summed up in the contrast between say the CCCP Bar in Mitte near Prenzlauberg and the Tresor nightclub. The former set up like somebody’s living room, very arty, playing on Soviet chic, a wonderful local DJ spinning a mix of turbo-folk, Cuban house beats and what could only be described as Arabic techno. The toilet almost a pastiche of the Beggar’s Banquet LP cover. A Chechen war criminal holding court, chatting up young students and rolling joints on the table. The latter, Tresor, a magnificent club, situated, as most Berlin night clubs are, in a huge disused factory or power station or warehouse, standing alone in a fairly industrial/urban decay/wasteland looking part of town one feels like one is entering the very concept of what a club should be. The tech-house was out of this world. If that’s what Tresor was like, with its relaxed door policy, I can only imagine the delights of Berghain. We were warned off Berghain several times because of its erratic, random entrance/denial ratio. Widely regarded as one of the best clubs in the world, the door staff refuse or permit entry to punters on a whim (or depending on whether you speak German or not). We heard a story from a guy who once witnessed at firsthand two German supermodels in front of him in the queue being turned away. The sound system is apparently unrivalled. Next time I visit I have promised myself a visit. Maybe not with a group of 6 lads.

All in all a quite amazing city. Friendly, witty people speaking perfect English (but do at least make the effort to spreche auf Deutsch bitte). Beautiful people. Long legged women. Stylish, tasteful fashions. Great cars (a mix of state of the art BMWs and 1960s Eastern European manufactured unidentifiable cool little vehicles). A beautiful river (always the hallmark of a great city).

One thing though, if you do visit Berlin in mid December. Wrap up warm. It’s fucking freezing.