Willkommen in Berlin!
When I did a poll on which cities people wanted me to visit most for this project late last year, Berlin topped the list.
Having never been, I had no idea why. All I knew was that it was party central and covered in graffiti. And oh yeah, something about it being ‘where it’s at’ in terms of art, design etc.
So I was definitely curious. But also slightly terrified that I’d find nothing to photograph but party people and, well, graffiti.
Now, I knew before I arrived what most people know about Berlin: Hitler, WWII, the Wall, then no Wall. But until I started having a nose around the place, I really hadn’t grasped just how bizarre this city’s recent history is. And really I’m talking here about what happened post-WWII, culminating in the Berlin Wall shooting up overnight in 1961 and dividing the city in two for the next 30 odd years.
I just can’t get my head around waking up one morning to discover you’ve been either fenced in or fenced off, from family and friends – and for the East Berliners, any chance of any sort of freedom. What the Nazis did was horrendous beyond words. Shocking, harrowing, horrendous. But a wall going up in the middle of your city? I just find that so bizarre.
So thinking about which area to start with, I felt drawn to somewhere in the former east. While those in West Berlin were the ones who were literally walled in, they were still free. It was the East Berliners who were suddenly no longer able to move – or think – freely.
I ended up choosing Friedrichshain, half of one of Berlin’s 12 boroughs and formerly part of East Berlin.
Some facts: Formed in 1920 as a largely working class district. Badly bombed in WWII. When Berlin was divided up post WWII, Friedrichshain became part of the Soviet occupied sector and then the GDR, with one edge running along the border that became the Berlin Wall in 1961. Post reunification in 1989, squatters moved into the empty apartment blocks. Today, it boasts a lively restaurant/bar/club scene and is gradually being gentrified.
Okay, let’s wander.
Part 1: Time warp
Berlin’s past is so shocking that I spent my first week here obsessed with trying to see the city through the eyes of someone living here during the 50s, 60s and 70s.
To begin with, I was most curious what the former East looked like – aside from Karl-Marx-Allee, the showcase avenue of the GDR, it appears to be be filled with masses of fairly bleak looking apartment blocks built between 1950s-70s. Many inhabited, some still derelict from GDR days.
For the benefit of those who’ve never been, here’s a handful to paint some sort of picture…
I found myself desperately wanting to get inside some of the derelict buildings, especially those that the Stasi were rumoured to have worked from. One of the most hated secret police forces in history, the Stasi used all manner of devious methods to spy on people – my favourite is the cloth piece they laid on chairs that would pick up the scent of anyone sitting there, later used by dogs to hunt someone down.
My time travelling was aided by a vintage fashion fair we stumbled on just outside Friedrichshain. We were just about to jump on the U-Bahn subway when I spotted an older couple who looked like they had just walked out of the 50s. Birgit and Thomas were going to the vintage fair so we tailed along with them – a perfect opportunity to ask questions and hear some stories from a couple of native Berliners.
Birgit told me that when the border was sealed overnight in 1961, she was a nine year old, visiting her grandparents in East Berlin. Even though she lived in the west, she was forbidden to cross back. Luckily people in West Berlin were allowed to enter the east for a short while after so her parents were able to reach her. They smuggled her back into the west; had she been discovered, she would have been taken from her grandparents and sent to an orphanage. Her father died a few years before the Wall came down so she would never have seen him again. I had goose bumps listening to her story. Can you imagine?
Having arrived at the vintage fair, there were a number of other women dressed in 50s fashion.
On another day, visiting the Stasi Museum (I had to, I was so intrigued) I met Sarah, a makeup artist attending something nearby the museum to do with fashion week and skate-boarding. In my delirious time-warped mind, I thought she would have made a great spy. More James Bond than Stasi but you get my drift.
Part 2: Past to present
I find it fascinating that a city with such a shocking past now has such a decadent, hedonistic present.
For 30 years half of its citizens were denied basic freedoms. Now you can pretty much do whatever you want and be whoever you want to be.
First up, a group of 20-somethings that describe themselves as ‘erotic activists’. The flyer they gave me explains that they make films of themselves having sex to raise money to save the forests.
I met the group through one of its members, Tabea, when we dropped past a flea market near one of the main streets in the neighbourhood, Simon-Dach-Strasse. Living somewhere outside Berlin, this 19 year old had a kind of Blade Runner look about her that appealed to me. Still at school, she told me she loves Berlin because where she comes from, she’d be judged for what she wears. Here, nobody bats an eyelid.
Just around the corner from where the erotic activists were hanging out I met another soul who obviously relishes Berlin’s non-judgemental chilledness. Cedrik, or C-drik as he likes his name to be written, is a gentle, articulate man with one of the most original tattoos I’ve ever seen. From Belgium and the Congo originally, he has covered himself with a tattoo design that reminded me of a cross between a Dalmatian and a leopard, and then added a brightly coloured, perfectly coiffed mohawk to top it all off.
Part 3: Normal life – getting from A to B
Like most of Berlin, Friedrichshain is bike crazy. There seems to be a dedicated bike lane almost everywhere you look – and look you must, as it’s often perilously close to the pavement you’re walking on. Stray into the bike lane at your own risk!
Bikes here carry kids, the groceries, building materials and small dogs.
We met Loni and her owner, Angelika, navigating a small stretch of busy pavement to get into their apartment block in Friedrichshain. Angelika, a website designer, has lived in the area for over a decade. She enjoys it despite the fact she has to fight her way through the crowd outside her front door every weekend.
Evelyna was on her way home after picking up her two kids from childcare when I hailed her down to have a chat. She’d recently returned from 15 years in New York, where she met her American husband. They decided to come back to Berlin because they felt it was a better place to bring up kids. We must have talked for 30 minutes and not once did her tiny passengers stir in their cosy looking Croozer.
As I said, the place is bike mad, with rows and rows of the things parked all over the place. Some more loved than others.
Aside from bikes, the other main forms of transport apart from one’s own feet are the U-Bahn subway and the skateboard.
Part 4: Stories from the photoautomaten
It wasn’t that long ago that those in the GDR were being photographed, filmed and recorded against their will. Today, people happily cram into Berlin’s old style photoautomaten to take photos of themselves. Unlike modern photo booths that take pretty boring colour photos for passports and whatever, these pics come out in black and white with pleasingly blotchy edges.
Better still, the photoautomaten in Friedrichshain sit out in the open air instead of being stuck underground in some dark corner. Perfect for scanning the legs of the occupants and trying to imagine what the rest of them looks like.
First up, we met three schoolgirls around 12 years old who lived in the area. Their favourite thing in life? “Going to the movies.”
Next, Mona and Thomas, from Norway, in Berlin for a few days before heading to a music festival nearby. Turned out Thomas is half Australian and has visited his relies who live near Melbourne a number of times.
On another day we met Vanessa, 26. I couldn’t help notice she seemed to have half her house crammed into the booth with her – her pillow, flowers, a huge bag. When she emerged she explained that she was making a story-book of the photos for her boyfriend who’d gone to Iceland for three months to do part of his film studies at a film festival there. Originally from south Germany, she’s lived in Berlin for seven years and loves it – for “the freedom and the music”. When she’s not making photobooks, she plays in a band and is studying Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Lastly, Felix. His legs gave nothing away – when he emerged from behind the curtain, his mohawk surprised me. As did his story – he was in Berlin for a while doing some training for his degree in nursing. And no, he doesn’t have to get rid of his mohawk as it often amuses the patients.
He seemed like a lovely guy so I was happy to run into him again a few days later as Coco and I were walking past the photo booths. He was there with his girlfriend, also a trainee nurse, and wanted to know if I’d like to photograph them together.
These particular photoautomaten are strategically placed right next to a vendor selling the local specialty, currywurst – a smoked sausage smothered in tomato sauce and curry powder with fries. An ideal snack while you’re waiting for your turn at the photobooth or for your pics to emerge.
Part 5: Moving to Berlin? Join the crowd.
Unlike every city we’ve visited so far, Berlin isn’t full to the brim. As a result, rents are still cheap and people are moving here from all over Germany and the globe. ‘It’s like New York in the 80s’, I kept hearing. Arty, edgy and cheap.
Daria and her boyfriend are about to move to Berlin from Cologne. “It’s never boring here.”
Kristine, a personnel manager for a local club, has lived here for a while. “If you don’t feel free in your own city, come to Berlin.”
But. As much as the city seems like a bargain to many, rents and prices have gone up markedly in recent years. There seem to be building sites everywhere as apartment blocks are either being renovated or replaced. None of which impresses those who have been able to live either incredibly cheaply or for free in squats for the past so many years.
When the Berlin Wall came down and the GDR was no more, apartment blocks were abandoned by East Berliners fleeing to the west. Squatters moved in and made the buildings their own. But in the last decade most of them have been forced out by a government that’s no longer happy to call itself ‘poor but sexy’.
Walking around a former squat quarter in Friedrichshain, where militant types still live and rage against the relentless tidal wave of gentrification, recently done up buildings have been splatted with paint and graffiti.
I’m not sure whether this building is a squat or privately owned. But I liked it. A great improvement on the former GDR’s colour scheme of cement grey.
It’s not just the ‘yuppie renovators’ who are so disliked. Tourists are also not popular with some. A few days ago I asked a German guy wearing a t-shirt with a ‘Berlin does not love you’ design if I could take a photo of it. I found the irony funny – he did not. He let rip with a few expletives and was totally indignant. Coco is still talking about it.
If Friedrichshain is anything to go by, Berlin is not a city that reaches out and hugs you straight off. It took me several days to get my eye in and to understand that it can be remarkably quiet and uneventful for a so called happening city; I walked for hours on end at times without taking a single shot.
As frustrating as that was, I’ve been totally captivated by the central contradiction of this city – a decadent party town in a city with such a shocking history.
And once I’d worked out what Berlin’s magnetic pull seems to be all about – the fact that you can afford to live here while you re-invent yourself into whoever and whatever you want to be – I felt much warmer towards the place. In fact, if I was 25 again, Berlin would definitely turn my head.
You can just tell this city is going to make history again one day – maybe it’s making it already.
On the ‘home front’
Coco and I had a great time with our mates in Madrid. Too short – just four days, two of which I spent writing up the last Rome blog and then my regular monthly Fairfax piece – and stinking hot, but it was so good to see some familiar faces. Coco and her friend Elyse did not stop nattering the entire time and we celebrated Coco’s ninth birthday a few days early with them and then again when we got to Berlin. Two other dear friends just dropped in for a few days here and Coco produced candles and chips for her third birthday bash. Hopefully she’s done now.
This suburb has been brought to you by Annie & John Welch
See you next Monday.