Strife and techno in Berlin

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Germany - Berlin | Posted on 09-09-2010


Last time I was in Berlin was back in 1999… It was my first European trip, and I’d popped over for a weekend with my friend R who was working for an airline at the time… I believe the conversation we had on Wednesday went something like this:

R: “I’m bored and want to go do something this weekend…”
Me: “Well, there’s Love Parade in Germany.”
R: “Want to go? I can get us cheap tickets.”
Me: “Uhh – ok.”
R: “Ok, lets leave tomorrow”

It was definately not the most prepared, in depth exploration of Berlin one could have had (ie: getting off the plane and realizing that the signs weren’t in english, and not having a hotel room booked when 1.2 million people were coming into town to party) but it was a fantastic memory.

So 11 years (and many good times) later, I returned to Berlin for a week… Like London or NY, it’s one of those cities that is too big to pretend you’ve even gained a minute grasp of it in just a week, but the time here was heavily enjoyed, and a few things were readily apparent:

1) Berlin is huge, and every time you go out you end up in a new neighborhood with a new vibe. Everything’s doubled up, as they had east+west versions of everything, and now everything in between has been rebuilt.

2) Berlin is a dress-down city (Even by Vancouver standards, which is saying something). Tshirts, jeans and sneakers are good everywhere.

3) Berliners are serious and there isn’t much in the way of middle of the road, but extreme versions of everything are part of life.

Sunday night was a late transfer for Chris, but I’d rolled into town early afternoon with a couple ladies from the tour, and one of them had a friend who was doing a performance that we wandered off to see. It was a reasonably interesting modern dance piece, but it was held in this stunning old theatre that’d been stripped to the bones – concrete, cold and illuminated with bulletholes and ancient sighs… After the show we went out for a dinner at the pub with a group of artists who were all pregnant or recently had kids and it was interesting to hear their stories of integrating family life with life on the road. Not sure if it applies to all of Germany, but the Berliners for certain really made the kids part of their lives, rather than putting their lives on hold for the children – was inspiring to see.

It was a late transfer for the tour and we didn’t get to bed until shortly before sunrise, but on Monday, Chris had the day off so we went out for a good wander of the city and then hopped on board one of the walking tours. I’d assumed it’d be lame, but we ended up with a really excellent tour guide who made the 4hr tour fly by. It was nice as well to not just walk past all the buildings and just look, but get a glimpse into the history behind it all, especially in a city like Berlin that has so much heavy recent history and stories to tell.

A lot of time was spent bouncing back and forth over what was previously the 160km stretch of The Berlin Wall… I’d never actually understood what the wall was there for, so here’s a quick (likely not entirely correct) summary:

After WW2, Berlin was split up so the allies got West Berlin, and the communist regime got to hold the East. There was an emigration loophole where East Germans could pop into East Berlin, and pass out through West Berlin and out of communism. The communists didn’t think it’d be a big deal, that everyone would want to stay in the East. Unfortunately, the group who most wanted to leave tended to be those who could do better outside of Communism: the free thinkers, the intellectuals and the scientists. This resulted in a brain drain where the best and brightest slid out of the East through Berlin.

To stop this flow, in 1961, the communists set up a barbed wire guarded blockade around East Berlin, which later evolved into The Wall. It was actually mostly 2 walls, with a 20 or so foot death strip down the middle where the guards patrolling the wall had shoot to kill orders for anyone inside.

(wikipedia entry for Berlin Wall)

So that’s where it came from, and as you walk around the city now, in a lot of places, you see the path of the old wall, and when you picture that where you’re freely roaming, once you would have to stop, it’s a dreadful thought – to every day be confronted with a limit to your freedom of movement that was symbolic of a lot of additional limits would weigh heavy on the soul.

Of course, intermixed with all the wall history was the history at the root origin of the wall – the whole WW2 “Hitler thing“…

There is a massive jewish holocost memorial of a serene field of concrete blocks right in the centre of town. Across the street from it is the Homo memorial in honor of the 100,000+ people charged for being gay under the Nazi regime – many of whom were sent to and died in concentration camps. As it gets most of the mention, I knew full well of the persecution of the jews, but was unaware of the extent of the persecution of homos under the Nazi’s as well.

On a lighter note, we had a nice dinner with M before heading back to the hotel and crashing out heavily…

Tuesday I worked in the morning and then went out and had a big long headphones-on wander… Started in Hackscher Markt and wandered all the way to the far end of the Tiergarden, which is a massive park in the middle of the city. The Love Parade I attended back in 99 was held in park, so it was interesting to pause and reflect on the time that’s passed; the experiences, adventures, relationships, growth and learning that’s occurred. I’ve been very blessed.

We went out Tues night for a few drinks at some seedy bars (yay 2-4-1s) and saw some more of the city.

The internet in the hotel wasn’t very useful (128k/s dialup speeds don’t quite cut it), so Weds and Thurs I hung out at the venue on their 100mb/s connection and rocked a solid couple of 12 hour days coding and launched a new project I’d been wrapping up.

Friday I went to the venue again, but after lunch I went for a walk, and spent more than 6 hours wandering south of the river wandering aimlessly through endless neighborhoods that each had their own feel and vibe. Of note was the brilliant street art that covers the city… of course there’s crappy tags everywhere, but there’s more high-end graffiti and murals here than I’ve seen in any other place.

That evening, I trained back to the venue to pick Chris up afterwork, and we went out armed with a list of bars and clubs we could go to, but got quickly sidetracked by wandering streets full of people hanging out. We’d just pop into a kiosk/convienience store and grab a couple beers, which they’d open for us, and just walk around drinking our beers and talking and absorbing, until it was time to pop into the next shop for more beers – fantastically civilized.

Saturday, I’d heard about the european version of San Fran’s Folsom Street Fair. I was curious what a culture that showed hardcore porn on evening television would consider shocking, so figuring it’d be a unique experience I went and checked out Europe’s biggest gathering of leather costumed fetishists.

My first thought was “I don’t think those guys in the leather police and swat uniforms are really officers of the law”, but then I started thinking about what exactly drives the Berliners (and Germans) to such an extreme when it comes to sex. I’m not sure if it’s tied into the fact that their culture is much more logic based than emotional which makes them simply jump to the far ends of experience to get anything from it, or if it’s maybe tied into a deep cultural remorse or regret from the dark history of the place bubbling up through their psyche’s. Either way, I realized that leather really isn’t my thing, and that I haven’t numbed myself to vanilla sex enough to have to dress up in a rubber horse suit, getting fisted while someone shits on my chest to have a good time…

But hey… whatever works for you.

I had a few beers at the parade, and went back to the hotel for a liedown until 11ish. Chris came home, and had to work at 5am the next morning, and though I was rather wiped, he pointed out that I’d regret it if I didn’t make the most of a city that was just starting to come alive on a Saturday night… and man was he right.

I rolled downstairs just after midnight and met up with a few people who happened to be heading to Berghain, the club I wanted to check out. We all cabbed over and managed to get in (not always an easy task from what I gather), and were some of the first to arrive around 1am…

I’ve been to a lot of clubs and partied in some really magical spots, but this was one of the most interesting I’d ever seen — it’s an old power plant in an industrial wasteland where they play straight up techno. Not house, not trance, but straight up, 100% german soul techno. When we got there at 1am, it was a 75-90bpm drone that filled the cavernous powerplant with an eerie hum and slowly picked up so that by 4am, with the dancefloor packed, the totempole’esque speakers were assaulting the crowd with 140-150bpm gutrenching bass hits that pulsed through your bones and cellular core.

The club was huge, and had a labrynth of rooms and hidden nooks and other bars, and suddenly around 5ish, a staircase appeared that i hadn’t seen before with an ice cream parlor at the top. It was brilliant.

I had to leave at 6am to go back to the hotel to pack, but it was hard to pull myself away from the still building energy. There was a big line still waiting to get in as the sun rose, and DJs were scheduled to play through to 8pm Sunday night… I could only imagine what the place would look like on a Sunday afternoon about 4pm, but that’ll have to wait until next time… I’ll definately be back – there’s no where better on the planet for a solid night out of pulse altering techno.

Back to the hotel, a quick pack, shower and 45 minute powernap and then it was off to catch a train…

Berlin is one of those cities that I’m pretty sure we’ll be back to — it’s massive, and we barely touched on what it has to offer, and although we always felt like outsiders, we felt comfortable… It’s casual, but with a seriousness that only generations of strife can whittle into it’s hearts.


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