The Bears of Berlin

Berlin brought the best out in me. It was a city of exploration and discovery; with its gritty carcass of history exposing its bones, brushed over with bright colours. Every corner had an enticing nook, turning the pages of its illustrated story. The best way to read this place is definitely on foot.

I spent my days walking the city for hours like I was on some kind of creative pilgrimage. On the first, my Aussie roommate and I went in search of a local summer market. Crossing the Spree, the grungy bridge housed a worn red armchair with the markings of a piss stain that dribbled toward a large heart sketched on the girder, with the letters NZ inside. My shoulders relaxed at the thought of little bit of love for Kiwis, from across the other side of the globe.

Kreuzberg was my kind of neighbourhood with cool shops behind armours of artwork. It was nice to be touring with an akin adventuresses, wandering wherever the most interesting street lead. We eventually found the market under umbrellas of international cuisine. I nearly bought a jar of crème brulee honey, because of the cute bear and love heart on the label. Instead, I opted for a Turkish treat (such a deliciously cheap option, in Berlin), a bag of bargain fruit, and a skewer of grapes that had been dipped in toffee. I realised mid-bite that it looked like I was eating a glossy cherry-coloured sex toy.

The streets were a visual feast. As we roamed, the scene spoke loudly. Rainbows of bicycles were chained to bridge rails. Street lamps were thick, wearing multiple coats of posters. Photoautomats waited patiently for the next clients to insert coins, pull back the murky curtain, and pose for a momento of their moment in Berlin. Every wall told a passionate personal tale with street art; love life, f*ck life, life. I got the feeling that Berlin was a constantly evolving canvas – new imagery sprouting like mushrooms on an autumn lawn after a shower of rain.

We ended up in Alexanderplatz, the centre of locating where the heck you are in Berlin. Watching the world go by, The Adventuress and I indulged in an apple pie latte, a crème brulee latte, and a much needed rest stop.

Dinner was in neighbouring Friedrichshan, an area worth exploring for its eclectic vibe. The waiter asked me where I was from, and then in an accusatory tone, wondered how I could possibly be there. Those nuances definitely contribute to the rich tapestry of interesting stories of my life.

To embellish perfection of my first full day in Berlin, I ended up at a jazz jam night. As the bar patrons increased, I was fortunate to have one half of my arse squeezed onto a shared stool. The smoke wisps curled around the musical notes. The sultry cigarette smoke actually added to the ambience, as I told my asthmatic lungs that they’d have to take this one-off, for the team.

The following day The Adventuress and I idled alongside the Eastside Gallery, which was only two minutes from our hostel. To examine each art work would take several hours to walk. Each piece had its own voice; its own tone, flavour… and its own pieces of graffiti. Sometimes it was from a marker that had traveller’s names etched in a corner, others were musings of ‘peace’, occasionally it was penises drawn on paintings of babies. No matter where I go in the world, I’ll be sure to find a tagged upside down T with a hat on.

The most interesting mural to watch the reaction of passers-by was of the two middle-aged men locking lips. Tourists were drawn to take photographs in front of it, pointing or posing a weird smile. It reminded me of how the leaning tower of Pisa is a sideshow for those to take pictures of pushing the tower back upright.

The more I walked through this city the more I fell in love with the contrasts. The vivid street art affront the dulled buildings, the stark sense of raw history alive with imagination, and dark humour. Near a neglected apartment block, adorned with a wall of clawed trash bags spewing yesterday’s food and broken toys, a handmade sign tied to a wire fence read “Fuck off, we’re open.”

With a craving for Vietnamese food for lunch, The Adventuress kept me salivating with stories of her mother’s pho broth bubbling in an oversized pot for 48 hours. To begin with, we were entertaining the idea of eating, so we kept forging ahead to find somewhere decent, until we got to the point of jaded judgment and starvation. We ate okay Japanese.

We’d walked our way to the tourist epicentre; where cycle groups whirred past the French and German cathedrals, where Ampelmann shops welcomed souvenir-seekers with outstretched red arms, and where Checkpoint Charlie would have been a hive of activity. I refused to visit because it was a replica to lure more Euros from the tourist’s pockets.  There was the Brandenberg Gate, the hotel that Michael Jackson had dangled Blanket out of, and the maze that was the Holocaust Memorial site. I got the feeling that maybe I should have paid more attention to my Fourth Form history class.

There is something that you need to account for in city-hopping whilst travelling, and that is to schedule in a daily rest. The Tiergarten beckoned us with its lush green quilt of grass, and we lay outstretched under the September sun. I had one of those semi-naps where you drift off in an unusual place, but jolt yourself awake because of the thought of that. I’ve done that in trains, planes, on busses, and in movie theatres. There is also nothing like an ice cream to rouse you out of that afternoon slump.

The Adventuress was keen to go to the Topography of Terror, a place I’d never heard of. It sounded like some place with landscape maps of horror. Oh god, no…. not zombies coming out of mountainsides looking for “Braaaaaiiinnnns!” It was actually something much more informative and worse.

The Topography of Terror is a free museum in the location where the SS and Gestapo had their headquarters during Nazi rule. The outside gallery is shielded from everyday life by an existing section of the Berlin Wall. I looked through a large jagged hole with rusted metal rods, at the taxis zooming past. A tourist miffed me by doing one of those typically annoying things of climbing over the barrier, to stand next to the wall and pose with her fingers veed into a peace sign.

Inside the museum was a gallery of images, write ups and captions that made me sick to the stomach. I eddied in and out of the ebb and flow of other patrons, looking at some photos while shying away from others. It was an album of Hitler and his cronies which appeared like an ancient Facebook newsfeed. Not only did it show the rise to fame and ‘glory’, but also their happy holiday snaps whilst thousands of innocents were being executed under their rule. I could not fathom that there was a possibility of human nature aligned with such indifferent cruelty. It was bittersweet to leave; p*ssed off at one man’s vision, yet an expression of gratitude for not existing at such a treacherous time.

After a train ride back to our room, The Adventuress packed to depart and left me to my own devices. I spent the evening sifting around the Eastside Gallery. It was even more appealing, as a band were performing on the riverside of the wall. It was quaint and quirky, and left me plotting how I could live in Berlin, if but for a year.

On my final full day in Berlin, I had decided on taking part in an alternative walking tour. A guy from the US was our guide and explained the meanings behind a large collection of instrumental and innovative street art, including Victor Ash’s massive spaceman. I wanted to stay and soak up the creative neighbourhoods, inspired whilst sipping on local coffee. But then I would have missed great things.

There was Osman’s Treehouse pieced together with love, integrity, compassion, and spirit; nestled near the ‘Death Gate’ that once divided East and West. Osman poked his head out of the window and waved as we filed past. A nearby squatter’s area foretold more recent city stories. We cruised around Neu West; an outdoor gallery with bits of the Berlin Wall used as artist’s canvases, to express fresh ideas.   Lastly we stopped in at YAAM, the Young African Art Market with a man-made beach. There was a distinct reggae undertone and laid-back atmosphere. I couldn’t help but remember my senior high school art classes, with all of our distinctive styles and how we told our stories through our paintbrushes.

The half-day tour ended with a growling stomach and the guide asking for donations. I’m not really sure of the success of making a decent amount when advertising a ‘Free Tour’, at a hostel; especially when one member of the group belched “Sorry, I spent your tip on my beer.” I felt sorry for this guy who’d poured his heart and energy into the tour, filling our brains with new information. I gave what I could and reflected on a revision of phrasing for marketing from a ‘Free Tour’, to ‘Tips for Tours’.

That afternoon’s mission was to visit the New Zealand Embassy, so that I could cast an overseas vote for the upcoming election. I had found the address online, but it was harder to locate in real life. After sweeping the street back and forth, I asked a nearby café owner, who pointed me a couple of buildings down. At reception, they told me that the embassy had moved… to another city. So I went back to hang out with Brooke, the café owner. I revived with a cup of joe and a good chinwag, before he sent me to another cool part of town.

I actually ended up losing the direction of his advice but happened upon streets of browse-worthy shops instead. Don’t ask me what part of the city, because I have no idea. I did find comfort in walking into a more touristy area, though. There were large decorative bear statues everywhere; their coats prettied in works of art. I was also impressed to see beers in vending machines. And since I was in that neck of the woods, I bought a ‘piece of the Berlin Wall’, for Mum (which I’m sure was a broken bit of concrete with some old spray paint flecks across the flat side, with a key ring jammed into it). It’s the tagged thought that counts.

I topped off my day with my fill of currywurst. I really couldn’t leave Germany without having a mouthful of sausage.

I had only spent three days there, but I longed for more. Berlin left an impression on me, like a hot guy with piercing eyes sitting across the other side of a bar – one that I’d be happy to see again. Who knows what the future will bring? Maybe one day, Berlin, we will meet again. Until then X

About stuffnjsays

I'm NJ, and my life motto is to maintain happiness and be true to myself. I love to write, travel, laugh out loud, and be awesome! I believe in making my dreams come true, and using my life experiences to help other people. Check out what I'm up to, here: stuffnjsays.com
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