Just as August approaches its close, a golden invitation wings its characteristically unexpected way into my life. Dear friend Pennie, with whom I spent many months adventuring in Bangkok over a year ago, has plans to attend a global education conference based in Berlin. Might I like to come see the city?
It was back in wintry January that the idea of Berlin as a sweet summer destination entered my pretty lil’ head; however, as they are wont to do, far-in-advance plans became beautifully sidetracked by spring surprises. The Pennie-prompting is all the push I need to book my flights.
My experience thus far with European capitals: Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, and my beloved Madrid. Berlin looks nothing like any of these. Particularly in comparison to the Spanish center, the city feels spacious, each and every path including a wide bike lane. There are intersections where bicycles dominate, and pedestrians and cars alike show enormous respect for the sanctity of the reserved space. The public transportation system here is excellent, sublime in its clockwork connections between trams, buses, and both above- and below-ground metro, but there is an enormous sense of freedom in mobility by bike, one which I most notably experience in a 3:00 AM wild ride back to an awaiting bed.
The bikes are ubiquitous, and often beautifully personalized.
Eyes open, the city is replete with treasure.
Berlin is an undeniable street art mecca; the immediate impression that every available surface has been coated in color and form is soon corrected when it appears to double 24 hours later. There are some seriously stunning pieces here, several impressive in sheer several-story size, others innovative in elaborate design and execution. There is plenty of paint, but also loads of paste-ups and chip art (wherein an image is constructed in negative, painstakingly chipping flecks away from whatever coats a surface); an informal walking tour I take informs that many pieces are done by artists who specifically pass through the city aiming to leave their signature style on its streets.
Obviously, expression isn’t limited to spray painted wall bombings; wallpapered posters everywhere proclaim a plethora of exhibitions inhabiting the most unassuming corners of city blocks. I pass through one taking up residence in what appears to be a dilapidated tenement of some variety, advertised as Die Revolution Im Dienste Der Poesie (Revolution in the Name of Poetry). The mixed-media collection revolves around the theme in its title, coupled with a load of historical context presented in a “newspaper” available at the door. Of course, being in German, this escapes me entirely, and I’m contented checking out the details of a revolutionist’s take on a still life.
Infamous five-story art squat Tacheles raises queries regarding creative legitimacy, as it represents at once the city’s libertine expression of youth and a prime piece of real estate. The place is visually resplendent in its freewheeling glory (naturally I’m informed that “it was better five years ago”) and acrid in its stairwell scent; seems the big bad government has recently shut off the water in a push to convert the space to something more commercially suited for the downtown zoning.
It’s probably evident in my tongue-in-cheek wording: I find the whole David-and-Goliath storytelling to be rather blown out of proportion. I too would like to see official support for free community art displays, but my gut tells me Tacheles continues to be successful because of its mythology. The area doesn’t need another touristy pub there whatsoever, but the auctioning of the place would certainly turn a pretty penny – which ideally could be funneled into social programs. Berlin’s identity appears to be ever in flux, but I have no doubt that the displaced creative energy would pack its tools and pop up elsewhere.
This is only one tourist’s opinion. What’s your take?