Friday, May 14, 2010

'Berlin is Poor by Sexy' - Part 3

The next day we decided to scale back from our super touristy lifestyle of the day before and decided to head to another neighborhood we had heard good things about – Kreuzberg – and hopped on the metro. The Berlin metro system works like this: you buy a ticket and then you validate it for that ride. Well, because we are daredevils we bought the tickets but didn’t validate them. Crazy us! We decided we would just play dumb tourists if we got asked by a subway worker, and play dumb is exactly what we did! A coarse-looking German came up to us as we were looking at our Spanish guidebook and said ‘tickets’ in German. I, of course, don’t remember that word. We kind of looked at him blankly and he asked us if we spoke English. We said we did (and I kind of chuckled to myself) and he asked in English for our tickets, so I pulled out the two unvalidated tickets from my wallet and handed them over. He asked us why they weren’t validated and we pretended we didn’t speak English so well and were smiling and kept saying ‘yes, our tickets!’ He was rather annoyed but explained to us that we needed to validate them and told us that at the next stop we needed to get off and do it, which we did – such good tourists we are! After validating, we only waited a few minutes for the next metro and were laughing the whole time. Such good fake English speakers we made! And, we saved quite a lot of money! If we were to have bought metro tickets every time we rode the metro, we would have spent a good sum, but instead we just carried the two unvalidated ones around until we HAD to validate them. Good travel advice if you were planning on going to Berlin!
Across the River Spree from Kreuzberg, stands the longest intact part of the original Wall that has since been named the East Side Gallery. Painted in 1990 and artists from all over the world contributed to this international monument to freedom with 100 paintings on parts of the Wall. The paintings vary drastically from one to the other, but all have an underlying theme of enjoying freedom and reminding anyone who looks at it that a free world is a good world. The painted side of the wall faces old East Berlin and the west-facing side is not painted and just looks at the river. Almost 1 mile long, we slowly walked and admired each painting - some more creative others more professional but all impressive. Of all the things in Berlin, this was what I had wanted to see the most, so I was quite content when we finished and crossed the bridge into Kreuzberg for an iced tea. I couldn't pick just one favorite work so instead I will post a bunch of the paintings, and hopefully from my large bunch of photos you will decide on one you like, because let me tell you, its almost impossible to pick the best!
Although Kreuzberg has many things in the tourist guide book to do, we actually didn't do a single thing. We had been extreme tourists and now just kind of wanted to live like Berliners - going to local cafés, bars and shops. We had decided to head to this part of Berlin on this day because we thought the local Turkish outdoor market would be in full swing but when we finally go to the spot it should have been we found out its only two days a week - which was not that day. We decided the next best thing was to continue along the river and just check out the neighborhood. We were blessed with sunny skies and were content walking together from one end of Kreuzberg to the other. Along the way we came across a huge gathering place in such an unlikely place - a bridge! Used only for bicycle traffic and foot traffic, the locals make it into somewhat of a cement park. Scattered groups of people sitting eating, smoking, playing cards or the guitar or just reading it was great to see such a diverse mix of people all on the same bridge. It is a place that you feel like if you lived there, that is exactly what you would be doing on a sunny afternoon too. We decided to join the cause and got a tuna pizza (yea, I had never heard of pizza with tuna fish but Joseba assured me it was going to be good, and he didn't steer me wrong - it was quite tasty). We popped a squat and slowly ate our pizza and soaked in the atmosphere. Apparently it isn't illegal to carry around glass bottles of beer so when we sat we made sure to not sit on a sliver of glass!
Since Spring was springing in Berlin the trees that lined the river were just starting to bloom and created a gorgeous view as we continued along towards to west side of Kreuzberg. Our tour guide mentioned to us that a small group of blocks in that side of the neighborhood are the most well-preserved buildings from before WWII and that they sustained no damage during the war. He lives around that area and told us that movie crews are constantly setting up shop there to film. Only around since the 1860s, Kreuzberg became a neighbhorhood to accomodate the growing population of the industrial boom in Berlin. The streets were quiet when we arrived, barely a soul to be seen and in a way it felt like we were on a movie set straight from Hollywood. After seeing many buildings that were put up after the war damage it was a stark difference to see these beautifully preserved places. After WWII, the East Berlin government wanted to quickly and cheaply put up housing for the residents. As a result you now see a lot of bulidings that resemble Legos. Sheets of cement pasted together in the form of an apartment building with some random colors are one of the less desirable housing options in Berlin. Because they were built so fast and used such low-end materials, residents often complain that they can hear everything their neighbors are doing. But, if the East German government didn't build a new building they would normally just leave the crumbling damaged buildings as they were. So, it was not the best choice - new, crappy and thin as crackers building or old, falling apart, hope the roof doesn't fall on me building.
When I decided I was done being a Hollywood star in an old war movie, we headed North towards Mitte where a lot of bars and cafés were. Our guide had recommended a place called Bierhimmel - which literally means Beer Heaven. As tempting as Heaven sounded we didn't see it immediatley when we got to the street and instead saw a cute bar and decided not to waste time searching for a bar we might not even find when in front of us stood a great location. With our light and dark beers agagin, we sat on a bench facing the street and with the large windows swung open it was almost as if we were sitting an outdoor café but in reality we were sitting on furniture that looked like it came from a great-grandma's house - a hodgepodge of chairs, tables and decorations on the walls. A lone tulip spruced up our rickety table and we spent awhile just watching people pass by - alternative teens with bright green jeans to businessmen on bikes with baskets full of groceries. It seems like after such a dark period of no tolerance that Berlin, or atleast Kreuzberg embraced anyone and everyone for who they were.
Dinner consisted of a traditional German meal - an entire chicken, fried and served with bread. Think KFC but better and instead of legs and thighs, you have a whole chicken sitting on your plate. The skin was doused with some delicious spices and seasoning which made the plain chicken quite tasty but nonetheless an entire chicken for dinner struck me as kind of weird. Well, we were living like Berliners I suppose. Speaking of living like Berliners, we finished the night at the same christmas-lit bar as the night before, with of course some more beer!
The next morning we decided to head to a different part of the city - Potsdamer Platz. Bombed during WWII and left to sit in rubble for the Cold War, this popular square has just recently come to life. The main attraction is the Sony Center, which only opened in 2000, is an outdoor forum filld with shops, a lego-land, an IMAX theatre and restaurants. Set under the illuminated and color-changing ceiling, it was full of people - tourists and Berliners alike. Near the Sony Center was the Berlin Philharmonic. We decided to pass by, just to see if they happened to have an upcoming concert for a deal that we might go to. There were big groups of people standing outside, which we found somewhat curious. We joined the crowd and eventually entered the concert hall. We wandered around, confused as to why people were inside but obviously not dressed up for a performance. We asked the clerk at the info desk and she said that today was a dress rehearsal for a concert the next day and that it was free if we wanted to stay! What luck we had! The 3-hour show was a unique peek into what a professional choir is like. Dressed in plain black clothes and sometimes interuppted by the director, it was quite interesting to see the show being performed but at the same time still being tweaked.
The lady we were renting the apartment from mentioned that on Thursday night, all of the museums on Museum Island were open for free to the public from 6pm on. We hopped on the metro (again, with unvalidated tickets this time with some sandwiches from a very unfriendly food-stand employee) and visited the first musem we came to - the Neue Galerie. Filled with so many pieces of art that we had no idea even where to start, I was quite suprised at how strict the guards were. I have a purse that goes across your chest and lays on your hip, but every single guard we passed kept telling me I had to have my purse hanging in front of me. Odd. Am I going to steal a peice of art in my small purse? If that wasn't enough, Joseba got very close to a painting and consequently set off an alarm. Calm and cool he acted like nothing happened and a group of Asian tourists next to us thought they had set off the alarm and the guard explained harshly in German something about not getting to close to the paintings. This museum was not for us, so we left without admiring much. We then decided we should see the 1st museum that was on the island - Altes Museum. Famous for housing the Bust of Nefertitti, we were sorely disappointed that her bust wasn't on display for the free day and raced through the museum. We somewhat proved we are not the most art-appreciating intellectual tourists.
We decided to go back to what we did best - drink beer, eat and listen to music. On our tour we passed a bar with live music on Thursday night that we thought looked good. Neither of us wrote it down nor really remembered the name but by some stroke of luck we managed to find it. Zosch, as it was called, was in a building that survived the war. We ordered a hearty dinner and after we were full headed downstairs to see the live jazz concert. The concert took place in the basement and while the music was good and the beer tasty, the place had quite a lot of history as well. The old brick walls told the story that the bar used to be a gathering spot for the tenants during air raids. From the floor to the ceiling you could see random bricks that had been carved out of the wall to hold candles. The Germans were convinced that these air raids would eventually lead to bombs of lethal gas that would pollute the oxygen so that they couldn't breathe. The candles were lit and were clues to see the quality of the air. If the floor candle went out, parents picked up thier kids. If the candle around waist-height went out parents would prop kids on their shoulders and so on until possibly the shoulder-height candles went out and then everyone would have to get out. Knowing this gave the dimly light basement a whole new feeling.
With the soothing jazz music we headed to bed and woke up the next morning on a mission - see the Turkish Market on a day it was actually open! We arrived back in Kreuzberg, this time with a bit of orientation, and wandered up and down the half-mile stretch of booths that took over the road that ran along the river. Packed as expected, women were pulling carts full of fresh fruit and children were running behind them holding bread and sweets. If food wasn't your fancy, scarves, shoes and other trinkets were being sold. We didn't feel like actually buying anything from the market to go home and cook and thought that the next most authentic experience would be to get a Turkish kebab. Now, this is a neighbhorhood known for thier kebabs, but as soon as we decided we wanted to eat one, it was almost impossible to find a shop, but finally we lucked out and ate up quickly then headed to a new neighborhood - Friedrichshain.
Listed in the book as a good spot for cafés, bars and second-hand shops we kind of stumbled onto the main street - Simon-Dach-Straße - the one with the most bars! It's like we were meant to drink a beer! In the 1990s, this neighborhood was home to many artists and lower-income rooms, so the streets are colorfully decorated and graffiti - be it on a shop or a house - wasn't shocking to see. We started out looking in random second-hand stores and odd shops and then started looking for a beer spot. We checked around the streets, all full of chairs and tables just waiting to be sat in, and in the end decided on a small wooden bar. Next on the agenda was dinner - and we wanted something we knew we could never eat in San Sebastian, so we ended up eating Sri Lankan food. It was something I had never tried but it was similar to Indian food and was delish. After dinner we decided to do something we also knew we couldn't find in San Sebastian - go to a bar that was having a Funky Soul night. I think that poster we saw actually advertised it as a 'Hot and Heavy Funky Soul Explosion'. We spent the night drinking Berliner beers and dancing funky with a discoball and velvet wallpaper, which provided a few good laughs.
The last day was quite rainy and we slept in, cooked breakfast and were pretty much lazy all day. For our last German lunch we went back to Der Imbiss, the place where we reluctantly went on our second day and ordered our same dinners and of course the cheesecake again. Between napping and eating we managed to check out some boutiques in our are and when 10pm came we still hadn't learned that we should eat dinner at 6pm like Germans but ended up finding a cute Italian restaurant on our street. We both ordered from the 'specials of the day' menu, not really understanding the menu but taking a chance and were happy in the end. While it didn't seem fit, our last drinks for the night were wine...not very German!
It's funny because although we managed to see all of the most touristy spots in Berlin, the thing I will remember the most is just the feeling that we belonged in Berlin. With the apartment and our little neighborhood and only one day of sights, we really got a chance to live like the locals, and in the process we really fell in love with the city. I really feel like the mayor's ''poor but sexy'' comment lived up to it's word. (If you look closely at this photo you can see the lady has a tattoo that says the quote). The city wasn't glitzy but nor was it expensive, but it had an energy and a vibe that you couldn't help but feel. And, I have travelled around the stein-drinking south of Germany - Munich and other small villages - but I am going to have to vote Berlin as my favorite German place. As JFK said once: All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner!" I agree.

1 comment:

Ron Trembath said...

Absolutely wonderful! I will go one day. I hope.