STB contributors on the things they (still) love most about our city…
Though regarded by many as a gritty city – the pernicious past, the hard-nosed natives, the interminable piles of dog shit, beer bottles and spray cans – anyone who lives in Berlin knows its a big softie at heart.
For all the city’s turbulent political ups and downs, there have been plenty of, erm, physical ones as well. Berlin charmed plenty a visitor throughout the 19th century, and at certain points during the Weimar era, the city was practically one big quivering orgasm.
Today’s Berlin is no less coquettish, giving up its myriad pleasures just that bit too easily and inspiring everything from 20-minute-stands in the depths of the city’s more complaisant nightclubs to summer-long flings and even – gasp – long-term relationships and families.
It has been estimated* that for every person lamenting the “end of their love affair with Berlin“, a hundred are simultaneously experiencing their initial coup de foudre.
As is oft-remarked, our relationships with cities can be a bit like those we have with people, in the way they change and shift over time. Since some of our contributors have lived here for well over a decade, and others just a few months, and thereby represent various stages of the ‘Berlin love affair’ – we asked them to spill the beans on something that continues to inspire, entertain or just keep them interested in the city.
The answers range from good old winter sunshine and riding the S-Bahn past Treptower Park to the mysteries of gumball machines and fake ticket collectors. As Kaiserbase once said: Berlin, Du Bist So Wunderbar…
*we made it up
Camilla Egan: Rooftops
“Slightly to my surprise, one of my favourite things about Berlin has turned out to be its rooftops. I grew up in Dublin, and after the slate of the city and the dull brown of the suburbs (via similar drabness in Duisburg), Berlin’s terracotta blaze was an unexpected pleasure. Whether it’s a cushy sixth-storey bar scenario (rare) or clambering through a sketchy skylight on to a friend’s pitchy Neukölln rooftop (more likely), Berlin panoramas get me every time – skinny, iron-framed ramshackle chimneys, the wide-out flatness of it, here and there the shock of a blank face of post-war brick, the still-novel snow grills. Berlin’s roofs also play host to some of my favourite low-effort graffiti: floods of rainbow tipped from paint cans to pour down side walls, or white-daubed phrases ranging from the hysterically negative (“DEUTSCHAND VERRECKE!!” on Revaler Strasse) to the wonderfully dry (“DACH” off Oranienplatz).”
Alice Mirlesse: Volksküchen (People’s Canteens)
- Image by Alice Mirlesse
“Berlin’s iconic left-wing political scene continues to fascinate me. Volksküchen, or People’s Canteens, are unique opportunities to infiltrate otherwise seemingly closed societies. Every day of the week different squats and “house-projects” open their doors to the public with a donation-based (usually vegan) fare. Although the trend is definitely punk – with dark clothes and piercings as a commonplace – the attendance is versatile, spanning across generations and borders, and always make for good discussions! All the addresses and events can be found online.”
Illy Cerowska: Garlic Delis
“I’m not really a foodie, but there is one little Mediterranean shop that has me completely head over heels. Tucked away amongst the vintage and coffee shops in the Bergmannstraße Kiez, Knofi Feinkostladen caught my eye the first time I strolled around that area. The outside is decked with hanging garlic and dried mushrooms and the interior is charming, with granny chairs and comfy sofas. The little plates of antipasti or ‘Knofetti’ are a real treat and what’s more, you can buy a great selection of dips, olives and more while you’re there.”
Stephen Lowman: Gumball Machines
“I love that there are a jillion gumball machines affixed to buildings in seemingly every alley and avenue of the city, but there is no evidence to suggest that anyone has ever actually used them (apart from as surfaces for protest stickers and graffiti). Who puts them there? How often are they refilled? What’s the shelf life of the gumballs and, most importantly, does anyone actually buy them? Seeking answers one day, I called the phone number that can be found on just about all the dispensers. No one answered and no one returned my message. It wasn’t a big deal, of course, so after one or two more failed attempts I let the matter go. The gumballs remain one of those little Berlin mysteries that make life here so sweet — though I’ve yet to try one.”
Thalia Gigerenzer: U2 Encounters
“There’s a guy on the U2 who sometimes pretends to be a ticket collector. “Fahrkarten, bitte!” he’ll bark in a convincingly authoritative voice as the U-Bahn doors close. As he walks through the car, people who don’t know him shuffle nervously in their jackets to find their tickets; people who know him giggle under their breaths — but everyone plays along. Sometimes he’ll reprimand people for putting their feet on the seat in front of them, sometimes he’ll simply scold you for not smiling. If you’ve committed any of these offences, he’ll make you write in his little notebook, and this is my favorite part: the booklet is like a diary for the city. The entries range from apologies for imaginary offences and words of wisdom to life advice, smiley faces and cryptic scribbles. No matter how wacky, his response will always be a stern nod. I have no idea who he is and why he does this, but whether he wanted to or not, he manages to break through the grumpiness of a weekday afternoon and make people laugh. This and the crooning of American Country Western songs by guitarists with strong Russian accents are some of my favorite moments on the U2.”
Ian Farrell: Weekly Farmers Markets
“In a city as modern and ever-changing as Berlin, there’s something reassuring about an old-fashioned, down-to-earth weekly market. And while my head is occasionally turned by the Turkish market on the Maybachufer or the myriad wonders of Markthalle IX, it’s my local Wochenmarkt on Boxhagener Platz that I keep coming back to. It has everything I need, from an excellent range of local cheese, veg and honey to the more exotic dulce de leche (a sweet Argentinian spread not unlike fudge in flavour) – and an outstanding Italian delicatessen. Try the Spanferkel (hog roast) ciabatta for the perfect conclusion to a successful morning’s shopping.”
Raquel Olivas: Ost Architecture
“One of my pleasures is discover East German architecture – yes it’s sometimes grey, but sometimes there are amazingly colourful buildings full of nice windows whose details tell stories about their owners. One of my favourite areas is around the Karl Marx Allee, especially behind the main buildings, where you’ll find a quiet, residential atmosphere – kids playing in a spielplatz or someone sitting around and watching the world go by, just like you.”
Gosia Szczepanik: The Sun
“One of the things I love about Berlin the most is the change this city undergoes when the sun is shining. The more fleeting the moment of sunshine, the more glorious it feels. Especially in the winter – just the sight of people bundled up in warm coats, enormous scarves, blankets and pretty much anything and everything that will help one stay warm and enjoying their coffee in the sun makes me happy. You can see the café tables being moved according to the sunrays that creep along the pavements and people moving their chairs closer to each other so more people can share the table and soak in the warmth. You can see people sitting on the window-sills, sunbathing while eating breakfast or reading a book. Only a couple of days ago, on my way to work I saw a group of people sitting on a blanket in Monbijou Park, enjoying their morning cup of whatever by the Spree. It was 8.30 am and around 0 degrees, but hey, it’s SUNNY!”
Paul Sullivan: Random Exploration
“As a photographer and ardent fan of randomised urban exploration, one of the things I love to do if I see a window of free time – especially if the light is good – is jump on my bike or the S-Bahn with my camera and just see where I end up. Although it can be a slightly weird feeling at first to strike out with no real plan, this strategy is second nature to me now and I have a kind of blind faith in it, thanks to all the places, streets, shops, squares, people, monuments, facades, courtyards, parks and more that I’ve discovered on these spontaneous or arbitrary missions. Even if I find myself in familiar parts of town, I tend to notice different things about them since places – like people – are generally not static, and I always come home feeling like my perspective on the city, and understanding of it, has broadened. Obviously you could do this kind of thing in any big city, but Berlin’s expansive size, relatively good accessibility, and multiple layers of history conspire to make it somehow perfect for the, er, modern day camera-toting urban topographer…”
Fiona Laughton: Midweek Mauerpark
“Even though I moved to Berlin at the start of winter I didn’t let the cold weather stop me from exploring on foot. Berlin is the ideal walking city; flat, spacious, and bursting with both history and personality. One of my favourite things to do is walk through Mauerpark on a week day. Sure, it’s not Berlin’s prettiest park, but it’s a space that reflects both Berlin’s past and today’s freedoms. It’s especially fun when covered in snow so bring your kids and a sled. Keep walking north along the park, past the colourful playground and birch trees and you’ll stumble upon Jugendfarm Moritzhof, an educational farm for 6 to 16-year-olds where you can learn how to care for the animals as well as other agricultural, horticultural and craft skills. Say hello to the goats chilling in the winter sun – they are especially cute! – and come with an interesting history of their own. Finish with waffles on Kopenhagener Strasse or a beer at the Koppe.”
Marcel Krüger: Historical Layers
“My reason for going on a date with old lady Berlin is surely the fact that in no other European city is recent history as vivid and easily accessible as here. Just a short walk from my neighbourhood of the former Communist stronghold ‘Red’ Wedding to the shiny cathedral of transport that is the Berlin main station takes me past a former GDR watchtower that is now a memorial; a slice of the Berlin wall right on a cemetery that was mostly used for the German military dead of the Napoelonic wars and where ‘Red Baron’ Manfred von Richthofen was buried; and finally past a former railway terminus that is now an internationally acclaimed museum for modern art to a memorial park that used to be an old prison used by the Nazis for their political enemies. Berlin makes it possible for me to traverse 200 years in thirty minutes of slow walking.”
Natalye Childress: Cycling City
“It wasn’t until I got a bike that I first got to know Berlin. For the months before that, she was the mistress who swept me off my feet, compelling me to move one-third of the way around the world on a whim. She exuded a rough charm, and her quirky charisma captivated me. But we were still strangers in a sense, until I began to bike her streets. Once I started exploring on two wheels, I saw a side of Berlin I hadn’t been exposed to before. With walking, you are often limited by how fast and far you can travel, and with public transportation, the city can feel disconnected when you go underground at one place and “pop up” in an entirely different one, not knowing what ground you covered in between. But when you ride a bike around Berlin, suddenly it makes sense, the streets connecting like synapses in the brain. And it confirms that your hunch was correct–Berlin truly is an intoxicating, diverse, and irresistible place.”
Tam Eastley: S Bahn Epiphanies
“Like many people in the city, the S bahn is my regular route to work. At 9 am I’m normally running for the train, bread roll in hand, music pumping through my headphones. I dodge the dog shit on the ground as the familiar tune of the train doors slamming shut forces me to wait a few extra minutes. When the train comes, I squeeze into a spot by the window. I’m sleepy and eager for my first cup of coffee. My mind is already at work. But sometimes, on one of those beautiful Berlin mornings when the sky is a bright blue and the sun is shining in that way that makes all the colours of Berlin’s graffiti pop off the drab grey buildings, I’m pulled from my internal monologue, and into the world around me. As the train curls out of Treptower Park S bahn and we cross the bridge over the Spree, I look out at the silver statue of the molecule men rising from the water, and towards the Oberbaumbrucke. I am overcome with joy. ‘Berlin!’ I gasp. ‘I can’t believe I live here!'”
Paul Scraton: Green Spaces
“As Berlin is a city with its own forestry department, it has a wealth of green spaces to explore and discover, and one of the pleasures of the last couple of years has been to wander through some of the less heralded corners of the city where you feel as if the countryside is encroaching on the city limits. The Karow Ponds to the north of the city, filled as they are with bird and other wildlife, might feel like a place that has survived the development of the city, but actually they exist because of Berlin’s rapid growth at the end of the 19th Century. These ponds were originally part of Hobrecht’s sewage system for the enlarged Berlin, but despite their stinky origins, they are now a lovely spot of peace and tranquility, just a short S-Bahn ride from the city centre.”
Robin Oomkes: Mauer Memorial
“Let’s get one thing straight from the start: of course I don’t really love the Berlin Wall. In its 28-year active life span, from 1961 to 1989, it has caused so much grief to so many people, that to include it in a Valentine’s Day story may even seem cynical. And yet…every morning and afternoon, as I cycle along Bernauer Straße along the long stretch of Wall that is kept as a memorial, I can’t help being touched by it. Just the thought that it’s now almost as old as a memorial as it was in active life makes me realize the age of SED rule is very much behind us. The way it catches the light from different directions along this rising East-West stretch of road is a photographer’s dream. And although it may be fashionable to complain of hordes of camera-toting tourists, the people that I see visiting this memorial are mostly very subdued and seem genuinely in awe of what they are experiencing. Even the school groups behave! And because the memorial is over a kilometer in length, it’s always possible to find a quiet spot.
The final thing that makes me love this strange piece of military architecture after all is that it’s actually falling to pieces. The final incarnation of the wall, with its familiar concrete slabs and a pipe on top to make scaling and the use of climbing anchors impossible, was built in 1977 under the code name Mauer 75. Today, the concrete is crumbling around the steel reinforcement bars and you get the impression that it won’t last another five years if nothing is done about it. It’s a great conservationist’s conundrum: should we let time do its thing and let it disintegrate – or should it be restored (or maybe even renewed) to show future generations what it was like?”