I arrive in Berlin having finished the novel Alone In Berlin (Hans Fallada) only the week before- at once I can hardly imagine feeling alone here. The view from the plane is gratifying in its vastness; I can see cityscape stretching out its large body proudly for miles. I always find it difficult to tell people why it is I think Europe looks so different from England from above- the fields are roughly the same size, shape and colour, the towns are built in similar patterns, there’s often a similar number and variety of buildings- but for some reason I will swear that the roofs look European. It’s something to do with the exact shade of terracotta and the very even triangles that smile up at you and invite you down.
Lots of things shock me about Berlin, especially the disappointing (at least for a language student) lack of German spoken there- it truly is an international city. Another thing is that in spite of the fact it’s mid-august it seems to be peak building work season. Every other street and every other building is swamped in construction work, cranes dwarf domes, gravel pits are more frequent than solid pavement, diggers come by more often than buses; couple this with the stifling heat of a city summer and the effect is over whelming, noisy and nauseating. The buildings are so tall, they seem to reach endlessly so that on some days you can see the blue sky but are perpetually stuck in the shade of such grandeur, no sunlight can penetrate so far down. Other days the height of the buildings blocks the wind and allows the heat to collect, penned in by the unyielding streets.
I can’t explain why I’m shocked to discover it’s an expensive venue within which to stage a budget summer holiday, it’s the equivalent of London so why was I expecting anything other than London prices? But there it is, I’m surprised, and I run out of money (this is a first). I’m also surprised by the still striking differences between the east and west sides of the once divided city. The east is still full of mentions of ‘east’, a throw back from when its communist officials were proud of its separateness, still glared over by austere concrete architecture, still visibly poorer and less green. The closer you get towards the most famous part of the old dividing line, Brandenburg Tor however, the more ancient buildings of a finer architectural era are restored and kept, the more lush the city’s green spaces appear and of course the more impressive the new glass and metallic structures seem to be as they rise and swoop gracefully, a firm reminder of the comparative richness of the western side but a few years ago. I didn’t think the difference would be so profound, the Berlin wall fell quite before my time so it’s easy to forget that for a large percentage of people on the planet the division of the nation is still within living memory.
Eating out is not only a fairly expensive deal, at least in the area of Berlin we haunt for five days (around Alexander Platz), but also a relatively un-German affair. My hostel, Belushi’s (St Christopher’s Inn Berlin) is busy and exciting and the food is cheap and good- think burgers and chips, very big burgers at that, a variety of salads and starters and a few German-ish options (by a few I mean Pork Schnitzel is on the menu, and delicious by the way). So all that being said we are happy to eat and drink here three nights out of the four. When looking for places to eat I mostly find Italian, Chinese or Vietnamese with the occasional un-inspiring generic ‘European menu’, whatever that is supposed to mean. We do have an amazing Italian by the Spree, looking onto museum island, which is only made better by my Cosmopolitan- but it just isn’t cheap enough to justify every night, and let’s be honest, we aren’t in Italy.
As for drinking beer is high on my list of things to ‘do’ this trip- and it’s very reasonable too. Any other drink is standard city prices, so expensive. I really like Lübzer from tap, it’s so drinkable and light, and a few half-litres later I’m thinking it’s probably too drinkable, staring into it’s light-amber goodness with the white top hat. This is during our last night excursion to a ‘traditional’ Beer Hall. It isn’t traditional, the men playing their instruments in Lederhosen look surly and bored, unwilling clowns, the space inside is a spread of benches, methodically positioned to maximise entry without looking crammed, and the Biergarten is just overspill onto the pavement. But it’s a warm fuzzy atmosphere, at least around our table, and the beer is still delicious. Another night time escape involved trekking out by train, severely limited in by our lack of reliable knowledge about the befuddling Berlin transport system, further down the Spree to the ‘clubbing area’. The bridge lifting you out of the station has a strip of kiosks, which seem to liven as the night goes on, selling alcohol, general convenience and food; with a few stalls to perch on and live music attracting a lightly bobbing audience it’s as though the railway bridge has a community of its own. As we pick our way through the dodgy combined-dock-and-railway area to the opposite side of the river I am transported back home (to Manchester) by the sugar dustings of broken glass and the throbbing rowdiness of mid-twenties drifting en masse. We attempt and fail to find a club we’d heard of and instead I find myself queuing outside a deserted warehouse of some kind where a car commercial are attracting guests by offering free drinks and a chance to be in the commercial as an indistinguishable extra in the crowd. People are queuing up the street and we don’t make it inside but as we pass later we pause to peer, with many others, rather wistfully at the leaping flames and explosion sound effects just visible through the chinks of metal. We pass several possible, relaxed looking joints and eventually turn off, into ever more dubious territory to sidle down a tributary in search of a river bar. Whole sections of the tributary are lined with inviting restaurants and bars, varying in size and clientele, all built on barges and dipping their toes gently into the still Spree water. One looks especially inviting, glowing red and humming with music, as we glance in the drinkers seem to all be moving as one body, surely if anyone moved more than a fraction independently someone would end up in the water. We pursue the path to its limit and finally enter the Badeschiff. It really is an old barge then. The toilets are two stacked shipping containers, lit by neon lights, the bar itself is embedded in sand and as you descend towards the lower levels the pool is visible glowing an eerie chemical blue against the natural blackness of the river around it. It’s closed at this time sadly. Groups inhabit the deckchairs in little knots, swarming around the red lamps like insects sipping their honey, I feel like I could sleep here are we are forced into an almost laying position by the low chairs and my mind relaxes into the subconscious pulse of the music. We only catch the last train back by miracle and with a few changes, I’m keeping my fingers crossed we don’t run out of this kind of luck.
Hostels are great places to stay- but you never quite know what you’re going to get. I am so pleased to find my hostel is not only clean (bonus) but comfortable and fun. After an initial trip in the lift I reject it’s terrifying, cramped shakiness for a few days at least. It’s huge, a maze of corridors snake beyond the stair case and I never quite manage to find my room without a wrong turn, but the best part is that it’s busy, most rooms are occupied so the atmosphere is thick with that travelling excitement. The bar is lively to the point of busy and very friendly too, although the laid-back attitude is taken a bit far by the staff who can barely be bothered to serve you or answer your questions, still it is made up for by how at home you can feel here. It’s close to the U-Bahn station too, which is handy, but also has the odd effect that every so often the floor of the bar will rumble subtly beneath you, and if you happen to feel it you’ll realise that the train line to Alexander Platz is carrying it’s heavy load of commuters right under your feet.