It’s a goddamn fine city.
Berlin. A city that by 1945 was leveled to the ground. 90% laid to rubble. The world didn’t want it and the world wanted to make a point. The British were pissed. The Russians were pissed. The Americans were pissed. And most God-Fearing Germans got the hell out of here. Like some pie served on Easter Sunday, the whole town was split three ways, all left to the bombers. It was like the Middle East back in the day with the British. Let’s cut some arbitrary lines in the sand (literally) and call it a country.
The West side of Berlin kept on going. So did the East. But, under some serious Communistic spirits, the GDR came in, orderly as a sexless house frau, and declared, “always the future”. And the future they implemented, with their own special breed of gray and brown totalitarianism.
Although nudity and public baths were very popular. To the future, indeed. Artists were under surveillance. Protesters were detained. Watch that film “The Lives Of Others” (one of the finest films made about the subject) and you’ll get a glimpse of what went down circa Ronald Reagan in the West. While we were playing with Atari’s, Artists merely kilometers from where I write this blog right now were interrogated and imprisoned. The history of the city, and its more ugly reminders of the tyranny of terror, still remain, hidden between newly furnished condos and bougie coffee houses. I’m staying in Prenzlauer Berg, minutes from where state officials of the GDR had their homes, and past that, the working class German folk after the Wall came tumbling down.
People were already talking shit about where I’m lucky enough to stay. They repeated to me, before I flew out here: “It’s just Williamsburg with Currywurst.” But always leave it to a New Yorker to hate on something. Either it ‘was cool’, or it’s ‘too cool’, or ‘wanna-be cool’. Whatever it is, it’s just not enough. Just do a minor historic look through the blogs of The Bartender Knows this year alone. Dating failures, talking shit on real jobs and ‘white people shit’, the Tinder Hell trilogy; the whole year was a litany towards the unhappy, albeit sarcastically unhappy. The year was okay. It started with me in New Orleans (Paris’s punk rock stepchild) and ends with me in the Fatherland, Berlin. And past that, Prenzlauer Berg: as the German people call it now—stroller land.
They are right. The hood, with its long windowed with balcony gardened streets, do have an incredible amount of young mothers (shit, I would get someone here pregnant too). The cafes, tables practically empty during the twilight hour, spreading out on the patio, reminiscent of Pamplona, Spain, days after the running of the bulls—sporadically busy, undetermined crowds, one minute full with dialogue and cigarette smoke, the next, a veritable ghost town. A couple whispers to each other along the tables adorned by candlelight. You can hear your footsteps echo along the Strassen, while you wander, quite confused, and again—culture shock strikes.
I’ve gotten used to living in a world where nothing makes sense. Have you ever working an insanely busy bar, 3 deep a spot, on a Saturday night? The movements just come easy, you watch mouths move and you make out barely understandable dialects. The language here, unfortunately for me, is a haze of sound, both intriguing and quite lyrical when spoken by the locals. The haze is simply not knowing what anyone is talking about. I regret suddenly not taking German in high school. It just goes to show why my sister Laura is smarter than I am. She was such a ‘seltsame kleine madchen’, and probably deserves to be here more than I, for there is something civilized around these parts, more so than Paris even, that she would like.
No matter what cynicism New York may have shown toward me mentioning coming to Berlin to write, all of them agreed: “It is an Artist’s city.” I was excited. Maybe I could find inspiration. I was already chalk full, of course, but certainly ready for something else.
Any jaded person that’s aged a bit will have to raise an eyebrow at the mention of ‘finding inspiration’ through a geographic cure. To the millennials, it is almost mocked. Hell, the last 4 decades have been the most cynical of them all.
Geography, I highly doubt, can change a person. It only shows them for who they really are. Especially if they can’t speak the language.
“Mein Deutsch ist schreklich!” is how I open all conversations. Already, Germans began to smile. This was lucky for me, because to make another person laugh in their native language makes for smooth sailing. But it took a couple of stepping stones for this bartender to make his way through the dimly lit streets of stone and bike lanes (yes, people, they take bikes very seriously here).
It is not only perfectly legal, but not even frowned upon to drink in the streets. Anywhere. All the time. I can’t believe in all the years I have been an American (say it, gruffly, American), in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and been able, like a grown motherfucker, pound a beer on a sidewalk at 11 in the morning. I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in a relatively strict environment, back then it was either the school teachers or the police fucking with me (or vice-versa), I’m left with a feeling of utter gratuity to be able to raise that class to the sky, in front of children, God and everybody (this one’s for you, Bill), and put down an ice cold Budweiser (no guys, the Czech Republic kind) in the afternoon light.
Berlin is an alcoholic’s paradise. They just don’t care. Now if you jay-walk, then they look sadly at you, shaking their heads. Germans like order. They like logic. To them, it’s like, just wait. You got a beer in your hand, don’t you?
Chill the fuck out.
Now armed with alcoholic privileges, I was almost there. There meaning feeling comfortable. That place where, despite the rush noise of the language barrier, the foreign streets (Germany beats out anyone when it comes to Stassen names), there is a calm.
But somewhere deep below the language wave, there is this incredible silence here in Berlin. I was having lunch with a lovely girl from Paris the other day and she even mentioned it, of course, in her charming French Girl English Accent: “The quiet is absolutely everywhere. Except, of course, for the clubs. There are always the clubs.”
Luckily for me, I could care less about the clubs. The thought of me being partially alone in a throng of hot sweating people in the darkness, writhing to pulsing electronic music sound horrifying. I’m such a “let’s be bar stool buddies and just get drunk and talk” kind of guy.
Okay. Drugs. The right drugs and I’d be dancing to Lady Gaga at 6 in the morning. It happens.
And one night, walking within this quiet, I started to worry. Like a New Yorker, there’s something about the death-quiet that makes the City alarm go off in our heads. That’s when you are going to get stabbed. Stick to the lit streets, the main fares. The silence reached out to me, clasping around my ears, sending chills down my spine.
Then I heard a note. A piano note. An echo of something. The chords came down, loud, ricocheting off the narrow streets, fraying the net of silence around me. I walked slowly to the music.
I came to a small art installation gallery; black interior, wooden bar, with 20 foot high ceilings adorned with all manner of truss and lighting gear shadowed in darkness. A small sign in chalk read: Composer Playing Tonight. Satie, Chopin, Etc. Free. I walked into the bar. The chamber was filled with music, the skin on my arms perked up. The bartender, rolled cigarette half smoked between his thin lips, leans over lazily.
“Ein Bier, bitte,” I say, relying on the essentials of the German language. The bartender nods, comes back with a gigantic mug of beer. It’s something like 2 bucks. I smile. He smiles. There is nothing to say. We both turn back to the music and then everything is okay.
The Dive Bar. You know I need it, folks. The Berliners do not drink like we do. Like our version of alcoholic is almost funny. These guys get drunk, fall down, ruin family legacies and shit. They have beer halls and clubs. It’s either a casual café and a mug, or MDA and cocaine and metal music. Death metal is big round these parts. As if the place wasn’t haunted enough.
Though when I say the Berliners do not drink like us, I mean there has not been one night I’ve been out talking to strangers (everyone is from somewhere else: The Neatherlands, Austraila, France, Canada, Britian, Irish) that has not somehow been about art and art history. The Berliners are not playin’. These fuckers dig Art. Let it be known—far and wide.
That’s why gay culture is cool here. They have taste. That’s why you can smoke weed whenever you want. The lot of these folks work only 3 days a week.
It’s not Williamsburg. Williamsburg is full of anxiety-induced haters and IKEA brand yuppies. The competition is strong in the Big Apps, and maybe that’s why New York is cool. Hell, I’ve just recently received my locals’ pass in the imaginary mailbox, signed by the Mayor of ‘you’ve been in New York too long’.
But I found a dive bar by my place (big shout out to 8MM BAR in this, son!).
The bartenders are friendly, but not overly so. It’s dark. Strange images are projected on the wall. There’s somehow always a corner available. It’s dark and red. Jim Jarmusch would drink there.
These were the Berlin stones I needed to tread across the river of new moments that, just behind the cracking dam upstream, awaited me in the coming weeks.
To be continued….
IT'S TRUE: BERLIN GOT FUCKED. BUT IT'S BACK, BABY...ROSE FROM THE DIRT...
YEAH. TRY DRINKING 31 OF THESE...
CHOPIN ALWAYS SAVES MY DAY.