Artists. Are. Everywhere.
This has been a topic I have written about for years. Where in the world is the best place for an artist of any streak; the painter, the writer, the photographer, the musician—to live, to work, to survive and flourish? All fingers point to Europe. This is nothing new. Who hasn’t heard the ‘I’m big overseas’ announcement from American artists? It’s a common explanation to family members, doubters, and other desperate artist types here in the States lauding Europe as some sort of Shangri-La for the creative temperament. And there is a reason for this.
Paris, Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Barcelona, Dublin, Prague; these cities are listed as the most hospitable in Europe for the Artists of the world. But only Berlin (and Prague) stands alone (for now) as the affordable choice.
This will probably change over the next 10 years, as popularity and news spreads about this artistic city. Let me tell you some wild facts, financially speaking, regarding Berlin.
Average one bedroom apartment in a slightly boring part of the city:
400 euros. (that’s about 550 dollars)
Average price of a six pack of beer (and we’re talking good German beer):
Average pad of regular butter:
Average night out per person sans booze at a sit-down restaurant:
Average schwarma street food sandwich (delicious, btw):
Already, you can understand why people, especially artists, would want to live here. Weed and alcohol are tolerated on the streets. Smoking is allowed everywhere. Prostitution totally legal in the Red Light District. The bars rarely close at a certain time, and obviously the clubs don’t close. Drugs are available quite easily outside Gorlitzer Park in Kreuzberg. All you have to do is be a white person and the ‘businessmen’ will approach directly.
Artists are welcome here in Berlin. No one chides an artist as they do here in the States. No one is worried about what you make or drops the annoyingly passive aggressive line: “so have you sold a screenplay?”
There is a sense of some kind of camaraderie, a lost bastion out in the world, and they stick together, supporting one another, going to each others rocks shows, film premieres, and art openings.
I stumbled accidently into the artistic elite. Held up in the bougie neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, I wandered, night by night, trying to find a place for this bartender, not bartending. Of course there were beer halls. No such thing, really, as a ‘regular’ bar in Berlin. It’s either a restaurant, a beer hall, or a wine bar.
Then there’s 8MM Bar. My Holy Grail of Berlin.
Rumors of the bar were already floating about even before I left to Germany. They told me, that’s the punk spot, dark and whorishly red-lit. Old film canisters adorned the shelves, and screenings on the far wall of odd psychedelic cut-up films, ranging from the sexual to the perverse, gleam under the smoke filled small main room of 8MM Bar. They make their own version of Jager, some mysterious concoction called Melloch, delicious and potent, and offered by the kind and generous bartenders that work behind the bar. Most were musicians, in their own psych-rock bands; others were photographers, painters, and pianists. Really, anything interesting only started at 3 in the morning. And that’s during the week folks. Yes, all ages, all styles, all variance of drug induced dance party people, all of these happenings occur past the witching hours—into the night they go…
That is Berlin. I didn’t go to the clubs. I don’t like electronic music. Nor am I a fan of crowds. I start getting that strange feeling of an ocean rising up to my throat. Of course, if I had ingested some Molly perhaps, easily available on the streets, I would have become a dancing fiend. But no, instead I became a wandering drunk, taking my drinks on the streets below glowing yellow street lamps, and pocketing small Vodka bottles in my overcoat. Then I found the free concerts at the Berlin Philharmonic at noon every Tuesday. I stumbled upon violin players, accordion players, and strange folk-tribal groups playing by The Spree and on the random streets.
There was the fine ‘walk’ I created, arranging a mix of interesting streets, pleasant to the eye, aesthetically speaking, all making for a great walk. It was from Prenzlauer Berg to the Brandenburg Gate, then onto Checkpoint Charlie, and back across to Kreuzberg.
Making my way to the long knife cut into Mitte using Schonhauser Alle, already one can feel the entrance of the city center. Walking past the closed 8MM Bar (not opening until 8pm) I came to the intersection of Torstrasse and Alte Schonhauser where the very odd bar called the Old CCCP sits under the bulbed lights of its moniker above the door. Not quite sure what was going on in this place, good DJ’s no doubt, but the workers were oddly dressed in suits and vests. I couldn’t help but shake a feeling of organized crime was somehow involved in the bars existence. Inside the place, on some late nights I got a very ‘working girl’ vibe in the place.
This made more sense as I made my way along the curved Neue Schonhauserstrasse which leads winding down along side the beautiful and picturesque Monbijou Park, a tree filled lush and peaceful place where with a bottle of Budweiser (actual Budweiser kids) and a Gauloise cigarette one can find some kind of reflection of the future and the past.
Or find prostitutes. Yes, that’s right, of course I accidently wandered into this area. Normally I took a right down Monbijoustrasse. But if one continues down Oranienstrasse past 8pm on a Friday night, legions of Eastern European prostitutes in porn attire line the sidewalks offering back massages, old fashions, and other assorted activities. I suddenly remember it is legal here, and not necessarily being a prostitute kind of guy, and being broke, I merely chatted with them. They, upon realization I was the worst ‘john’ ever, ignored me and moved on. Back to the “PG” rated beauty walk.
Hanging a right down Monbijoustrasse, we come to the prosaic domed structure of the Bode Museum over a small bridge above the Spree River. At sunset, with the TV Tower in the background, one can witness the most pristine vision of Berlin under construction, a city still building its identity and its structures.
Past the river, hanging a left down Kupfergrabinstrasse, a small side street leads underneath a sullen grey-sooted above ground train, there is a winding beautiful little street (Georganstrasse) full of bars, bodegas, and shops that sneaks under the railway charmingly rattling above. Walk the long curve to Friedrichstrasse, their 6th Avenue, and gleefully pound a beer in front of the suited working types of this areas business district. All the way down is Checkpoint Charlie, obviously packed with tourists and such. Take a left on Oranienstrasse and follow all the way into the more grimy and hipster-laden and of Kreuzberg.
The comparison to Brooklyn to Berlin is repeated over and over again. But let me tell you the truth. Berlin is German, that’s it. If anything, many styles of Brooklyn have been co-opted from the Berliners, not vica-versa. Nothing can compare to Berlin. It stands alone as the last bastion of cheap living for the artist in Western Europe.
But coming back into the States (yes, I have returned to Brooklyn), once greeted by the custom agent, I grinned widely, slammed my bags down, and confessed: “Goddamn it! It's good to be back in the States!” The custom agent, usually a solemn bunch, punched my passport, and said grinning back: “Welcome home.” He knew I was no terrorist. I looked too relived to be back on home soil.
It felt good to speak English and not be judged for it. The taxi line at JFK even felt warm and cozy (listening to the screams of angry drivers and the full hard press of the horns in traffic). People were swearing everywhere. Taxi’s were playing hip-hop loud through the speakers. Every one was ignoring everyone else, and moving fast toward their destination, all with angry grimaces and tired eyes. I was home. I was happy.
I was back in New York City. My favorite town.
And who knows what would await me upon my return?
ALWAYS BEAUTIFULLY GREY...
A PERFECT EXAMPLE OF BERLIN, PAST AND THE FUTURE CONSTRUCTION...
YEP. VICTORY. FOR ME GETTING THE HELL OUT WHEN I DID...