"Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and nothing can reach them so little as criticism. Only love can grasp them and keep hold of them and be just to them. Always trust yourself and your own feelings as opposed to any such analysis, review, or introduction; if you should be wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will lead you slowly and in time to new realizations. Allow your judgments their own quiet, undisturbed development, which like all progress must come from deep within you and cannot be forced or hastened by anything ... That alone is to live an artistic life, in understanding, as in creating. — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
The ride to Berlin was long and hot and delayed. I was excited to see the city—so excited—but tired too, tired and sweaty and smelly, so I first caught a train to my hostel for a little freshening up.
The hostel was tucked away in East Berlin, just a few meters from where the wall once stood. It was a beautiful, sprawling complex, larger than the homey hostels I generally favor but with a really good energy about it—and amenities too: it had a pool, it had a sauna, it had bunnies. Its lush courtyard was filled with cubist sculptures and artsy metalwork, and a little hut of an art gallery right in the middle where four artists-in-residence showcased their pieces (the hostel owners offered them beds and gallery space at no cost; they just want to support local art). The rooms were spacious and the showers enormous and the bunks tall and sturdy, and after having a look around the place and setting down my things on the bunk, I took a long, hot shower in the cavernous bathroom.
I emerged some time later and one of my bunkmates was in the room: his name was Alex, he was a mature nineteen, he was from the States but was just wrapping up a three-month work-abroad in Europe. I got dressed and we headed out for a bite and a drink, just a quick stroll down one of East Berlin's graffiti-blanketed boulevards. On our way back through the lobby of the hostel we bumped into our other two bunkmates, whom Alex had met earlier: AJ and Christina, a brother-sister pair from Melbourne. They were heading to dinner with a few friends in a bit and asked if we wanted to join. We'd just eaten, but saw little reason to pass up another round of drinks with fellow travelers.
The friends arrived: young, pretty, boisterous girls Christina knew distantly, but even distant acquaintances become good friends when you're on the road. We all headed out for a Mexican restaurant, and the margaritas were poor and the guacamole lacking, but the company was stellar and the outdoor patio superb, and we passed a few glorious hours chatting amongst ourselves and watching East Berlin hustle and bustle past our table.
Darkness fell. The girls were eager to go out—Berlin's nightlife was legendary, after all. The thing is, Berlin's nightlife doesn't really begin until around 3AM, which gave us a good five hours to kill before the party even started. Alex and I looked at each other. We were old souls. AJ seemed a little tired, too, but the girls were all about it, and we agreed to do our best to keep awake.
10PM, back at the hostel. We cleaned up and changed and had another round of drinks, took a quick trip to the liquor store at got some whiskey. Waited, rested, left for the girls' apartment. AJ grabbed the bottle of whiskey and we stepped outside the hostel into the crisp Berlin air as he said loudly, innocently, "okay, so all we need now is some Coke!" The drug dealer's eyes five meters away lit up.
We found our Coca-Cola, to the dealer's disappointment, but perhaps coke would have been a better choice: by 1AM, half the whiskey bottle empty between the seven of us, I was teetering to stay awake. I called it a night, and Alex seized the opportunity to join me on a sleepy return back to the hostel. By two, still a good hour before the girls and AJ would even head out, we were resting soundly on our soft mattresses, far away from the noisy oontz-oontz-oontz of thumping Berlin.
I woke around ten. Alex had already taken off for the day and AJ was just stirring—he'd continued on to wait in line for their first club but gotten tired and headed back around three—and Christina and the girls were still out, presumably. The two of us washed up and got dressed and grabbed breakfast down the street (at a vegan bakery-cafe-grocery establishment right across the street from a vegan supermarket ... ah, Berlin). There was an alternative walking tour around eleven, the kind that skipped all the standard touristy staples and instead carried us through back alleys and side streets to gorgeous graffiti and edgy street art. It sounded like my kind of tour; AJ and I joined the masses in the lobby right before they set off.
We met others, we met Berlin. We saw the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery, a long chunk of it tiled with political paintings and marvelous murals. We passed through old squats and barracks that had been repurposed into the most wonderful mish-mash of things: part climbing gym, part cafe, part outdoor bar and music venue, part hipster flea market, part yoga studio, part nightclub, all graffitied, all beautiful well-worn, the whole complex shaking and swelling with creative energy. Ah, the creativity. The freedom of it all. No surface went unpainted, no acre unused. Urban infill everywhere, everything reclaimed, everything put to good use. As the Soviet Union crumbled and the facades of East Berlin with it, the people had simply taken what was no one's and made it theirs, no permission sought and no questions asked ... how refreshing, to find a community with such agency.
We stopped at a beach bar along the river, sand and lounge chairs and all, with reggae wafting through the air and the spicy scents of West African fare, too. We ate tall plates of delicious curry, had a few beers, continued on. Through an old warehouse, now an art gallery-bar-theater. Past a giant face plastered on the side of an apartment building—oh, that? The street artist likes to cover the wall with gypsum, line the features of the face with tiny explosives, and pull the detonator so that his art appears all in one fell swoop, a visage emerging from the surface. A giant cosmonaut towered on the firewall of a four-story building nearby; he floated on the white brick, right arm outstretched. At night, our guide offered, the shadow of a flag from the traffic circle at the end of the block hits the wall just so, right into his fisted hand. The flag's not missing; it's just waiting for nighttime.
Our tour ended there, and the crowd broke apart—some back to the hostel, some to lunch, some off to the airport or the train station. AJ and I and a few others we met—Tash, Steven—were discussing afternoon plans. Tash mentioned an old abandoned amusement park she'd heard about; maybe we could figure out a way into it. Steven said no.
Actually, he said hell no. Actually, a word about Steven. Steven was from Miami, which is just fine, but he was the kind of guy from Miami who, when the tour guide asked the thirty or so of us international travelers to tell everyone else where we were from, would interrupt all of the Brazil and Finland and America and Germany and Egypt and Korea and Canada and Guyana with a big dumb Miami!, as though it's simply too important to mistake for, I don't know, a less interesting part of the United States (if one exists). Steven was the kind of guy who made frequent mention of "those Japanese tour buses" and thought sampling sausage was the height of experiencing German culture, and, yes, balked at the idea of checking out an abandoned amusement park because he didn't want "to get shanked by some crazy homeless guy."
I tried to explain the relative safety of urban exploration, of how to recognize the occasional dwelling amidst a ruin and just respectfully steer clear of it, but he whined and whimpered, so we relented and decided upon an abandoned airport instead. The airport, to be fair, wasn't still abandoned; it had fallen to ruin during Berlin's divided years and had only recently been transformed into a park, but still with all the markings of an old airport: a cracked runway and rusted planes and a still-standing terminal. He agreed to check it out.
The four of us trekked south through East Germany's busy, beautiful streets—objectively ugly, sure, but beautiful in that gritty graffitied sort of way—and eventually reached the park, which like everything in Berlin, was land of a million uses: petting zoo, community garden, lawn space here for sports, trees on either side of that small valley there with long slack ropes tied between them and well-balanced Germans treading cautiously atop the ropes. Deeper in, we found the main runway, flanked by tall golden grasses, lit by a setting sun, and we sat right in the middle of it, lay down on the asphalt, talked of things, anything.
We got up, taxied down the runway on our two feet to the far end, found another community garden, a sculpture hall, miniature golf. Ordinarily I wouldn't be impressed by putt-putt, but this was no American putt-putt with its tried and trite plastic windmills and goofy faces painted all glaring orange and yellow. No, this was Berlin putt-putt, which meant it was just as organic and artsy and downright creative as the rest of that incredible city, each of the eighteen holes commissioned by a different artist, each a work of art on its own, balls and clubs aside, fantastic and imaginative combinations of wood and steel and grass and iron, just as fun to look at as I'm sure to play. Salvaged materials made into something beautiful, in a salvaged airport made into something beautiful.
We exited the airport park by a tiny Shaolin temple—why not?—and headed back to the hostel, where we went our separate ways for a bit. I hung in the common room, hoped to write ... as usual, couldn't manage it. A girl entered, had a little trouble with the wifi, asked if it was working for me. I said it was, but so slowly it was hardly worth trying for it, and from there we just started chatting instead. Her name was Rachel, she was from Michigan, she had been doing a short work-abroad in Germany for a few weeks and was flying out of Berlin at five the next morning. This is the traveler's introduction, always, unfailingly, and I reciprocated with mine: Jay, DC, two out of three months down on a European excursion. We talked about DC—Rachel had been there—about the city and its sky-high rents and different neighborhoods, and I mentioned having built my own house, a topic I've learned to avoid but which seemed inevitably vital in our ongoing discussion. "Really?" her eyes lit up. "Is it a tiny house?"
I was shocked. I feigned offense at her guess. "It is a tiny house. Do I not seem capable of building a real-sized house?"
She was a tiny house enthusiast. I love tiny house enthusiasts, of course—I just hated talking to them about tiny houses. After the first two thousand times, it's a little hard to find uncharted grounds. But it had been months since I'd spoken to anyone about it ... backpackers don't care what kind of house you live in, just what kind of pack you travel with. So I indulged her; I talked all about the house and the community and its construction and its design, and she shared her own plans for a house of her own, someday, about her possession purges of present and her exciting and newfound quest for minimalism. A woman after my own heart. It was late, and she was hungry, and I could use a bite too, so we headed down the street to an Indian restaurant and ate a big, hearty, spicy meal, and with an early morning flight to catch, I walked Rachel back to the hostel. I thought about turning in as well, but I felt surprisingly energetic, and the weather outside was gorgeous, and it was Saturday night and it was Berlin and I had nowhere to be in the morning. I went for a stroll. I walked down empty streets dark and quiet and busy streets bright and bustling, I walked with neither direction nor purpose. It was still early by Berlin standards—maybe just 2AM—but I could feel the city gearing up for quite a night.
I passed an old heating plant with a long queue out front and a faint oontz-oontz-oontz pulsing from within. I had absolutely no desire to experience Berlin's nightclub scene, thought waiting in line to be packed into a chaotic discotheque dungeon a tad ridiculous, but I was curious to see what a heating plant looks like when its entrails are reclaimed by the MDMA crowd. I paused next to the line, pulled out my phone for a quick search of the club's reviews, as though that would somehow make my decision easier.
"Excuse me," a voice called in Scandinavian-twinged English. "Is this the queue for the club?"
I turned; three guys were headed my way. I nodded. "That's crazy!" he said. "I didn't realize there would be lines like this!"
The guys were from Denmark, and had come for the World Cup Championship the next day, and thought they'd sample some world-famous Berlin clubbing the night before. They seemingly hadn't done their research, though, so I filled them in on the basics that I'd gathered during my time in town: not only was that the line, but it was the line for selection. Berlin clubs are notoriously exclusive, and partygoers almost make a sport of starting out the most exclusive, getting denied entry, and then heading to the next queue as they relive their rejection—"oh man, we almost had it that time!"
You get rejected for all kinds of reasons: for being ugly, for being fat, for being poorly-dressed, for being a tourist, for not speaking German, for speaking German too loudly, for speaking any language too loudly, for being in groups of more than three, for being a man, for appearing drunk, for appearing high, for looking a little too much like someone the bouncer doesn't like. I don't care much for exclusivity, and I certainly didn't care to idolize it, yet I realized as I was talking to the trio that we had been absorbed into the line and were slowly trudging forward. They wanted to make a go of it, and they seemed nice, so I stayed in queue and chatted with them as we waited, very indifferent to whatever fate may have awaited us at the entrance. They were Danish, they lived in Copenhagen, and I mentioned I was headed to Copenhagen soon and they told me all about it. We marched forward. They asked about the States, about its great cities, about biking there. I shared what I knew. We marched forward.
As we neared the front, mouths in front of us closed, chins turned down. No one made eye contact, no one did anything that might offend the doorman or give away non-German nationality. We followed suit, a subservient people to the whims of pomp and trend.
The bouncer was actually a very friendly guy—more thin hipster than muscled machismo—and I had my skinny jeans working for me. "How many?" he asked us. I had told the Danes that going in four was a terrible idea; that four guys would never get in. I told them we had better odds if they tried it with just them, or as two pairs of two, but those great Danes were so gallant: no man left behind. "Four?" we asked.
Sure, enough, the bouncer said we were fine to enter, but only two of us. We could pick the two. Of course, they weren't going to leave one of their own out from a night of clubbing, and it would have been bad form for me to tell them tough luck and head in solo. So instead I left the line with them, all four of us led to the side, where we watched the lone man behind us dismissed with a quick no. Too old, too bald, shorts.
Oh man, we almost had it that time!