Football isn’t everything. Really. And it really doesn’t matter that you lost last week. Sorry if you’d nearly forgotten and I’ve just reminded you about it. But the truth is, it probably matters less to you that we were English, and more that you lost to an Italian. Again.
But, as I said, football isn’t everything. So, leaving the beautiful game aside, where do we two countries stand on other things? On culture for example. Is one better than the other? Or, more specifically, how does your 2008 Berlin compare to our 2008 London?
I’m a Londoner. I live in the cultural metropolis, but I’m over here for two weeks to check up on you Berliners. Partly it’s because I’m a bit worried that you are the cause of a creative brain drain. Artists, musicians and up-and-coming creatives are deserting us for you so much so that I’ve heard some journalists at Time Out, the celebrated London magazine, calling Berlin the new East London. But it’s also partly because I’m curious about what makes this city and its citizens tick and how you compare to us.
So, my plan to get the full picture of Berlin - to get under the skin of the city - is to run a self-experiment. I’m going to go out every night and day to some event or other - theatre, art show, performance event, gig, club, movie, whatever - in an attempt to understand what’s going on here and compare it to London. It will be a cultural marathon. On Monday night I saw "Cleansed" at the Schaubühne, and tonight I am going to "Pazar" a German-Turkish film in Kreuzberg. I’ll give you my observations on them tomorrow. But I’d also like your help. If you’ve any ideas of what I should be seeing please email me here: email@example.com.
And alongside this Cultural Project, I will also be running the Sausage Experiment.
I’m with you Germans on the sausage. It has to be one of the most excellent manifestations of meat known to man. In fact, I can’t think of a culture that doesn’t have at its centre both alcohol and the sausage. The Spanish have Chorizo; Algeria the spicy Merguez; we British have the breakfast Chipolata or Black Pudding, but you Germans have the Frankfurter, Thüringer Bratwurst, Nürnberger Bratwurst, Bockwurst, Wienerle, Bayrische Weißwurst, Debrecziner, Landjäger and Currywurst. If there are any others that I should know about, please tell me...
So as well as the theatres, the operas, the concerts and the art galleries, I’m going to visit a butcher and sample your sausages daily. And perhaps as I get to know each one, the sausage will become my measure, my cultural barometer and I will be able to say that the Sarah Kane show, "Gesäubert", that I saw last night at the Shaubühne was rather like a Currywurst, an acquired taste, difficult to digest, but extremely provocative.
First, thanks. Thanks for all your emails. Among them there was a cryptic message from Artists Anonymous as the self-declared pulse-keepers of Berlin and brilliant suggestions from many others of you with some great things to do - thanks Frank for the Knacker tip! Do, please, keep the emails coming. And I now have Shantel & Bukovina Club Orkestar on my menu for next wednesday (thanks Tanja),
Katharina emailed that she saw Quentin Tarantino at Monsieur Vuong, the Vietnamese restaurant on Alte Schönhauser - a restaurant I should apparently visit. Has anyone else spotted the blood-and-guts director here? Put a comment below or drop me a line (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have and we can see if HE is getting the full Berlin experience too.
Thanks, too, to Sunny_M for the Sucuk sausage suggestion. More on that later...
So, my first cultural fix here was Cleansed by Sarah Kane at the Shaubühne on Monday. Before you attack me for seeing a play by an English writer, directed by an Australian and staged at a theatre that sometimes has English subtitles, let me tell you that you Germans have almost adopted Kane - she’s more popular here in Germany than the UK. Why is that exactly? The design was excellent, the acting brilliant and the subject matter grim: mutilation, tongues cut out, castration, heroin injected into an eye, full nudity and sex with the dead. In England we’d be warned about that stuff before going into the theatre. Signs would be put up. But here there was no notice telling us that those easily shocked might be offended and I like that. It gave the play a stronger punch with the unexpected brutality. I like that lack of protection that you Berliners offer. It’s healthy.
And I can tell you, too, that I am really enjoying walking the Berlin streets without being spied on by the CCTV cameras 24 hours a day. In London they’re a plague - there’s one for every 14 people - and I’ve really noticed already how free it feels not to have them poking at you from every corner.
Now to more a serious subject. The sausage. The Turkish Sucuk otherwise known as Knoblauchwurst is Rindfleisch, slightly salty and a little oily. The short, squat sausage comes from the town of Afyon, but I tried it in the area of Berlin that I understand is called Little Istanbul. It was sliced thin, served on a bed of bread with salad and a sharp sauce and was delicious. It was, too, the perfect appetizer for a brilliant movie, Pazar (der Markt) that opened at the Babylon cinema in Kreuzberg last night. It’s a German film, a Turkish story and directed by the Englishman Ben Hopkins. Am I catching a trend of cultural multinationalism here in Berlin? So, if I can give you readers a piece of advice: go and see it. It’s excellent. And even better with a Sucuk in your stomach.
Frank emailed me and said “als weitere Wurstsorte soll hier die KNACKER genannt werden” and Patricia’s email told me to try the Fleischerei Staroske. That wasn’t hard. It’s right by the Tagesspiegel offices on Potsdammer Strasse. Of course, she must have known that. How thoughtful.
Anyway, I went into Staroske’s and asked if they had any Knackers. “How should I eat it?” I asked. However you like, the friendly woman butcher replied. “What, even raw?” “Yes. You can bake it or fry it - or eat it raw if you want to.” Now, that sounded a bit odd to me, and I didn’t want to take the risk. So after my long day of culture I came back to my flat and I fried it. It gave off a lovely smokey smell, not, I hasten to say, because I had burned it. It was salty. Chewy. Better without mustard than with. It seemed tough at first, but had a mysterious, homely flavour and that made me think that it was bit like Berlin.
Siegfried’s email said if I could get a ticket I should try to see Sasha Waltz and her dance group perform Jagden und Formen at Radial System V. I had not heard of her, but quickly became aware that she is revered here. And the building looked stunning from my quick google research, so that’s what I did.
So I made my way to the former water pumping station. It’s impressive and industrial and, dramatically, right on the river. Smaller, but a bit I suppose like London’s Tate Modern or the Roundhouse in Camden which is an old train shed. Both capitals use old industry buildings for the new arts industry.
I could feel an anticipation in this audience. And while I was waiting to go in two very kind Berliners started talking to me. Someone left a comment asking me to observe your Berliner “Freundlichkeit”. I have had nothing but “Freundlichkeit” so far. And this couple, who it turned out were Tagesspiegel readers of course, were charming and friendly. They even found me after the show to ask me what I thought of it.
The show was super. I’m no dance critic, but this performance really packed a punch. It was so dynamic. Bodies leaping through the air, rolling on the stage and a full orchestra playing the score which at one point left their seats and joined in the dance. It was a total integration of dance, theatre, music and art. “That was a highpoint,” my new friends said to me afterwards. And It certainly was extraordinary.
Thanks again for all your emails. I’m trying to reply - and I’m still trying to work out what I’m doing tonight. It was supposed to be films at Arsenal. Anyone got any better ideas? Email me. Now I’m off to the butchers again...
One thing I’ve noticed as I walk the streets of your city is that the little fellows who tell you when you can walk at the traffic lights change from bald-headed men to ones with hats on. This may be an obvious thing for you, but it’s unusual for me. Someone told me that the chaps with hats are the ones in what was East Berlin. A relic of the DDR. It’s funny, because you observe this mild trace of the past - and they help me to locate myself and imagine what it was like to live in the east when people weren’t free. It’s a lovely and subtle difference to London - a gentle historical reminder in the traffic lights. The Wall no longer exists but the mark of you crossing what was the border is now defined by little green men.
Muriel had emailed me to say that the Volksbühne theatre was "ein absolutes Muss in Berlin" and that the play Der Selbstmörder was having its final performance. So I rushed there after wolfing down some bread, some delicious Köln beer and two Landjäger sausages at a lovely little pub on Potsdamer Straße.
The Volksbühne seems to me a little more obviously FSU (that is Former Soviet Union) than the pedestrian traffic lights. With its grand staircases, chandeliers, mirrors and slightly out-of-date decor the building spoke with an almost old-fashioned accent. But in contrast the audience was extremely young - teenagers and twentysomethings very ready to laugh at what was on stage. I was surprised. I can’t think of a similar theatrical institution in London - or one that attracts such an audience. In London there has been a bit of a crisis that the theatre only attracts the middle-class and older people. Of course there are exceptions, but generally that’s the case. But here was a full house of people without grey hair.
I wish I could say I understood the play. But I didn’t. It was a spectacle though. At one stage the whole cast (a huge chorus) invaded the auditorium and scrambled over the chairs. And one actor gave a speech from the back of the theatre through a megaphone. It was striking and exciting - but a bit bewildering for me with my little German.
The taxi driver who took me home said Volksbühne is very popular with the kids. She (yes, she - there’s a difference too, you don’t see many women taxi drivers in London) said that some of the shows were almost like “splatter”. I took it that she meant horror with blood and stuff. She then told me how much Mitte had changed and said I should visit an old squat called Tacheles. Does anyone know anything about it? Is it worth a visit? Email me (email@example.com) to tell me if it is.
Thanks for all your tips again - my list of things to do is growing all the time and includes a trip to the Blutwurst maker on Karl-Marx-Platz in Neukölln thanks to your suggestions. See you tomorrow!
According to some comments on Thursday’s piece I am a cultural imperialist. My English presence in the city is, apparently, a dying gasp of British and US influence.
Do I detect here a sense of insecurity or a desire of these Berliners to close the city off from the outside world again? Is this a sign of a reluctance to lay the city open and share it with those who have an interest in the place? Or is it simply hostility to the English - who one reader seems to suggest are just like the Americans?
I haven’t found this to be a typical view in my journeys around the town, in and out of concert halls, cafes and, of course, butcher shops, but maybe it lies there under the surface. A reluctance to mix. Surely a place benefits from diversity and is made stronger by a difference of views and cultures.
London thrives on its multicultural mix. It is the city of a thousand languages where you hear Arabic on Edgware Road, African music in Tottenham, and you can pay for a beer in Roupees in Southall. Perhaps you guys, 20 years later, are still just getting properly acquainted with your other half - some of you west Berliners seem a little critical even perhaps hostile about the easterners - and you’re not quite ready to open up to the rest of us.
So when I was told by a tipster about Worldtronics at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt that had Pakistani music from Faisal Gill mixed with some Berlin-resident DJs, I thought I could find out how such a culture clash would be received. The event wasn’t that well attended, but the audience was very enthusiastic although hardly at all Asian. If this had been in London it would have brought out the expatriate community in force. One of the things I love to do in London is to go to an Algerian or African or international concert, because you get to see another slice of the city - the different people you share it with. Berlin offered an appreciative but largely European audience.
Thanks Matina for suggesting the Rum Trader on Fasanenstraße. I dashed over there after Faisal Gill’s music to catch the Salvation Army playing some Christmas carols. The music was warm and the place welcoming - and smokey. It’s one of the few places in Berlin to get around the smoking ban, apparently. But the most unusual and perhaps most Berlinish thing I’ve done so far was to follow Ralf and Jan’s advice and stand on Warschauer Brücke for an hour between 10-12 and peoplewatch. It wasn’t culture in a direct way but watching all the young clubbers on their way out for a night out was a sociological glimpse of a real Berlin, I think.
Blimey, it was cold, though. I thought the Bockwurst would warm me up but found I could hardly eat it. Am I the only one to think that this sausage is just a bit too fatty?
Zoo station is a little bit famous beyond Berlin. Even as far as London. It was the main location for the film Christiane F which is one of the few German movies to really break through to the English people; The Lives of Others, Tough Enough (Knallhart) and The Baader-Meinhof Complex being more recent ones picked up by UK audiences and which perhaps signify a renaissance in German cinema.
Anyway, I arrived at Zoo station and thought about Christiane F. and tried to spot the locations. It didn’t look like it had done in the film (unsurprisingly, it was over 20 years ago). But it made me wonder why there had been such a heroin problem in the city at that time. Anyone have any ideas? And does it still exist here to the same extent? What happened to Christiane F., by the way?
I was on my way to Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche to hear some Bach. What would we do without Bach? Even I, who like some good old hard-guitar rock’n’roll, find something magical in his music. This concert was short but sweet. Only Kantate 132 "Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn!” and in the modern church next to the bombed ruined it had a very soothing effect. So soothing, in fact, that it worked a bit like a lullaby on me. After five days of hard culture, treading the pavements and eating more sausages in a week than most sensible people should have in a year, Johann Sebastian placed a calming hand on my shoulder and let me rest. Thanks Sabine for the tip.
I walked out of the church in a cloud of music and then nearly had a heart attack. Don’t worry, it wasn’t the wurst-effect. No. I thought a bomb had gone off nearby. After all the years of the IRA and now al-Qaeda in London I’m always a bit on the alert for an act of terrorism. I guess you don’t have that feeling so much here. The bang though was overhead and I looked up to see a stunning firework display. Very pretty against the ruin and above all the Christmas market stalls. You can’t beat fireworks for simple joy. To calm myself down I had a cup of a powerful hot drink from a stall where they poured rum over a huge lump of sugar into a large bowl of wine and set light to it. I have to hand it to you Germans for inventive ways with alcohol. And sausages.
Jessica sent me an email titled “blutwurstbruder” and told me to go the Blutwurstmanufaktur in Neukoln. What a tip. The Fleischermeister Marcus Benser hand makes more than 60 different kinds of sausage here - and he gave me some hot Blutwurst with Sauerkraut. I’ve now learned the word “lecker” and fully apply it to his sausages. It was warm, rich, restoring - a bit like the Bach concert actually.
Thanks CCTV (great name!), brenda and others for your comments and concerns for my health! I might take your advice on having a vegetarian sausage. Anyone know where I can get a good one of those? Please leave a comment or any thoughts you might have below.
Remember I commended your city for the few surveillance cameras it had? Well recently I’ve felt them constantly following me. OK, so it was by choice and I can’t complain. ZDF read Der Tagesspiegel too and asked if they could go with me on my journeys, so I’ve had a camera crew at my side. Actually, it’s quite nice to have the company.
I learned something too about your difficult past. One of the crew was from the former East and had tried to escape in 1988. He was caught and imprisoned for a year. The wall came down a few months after his release.
As I was walking through the Mauerpark fleamarket in Prenzlauer Berg, he showed me the point where he had tried to climb over the wall with a ladder (how brave is that?) and told me that the strip of grass that now looked like a park had been patrolled by guard dogs. I can’t think of a London equivalent to that. That’s unique Berlin history - still living.
I love fleamarkets. They say so much about a city. You get to see what people are getting rid of, and a slice of social history is revealed in the junk. Old East German hoover bags stuffed in a box, record players and, I think, Russian cameras. And a stack of documents from 1942 with Nazi swastikas on the front. You wouldn’t see them in Portobello market.
In London the whole idea of the plucky British in the Blitz is celebrated in a museum down by London bridge. And then there are Winston Churchill’s war rooms too. The British define their identity to some degree by looking back to the war. It’s not necessarily a good idea. You can’t ignore the Nazi past in Berlin, there are bullet holes in the walls. But I thought how different the approach is to remembering the war here and what it means for German identity.
There’s an identity crisis going on in Britain at the moment. Constant questions these days about what “Britishness” is, what it means. Especially when we seem to be producing a few terrorists. People point back to the “Blitz spirit” as a way to describe who we are (funny how they choose that instead of the slave trade) but it’s so far away now it’s hard to say that it’s relevant.
I visited a relic of the war that embraced some beauty. You call it a bunker, but it’s a building above ground - for us a bunker is underground. Anyway, the bunker was a shelter from the bombs in 1942, then a Red Army prison, then a store for tropical fruit (called the banana bunker) and after that a sex and techno club. Now it’s a private gallery and houses 20% of the Boros collection. The collector used to be in advertising - so it has parallel with London’s Saatchi gallery, I guess. You have to make an appointment to look inside and view the fine modern art spread over five floors of a concrete building with no windows. If you haven’t been, book yourself in.
It was good to look at stimulating art, but my head’s beginning to feel stuffed full of culture. My stomach too is beginning to feel a bit stuffed with wurst. Yesterday it was an Imbissstuben-Rostbratwurst in a roll - so hot that it burned my mouth. Bad sausage day.
If you want to see me in your city, then watch Heute Journal this Tuesday night on ZDF.
Thanks to you all again for your lovely emails and comments. Till tomorrow!
I saw a bike today. Actually, I saw hundreds of bikes today, because you Berliners use them a lot. I’ve nearly learned to stop stepping into the cycle lane, thinking it’s the pavement, and getting knocked down. The bike I’m talking about was owned by DB and you could pay to use it and leave it wherever you like. What a good idea.
I’m not sure the DB bike would work in London for three reasons. One, the streets are pretty dangerous and full of traffic, there are a few cycle lanes, but not enough - and they’re in the road not on the pavement. Two, most Londoners are pretty lazy. Three, there seems to be an addiction to stealing bikes in London - and if they can’t steal them, they vandalise them. Londoners buy new bikes and then try to disguise them, making them look old and rubbish by spraying them with paint, or wrapping them in tape. You lock your bike up with three locks and then come back to it to find the saddle gone. I mean, can there really be a black market for stolen saddles? Does that happen in Berlin? I haven’t seen any saddleless bikes here yet...
I went to the edge of Neukölln yesterday to meet a German artist called Sabine Kacunko, who kindly invited me to tea. She makes big pictures of nature and then destroys them with bacteria. They’re beautiful. She’s not from Berlin, but recently moved here and made me realise that it’s not just east London artists flocking here, but artists in general. She said she heard English voices more and more in that area. Melanie emailed me to say the same thing. If you know any London artists who’ve moved here, let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org). I want to talk to them. Thanks too to Hermann, Martina and Susanne who all tipped Yellow Lounge. I was astounded. It’s hosted at Berghain and it’s classical music only. Besides DJ Canisius spinning Beethoven and Steve Reich, which gave me gänsehaut, there was also a live performance from the dramatic Patricia Petibon (Soprano) and spirited Susan Manoff (Piano) who captivated the “clubbers”. Again, an unusually young as well as varied audience who were relaxed - some lying down with glasses of red wine in front of the huge speaker stacks.
This, no doubt, could happen in London, but I’m not sure it would be so well attended (they sometimes have as many as 1000 people coming to this event). But classical music in a brutal concrete ex-DDR building? That felt uniquely Berlin.
Weisswurst. Wissen Sie es? I don’t think it really suits the city nor could it be matched to the Yellow Lounge, it’s a bit too big and boastful. It certainly isn’t subtle. But that doesn’t make it bad. It is perhaps, the white chocolate of the sausage world. Full of energy and a kind of sweetness, not to everyone’s taste, but it does grow on you. Unlike white chocolate, it’s good with mustard. Thanks Bavarian Sabine J for suggesting it. Oh, and don’t forget to watch Heute Journal tonight... ZDF has been following me around lately.
Five less-good things about Berlin:
1. Dog shit on the streets. There might be gangs of weapon-dogs in London, but even the knife-wielding thugs seem to clean up their waste...
2. The weather. Even by London standards it isn’t good.
3. Bad use of the escalators on the U-bahn. Can I tell you that it all works much more smoothly if you stand on the right hand side if you’re not walking? Then those of us in a hurry can pass by.
4. The new plan for the Palace Square. Berliners, what’s with your nostalgic kitsch?
5. Did I mention the weather?
I’m still liking Berlin though. And felt I needed to dig down to it roots. So while Quentin Tarantino, my spies tell me, films his pulpy fiction in Cafe Einstein Stefanie offered to show me around the Deutsches Historisches Museum. In an hour I went from the Romans to the DDR and the east’s vote for the CDU to reunify Germany. I felt dizzy by the end.
I stayed on Unter den Linden for the rest of the day. I dipped into the new temporary gallery - wow what a great space - to see Candice Breitz’s video art, bought a Pinkel sausage from Schlemmermeyer in Galeria Kaufhof at Alexanderplatz (on Melanie’s suggestion), and went to the Staatsoper to see Peter Ruzicka’s Hölderlin.
I found the opera impossible. I couldn’t understand what was going on (and that was just the English synopsis I read in the programme). The music was like torture. Ruzicka might be highly regarded, but I couldn’t bear it. I felt that I had to go to an opera while I was in Berlin - none of you had recommended it. I should listen to you more closely. And as far as the opera house goes, the lobby was more impressive than the auditorium - or, indeed the show inside it.
And as far as the Palace Square goes, the temporary gallery is more interesting than the crazy plans you have to build a bad wedding cake there. I know you’ve got loads of modern buildings here and you might not want another one, but that new architectural plan looks dreadful. I think you’ll actually really regret getting rid of what was there. Mind you, Prince Charles would probably approve, if that’s what you’re after.
Melanie emailed me to say there was nothing in the world like a Pinkel. She also explained its unfortunate name. It was tasty to start with and seemed like a good idea, but after a few bites I felt it a bit oily and there were things in there I couldn’t recognise. Was it cabbage? Cabbage? Inside a sausage? Mmmmnnn, “seemed like a good idea to start with, but full of things that shouldn’t be there” - sounds a bit like the Palace Square.
It’s suddenly dawned on me that I can’t fit it all in. All your fantastic tips - still coming! - suggesting everything from chocolate shops in Gendarmenmarkt to swimming pools on the river, from the best doner kebab in Kreuzberg to seven different shades of Currywurst to the Bohemian pubs in Charlottenburg. I’m never going to be able to do it all before I leave on Sunday. I’m going to have to come back - that’s if you’ll have me after my complaints.
I had two sausages today, one before the match and one after. Yes, my friends, I went to the football. What better barometer of a city’s culture than watching one of the city’s teams? Last night I sort of saw two. OK, so Galatasaray are Istanbul, but the Berliner Turks had turned out in force - and yellow and red outnumbered Hertha’s white and blue by about three to one in the 65,000 crowd.
Standing in the queue to go into the stadium a number of Turkish fans - recognising my hat from the TV piece or my picture from this website - shouted out to me “Willkommen in Berlin, English Guest!”. How friendly. I was going to ask them their views on the “palace project” but thought better of it. Instead, I had a halal hotdog. Say what you like about the Frankfurter, but a hot sausage in the cold can really, as we say in English, hit the spot. Which is more than Hertha could do - hit the spot I mean.
Thank God I don’t support the team or I’d be crying now. I’m not a football critic, but even I could see the many missed chances. But then, the referee seemed only to have eyes for the hands of Hertha and not Galatarasay in the penalty box. The Hertha chants were pretty impressive - as was the coordintated jumping up and down from the home team’s end. And I suppose that the playful taunts between the Herthas and the Turks on the S-Bahn there and back and the fun feeling all around said more about multiculture here than anything else I’ve seen so far. It wasn’t so much the football, but society at play here. I’m sure there must be tensions too, but I coudn’t see any last night, just a city’s different sectors competing but united in the beautiful game.
My feet became blocks of ice - even the warming atmosphere of the grand Olympic stadium, complete with Turkish fireworks, couldn’t thaw them. No, the thing that restarted my central heating system was the Kohlwurst Im Ring. I ignored advice to boil it (I still can’t get my head around that), and fried it. There was no messing with this sausage. It was upfront, fat, filling and hot. Goal.
Five less good things about London. After giving your city a bit of a hard time the other day, and then feeling a little bit homesick, I turned my mind to London and remembered a few things that I don’t like about it:
1. Gangs of hooded youths who are so concerned about “respect” they’re killing each other - and some of the rest of us - to get it.
2. The cost of everything, but especially the rents which are very high - a single flat is at least £200 a week.
3. Litter. Pretty much everywhere. It seems too much for some people to look after their environment and put their rubbish in a bin. That’s partly because there were, for a long time, so few bins (still none in the tube stations) - they were good bomb holders, you see. Now human beings do that. But that’s another issue...
4. Fried chicken takeaways. Where the hooded youth go and a lot of the litter comes from.
5. A mayor who seems to think it’s better to be funny than to care about climate change. And some of the Londoners who put him in charge.
6. That the lovely pubs are dying, being bought and changed into flats (with expensive rents of course).
Actually these were six things and I could go on. Five isn’t enough. I go back there soon and I’m going to miss Berlin. Because you Berliners really know how to party. Shantel and the Bucovina Club Orkestar shouted from the stage of the Admiralspalast that there were no passports for music, no visas for music and proved it by playing a boundary-blurring mix of Gypsy, brass band rebel-rousing rocking tunes. Thanks to all of you who said I should go. The crowd went crazy, invaded the stage, drank and sang along.
Of course you’d see the same kind of enthusiasm in London but there were some interesting differences. No way would Shantel leave the stage and surf the crowd like he did last night - security wouldn’t let him. No way would the audience be able to invade the stage in such huge numbers like they did - security wouldn’t let it.
I had rushed there after seeing a great dance piece as part of the Tanz Nacht festival at the old BVG building. Wilhelm Groener’s Hotel Hassler was stunning. One thing I’ve noticed, that differs from London, is that audiences here seem more attentive to the piece on stage, more connected to it. The show was packed out and couldn’t have differed more from Shantel’s gig. Seeing the two things side by side was a good display of the city’s many cultural sides. I’m feeling the effects of my marathon now, but I’ve still just got enough stamina to take in a little more culture.
Regarding the sausages, though, I think I’m reaching the limit. My skin is almost feeling as stuffed as one. I enjoyed the Krakauer with its subtle hint of cumin. And, to my shame, I have yet to eat a Currywurst. I’m nervous about upsetting you guys with my choice. Whichever one I select I’m sure will be the wrong one, should I get it from Wittys, KaDeWe, Curry36, Kudamm 195, Konnopke’s or the one in Alt-Buckow in Neukoelln? And should I have it “mit darm” or “ohne darm”?
I’ve noticed that you Germans have a thing about bread. You like to talk about it, you like to discuss where you buy it and, of course you like to eat it. So the last leg of my cultural marathon addresses the Berlin crust.
I am reliably told by Ludwig that the Schrippen is a poor version of a roll. It’s made with water instead of milk and in Heidelberg, where Ludwig was born, they only ate Schrippen on Saturdays. When he moved to Berlin, he emails me, he noticed that Schrippen were eaten all the time. Perhaps this is a sign that in the past Berlin was poor and its citizens had to make do with second-rate breadrolls - and then grew to like them like that.
But it doesn’t stop there. West Berlin Schrippen are different from East Berlin ones - and the east ones are increasingly hard to find. Like other things, the East Berlin schrippen were smaller and less sweet.
But there exists in Prenzlauer Berg on the corner of Kuglerstr. and Varnhagenstr. a small bakery that works a little like a time machine back to the DDR. It sells smaller, less sweet Schrippen and is a humble place with a rather eccentric pricing structure. Items have the unusual tags of 0,66€ and the sign for the bakery with its old typography and red letters hangs forlornly in the window. They serve you your bread and rolls in a little red Plastikbrotkörbchen, from the DDR period says Ludwig. I ate a schrippen and rather liked it. But it wasn’t as nice as the pancake [Pfankuchen]. Why you Berliners stubbornly call a doughnut a pancake is beyond me.
The Musiker Klause on Torstraße hasn’t changed, the mullet-haired barman tells me, since he began working there 25 years ago. It’s stuffed with Beatles memorabilia and he plays, records, yes records, of John, Paul, George and Ringo from behind the bar. It was, I suppose, like being back in the USSR, boys.
The Alt-Berlin Bierstube on Münzstraße was like walking into a London pub 20 years ago: the decor, the chatty barmaid, the thick clouds of smoke hanging in the air. In a way I quite like the smoking. It stops the terrible divisions of groups of friends with half of them standing outside in the cold puffing on cigarettes while the rest sit inside drinking. But, then I hate it too, for the obvious health reasons and because even now my clothes smell of fags. I am really struggling to understand your no smoking “law”. It seems as if no one really gives a damn - which confounds your stereotype of being rigourously law-abiding folk.
The plan after that pub was to go clubbing to Berghain, Maria or Tape - all good tips from you. But after the past two weeks of culture and a day of time travelling back to the DDR I could hardly walk, let alone stand in a queue. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I tell you that I went home and munched on a Grobe bratwurst and typed this for you.
It’s not a time machine that’s going to get me home, but the Sunday morning flight to Heathrow, and then I’m going to send you my last thoughts on Berlin on Monday morning. Bis später.
You know after you’ve done some exercise, and you’ve pushed it harder, perhaps, than you should have done and your muscles hurt? I think your word for it is “Muskelkater”. Well, after running my cultural marathon in your capital, I have a kind of Muskelkater in my brain after all that stimulation. And not just my brain. This marathon was physically demanding too. My shoulders, legs, body and mind have been well and truly stretched by my two-week experience in Berlin.
I have run from Wedding to Friedrichstrasse from seeing a snatch of modern dance that went on all night, to partying into the small hours to Shantel’s Gypsy brass band. I’ve worn the soles of my shoes thin treading the streets, I’ve translated - even with my bad German - the lyrics of US punk songs for an East German taxi driver while rushing from a Pakistani concert to watching the tides of young people crossing Warachauer Brucke on their way out for a night of clubbing. I’ve heard Beethoven in mega-decibels in Berghain been moved by a Turkish film with German subtitles in Kreuzberg, seen and talked to several butchers, one of them a knight of sausage making, observed the friendly rivalry of Berlin Turks and Hertha fans - and although I haven’t written about it I’ve had some delicious doner kebabs.
But what have I learned? I’ve learned that, compared to London, your city seems small, but has grand vision. That all sorts of people - especially artists - are flocking to you. That here a certain kind of freedom is valued, creativity lourishes, and if you Berliners have strong ideas about things you also have a soft, and sometimes hidden, friendliness. And that you can’t control your dogs.
As I sped back from Paddington in a black taxi, dodging the red buses in London’s bright sunlight, I thought of the Currywurst I had eaten (I won’t tell you where I had it - ohne darm - so as not to start a fight) but it was the last thing I did in Berlin. The poet Matthias Koeppel, who sent me a lovely book of poems about Sausages, says that wurst is the strongest and most beautiful word in the language. I can’t comment. But the subtle, mixed, proud, gritty and satisfying meal seemed to me for a moment to sum up Berlin.
And I have to say, as an endnote, I could not have done what I did without you. Your friendly emails and mostly friendly comments, your suggestions and tips and your own observations have helped me map your city with culture and compare it to my own. Thank you for everything.
We’ve had fun, though, haven’t we? But all good things must come to an end - except, of course, the sausage which has two.