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Monday, September 23, 2019

Living out my music dreams in Berlin, Germany


Summer of 2018 was a weird summer. I’d just moved back from three years living in Australia. My work situation had ended pretty terribly, and I couldn’t bear the idea of jumping straight into another job.  At the same time, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving people that had become some of my very best friends.  So, when my Aussie roommate invited me to join his month long Europe trip, I jumped at the chance. 

When August rolled around, I was ecstatic!  It hadn’t occurred to me that I hadn’t been to Europe since 2014!!  I guess Australia is far away…

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

We were up early for our quick flight from London to Berlin to start our month-long European holiday.  This portion of the trip was my request – Berlin has been my top destination of interest for over five years.  I’d waited because Berlin, for all its art and history, was really about music for me. When I first moved to Australia, I’d almost bought a $3,000 flight there, just to meet some like-minded music friends for a week (yes, I finally decided against it).

I share this because I don’t want to come off as uncultured.  Yes, I saw the Berlin Wall, but I didn’t go to a single museum while I was there.  I wanted to just be in Berlin.

It wasn’t until we checked into St. Christopher Hostel near Alexanderplatz that I realized my first mistake.  Looking back, I’ve only ever visited coastal European countries in the dead of summer…the lack of AC in the hostel quickly showcased that Berlin… is not one of those places.  I’d booked us a private room in a mini apartment with a shared bath and kitchen which was roomy and would’ve been perfect, but it was unbearably hot. So…we did what any good Berliner would do.  We went looking for beers.


My roomie had been to Berlin previously and suggested we walk past the famous Alexanderplatz, along and across the river, to this outdoor beach club called Sage Beach.  It was a long, hot walk.  The oppressive architecture of Berlin bore down on us… long streets of hot, grey stone buildings with few, if any, decoration.  But it was the perfect easel for massive, beautiful displays of street art.  There is a deep, underlying energy of creativity coursing through the veins of this city just waiting for its opportunity to present itself to you.


Sage Beach has a great setup – it’s a huge outdoor beach-like space with a stage for music, tables and lounge chairs and delicious, tropical drinks.  Only problem is, Berlin doesn’t wake up until 6pm at the earliest so it was completely dead.  Another odd observation – Berlin is COVERED in bees!  I could barely finish my drink from all the swatting (and squealing in terror).


We were a bit bored so we wandered back across the river to see what we might find.  The road along the river was just more of the same…stoic, uniform buildings one after the other, like silent soldiers awaiting orders.  But music, was coming from somewhere near them.  When it comes to music, I’m like a bloodhound, stopping at nothing to find the source.

We walked around a corner and through a rickety-looking arch that felt like an entryway, although not a very friendly one.  The scene on the other side was shocking.  The wall of unfriendly rock and brick fell away to people laughing and chatting away at picnic tables placed among a lush oasis of greenery and music.  The yard along the water was decorated in pieces of wood painted in wild colors.  The smell of coffee and wood-oven pizza beckoned, and we joined the crowd…for hours.  The vibe felt very similar to a Burning Man camp – dusty, vibrant and secret, yet completely inclusive. It’s a place where pictures and phones are not encouraged, but I snuck just one for the memory.  We would come to know its name – Holzmarkt Pampa.  I think it’s clear I highly recommend it.



Night was falling, so we finished our final beer and pizza slice and reluctantly returned to our steamy hostel to change in our costumes for the night.  And by costume, I mean wearing all black – Berlin-style.  We’d heard about a rooftop party at a place called House of Weekend, so we walked through to check it out, sipping cans of convenience store whiskey-lemon mixed drinks. 


Quite the opposite of Holzmarkt Pampa…I could see Berlin was like New York City or Tokyo - Pick a different street; enter a different world.  We’d clearly left the world of Burners and dust for the sprawling views of Berlin, scantily clad women, hipsters and wildly overpriced drinks.  Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time!  I think I made friends with 14 DJs of questionable talent and/or notoriety.

But both of us are creatures of the deep house music scene and were soon itching for our kind of tunes.  We stepped out of the club into the blackness of Berlin.  It’s not just the clothes that are black, even the night feels heavy like the air has been painted with thick black paint. 

The best thing about the late late Berlin music scene?  There is something for everyone.  House Music. World Music. Techno. Rap. Deep House. Music without label.  We were looking for the deep house variety which led us to Watergate.

Even at 2am, we were early.  The room didn’t start filling until closer to 4am, at which point it began to feel like a frenetic, yet focused, red monster – scuffed sneakers moving in unison to the deep beat mixed with an occasion snare drum-kick.  Another outrageously expensive bar, but the need for cool drinks to fight the oppressive heat of summer and bodies drove us back for more.  I love being at the front of the floor, near the DJ, especially if it’s a DJ who gets really into their set – dancing and clapping to the beat they produce.  But, I equally love being able to escape at times for a break, and I loved that Watergate had an outdoor deck along the river where you could do just that. 

I don’t smoke cigarettes, but I felt compelled to share a puff or two…something about them felt so “Berlin” – perhaps the fact that they are tightly wrapped bundles of fire, just waiting for a light.  I’d watch the sunrise from that deck before the slow, euphoric walk home.


Thursday, August 2, 2018

We woke up at 2pm.  This would soon become our pattern as the music bowels of Berlin stamped us as creatures of the night.  So hot and sweaty from the sun beating down on us and the lack of AC, even a freezing cold shower couldn’t help so we wearily rose like vampires from the dead and entered the city once more.

I’d like to pretend we went somewhere new, but we’d had such a perfect day, we literally repeated it…Holzmarkt Pampa for beers and incredible pizza, a long nap and then Watergate.  The only difference this time was rather than walking home the way we’d came, we ventured across the bridge, just outside Watergate, to walk along the Berlin Wall. 

I’d hazard to guess most people visit the Berlin Wall, in the middle of the day, at a historic section of the Wall, surrounded by the crush and cameras of other tourists.  Not sure that’s the right vibe to really “take in” the Wall.

I saw it as the sun rose. At first a long, dark and indistinguishable piece of concrete stretching into the distance, and then, raw in the early sunlight, an everlasting scar of vibrant, artistic depictions painted across its face.  The images were rough and honest and captivating.  Image after image appearing as I walked for over an hour alongside the wall.  I can’t begin to know what it was like to face that wall before, or when, it came down, but you can feel and see the stories of those who lived it, like a living skin of history.


Friday, August 3, 2018

Woke up to our “sun alarm” again at 2pm.  SO HOTTTTTTT.  We had to try something different, so we stopped for some sushi.  Not really sure what about blazing hot Berlin made us think sushi was a good idea, but it wasn’t horrible. 

We were so hungover, sleep deprived and probably massively dehydrated that we spent the hot afternoon in a daze wandering the streets.  The main streets of Berlin shopping district are filled with shop after shop.  But it’s the alleyways that hold the treasure.  On one such street, a flash of red caught my eye, so I walked through an arched tunnel into… Italy.  Swear to God, I’d been transported to a seaside town in Capri.  Nicely dressed, attractive people sat at wrought-iron tables capped with red umbrellas, nibbling at cheeseboards and gelato or slow sipping Aperol spritz cocktails.  I don’t think a single person was wearing black.  Yet another strange Berlin oasis.  The scene even invited the feeling of a breeze.  Instantly relaxed, we grabbed a table and joined in for a long leisurely lunch.  The place was appropriately called Piccolo Giardino.  Filled with cheese and salami, we returned to the hostel for our daily nap, sleeping soundly until 11pm.


Surprise, surprise, we did not eat, sleep, dance, repeat.  Instead, we picked another direction, this time west to see what we might find.  I was surprised at how quite it was… not many people around, until we turned yet another corner into bustling square of people eating outside.  The food was Vietnamese and the atmosphere transported me there – the plastic cups, the baskets of shellfish, the chopsticks, the huge bowls of steaming soup.  It was called District Mot and they were closing, yet kindly offered to seat us anyway.  So grateful because the food was some of the best of the trip.


Our sleep schedule had certainly affected our body clocks, because it was close to 1am and we were tired, but not quite enough to sleep again.  So, we decided to walk off dinner.  And, as you imagine, we found another alleyway of interest.  I’ve lived in New York City and would never normally, nor boldly, see “interesting-looking, yet scuzzy” people loitering at the end of a dark tunnel, and been spurred to join them, but something about Berlin makes this feeling feel normal.

This was by far the longest, and sketchiest, alleyway of the trip, but at the end of it was Eschschloraque.  In one way it reminded me of the desolate, crumbling castle in a romantically dramatic film or novel. More amazing art covered the high, castle-like, stone walls, crumbling from age, lack of upkeep, or both.  Twinkling fair lights and lanterns provide just enough dim lighting to see where you were walking, but it added a warmth to the otherwise dark and desolate place. 

At the same time, it felt like a dive bar from a forgotten era, the ghosts of famous rockstars leaving their footprints on the dusty stone floor.  Most of it was open to the sky, with small, intimate tables littered around the yard.  Inside, it was cozier and better lit.  There was a Spanish guitarist was setting up for a late-night performance in the upper room of the bar, but we were just too tired to wait for him to start.  We agreed on a few wines in the yard before heading home.  I’ll add those wines were dirt cheap.


 Saturday, August 4, 2018

After feeling like a total waste-of-space the previous days, we decided to get up early and “Seize the Day.”  You can’t called it a “European holiday” if you don’t hit up at least one food market, in my opinion, so I researched one called Markthalle Neun, conveniently south of our hostel, which was a new area to explore!

It was a cute market, but mostly food.  I’d been hoping for one with more variety, but one of the stalls served the most delicious fresh pasta - argument for best food of the trip, right up there with Holzmarkt Pampa pizza.  The weather was still scorching, so we decided to work our way towards this public pool situation built along the river.  The thought of submerging my tired, sweat-crusted body in cold water was convincing. 


Google Maps showed a long park called State Park running from where we were all the way to the water, so we decided that’d be our best route.  Turns out it is NOT a nice park.  You know that scene in the zombie apocalypse movie where the heroes think they’ve found safe haven but just went they start to relax, zombies slowly start appearing out of the brush, surrounding them from all sides? That’s what happened to us, but drug dealers instead of zombies.  Nothing is more awkward then an unwashed, loose-toothed man sidling up to you, whispering words under his breath, old cigarette smoke wafting off his clothes.  We took a swift exit from that park.

As expected, the swim park was nothing less than a shitshow.  Our smart idea to visit the only available cool area in the city was clearly not that original.  Already sweaty and dirty, we gave in to Berlin once again, choosing a river bar so that we could at least pretend there was a breeze.

Club der Visionaere was easily my favorite “bar” of the whole trip.  It’s essentially one long deck that juts out along the water with great music and pretty tasty gin & tonics that aren’t cheap but not quite as painful as some of the other venues.  And the people watching was outrageous – one guy stumbled into the bar (clearly still going from the night before) and managed to use the excuse of asking for a phone charger to chat up an attractive, fairly sober girl.  We watched stupefied as she offered up a charger - within 30 minutes the two of them were sharing a bottle of rose.  It seemed a long-term romance could be in their future, when he botched the whole thing by standing too quickly, knocking the table and the still full bottle of rose all over the girl.  Secondly later she’d said her clenched-teeth goodbye and fled. The final kicker? He pulled a phone charger out of his pocket and plugged it into the wall.  LOLZ.  We stayed for hours, watching other Berlin stories unfold, before heading back to change and meet some friends out.


You are probably wondering, for a massive music lover of the most underground variety, why I haven’t mentioned the most famous of the Berlin clubs, arguably the most famous in the world.  THEBERGHAIN.  Well, I’m a lover of techno, weird outfits and even weirder people, but I’m a hater of long lines.  I HATE them.  Blame it on four years of the Hollywood, CA, club scene, but I can’t imagine any place worth waiting hours in line, unless Ryan Reynolds is inside, personally waiting to attend my every want.  BUT – I was also willing to accept that any trip to Berlin would not be complete without at least one attempt.  I was with good friends and it wasn’t the middle of German winter, so we decided to give it a try.

For those of you wondering why the drama, what is this place, allow me to explain.  The Berghain is known for having one of the strictest door policies of anywhere in the world.  Literally, the same man has been policing the door since 2004 and he literally builds the vibe inside the club, based on who he lets in each night.  You could gain access three days in a row and then be rejected the next night with no idea why and no explanation.  He simply looks at a person and nods his head “yes” or flicks his head to the exit.  It’s honestly pretty jarring, but also makes you think – he is literally designing a vibe using people as the puzzle pieces.  Crazy.  We met up another Aussie mate, who’d been living in Berlin, and joined the line. 

I’ll cut the next three hours short to tell you, we did not get in (less than 1/3 do) but thirty minutes later, it would prove to be the best news ever.

Our friend hailed a cab, telling us she was taking us to a place she liked even better.  I always get turned around in cabs, trusting that the driver or navigator will get us where we need to be.  When we arrived at our destination, it was “so-Berlin,” a big white wall with a maze for a line leading into some mysterious beyond.

It was probably close to 5am as we entered Sisyphos, and it would captivate me for the next 5.5 hours.  Similar to Holzmarkt Pampa, this place reeked of Burning Man vibes, but on five times the scale.  The main outdoor area felt like walking into a Midsummer Nights Dream… tables and trees and wood and art intermixed - people limbs dangling and dancing.  It was mesmerizing, this calm, yet pulsing energy.  In the middle was a large building with no windows – walking inside felt like entering the bowels of a dystopian fighting club.  The low light and hard techno bouncing off steel walls.  It was intense; I could only stand it for short periods before escaping back outside. 

Along the side of this building was a staircase leading to an upper floor.  The music there was more tech house and more my speed.  It was a small, intimate dance floor with the DJ in amongst it.  I’d find myself spending my final morning hours in Berlin carving shapes in the wooden floor.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

We missed our usual wake up time, rising two hours later at 4pm.  Turns out everything in Berlin is shut on Sundays anyway so we weren’t missing much.  Apparently even locals need a day of rest in this city.  We attempted lunch at Sisal, where the pasta was pretty good, and coffee at Sucre et Sel, which was great, but I was too tired to taste or appreciate either.  We returned to the hostel early and slept through the night.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Turns out five full days (err nights) in Berlin is impossible to survive.  We were still ruined the next morning, shuffling our way through hostel checkout and down the street to Commonground to meet our friend for brekkie before heading to the airport.  Another grave error… I’d booked us an afternoon flight and the four hours we spent in that cafĂ© were the longest of my life.  All I wanted was to sleep – late morning flights out of Berlin are highly encouraged.

I would go on to spend three more weeks in Europe and another year in NYC thinking about Berlin.  What a place.  There are few cities in the world that rank so high in my esteem – NYC, Tokyo, the entire continent of New Zealand to name a few.

While I’m happy to have capitalized on my travel partner’s mutual music interests to spend the majority of my time dancing to the late-night beats of Berlin, I would love to return one day to see the city that exists above ground, in the light.  Until then, Auf Wiedersehen .