Thursday, 18 April 2013

My obsession with Berlin

My obsession started when I visited Berlin for a long weekend during my final year at university. A decision based purely on cheap Easyjet flights and having heard nothing but good things from friends, I flew out to the capital city in as off-peak a season as humanly possible. It was late January, there were a couple of inches of fresh snow on the ground, yet Berlin was still a vibrant, diverse hive of activity with things to discover around every corner.

Me with a piece of the Berlin wall (January 2010)
Steeped in history, the city boasts sights and sounds to satisfy people of all ages and backgrounds. As my first ever mini city break, I made sure I'd done a lot of research beforehand into the best places to go to - this mainly consisted of rock bars and gothic clothes shops! A fantastic guide for alternative folk when planning a trip to anywhere new is the Metal Travel Guide, a website updated by members of the public which lists clearly the alternative venues, pubs, clubs and shops in towns and cities worldwide. I don't go to a new city without checking it!

It was actually through the Metal Travel Guide that I discovered the Rock Und Wikingerbar in Friedrichshain, which my hotel was strategically located near to. I still think of the evening that my then-partner and I spent in this bar as the highlight of the whole weekend. The manager was a charming, long-haired metalhead called Ralph, who took me under his wing when he discovered I had never before tried mead. With about 12 different mead varieties lined up in barrels behind the bar, he insisted on giving me tasters on the house - this was the "Ring of Fire", a circle of double-shot glasses each containing a different flavour of mead. I was then of course dared to drink all of them, and my just-turned-22 year old self thought that was a great idea. A short while later, having decided I didn't actually like mead, I was throwing up in the toilet - always the sign of a good night! Another previously-untested beverage that was sampled that night was Drachenblut, a liquorice/aniseed liquor which I have since found in a German supermarket in Hamburg but have never seen for sale in the UK.

What stands out most about that evening in particular was the willingness of the Berliners we met to get to know their English tourists - there was none of the anti-tourist attitude which us British are all too guilty of having. Growing up in St Andrews, I would scowl at the blatantly American tourists as they strolled jollily down the pavement with their baseball caps, OTT golfing attire and their jumper sleeves tied like some kind of fashionable cashmere cape around their necks. And if a tourist struggles to speak English to an acceptable standard in this country, we wouldn't dream of attempting to understand their language!

The Reichstag and Alexanderplatz tower amidst an ominous sky!
This last point, about language, was one that persisted and lingered with me after that first trip to Berlin. I felt a sense of immense frustration that here was this perfect city, with a uniquely fascinating history, full to the brim with youth culture that even Manchester might envy, and yet I lacked the language which would allow me a realistic chance of one day making it a home for myself. Of course, being a capital city, English is spoken literally everywhere - in fact, the locals love practising their English at every possible opportunity, so you might think that it would be perfect for the likes of me. But actually this makes it difficult for a non-German speaker to pick up the language - and realistically I am not confident that an ad agency in Berlin would be too keen on hiring a native English speaker without any German language ability. Having said this, I haven't asked!

You can't beat a good German beer (apart from with a Belgium beer)
It is for this reason that in September last year I decided to enroll on a GCSE German course at the local college. Three hours, one evening a week. And now it is April - last night I did my first of four exams. This time last year I would never have thought I could have progressed so far in such a short space of time, but it is quite possible if you are motivated enough to learn. Having been utterly hopeless at French at school (as I think most of us were), I saw little point in learning foreign languages. When was I going to use them anyway? It had never even occurred to me that I might want to live abroad one day, or that I might want to go travelling etc, being one of those children who rarely went anywhere outside of the UK during the school holidays. For some reason, however, I decided Latin was a good route to pursue to A Level - nowadays I wish I had learnt a language that I could have put to use!

Last July, I returned to Berlin with my mum and enjoyed seeing the city snow-less and sunny. Unfortunately I again missed out on going to the clubnight (K17) I had intended on visiting the first time around (but was too hungover from the mead!) - don't think mother would have approved. But the good news is that I'm returning at the end of November this year so can finally go to it, as well as the famous Christmas markets of course!

Berlin flea market
The flea markets are well worth a visit - I found two particularly good ones during my visit. Then again, I do like a good bargain and rummage through second hand goods - having been brought up on charity shops (I think there were nine in St Andrews alone when I was younger, and that's quite a high percentage for a town with only three shopping streets).

I'll refrain from going into any more detail about my trip to Berlin, as there are plenty of guides and Top 10 Things To Do lists out there already. I just wanted to share my passion for the city with you. I've never felt such a bond with a new place in my life; it's very strange. When I returned last July, I felt an uncontrollable sense of jealousy walking the streets of Kreuzberg (part of south-central Berlin) past all the cheap cocktail bars with their outdoor seating and youthful, alternative vibe. It was this overwhelming desire to be part of Berlin's unique multi-culture that drove me to start learning German. And who knows, maybe one day I'll be able to call it home.

Vietnamese restaurant in Kreuzberg, Berlin - this gives a sense of the outdoor eating and drinking culture that exists during the warmer months

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