Berlin in Early Spring

Alive and changing with the edginess of the former East and West

On The Town | Philippa Hohenzollern | April 2011

It is 6 a.m. at the Vienna International Airport, and I can barely keep my eyes open. You would imagine that everything and everyone would still be fast asleep. The Air Berlin gate, however, is crowded with people caffeine-ed up and ready for action, talking so loudly, that I can’t help but notice the Berlin dialect I enjoy so much – edgy and energetic. Even before taking off, it feels like part of the city is already with me.

A little more than an hour and a practiced power nap later, we are down in Berlin-Tegel and I am waiting impatiently for my luggage. The biggest advantage of taking the very early flights is that you still have the entire day ahead of you. The tiredness fades away quickly and within minutes, the excitement has taken over, and I am sitting in a taxi on my way into town. Unlike in other European cities, taxis are inexpensive in Berlin and the drivers noticeably friendly most of the time.

And there it is: the edginess of the former East and West that I love. Although Berlin has developed greatly within the past two decades, it is still constantly changing, which probably explains the wry comment of French politician Jack Lang, that "Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin!"

What I admire most is the liveliness of this city. You can be walking around any part of town at any hour of any day of the week and there will always be something going on.

My first destination is a hip cafe called Nola that is between the areas of Prenzlauer Berg and the center of Berlin. This fine Lokal serves all sorts of organic snacks, cakes, fusion teas and freshly prepared cocktails. The furnishings inside are mostly wood and panelled, similar to a Swiss chalet, simple but cozy and tasteful.

On this day the sun is warm and the air gentle, and it seems as if spring has finally arrived. Luckily I spot a free table on the terrace, which a friend of mine and I end up sharing with two other random girls we don’t know - a very Berlin thing to do. But I enjoy that people are so laid back here. I could spend all day sitting outside watching people as they pass by.

Although I visit Berlin on a regular basis, I almost always find the time to visit the Holocaust Memorial known as the Mahnmal. I like going back; somehow I perceive it differently each time, particularly when the seasons are changing. Located only ten walking minutes from the beautiful Brandenburg Gate, one the city’s most characteristic sites, it stands out through its large surface area covered with over 2,700 grey slabs varying in heights arranged in a grid pattern. Walking through the slabs can be compared to finding your way out of a labyrinth. You slowly but surely lose track of any sort of orientation but, in a way, feel safe and protected by the tall surrounding slabs.

I also really like the fine little museum at Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. The guardhouse of the former border is a replica of the original, erected in 1961. However, the museum, Das Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, gives a powerful and very realistic picture of what went on in the city during the Cold War, and explaining all the many ruses people used to escaped into the West – using borrowed passports, digging tunnels under the wall, lowering themselves and their children out of windows or hiding in the tiny cavity behind the engine of a altered VW beetle – and even showing real pieces of the former Berlin Wall. It displays the differences and similarities of both parts of the city ever since the end of World War II, the construction of the Wall, a destroyed Berlin and its reconstruction and development through the true stories of many refugees.

After browsing around the Rosenthaler Strasse and the Hackesche Höfe, where you will find extraordinary vintage clothing stores as well as new-coming Berlin designers, I decided to take a break and have a drink at Soho House, a small boutique hotel with a rooftop bar and one of the most breathtaking views of the city, especially in combination with the wonderful weather we were enjoying that day.  But by now it was almost dinner time, and we want to be sure to get a table – not always easy at intimate restaurants with limited seating.

This time, my friends and I chose White Trash as our dinner destination, a one-of-a-kind restaurant that doubles as a nightclub and tattoo parlor, with a smoking cinema all in one. They do, however, also serve the best burgers and steaks in town. My all-time favorite is the goats’ cheeseburger with homemade fries, as always served by one of the punk waiters. The atmosphere is very loud and smoky with a lot of classical rock music, drinking, dancing and artistic visitors.

But the night was still young and Kreuzberg, where nightlife is always in full swing, was waiting. Even though the economy has not been at less than peak for quite a while now, people in Berlin don’t seem to be too worried. Instead, they spend their time filling the many bars here and on Oranienstrasse, particularly. You’ll find the most diverse styles and music from every imaginable genre.

It’s hard to know where to start so, as usual, we ended up going from one place to another, places like Roses, an absolute must-see since every part of the small space, including the walls, is decorated with plush, mirrors, glittery and golden lamps and all sorts of kitsch. It is also worth checking out the Soju Bar, a small and slightly hidden location just off Oranienstrasse that offers live DJs, karaoke in the bathrooms and, as the name says, plenty of the traditionally Korean soju liquor made from sweet potatoes.

It is a pure enjoyment, to observe the beauty and the diversity, all in such a small part of what must really be called Germany’s Big Apple.

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