The idea to visit Berlin and the means to make it so came separately. I loved Berlin the first time I visited in 2009; then my beloved friend, Toni, moved there for a year. I wanted very much to experience the life he had built there and to meet this newly independent, confident person who was flourishing in a foreign city, but I didn't see how it might be possible before Toni moved back to his native Barcelona. Then luck stepped in: a dirt-cheap sale to Berlin on the semi-respectable IcelandExpress just about the time I needed to be in Europe, anyway! So, a few hours after my encounter with Jose in the Reykjavik airport, I found myself in the land of currywurst, lager, and the ever-present singsong "Tchuss!" (which, if said with the proper high intonation, is a friendly way to say "see you!" in German.) It was a four-day pit stop on the way to an entirely new life. I left the United States filled with anxiety, trepidation, and grief for my old routines, friends, and habits. I wasn't ready to be finished, but even so it was time to start. I was glad that tehre was a friendly face waiting on the other side of the ocean.
I spent my days in Berlin at a small, friendly hostel in super-hip Kreuzberg, by the river-- next to but not inside Toni's apartment, because of roommate visitor restrictions. Toni works as a tour guide for tourists from Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, leading them around museums and sites in the city and its surroundings, so one day I borrowed his pass for the amazing Egypt museum on so-called "Museum Island" in central Berlin and surreptitiously watched him lead a tour. Another day, we went with his mother (who was also visiting) to Potsdam, a small town on the outskirts of Berlin. Potsdam is famous for San Souci, a very French palace built by a very German king that famously boasted a No Girls Allowed rule.
The first night I walked out to see the sunset
Wandering in these places with a trained tour guide was ideal. I learned a huge amount about Egyptian art, even taking into account my longtime fascination with the Egyptian mummies at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. And Toni was a great guide throughout Potsdam (which, apart from the beautiful palace, is both a charming small German town and the place where the remaining powers met after WWII to discuss the fate of Germany.)
In the evenings we cooked dinner, took walks, and found various atmospheric bars to catch up in over beers. One particularly memorable evening, we went dancing at a basement gay club with 1970s commercials projected on the chipped brick walls and a fun mix of "gay classics" (Cher, Rocky Horror) and locale-appropriate dance tunes (ABBA, 99 Luftballoons) on tap. I was able, for a period, to focus on just being there, instead of thinking of what I was heading toward or what I had left behind. It was a wonderful gift that Berlin and Toni gave me-- but ideas of departure and arrival were still stewing.
Toni walks the stairs at San Souci
Hieroglyphics at the Egyptian Museum
Despite our efforts at togetherness, Toni has an unbelievably frenetic schedule, so I spent a lot of the visit on my own. I wandered the city trying to regain my traveler's balance and rediscover what it was about the place I had loved so dearly when I came the first time. And I found it, at least in part. The city is blanketed by a gritty but creative un-"dressed up" atmosphere, which permeates everything. Many neighborhoods are still emerging from the dark ages of Communist rule, and the leftover blocky architecture and general used-to-be-decrepit feel speaks to that. But what is really magical about Berlin is what's done with that grittiness. A lesser city would just be content to be dirty, unsafe, and uninspiring, but Berliners have made it a mecca for creativity, art, and community. There are art galleries and concerts everywhere, and that's just on the officially established side. Street art decorates many buildings, concerts spring from nowhere, sculpture sprouts from the sidewalk.
On Sunday I went with a couchsurfer to the Mauer Park fleamarket, which I so adored my first time in Berlin. The park is in a former No Man's Land from the days of the Wall ("mauer" means "wall" in German), and on Sundays it is filled with rows upon rows of homemade or used clothing, furniture, funky crafts, jewelry, and food. We spent four hours in the drizzle trying on stuffed animal hats, exclaiming over zipper earrings, and wishing for enough money or luggage space to buy everything in sight. In the end, I binged on 7 pairs of amazingly funky 3 euro earrings. I was so glad to see something I remembered so lovingly live up to my memories.
Street art in Kreuzberg
It was a relief in particular because of another Berlin institution that I had heard was in danger: Tacheles, a 19th-century shopping mall left to rot in East Berlin under Communist rule, then saved by an artist collective and turned into studios, a sculpture park, a cafe, and more. I wrote about it here in 2009--then, as well, I was incredibly struck by the way these artists had turned something so ugly into so much beauty. I even bought a ring there that I wore every day as a reminder of my traveling accomplishments and personal growth--at least, until it disappeared last year. Now, rumors were flying: I had heard that Tacheles had been reclaimed by the bank when its current owner went into bankruptcy, that the whole thing had been knocked down, that the artists had left, or that it was being turned into condos. So I went back with trepidation, especially after having such a positive experience at Mauer Park.
But I felt I had to go: I had drawn so much inspiration and strength from the memory of Tacheles in the years after my trip, and I was much in need of some of that just now. Berlin wasn't just a quick pit stop for me, psychologically. It was a buffer period between my Old Life and the Life to Come. These days were easing me in to a very big change. I was marinating in transition and still very much not ready to let go of the happinesses of 2010 and early 2011.
Luckily, I arrived at Tacheles and breathed relief. Yes, the bank (or somebody) had kicked a lot of the artists out of the building itself, dismantled the old cafe, and attempted to bar entry by building a wall on which someone had spray painted "diese mauer ist eine schande fur berlin" or "This wall is a shame for Berlin." But, I discovered something magic in the back lot behind Tacheles: the same sculpture park thrived, and an improvised cafe housed people drinking beer on packing crates. The spirit of Tacheles was alive and well.
Part of the sculpture garden
I was buying a copper ring to replace my old one from an Italian jeweler when a painter beckoned to me from the opposite corner. In the course of our conversation he described an uncertain future--rumors abound that the bank will auction off the building in the spring. The painter guided me into a small trailer filled with his work and tried to convince me to buy a piece, but I had neither the money nor the suitcase space. Full of guilt and a love of the place, I gave him a couple of Euros.
His face split into a grin. "Thank you, thank you. Every little bit helps. So, would you like to ask for something from my statue?" he said. Doubtful, I followed him outside, where he pointed at a sculpture wielding a sword and a torch--a woman, powerful and intent.
"That's Shiva," he told me. "She's the destroyer and the creator, with her sword and torch. She is the ending and the beginning at once. They're the same, you see."
Then I was glad I had given him the Euro; the next day I was on my way to Spain.