First Impressions of Berlin

Berlin was somewhere I had been hearing about a lot for the last year or so. Everybody I met who had been there said it was this cool, underground place, and although not previously on my itinerary for this particular trip, after much deliberation I decided to make a trip to the city and see whether or not it lived up to the hype. The following are the main things which struck me about the city…

The History

Even those with the most basic of history knowledge know something of Berlin’s past. Whether it’s World War 1, World War 2, or the Soviet Era and the Berlin Wall, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t at least know a little bit about Berlin’s past before they come here. This city has lived through so much, that I think if you were not to come here and learn a little bit about it’s past, it would be a real shame. If not out of interest, then because it’s a story which needs to be told and remembered.

The interesting thing about Berlin that I found was that unlike many cities which may have buildings and monuments 100’s of years old to help tell a story, most of Berlin’s architecture has been built, repaired, or re-built in recent years. They say that around 90% of Berlin was destroyed during the war, and as a result, much of what you see in terms of architecture has actually been built as a replica to replace what was once destroyed. It is also true that after so many years of war, segregation, and oppression, a lot of Berlin’s buildings were initially destroyed after the Nazi’s came to fall, and also once the Berlin Wall was taken down, as people didn’t want any reminders initially of what happened in the past. However, with the rise of tourism in the city, many of it’s famous landmarks such as Check Point Charlie were rebuilt to look exactly the same as the original, yet they are in fact not the real thing.

If you want to find out the basics of Berlin’s history, I highly recommend the Free Tour that New Europe do here. Aside from the fact that it’s free, it really helps to get your bearings when you first arrive in the city, and gives you a basic insight into many of the city’s landmarks and features.

Graffiti Art

I say Graffiti Art, and not Graffiti, because for me there is a distinct difference between the two, and Berlin really highlights that fact. Graffiti is everywhere in Berlin! It’s not like in some cities where you only really see graffiti in the bad areas of town, Graffiti Art is just part and parcel of Berlin. It’s part of the local culture. I stayed right in the heart of East Berlin. Everyday I would turn a corner and find some new, cool, Graffiti Art on the side of a building. Berlin seems to be home to many talented graffiti artists – much more so than in any other city I have visited. However, it was very apparent that some people were artists, and some were just kids scribbling on a wall what I assume is the German equivalent of “Jane woz ‘ere” or something equally stupid. One minute you would walk past a 3 storey building with it’s entire wall from top to bottom emblazoned with a thought provoking and colourful piece, the next you would walk past somewhere with typical tags and scribbles by people who’ve clearly not thought about where, how, and why they are painting. I suppose every graffiti artist has to start somewhere, and possibly they all start just writing their name on a building, I don’t know, but it was certainly interesting to see how differentiating graffiti art is to standard graffiti. Berlin really shows you the difference, and it is worth it alone just to visit to Berlin for the artistic experience alone.

Demonstrations

Outside the Brandenburg Gate there are many demonstrations held regularly for various causes. It seems to be the place most large demonstrations are held in the city. I was only in Berlin one week, but witnessed 3 demonstrations there, each with about 50 or 60 people protesting.

There was a much larger protest however close to the hostel where I was staying, near Frankfurter Allee in the city’s East Side, during the week that I was there. Many people were getting evicted from a large squat in the nearby area. Squats are a big part of Berlin local culture, and although I personally don’t really see the appeal of this type of accommodation, I can appreciate that’s it’s part of the underground culture here. As I walked down Frankfurter Allee on my way to pick up some breakfast, I counted around 100 police vans, each with armed policemen inside! It was at this point I started to worry a little bit, as my first thoughts were that there had been a bomb on the tube or something, as a lot of the vans were congregated near the Metro Station entrances. However, all the local Berliners seemed to be going about their normal life as if 100+ police vans were a normal part of their life, so I assumed at that point there must be a demonstration or something happening in the area soon, to which later my thoughts were confirmed.

Later on that day however, as I was walking to the East Side Gallery (thinking the demonstrations were over), I noticed something strange in that 6 policemen, all in riot gear, were marching quite quickly towards where I was standing. I looked back and couldn’t see anyone, so just kept on walking… Around 60 seconds later however a guy jumped out from behind the car that was next to me on the road! He whipped out what looked like a police baton (but this guy was definitely no policeman), shouted something in German, and then ran at me with the baton about to hit me on the head (at least that’s what I thought at the time anyway). Like the tough Scots women that I am, I immediately pulled out what I like to call the “shitting your pants move”. This is where you close your eyes, cover your head with your arms, and hope it doesn’t hurt too much! Anyway, after about 60 seconds I started to think “shouldn’t he have hit me with that baton by now??” Well, what I didn’t notice was that as well as the 6 riot gear police in front of me, there was also 2 policemen behind me that I didn’t notice! By the looks of it the guy was one of the demonstators or squatters kicked out, and had actually been aiming for the police – not me. After that though I started to get a bit edgy around anyone who resembled a demonstrator in Berlin for the next few days! I also now know how despite being born in Glasgow, Europe’s murder capitol, I do not seem to have inherited the tough man/woman genes! 🙂

Punks

There is a huge punk scene in Berlin right now. Everywhere you go, especially in the East side, there are lot’s of full on punks. Had it been around 8 or 9 years ago, when I was a High School kid and really into the punk, I’d have loved the whole punk scene here, but to be honest, I think the look is really outdated now. I love punk music, and when the mood suits I may go a bit punk with my outfit, but I feel the ideas and originality that punk set out to have is completely lost on a lot of the people here. For a start, they all look exactly the same! Just about every guy I see has a Mohawk, wears dark clothing, studded belts, and converse or other similar boots. The second thing is that all they seem to do is drink all day. I’ve no problem with that. They didn’t bother me, and I didn’t bother them. I never experienced any punks that were violent except towards the police, but I just personally don’t see the appeal in dressing exactly the same as all your mates, and doing nothing with your life except boozing. Never the less, from a travellers perspective it was interesting to see how strong punk is here right now.

Drinking and Eating Out

Admittedly, a lot of my time in Berlin was spent getting drunk. There are always drinks deals going on all over Berlin, and it’s super cheap to eat out here compared to other big cities. More and more now, what I love about travelling is the simple things. Whether it;s seeing a beautiful sunset, or just discovering cool little pubs, cafes, and restaurants. Berlin is a good night out. It’s that simple. If you come to Berlin and don’t experience some of the night life, then in my opinion you’re missing out.

5 Responses to “First Impressions of Berlin”

  1. Katherina says:

    I’ve been in Berlin as a kid a couple of times (family) and, obviously, it was quite different. Berlin rose in the last couple of years. People claim it to be “the new London” – I don’t believe it that, though 😉
    Still, I would really like to visit the city now that I can experience the whole go out – punk – graffiti – drink scene as you describe it! (well, and see some of the cultural aspects, too, of course).

  2. Elite Gudz says:

    in response to “I say Graffiti Art, and not Graffiti, because for me there is a distinct difference between the two, and Berlin really highlights that fact. Graffiti is everywhere in Berlin! It’s not like in some cities where you only really see … ”

    There is a sure difference between the two. Anything with any true talent is dubbed art. Some people tend to think that they can just vandalize whereas graffiti art is a matter of expression

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