Admiralstrasse, Kreuzberg, Berlin… What’s conjured up by these words? Lou Reed… Nico… naked people with strapped-on plastic dildos dancing in underground nightclubs in the name of Brecht and Art? Yes, all these things. Oh, and something else. In this capital city of Germany they have now also evolved a hamburger known as the Suck-u-burger. Unintentional but weird…
At first when I arrived here I didn’t know I had inadvertently settled in the coolest street in Berlin. I was befuddled by the guys in boiler suits outside the bicycle repair shop, lounging on broken chairs sipping beer and occasionally glancing at an inner tube, more intent on the tobacco pouches doing the rounds.
My befuddlement was cut short one day when I walked down the Admiralstrasse until I reached a small, vaulted iron bridge on a canal. The span groaned under the weight of a hundred freaks. A guy with an elaborate goatee beard was reclining against a bollard, playing a beaten-up guitar really quite well, while all round him semi-stoned beatniks raised their voices for the refrains. Suddenly they all fell silent as a heavy-headed Rastaman wailed a loud, tribal incantation…
When I heard the impromptu concert, I stopped and, in the words of that guru of cool, old Hendrix himself, “fell into a dream”. Purple haze – I couldn’t say, but – as I raised my eyes, I saw a curious emanation wafting towards me. She was a bony woman, her face bearing a striking likeness to a goat in profile. Those thorn-munching lips, plumped up without the aid of collagen, seemed to be mumbling some incantation. Her legs moved indistinctly inside a pair of massive fluttering Turkish trousers of glaring orange, while her almost weightless feet were bound up in a pair of leather sandals, the straps of which criss-crossed Biblically up her stick-thin calves. Suddenly the goat-like protruding lips cracked into a smile. There, slouching towards her across the Admiral Bridge came a charming Basquiat impression. They met and his mouth welded itself to her throat as they shuffled off in step.
I imagine these stick-insect love-birds probably went straight back to her den, or his, where they screwed until one of their limbs snapped off. (But no problem, whenever this happens the appendage can easily be re-affixed in one of Berlin’s many bike repair shops.)
For a brief moment I wondered who they were and how they managed to survive here in Berlin? And then I realized: Anyone can survive, the real struggle is to survive with some sort of intact style. And by style, incidentally, I also mean content.
And I do wonder if there is very much content to this cool. Looking up at the buildings here along the canals, I’m arrested by the sight of a large, expensive, modern apartment with a big balcony, across which someone has hung a placard: “Burma, 8088 km.” I’m wondering if this post-modern cool is not more about the placard – people caring more about telling their neighbours they’re the sort of people who care about Burma, than they actually do care about Burma?
Political activism thus becomes introspection.
In this vein the cynic moves on – the cynic being me, incidentally – through the wilds of Kreuzberg. Now and then through the bazaars and myriad cafés comes a veiled Muslim woman, detached and secret, with children swarming at her emblematic skirts.
Further up the canal I dive into a bar where I order a large whisky from a bar-girl whose nose is studded with – on first count I would say – eight nose-rings. She fills the glass with ice and pours. Her face is pale and sober. On her right-hand side collar bone is a small tattoo of a star encircled by the words “Je ne sais pas”. I smile at her. She returns my smile and adds another double shot without a word.
It takes me twenty minutes to down the drink. As I rise to move off, I notice I’m slightly drunk. It’s just before midday.
Berlin works… but its citizens don’t.
The residents of Kreuzberg seem to mimic the idea of work. As I head down another slumbering streets, I check the brass plates and signs in the doorways. In a window I see a corporate logo: “OUC”. I stop. Beneath, it says “The Office of Unexpected Circumstances.” There’s no telephone number, no website. Just that.
In another window sits a diminutive beer-drinking man in a Superman t-shirt, behind him a low-key office environment with computers, printers, comfortable chairs… further in the background a piano, microphone stands, a set of cymbals. The window holds a display of vinyl LPs. This, apparently, is the world headquarters of Pale Music International. Looks pretty decent, actually.
I continue down the street.
In one shop I see a group of forlorn soya types beating Indian drums.
The next place is a cartoon gallery (closed).
Beside it, a ceramics workshop.
Then an acupuncture clinic.
A film production company (looks closed).
A Kurdish integration bureau.
The whisky hits me again and I wonder if I’m going insane or in some other way losing my reason here. Up ahead I see the comforting ugliness of a supermarket… as I move closer I see it’s an organic supermarket. Outside, people have parked their bicycles and tethered their assorted dogs into a howling mess.
I go inside and aimlessly buy red quinoa, hibiki snacks and black sesame crackers. I consider picking up a sheet of seaweed sheets before deciding they may be inedible to someone unversed in the art of sushi-making.
As I go outside I wildly look round for a hot dog stand or some other purveyor of junk food.
On a corner I see a restorative sight, namely a German chick with a shapely, designer-labelled ass getting into a Porsche Targa 911. Maybe I’m just too much of a capitalist… the very son of Kapitalismus… but it just cheers my spirit to know someone is doing okay here, not just looking cool.
Even the Turkish women, most of whom seem to be inhabiting a sort of parallel universe, occasionally register on the same scale. I notice a gang of young Turkish girls talking loudly, a few of them wearing bright colours, the style of their head-gear slightly modern, passing round cigarettes. I realize they are probably also cool.
The day after my Kreuzberg hallucinations I am in the Tempelhof train station at six in the morning. The place is a multi-layered, humming lunar station. A vast wasp’s nest designed for modern consumers. Innumerable shops, enough durable goods in there to sustain the city of Havana for years. Lost among the elevators, I eventually find my way into an espresso bar where without thinking I order a latte in Italian, to the bemusement of the Teutonic maid in there who promptly serves up a pint glass of boiled milk with some brown dishwater lurking among the froth.
Suddenly I wish I were back in Kreuzberg, where idle thoughts planted carelessly in the dirt have grown into a slow movement.
As Berliners have learnt to say: “Revolution is also not the solution.”
It may just be possible that they have hit upon a universal truth: there are no solutions except enjoying your life.