Friday, 30 October 2015


One of the things I hate most about my job is, along with the hordes of needy fans, the insecurity of it - the fact that I rarely know when the next chunk of money is coming in and, when I do get it, how long that money has to last for. Now and again that situation works to my advantage when I actually have a moderate chunk of money and nothing in my diary. Sometimes I can do something like fuck off to Berlin for two days on a whim. I did that this week.

I've done solo trips before and I like them. I'm pretty good in my own company but, having never been good at first impressions, for the first few hours I always hate myself. What am I doing here? What am I going to do with myself?... other than the obvious. Lads.

Arriving at about 7pm, I started with a stroll (I'm 35, I stroll now) around the neighbourhood I'd chosen to stay in - Prenzlauer Berg. Whenever I leave London I'm struck by how quiet everywhere else is. Opening your front door in London is like walking into a metropolised and only slightly more sober Glastonbury. Never ending crowds of people on their way to do fuck knows what. I was looking for a bar with an atmosphere but found myself confused. All these bars appeared to have available seats in them. Yes, it was a Tuesday night, but at that very time in London every single pub would be literally spilling out into the street. A seat?! You have to get there at 2.30pm, to beat the post school crowd, for that. But no, in Berlin, seats are ten a Euro.

Not only do Berlin bars have seats but they also have, in a blast from the past, smoking. Only in retrospect do I realise that as a non smoker but a regular pub goer, from roughly 1997 until 2007 I must have consistently stank of cigarettes. It's a wonder I got so much sweet sweet pussy*. When you consider Germans' diet of sausage and cabbage allowing smoking in bars is clearly a smart move designed to mask the smell of what must be a permanent fart fog.

Returning back to the hotel a little drunk and realising I'd left my fucking jumper somewhere, I still couldn't shift the initial melancholy of one of my solo adventures. My mood was only slightly improved by spotting a restaurant called 'Knoblaunch'.

The following morning I woke up determined to enjoy myself - and how does one do that? By heading to a Nazi museum! But first I had to have some breakfast. Having recently been to Berlin herself, my girlfriend told me about a pastry called 'fluffige laugenecken' which was apparently a delicious combination of croissant and pretzel. The first three cafes I went into didn't appear to have it. Entering the fourth, hungover and hungry I convinced myself that something that didn't look like the puffy triangle she had described but was labelled with a close enough name (it ended in 'necken anyway) must be it. Sat down and taking my first bite I realised it wasn't. What I had chosen to eat for breakfast appeared to be a stale brown bread roll. I took one more miserable bite and ran out the door.

Picking up an actual croissant from somewhere else, I decided to walk into the centre of town. My latest formula for my own personal happiness is to do as much as possible of the three w's - walking, writing and (w)reading. About a mile into the three mile walk I was more convinced of the benefits of the first of those three than ever. Walking through a foreign city, listening to music, is quite possibly my favourite thing to do. Songs which I'd previously always skipped suddenly reveal their worth to me. Who'd have thought this would be the trip on which I would finally grow to love Killer Mike's album R.A.P Music? Not me.

The closer I got to the epicentre of Berlin, the perkier I got. Great big beautiful buildings containing what, I did not care. Then the Brandenburg Gate. So ignorant was I that at first I wasn't sure if that's what it actually was. Berlin's a big city, I thought, there could be another couple of big fuck off gates knocking about. Once I was sure it was Brandenburg Gate I was happy to have seen a world famous landmark. Tick!

Jolly little me took a left and then smack - the Memorial To The Murdered Jews of Europe. Oh yeah. This city has a staggeringly tragic recent history. The memorial itself is powerful. It consists of 2,711 concrete slabs. I imagine that walking through them, one is supposed to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the thing and in turn by the scale of what it memorialises. Unfortunately that is a little hindered by visitors taking slightly too light hearted, for my tastes, selfies. I'm not keen on enforcing solemnity but it's jarring.

And so onto my first officially pre planned destination - the Topography of Terror which tracks the rise and fall of the Third Reich. It's an excellent, highly detailed museum. I won't inflict my own assessment of the Nazis on you. I'd like to think you already have a pretty good idea of what it is. Three words - not a fan.

What I will tell you is what I think of Germans. I think they're incredible. They had the Nazis and then, one side of the country immediately went through forty years of an all seeing, all knowing Communist state. Then in 1990 they unified and - bang! - as far I can tell they were almost IMMEDIATELY ready lead the world in everything - democracy, liberalism, football. How the fuck did they do that? Seriously. How? Don't answer, just marvel.

After dealing with the Nazis I headed up to Checkpoint Charlie which was odd. Light hearted selfies here were actively encouraged. What I can only assume were out of work German actors were dressed as American soldiers and took smiling photos with tourists. When much of what you have to offer to tourists are landmarks of tragedy I can understand a little Disney-fication, I guess. But Checkpoint Charlie only closed 25 years ago. I wonder how the Berliners who were around when it actually meant something feel about all that. Perhaps they're not as poe faced as me and are happy to get some fun out of it.

Keen on giving my feet a rest I decided to take a trip on my favourite form of transport - the open top tourist bus. There was a time in my life when I (ironically) looked down on people who went on these. Why limit yourself to what some goddamn tour operator wants you to see of a city? Discover it for yourselves you idiots! But then, a tour operator probably has a good idea of what's worth seeing and can give you an overall impression of a city in a couple of hours. My one requirement was that, even though it was late October, the bus was actually open top. The first three I saw had roofs and looked dangerously like being on them would be too similar to another trip on the 171.

I hopped on the first true open topper, paid my 10 euros, and sat upstairs with the only other two people in Berlin prepared to brave the elements. Twenty minutes in and feeling the cold I started to envy their scarfs. Despite my frozen feet, I enjoyed the ride. Bombed to shit in the war, like London, Berlin has managed to hold on to plenty of pretty buildings. I would suggest it's done a better job of building pretty ones since too.

The area around the Reichstag was packed with impressive government buildings. I'm always surprised by just how much actual space government takes up. And embassies! Every capitol city has enormous, I mean gigantic, embassies. Swiss, Kiwi, South Korean! Why do they have to be quite so big? Is there really that much to do? They're macho statements aren't they? Embassies are opportunities for the countries of the world to erect giant penises on each other.

Having only eaten some questionable pastries and a dodgy little quiche it seemed seemed distasteful to complain about in the Topography of Terror, I got off the bus hungry. Before leaving for Berlin I asked my Facebook friends if there was anywhere I should go. The only two recommendations I paid any attention to involved burgers.

After a failed attempt at using what my tiny brain found to be a confusing subway I treated myself to a taxi. 'Take me to meat!' I yelled as I got in. White Trash Fast Food is where we ended up. Two beers and a giant slab of delicious bunned cow later I tried to figure out where I was. As luck would have it I was only 20 minutes walk from the East Side Gallery - a section of the Berlin Wall which has been kept as a canvas for art.

I was expecting something not quite as big but it took a good half an hour to slowly walk along the whole thing. It consists of officially sanctioned paintings of varying standards which have all been added to by graffiti of even more variable quality. In amongst some quite beautiful stuff was the odd penis, plenty of pleas to legalize weed and a surprising number of tributes to Middlesbrough Football Club. It was 7pm and other than the odd passing Berliner I was amazed to have the whole brilliant thing to myself. I resisted the temptation to write on it.

With the two beers having made a serious impression on my bladder I headed to a nearby train station in search of a toilet. It was 7.30pm at a major train station in Germany's capitol city. This was the scene...

Virtually empty. Where was everyone? I'm beginning to think that every fucker in the world has moved to London. I don't mean that in a UKIP, 'we're full up' kind of way. I mean that in a 'Why does Berlin look like 28 Hours Later?' kind of way.

The rest of my evening was spent back in Prenzlauer Berg. A couple more beers and two generous old fashioneds later and my mid thirties stroll became an early twenties stumble back to the hotel.

My second and final morning began like my first - hungoverly looking for an elusive German pastry. When I finally found the fluffige laugenecken it was fine but I'm not sure it was worth what must have been a total of at least an hour of hunting. Once I'd stuffed that fluffige straight down my necken I was ready to soak up some more depressing history... to the Stasi Museum!

This was without a doubt, and I apologise if this is an inappropriate tone, the highlight of my trip. The Nazis I knew a fair bit about, the East German secret police not so much. The Stasi Museum is located in what was their headquarters right up until 1989 - in the very building. You are able to walk around the office of their head Erich Mielke. You are able to see the surveillance apparatus they used and the footage they took.

I find pre World War One history difficult. I do not know the difference, apart from, one assumes anatomy, between George I and Elizabeth I. Anything before the invention of the zip is tricky for me. Once I am able to see photographs of the participants I'm fascinated. In the Stasi Museum I am looking at photos from the 1980s, from my lifetime. I am looking at pictures of people who don't look all that dissimilar to me. That's a lot easier to relate to than some mythological beast like Henry VIII. I am not qualified to try and sum up the Stasi for you. In fact, having skipped the Basic Food Hygiene Course at school, I'm not even qualified to work in a kitchen. I will simply say that the Stasi Museum is incredible and for anyone with an interest in that kind of shit, worth a trip to Berlin alone.

Leaving there and going for my final walk, I passed the flats previously inhabited by those who worked for the Stasi. I passed an old couple crossing the road and couldn't help but wonder what their lives had been like thirty years ago. What roles they played in East Berlin. Then it occurred to me that for all I knew they'd only recently retired to Berlin from England so I went for a bockwurst and pissed off back to London.

* sorry.

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