Never Accept the ‘Gifts’
Berlin Berlin, it doesn’t have the same ring to it as New York, it’s not the skyscraper laden symbol of architectural beauty— but like any person your mum tries to set you up with as a teenager, it has a great personality. I’ve written countless drafts about my time in Berlin, some stories have no meaning without the context, so choosing the right ingredients for a perfect summation is proving to be difficult. In many ways, Berlin was the genesis of many lessons that I’ve gained from this short stint in the mixed continent, so it has to be done right, but nothing ever is.
Berlin is its own little society, tucked away in the folds of traditional German ideology, an invariable oasis of freaks and outcasts of a travelling circus who pinned their tents down years ago and simply forgot to leave. It was in the dead heat of summer when we arrived at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, my throat was still devoured from two weeks in Amsterdam—must’ve been the spicy food. It was only the second leg of the journey so there was still learning to be done, and after an hour of trying to navigate the trains we gave up and took a cab to Kreuzberg.
As we arrived in the area we were instantly victims of what I’ve come to know as the first day blues. Where all the expectations and preconceived notions of a place you’ve heard so much about suddenly hit you in the face with a grounded reality. Make no mistake, there is a grand humility that stems from pushing through the blues and finding the true nuggets of gold that lay beneath the veneer of expectation. There hasn’t been a place I’ve been to so far that has been as I imagined, it was simply persevering through my own selfish specificity find actual growth in your perspective of the world, and Berlin was one hell of a chapter.
As we ascended the stairs to Comebackpackers we had no idea what we were walking into. Through the curtain was an expansive common room, complete with a window wall across one side, a bar/check in area on one end and a cacophony of sofas on the other, scattered throughout were tables, posters, one of the creepiest looking mannequins I’ve ever seen (which throughout the 12 day stay had a personal vendetta with me) and an assortment of orphaned furniture who found a home in this little paradise of misfits.
On the other wall was a small kitchen complete with all the utensils you’d ever need right next to an old worn out cabinet filled with half-used pasta packets, sauces, spices, random footnotes of guests meals who had long since checked out. Above it all was a hastily made sign on the back of a lined piece of paper stating “Free Food” in thick black ink. Along the window panes are the tattered spines of books from all over the world, some left by travellers from years before. Right next to the Bar/Check in was a small wooden staircase leading to the expansive balcony overlooking the Kotbusser Tor— the bullseye centre of Kreuzberg. The area had its share of controversy in previous months, as one of the notoriously friendly night workers explained to me later in my stay, “Yeah, about a month ago we had to keep a bat under the bar here—just in case”. If there isn’t a small risk of danger then what’s the point of having adrenaline, and rumours of the danger were greatly exaggerated.
After we checked in and dropped the bags in the room we decided to explore the city a little, and it’s certainly not the sort of cake you can have in one sitting. Walking out of the hostel the vibe suddenly hits you with the brute force of a sledgehammer, the hustle and bustle is not business as usual in the slightest. The Turkish district of Berlin, Kreuzberg had a wide array of Kebab stores and Bakeries along with Bars and clubs through every crevasse. There was a club nearby called SO 36 that juggernaut headliners like David Bowie had played at decades ago— It seemed like the fitting first destination to visit in the area.
Like everywhere in Europe, there were families perched on almost every corner with their head down and hand out with a styrofoam cup. At this part of the journey it was still shocking to see so much overt poverty, now unfortunately its become surprising to not see it. As we turned the corner onto SO 36 I passed a bloke in a well tailored suit, briefcase in one hand and a pint in the other, he rushed past as he chugged his beer before leaving it under the bin and running down to the underground—public drinking isn’t just tolerated, it’s simply a way of life. The heat was still simmering the brain stem so as we passed the aptly named bar “Moltow Cocktail” — we decided to toast to celebrate the first steps in Germany.
As we enjoyed the happy hour delights I felt my throat getting more and more agitated. So as Lady Stardust went back to the hostel to relax and get to know the other travellers I headed over to the local supermarket to find something akin to Benadryl. This is where my Year 9 German could’ve come in handy… Perusing through the aisles looking for anything resembling cough syrup I came across a wall of liquids of all colours, shapes and sizes. After 15 minutes of trying to translate the boxes I bit the bullet and bought an inconspicuous bottle of green syrup, how could I go wrong—I mean it had a photo of a woman holding her nose and throat, so surely it had to be medicinal right?
The rest of that night was spent quietly drinking a few beers in the common room and witnessing the melting pot of people begin their evenings. Assortments of backpackers, workers, couples, singles, of all colours and creeds were playing games, smoking on the patio, or watching the Euros which was always on display on the large projector near the bar. I took the bottle and closed my eyes before shooting it down, it immediately told me how much of a moron I had been. It tasted like pure ass acid. I swallowed a small amount but as soon as it went down I was outside spitting the rest out. There wasn’t enough water in the world to wash it out and I chalked it up to it being simply really shitty tasting meds. It wasn’t until later that night that the true revelation dawned on me.
At around 3am I was writhing in cold sweats, feeling like I had eaten a burrito that expired 6 months earlier. I ran to the bathroom and..well I’ll spare you the details, but as I was hugging that bowl I heard a knock on the door. I half expected it to be someone telling me to shut up, or maybe call an ambulance. Instead it was two young Scottish blokes whom I actually got to know rather well as time went on who yelled,“We’re getting kebabs, you want one?”. Nevertheless I took a valuable lesson on that first day in Berlin. POISON is not an obvious label on bottles. Maybe drinking 99% eucalyptus oil isn’t exactly the smartest method for getting rid of a shitty throat, if anything the ramifications of that decision led me to be voiceless for a day or two.
Funnily enough though, it turns out the German word for poison is ‘gift’. I never was good at receiving presents.
As I’ve mentioned and will probably mention throughout these interconnected little tales, Berlin was the source for many new ideological shifts in my perspective of the way things are right now, a majority came from long discussions that lasted well into the dawn hours with strangers from home and abroad. From the refugee ‘crisis’, to drugs and alcohol The clusterfuck of opinions can be jarring at the best of times, but every once in a while you come across kindred thinkers who share similar principles, but wildly different perspectives.
There really isn’t enough space to give Berlin the justice it deserves, there are so many stories that impacted future aspects of my journey that began as details in the margins. It’s buildings are painted by artists, spray paint is the overcoat to the generic blocks of brick and mortar. When street art casts shadows on the buildings—that’s when you know that artists run the town. There’s always a whiff of something illegal in the air, but never dangerous. The people are radically different with every district you explore, there’s no blending in when everyones a different beautiful shade of crazy.
The best moments are often the one-shots, the smaller moments that sandwich the whole journey. The short walks that turn into epic journeys. A nonchalant conversation that leads to a seven day festival in Hungary, a late night talk with a staff member that escalates into a full blown existential debate on the idea of worth. A night to the most exclusive club in the world leading to an abandoned warehouse that was converted into a mini commune with bars and food stalls at 5am, getting lost in a gigantic park in the middle of Berlin. The infamous wall itself and the frightening signs of resurgence or even the german film museum which was packed wall-to-wall with memorabilia and stories.
These are all small moments that build into the entire unforgettable experience.
So why lead off with a story about being poisoned by my own stupidity?
Could be just a lesson to learn another language, or maybe its just a detail of a larger story.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s there to illustrate the only time that my life has been threatened by something foreign—and it was a goddamn bottle of oil that cost 2 euros at the local supermarket.
Till next time,
To the birds, Hallelujah.