Why Berlin is My Favourite City in Europe

I spent a week in Berlin right before the Christmas holidays.

We rented an apartment in Mitte, near the Rosenthaler Platz U Bahn station. A gentrified neighbourhood of ethnic restaurants, dimly lit bars and newly renovated apartments with enormous windows, modern furniture, heated floors and soundproofed walls. Close to the fashion district, and to small galleries filled with big fringe ideals.

I was in desperate need of a hit. A dose of all the art and culture I can’t find on my island. And a break from the claustrophobia that sets in after spending too much unbroken time in a place as small as this.

I’ve had Berlin in my sights for the past couple years. And I knew it’d be cool. But I never thought it would be as good as this.

Berlin represents the leading edge of the avant-garde. There’s a gritty feel to the streets. That pre-reunification edge still clings to them. It’s the same atmosphere that drew creative visionaries like David Bowie and Iggy Pop during the twilight years of the Cold War wall.

But when the sun is out and the sky is blue, it’s a city of bicycles and open-ended walks.

There are small art galleries hiding in every corner of the city, and important museums with antiquities from the Near East, Rome, Greece, and Sudan. Berlin lives and breathes art like a plant breathes the sun. It feels like art is everyday life for the people here.

The variety of specialty bookshops only underscores my observation. At a time when brick and mortar stores are being killed off by Amazon — and by increasingly short attention spans — I visited 2 separate bookshops dedicated to photography, visual arts, aesthetic theory and design / architecture. And both were full of curious money-spending customers.

I leafed through a strange collection of books on psychogeography and The Situationist movement while my wife grabbed a budget-busting pile of photography books to inspire her habit. A marginal shop like that would struggle to survive in North America. But in Berlin it’s a necessity.

I walked these tree-lined streets all day, admiring the graffiti and glancing at my tall thin reflection in shop windows. And I sat up until 2 or 3 just writing and listening to Bowie’s Berlin albums.

Listening to them there — in what was once East Berlin — gave me a new appreciation for the weird instrumental tracks on those brilliant records. I could feel the streets in his notes, the dissonance, the weird reverberating voices just beyond my comprehension. The weather. Fast walking people dressed in European grey. Leaden skies and tobacco light. It’s all right there in those songs. And so is Bowie’s excitement and optimism at being creatively free.

That seems to be the magic of this city, despite its run down corners and high unemployment. And despite its dark past.

Berlin inspired my writing in a way I haven’t felt since I moved to the Mediterranean. I felt a new spark. A rekindling of my drive. New ideas and insights floated up in my mind in response to the streets and the gritty energy, the art scene, and maybe even the schnaps.

I understand now why Bowie came here to make a new start…

You know what really inspired me when I first traveled to Europe? Art. Even more than seeing the stage set upon which so much of my culture’s history has played out.

I haunted two particular cafes in Ljubljana, where I read books in the morning and scribbled notes by evening candle light. I let my eyes follow pretty girls as they crossed the plaza. I lost my way in winding Medieval streets. And I opened my pores and soaked up culture through my skin.

My friends invited me to gallery openings, and it felt so routine; like art was a part of everyday life. People attended exhibits, and everyone from professors to taxi drivers had an opinion about painting or literature or music.

It was so far from the small town hockey and bush party culture I grew up in.

Sometimes it feels like I was born in the wrong time. I often think of Henry Miller’s Paris. The intimate creative circle he formed with Anais Nin and several other writers, composers and painters. Lawrence Durrell passed through that scene. The photographer Brassai lived in the same building. They were all feeding off each other’s creativity. Inspiring each other’s work. And in the case of Nin, sometimes sleeping together too.

When I read about this group — especially Lawrence Durrell — so many other familiar names keep popping up. So many interconnections and lifeline threads. Durrell’s editor at Faber was TS Eliot. And he knew Rebecca West, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and so many others.

These fascinating individuals would cross paths in Europe, or they would visit Durrell on his Greek island. It was such a vibrant time to read about, and it produced some of my favourite literature. Those people were connected in a multitude of ways. And they grew and changed together.

While I don’t necessarily want to hang out with other writers, I do get inspired by exhibits, great museums and small galleries where people are making art that’s just beyond the edge of my current understanding. I like to see what others are working on in the world of visual arts and photography. To get fresh ideas from outside my own field, much like I always found my writing inspiration in music.

I feel like I’m missing that in the Mediterranean.

The weather’s amazing and life is easy. I’m still attracted to the olive and the vine, and the dry stoney landscape. But I’ve learned that this isn’t an environment for work. Life is too slow here, and it exists in the present.

The Mediterranean taught me to slow down. To let things go. To not put my hand up and take on all the work just because someone else wasn’t doing it. Island life brought me back to essentials in many ways. But I feel like it’s time to create once again.

I have a feeling I’ll be seeing a lot more of Berlin…

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I wanted to share some images and thoughts about the city.

I’ve got two more instalments lined up for you too. So stay tuned — and get ready to add Berlin to your growing Eurotravel destination list. It just made my Top 5 World Cities.

Viewing life from the Eastern side at the Berlin Wall Memorial...

Viewing life from the Eastern side at the Berlin Wall Memorial…

A preserved section of the Berlin Wall, complete with guard tower. The view from the West…

A preserved section of the Berlin Wall, complete with guard tower. The view from the West…

In the neighbourhood...

In the neighbourhood…

Looking like a Tom Waits song: Down and Out on the U Bahn, Christmas Eve.

Looking like a Tom Waits song: Down and Out on the U Bahn, Christmas Eve.

Ahh yes, the TV tower and Friedrich Wilhelm IV on horseback. I wonder what his favourite show was...?

Ahh yes, the TV tower and Friedrich Wilhelm IV on horseback. I wonder what his favourite show was…?

For those who criticized my meal choices… A fine Berlin currywurst!

For those who criticized my meal choices… A fine Berlin currywurst!

This book shop near Rosa Luxembourg Platz is entirely devoted to photography, visual arts, aesthetic theory and design / architecture….

This book shop near Rosa Luxembourg Platz is entirely devoted to photography, visual arts, aesthetic theory and design / architecture….

A pink stairway to heaven…?

A pink stairway to heaven…?

Berlin is a very good city in which to form a shoe fetish. With bird cages.

Berlin is a very good city in which to form a shoe fetish. With bird cages.

Checkpoint Charlie — you are now passing into Commie East Berlin...

Checkpoint Charlie — you are now passing into Commie East Berlin…

Hansa Studio (above the restaurant), where Bowie recorded Low and Heroes...

Hansa Studio (above the restaurant), where Bowie recorded Low and Heroes…

The subterraneans…

The subterraneans…

Averting my eyes. Why the fuck must they use such language?

Averting my eyes. Why the fuck must they use such language?

Catching a performance at the Berlin Philharmonic…

Catching a performance at the Berlin Philharmonic…

Check out the crazy architecture! You can hear a triangle ping all the way up to the rafters...

Check out the crazy architecture! You can hear a triangle ping all the way up to the rafters…

At the Berlin Philharmonic, only champagne will do...

At the Berlin Philharmonic, only champagne will do…

 

 

All photos ©Tomoko Goto 2013

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Comments

  1. Martin Kelley says:

    Another good place to visit is Prague. The city is a crash course in the history of central European architecture. When the Nazis came, the Czechs weren’t really able to resist; When the Soviets came, the Nazis weren’t able to resist so the city was never bombed. They still have all the old buildings standing and I think Europe’s oldest surviving astronomical clock. Worth a look.

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