A free guided tour is a really good way to be introduced to a city. Apart from refreshing those old history lessons long forgotten about, there are loads of little insider tidbits that you wouldn’t pick up from a guidebook. Berlin has quite a disturbing back story, so walking through it while being told what life-altering events took place right where you’re standing can effectively shape the way you see the place.
Hitler’s famous bunker, for instance, is now buried under a carpark of an apartment complex, with no signposts, references, or mention of it given in any way; even some of the residents there wouldn’t be aware of it (though they might grow suspicious from seeing endless groups of tourists pausing there solemnly outside every morning). So after seeing eveything from the still-standing Berlin wall to Checkpoint Charlie, and the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his baby to an enormous chocolate Reichstag, I lurked off from the group before the “recommended tip” spiel kicked off. I headed over to the Old National Gallery, not because the era of art that it houses interests me, but because there was one painting there I just had to see in person – Boecklin’s “Isle of the Dead.” The only problem was that it was €8 in…
As for the “all you can drink” pub crawl I’d been looking forward to, I was the first one to turn up and wasted no time in seeing if this “power hour” of free beer was all on the level. Not only was I told to help myself, but they didn’t even ask me to pay upfront. By the time there was 22 of us (nearly all Americans, I was the only European) finishing off bottles left, right, and centre, we headed for the first bar. All was well, until I needed to use the bathroom…
Unable to understand which was one the gents, I just opted for the one that sounded more masculine. Immediately I noticed that there was a distinct lack of urinals, but I was absolutely bursting to go and so made a beeline for one of the cubicles. I’d just walk out 30 seconds later and plead ignorance – “no big deal,” I thought. Only just then, a horde of women came into the bathroom at once, most of whom were American girls from the pub crawl.
I didn’t want to start the night out on the wrong foot with the entire female quota of the group, so I took a few seconds to decide whether to just walk straight out with a smile, or wait and avoid the embarrassment. But in those few seconds, they started banging on the door impatiently and so the decision was made for me. I sat down and just hung in there, expecting them to clear out. Except women go to the bathroom in packs, merging with other packs to talk about bloody everything under the sun. The longer I left it, the worse it got. They were commenting on how long it was taking me, and how women are never that slow, only guys…
Getting nervous, I placed my feet in a more feminine stance, facing inwards to each other and up on their tippy-toes, just so it would look legit when they inevitably started looking under the door. Time went on, handles were shook vigorously, and I even ended up putting on a ridiculous woman’s voice just to sustain the facade.
Eventually, when I was sure that there were no American accents left, I pelted it out of there, causing a group of German women in their forties to shriek and laugh confusedly alike. I could only wave my hand in dismissive acknowledgement, saying: “Ja, ja, ja…” as if I did it all the time. Back outside, and the whole group was long gone. Bollocks. All I could do was pick a random direction and just leg it towards the nearest people I could see. In the dark, I half-recognised one girl, and thankfully, it turned out to be the last stragglers of the party.
Next up was the hookah bar. I had never smoked it before and wasn’t even sure what kind of buzz it gives you, but was curious nonetheless. With blues on the speakers, Persian rugs decked out, and Harbour Bar-like ambience in the air, some vanilla hookah was brought over to us in a huge Indian-looking bong. It’s basically just flavoured tobacco that makes you a little light-headed, but actually smoking it just feels like inhaling air, like nothing. So much so, that it’s a surprise when you see smoke billowing out of your mouth. Hitting it to the extreme can at best be described as smoking dry ice, but it was fun all the same.
Between bars, the host would crack open two bottles of cheap spirits, put two fingers to your chin, and literally shove the bottle down your throat. It got a tad messy after a while…
“The Absinthe Depot,” meanwhile, is this tiny little off-license that only sells the drink in question, and already waiting for us was a table of pre-poured glasses…arranged by some dodgy guy who obviously modelled his appearance after Travis Bickle. I just enquired as to the percentage of the drink and got the hell out of there as soon as I downed it before I started bringing up Neo-Nazism.
Things start to get a little blurry from then on. My normally all-encompassing recollections are not that forthcoming, although I do remember voicing my concerns about the Australians taking over the planet with an impromptu coup. There was one Aussie there who was telling me that he went out with a girl who was half-Irish, and how all of her relations (most of whom she hadn’t even met) have been using his his house for accomodation, long after he’s stopped seeing the girl. For two solid years, they’ve been turning up in droves, unannounced and with duty-free drink in hand, puking all over his gaff from the minute they get there.
Though he now detests the Irish people with a passion, he’s on his way over there armed with a list of people that owe him, expecting to not have to spend a penny. I could only wish him luck repeatedly, trying to disguise my scepticism. Yet he proclaimed that I was the nicest Irish person he’s ever met, and to my surprise, everyone else I encountered that night agreed wholeheartedly. It seems people aren’t quite glowing with praise for our kind…well, not if I’m the poster-boy for all that’s right, anyway!
A live blues show and a club later, I was at the bar about to order myself a pint when a (Chinese-born) Australian girl turns around and says: “I think you’re really cute” as if she was telling me the time. Now I’m not fortunate enough to be inundated with openers from attractive women, but I think that’s as good as it gets. It’s quite possible that she could have said something else entirely, as I could barely see straight at the time (to write down something remotely legible, I had to keep one eye closed), but we got on like a house on fire and before I knew it, she was saying that I wouldn’t need accomodation when I got to Sydney.
I clearly remember her writing down an email address on a yellow piece of paper, but I do not have it, and I was worryingly close to spending the day tracing my steps on hands and knees, clutching for every scrap of paper on Berlin’s streets. If I even had the thing in my pocket to begin with, it probably fell out when I was sitting down to a table of Mexican and Hungarian strangers on the street, or when I took out my list of phrases to chat idly with all the German prostitutes I met on my way home (how I got there, I’ll never know).
I was still drunk at two o’clock this afternoon. Being atrociously hungover yet still hammered half a day later is very disorientating. Not one to waste an afternoon, however, I went down to the giant, rolling greens of Tiergarten in the city centre, flaking out in the best weather I’ve seen in a long time, before heading up to Berlin’s two main museums (which are free on a Thursday evening – score!).
Sadly I was too wrecked to engage with any of it whatsoever, finding myself breezing past Egyptian relics and marble statues, just trying not to feel confused. The biggest of the two is your typical power-museum full with a greedy collection of the world’s treasures, which had a life-size Roman temple rebuilt in its main hall for God’s sakes. It also had everything just thrown together in bizarre combinations: pop-up Star Wars books would be alongside plates from 300 BC, the words of Bruce Lee would be emblazened across the wall alongside a quote from Nietzche…it was all too much to handle.
So after living off a 33 cent box of cornflakes for the last few days, I cooked myself the first hot meal I’ve had in nearly two weeks while keeping the company of a Mexican family in the kitchen…And I don’t even like cornflakes. It looks like I have a dorm to myself for the night, and in a few hours, Germany are playing in the World Cup opener, so there is much to rest for. I catch the train to Prague on Saturday, so until then…