June 28, 2011
Summer life here is so easy and welcoming–I live in Kreuz-kolln–a neighborhood that was once all Turkish and quite poor and still has half its population Muslim–with the women all covered in clothing–but not black or dreary at all-silk scarves of every imaginable color and floral pattern cover their hair and then all kinds of often matching and flambuoyant outfits –some incredibly sexy albeit properly all body covered–and the women are out on the streets, in the cafes, taking their children out and about, even smoking!! The business streets are mostly run by Turkish men–and can you ever get fabulous olives, fetas, yoghurts, grains, nuts and dried fruits everywhere–in fact there is a “Turkish Market” by the canal two days a week and it is bustling with everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to biryanis made on the spot to buttons, Muslim clothing to Bulgarian blue cheese,. Two kinds of shops are pretty unique–there are lots of extravagant floor length formal dress shops and then shops full of glitzy gold and crystal housewares.
The neighborhood has just recently–within the last four years– been sort of gentrified by young artists from all over the world. The result of this is that many of the heretofore abandoned stores on the side streets–which by the way are all cobblestoned on both road and sidewalk–have become little one-off clothing shops wherein 20 and 30 something fiber artists make dresses, tops, skirts, tee-shirts–whatever they fancy –and they are very creative both in design and in fabric. Or people open bar/restaurant/music venues in these old storefronts and there’s a “Berlin style” to them all–walls are taken down to whatever paint is stable–so often you have the history of the place traced on the walls–sort of like what David Ireland did when he renovated the 1908 barracks at the Headlands Center for the Arts. Then painting, sculptures, the odd cheap tchatzki, a hookah, a broken mannequin wearing a mask, a life-sized plaster sheep, velvet drapes and cool lighting is added…and the thing that makes these places distinctively “Berlin style” is that the whole place is hand-built and all the sofas, chairs, tables, lamps–everything –comes from Flea Markets and Salvation Army so all all is completely recycled, funky and mismatched to a point to look wonderful.
Plus the sidewalks are wide everywhere and all the cafes have tables and chairs outside and everyone seems to live all their hours on the street. Breakfast–fruhstuck– seems to be the favorite all day–I go to Cafe Liberda where I am greeted by a happy server Elmas–and where the chef –Marat, a Tunisian with a Turkish name who speaks “only” German, Dutch and French–arranges Brie and white cheese, Mortadella and Bologne, tomatoes and olives, into a a virtual breakfast bouquet with pineapple slices, strawberries, cherries, grapefruit and orange slices, grapes and apples with a soft boiled egg and two kinds of fresh bread as well–all for 4.5 Euros which seems to me quite reasonable for what is really a breakfast for two.
The weather has been glorious–mostly warm dry and sunny–with the occasional crazy downpour or sun-rain-sun-clouds-sun-rain days and I spend them riding my wonderful fat tire bike–the biggest heaviest bike Ive ever had–she’s white and clumsy but never falls into cracks or train tracks, can take curbs with elan and I’ve come to love her–I call her Bruni–short for Brunhilda Wagner (you must get the operatic reference) as she’s convinced she’s beautiful lithe and young…which in my eyes she has become. We ride for hours every day along the canal that runs across most of Berlin, is lined with willows, oaks, maples and linden trees that are in bloom and give the whole city an impossibly sweet scent–ah. Sometimes as well I go to the huge and forested Tiergarten which has lovely marble statuary, fountains, and formal gardens but which is predominantly forests and willow rimmed lakes and streams, with occasional green lawns, rhododendrons and ferns, wild flowers and spruce, linden, maples, acacia, and is full of singing birds–you’d never know you were in a city.
In Kreuzberg and Neukollnthere where I live there are few cars and they drive at the speed of a bike plus bikes have right of way, with cars and pedestrians both yielding to bicyclists, who, by the way aren’t those slick Lycra clad type speed riders–no. Here everyone–from the postman to the mother with her child in a seat, the businessman in a suit to the delivery men are all on bikes–riding at a leisurely pace, no helmets, no bike outfits–as if we all lived in a village rather than a city–and Berlin is flat, has bicycle lanes and low curbs everywhere so riding is easy easy easy–There are parks everywhere as well–it is one of the greenest places I have ever lived.
People here seem mostly young–babies are everywhere; parents walk their children to school, and people seem to talk away their hours in cafes-The girls and women wear layered flea market skirts and tops and always scarves..funky and cool, but what fascinates me is the style of men here–they all seem slight as feathers, concave at the belly, hairless, boneless even, skinny arms and legs, smoking and not a muscle evident in a limb–they seem to carry books and have deep intellectual conversations, read the paper or play with their children. There are of course workmen about with rotund beer bellies and a gruff way about them. At last there are the classic pink blondes often in wire rims–Only the gay men are muscled and the Turkish men are quite handsome–black hair and blue eyes.
There are music and art festivals all the time–I went to the gala opening of “Based in Berlin'” a five venue selection of the best contemporary art here; then spent a weekend at the “48 Hours Neukolln” fest with hundreds of installations, interventions, paintings, videos, and performances on the street, in storefronts, galleries and tucked away in all kinds of venues from a prison to KarlMarxPlatz, from allotment gardens to an old brewery… I was led on a wild goose chase through a low rent housing project looking for a rabbit; was given a massage; saw a video of graffiti artists in the process of spray painting a train; helped build a “Neukolln” –a cardboard replica of the cathedral in Cologne–out of pfennig copper coins and glue stick–“because we are all pretty poor here” the artist said “but the people here, by donating just small 1, 2 and 5 cent coins, paid for our cathedral nevertheless” ; went on a Sound Journey with an 11 year old girl at the mixing deck while we sat in a makeshift plane in the cellar of a store, our silhouettes and our route projected onto a screen facing the street; went into a “hotel” the rooms of which were old Airstreams inside of the ground floor of one of the traditional buildings here. The Christopher Street Parade–Gay Pride–was wilder and more fun than any I’ve been to in San Francisco or New York. And there’s a World Culture Festival, Berlin Fashion Week and the Yoga Festival all coming up….
On Tuesday June 21–the Solstice–the whole city has a tradition of free music in every neighborhood–I heard techno, rap, singer-songwriter, 30s torch songs, reggae, and pop just in my area and elsewhere there were choirs, symphonies and more rock, reggae, anything you’d like–with the city putting up the stages and sound systems and all the musicians playing for free. This idea of giving away, of recycling, of reusing is endemic here–and inspiring. At the 48 Hours there was the “Fest der Dinge” (Festival of Things) that consisted in people bringing clothes, chairs, housewares books to give away and of booths that helped anyone make things from remaking/reupholstering chairs to planters from recycled plastic buckets.
So there you have it–Berlin in brief–It’s great here–a little like Montreal, a little like Brooklyn…mostly uniquely Berlin