Despite being a big advocate of Christmas (and receiving presents in general) birthdays have never really been a big thing for me. I’ve always usually spent my actual day of birth doing Not Much – either through everyone being busy or not planning anything until it’s too late.
A benefit of getting older, I have found, is that (providing you have someone with an equally empty calendar) planning things last minute does not always hold you back. On the 27th December 2015, I decided I wanted to go on holiday for my birthday and be spontaneous for one year. By December 28th, I had booked three nights at a four star hotel and flights to Berlin, Germany. Plan sorted.
Getting there was straight forward – miraculously, the flights I had booked left from the airport 20 minutes away from my house. Transfers from Berlin airport took a while, on the basis that these flights were so cheap because the airport was about 45 minutes from Berlin centre. The closer airport, Tegal, would have pushed our total up by a good few hundred pounds and the alternate transfer (via train, €3.50 each) was a good opportunity to look through the tourist book we’d been given. Schoenefeld airport has a good variety of duty free alcohol and a cheap Burger King, so I was satisfied regardless.
From a naive outsider’s point of view (my own) Berlin is a like a colder, slightly more modern Amsterdam. The buildings are very similar; very thin and high and in pastel colours, more often than not. My knowledge of German comes primarily from my mother’s brief time spent living there, and not from my heritage. This means that my language capabilities consist of ‘hello’ ‘goodbye’ ‘thank you’ ‘sleep well’ and ‘tortoise’. All of your necessities, of course.
Venturing into Berlin is where you really get to experience the city for what it is. Rich with history, it’s hard to turn a corner without seeing reminders of its past, and many of the tourist attractions mirror this. The street art there is incredible, and again serves as another reminder of Berlin’s tarnished history with the East and West divide. One of the highlights of my trip was visiting East Side Gallery – the longest stretch of Berlin wall that remains. It’s entirely covered with street art, with a variety of multi coloured works on every patch, and the occasional tourist tags at the bottom. You could easily mistake one specific patch of the wall for being authentically decorated, if you don’t happen to see the polite notice at the top of the wall effectively saying ‘this part isn’t Berlin Wall it’s there for the tourist info shop’.
An irony of this is the fact that (usually not seen in tourist photos) Berlin Wall is almost entirely surrounded by a metal fence, to stop people decorating it with their own, personalised photos and words. Inside the wall’s tourist shop you can buy permanent markers; the ideal companion for one wanting to deface public, historical property. I’m not sure what’s worse really – having your grinning photo taken next to ‘Lisa Robert’ or a 6ft tall piece of metal fence. One guy even wrote his Soundcloud link on the bottom of a stretch of wall, and I lost count of the number of email addresses I saw dotted along.
The food was impressive, to say in the least. I tried Bratwurst, smothered in mayonnaise and eaten sitting in a little outdoors cafe with cushions and music. German coffee is something of a miracle, and would without a doubt be my drink of choice on Death Row. A little bakery we found in Alexanderplatz underground station reduced their prices every evening, so many a Thai chilli chicken sandwich was consumed there too. Perhaps not the most authentic, but delicious none the less.
One word I will always remember my mother telling me in German is ‘Schwarzfahren’ the art of dodging train fares, or ‘black riding’. Before I visited Berlin, I had naively thought that getting around the city would require a lot of time, effort and money. Due to the absolute honesty of German people, train stations have one subtle ticket machine and an even smaller activation machine. We could have (theoretically) travelled around on trains, trams and the underground for free the entire weekend, but alas, we had already bought our tickets. I’d love to say we would have paid because it was The Right Thing To Do, but I think the overhead threat of a €60 fine was the main deciding factor.
Arguably the most frustrating point of my trip goes back again to German honesty. Not to say there is anything wrong with being honest, and I feel I have to point out I am a relatively honest person myself. The problem is, in this scenario, honesty and patience do not apparently go hand in hand. Germans are very fond of the Green Man when crossing the road, to the extent that they will not walk until he is green. In fact, it is illegal to cross before the red man has disappeared. Coming from a small British town, this wouldn’t seem like too much of a problem, until you reach Berlin where all the roads are around four lanes wide and traffic is coming at you from three different directions. I can see why it is illegal to jay walk, but standing in the pouring rain for 10 minutes waiting for the lights to change is ever so slightly infuriating.
On a brighter note, German flea markets are amazing. We visited Mauerpark, Berlin’s biggest Sunday market. For those of us who aren’t fond of 6am starts, the market is open from 9am until 6pm, come rain or shine. On this particular day it was somewhere in between, and I spent a good hour and a half wandering round hundreds of little stalls selling everything from wooden parrots to tote bags to vintage instruments. Prices were relatively cheap, probably because a good portion of the stalls there looked like posh car boot sale wares, but I lost count of the amount of things I would have bought back with me, had Easyjet permitted it.
One surprising highlight was Berlin nightlife. Wandering round the Stadtmitte at midnight on a Saturday night proved to be fruitless, as most of the clubs are not in the ironically named ‘city centre’. For reference, despite Stadtmitte translating as ‘city middle’ it is full of the type of shops I wish I could afford, and not especially bouncing with clubs. After a quick Google search, we found the club district of the City and ended up in a nameless, German, ambiguous looking club. The rumours are true that Berliners love their techno, but it was a lot more commercial than I had first anticipated. The music seemed like the type of thing I would hear on my Tuesday night ventures – house, more than anything. Outfits are slightly more adventurous than your usual high waisted jeans, nice top and shirt tied round waist, but pretty much anything goes.
Berlin is a fabulous city and I would definitely go back. It’s full of amazing architecture and artworks, and the street art is on a level above anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s the perfect city for a quick getaway, and there’s tonnes I plan to do next time I visit, when it’s not -2 degrees and I have a real idea of how the underground works there.