Berlin

Brandenburg Tor, Berlin 2018

Walking through Berlin, I felt like I was transported into a surreal live-action, pop-up textbook. Everywhere I turned, history confronted me. Right in front of me was the symbol of French architectural opulence, the Brandenburg Gate. On the left of it was the famous Adlon Hotel, made popular by that famous moment in pop history where Michael Jackson dangled his child of the balcony. Just around the corner was the thought-provoking Holocaust Memorial that at once sunk me into depths of despair and awakened in me the kind of empathy that you seldom get to practice in these divisive times. A stone’s throw away was the last remaining freestanding remnant of the Berlin Wall, the contradictory symbol of division and then, of sheer human will. (Fun Fact: The song ‘Heroes’ was written by David Bowie, inspired by his long residence in West Berlin at that time.)

However, there is no greater symbol of Berlin’s historic past than the art it has helped inspire – be it the hastily scribbled graffiti on the side of the trains, the large in-your-face murals that give voice to the marginalised, the political statements that come from its art squats and street art. Here are a few pieces that made Berlin the unforgettable life lesson that it was for me.

East Side Gallery, Berlin 2018

The East Side Gallery

I couldn’t help but feel confronted by the presence of the Berlin Wall. It was not just a reminder of the depths to which we sank as human beings, but also a reminder of how we rose together as one unit, claiming our freedom back. Some of the most moving artwork is on one such section of the wall. From the pained etchings of separated families and lovers to more modern-day reminders of life and love and freedom, the East Side Gallery is a living and ever-changing collection of art that is rich with emotion and political will. One of the paintings that took hold of me immediately was the iconic ‘Fraternal Kiss’ by Dmitri Vrubel. The graffiti painting was titled ‘My God, Help Me Survive This Deadly Love’ and showcases the then Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev and the East German President Honecker locked in a kiss, and how their marriage of politics cause so much strife in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

The Leviathan, Berlin 2018

The Leviathan

As I was lost in thought, walking through the streets of Berlin, I came across the Leviathan, popularly known as The Pink Man. I thought it was a giant pink eyeless monster but a closer look left me horrified. Created by the Italian artist BLU, the pink man is a monstrosity created by indistinguishable masses of humans interlocked together to form a giant man that was examining a white human body. My first thought was that this larger than life piece of art was a social comment on how as a collective whole, we become a society of people who not only strive to be homogeneous but also go out of our way to punish those who are different. I learnt through conversation with locals later on that the artist wanted the imagery to be left open to interpretation. BLU’s only intention was to move and to get us thinking.

Reich Air Ministry Propaganda Tableau, Berlin 2018

Reich Air Ministry Propaganda Tableau

In one of my walks through Berlin, I ran into an imposing building that is currently the home of the German Finance Ministry. Apparently, this massive monolith of a building was formerly the Nazi HQ, the Reich’s Air Ministry, the Soviet Military’s headquarters, and the home of East German Socialism. The scattered bullet holes throughout the building are the least impressive part of this Cold War remnant. The most striking aspect is its hand-painted 18-metre Socialist propaganda tableau. Healthy and happy humans paint you a picture of a fantasy life under communism rather than how history remembers that period. In 1953, 25,000 East German workers protested at this building site before they were suppressed. They say that this is where the flames of the East German Uprising were first fanned. While most countries try to forget its questionable pasts, glossing over the most troublesome memories where possible, Berlin is one city that embraces it wholeheartedly and urges us to have an open conversation about who we are as humans.

The Cosmonaut, Berlin 2018

The Cosmonaut

Maybe it was the lovely weather that made me stop to look at the blue skies, or maybe I was exhausted with all the walking. Whatever the reason, I ran into the Cosmonaut, dangling carefree off the side of an old building. Standing there, I discovered that while it looked like a large stencil piece of street art, a closer inspection reveals that it was painstakingly painted grid by grid. The black paint drops gave that away. At the right time of day, a nearby flagpole casts a shadow that lands in the Cosmonaut’s hand, appearing as if he claimed the city in the name of his country. A stark reminder of the Cold War politics from our not so distant past, especially the heated Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States of America.

Dead Chicken Alley, Berlin 2018

Dead Chicken Alley

I almost missed this tucked away alley and one of the last remnants of what used to be East Berlin, but I’m glad it caught my attention. Nestled in between the high streets of rebranded Berlin (re: gentrified), the Dead Chicken Alley is an art squat that was the home of underground revolutionaries who fought against the regime and later, communism. Walking this alley was a feast for the eyes, the walls were dotted with a myriad of heart-wrenching graffiti, pop art, and an underground show of must-see scrap metal robotic monstrosities. What I found most captivating was the small museum situated around the corner from a life-size painting of Anne Frank. Dedicated to a man who employed blind Jews during WWII to create fake ids to smuggle people out or keep them safe, the alley itself is a stark reminder of that terrible episode of our history. It is still considered an artists’ haven and is a living piece of art. You can be sure that the art that decorates the walls never stays the same, giving you a chance to discover different history and stories every time you visit.

RAW, Berlin 2018

RAW

I came across RAW by accident while riding up and down the Berlin city trains, a remnant of its divided past. RAW is an old Soviet railway complex has been turned into the RAW subculture compound featuring bizarre street art, WWII nuclear bunkers turned to rock climbing practice spots, and even the world’s tiniest disco and a bar exclusively for the living dead. Yep, zombies! RAW is mostly outdoors and definitely not on most conventional tourist guides. You could spend hours here exploring the story of Berlin and its revival as displayed through its art movements.

Stolperstein, Berlin 2018

Stolperstein – The Stumbling Stones

One of the most profound memorials in modern art history, the Stolperstein, or stumbling stone, is the largest art project in the world. I walked across several cobblestone-sized golden hued cubes in my walks across Berlin, I only really paid attention when I walked across a couple of them in one small spot. I stood near a collection and started reading the inscription. On it were names, occupations and life and death dates of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Easily my favourite work of art, the project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, and in my eyes is the most fitting homage to the people who gave up their lives during World War II. While these Stolpersteine dot 610 places in Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands and many other countries, Berlin is home to a shocking 3000 of them.

A remnant of the Berlin Wall, Berlin 2018

Berlin is a testament to the messy nature of humanity – our collective empathy, our rage, our blindness, our uniqueness, our resilience and our power. The next time you’re looking to get out of your comfort zone, to rediscover yourself, to get away from it all, to be part of something bigger than yourself, pick Berlin. The city did all of that for me and so much more.

You’re the puppet

So we saw a lot of Anti-Trump posters/protest signs at the Christopher Street Day/Cologne Pride weekend last week.

Given this state of the news this week, thought this is more relevant than ever!

Word Of The Week: Die Eierlegendewollmilchsau

Learning a new language is a permanent fixture on my bucket list, and so I have tried to learn (and then slowly forgotten) as much as I could language-wise in every country I’ve lived in. With the exception of Thai, where the same word could mean fish sauce or pussy juice based on the tone, I’ve managed to make some headway into small talk, at the very least.

And so, here I am in Germany, learning the good old Deutsch. And while it drives me crazy most days, there are some true gems in the language. Take for example their strange addiction to combining a tonne of words together to make an entirely new word.

This has resulted in the creation of a stunningly beautiful WORD – Die Eierlegendewollmilchsau.

Eier = Egg. Legende = Laying. Woll = Wool. Milch = Milk. Sau = Sow/Pig.

The word means precisely it’s literal translation. An egg laying, wolly, milk giving pig. This is the German word for ‘A Perfect Person’ or a superwoman, someone who can do everything and do it amazingly!

“Not only does my boss expect me to work on 3 projects at the same time, he also expects me to make him coffee, babysit his children and answer my phone at all times of day. What does he think I am? Die Eierladendewollmilchsau?!!”

Also interestingly, the article ‘the’, takes on the female form in German. Which means that this Eierladenwollmilchsau is a woman! But of course!

The Cologne House Hunt

If I have only one complaint two complaints about Cologne, it’s that people smoke way too much, and the housing market is a complete nightmare. In no other country I’ve moved to have I felt the possiblity of being homeless so keenly!

To spare you the drama, let me just say that I’ve already been lucky enough to find a lovely house right in the middle of old town. Cobblestone streets, old buildings, reading nooks, live sports showings, birds, the river … I can’t really complain!

But getting here has been one psychological nightmare ride full of sleepless nights and anxiety ridden tears. It’s not just the housing market here is so limited or that most houses have been repurposed for students who have no desire to host couples, it’s also that scammers thrive in this situation.

I was approached by many of these with lovely photos of stunningly furnished houses for such reasonable prices you can’t help but respond. If I wasn’t so good at rooting out catfishers (it was literally my job for a while), I’d be a few thousand Euros poorer.

The approach was quite creative. They’d say they were European and had only just bought and furnished the house, but that they’d gotten an unpassable opportunity abroad. So they thought of renting their house out through AirBnb. However, if someone is interested in it long term, they could also do it through the same way.

Now, if you’re deseperate for a house and hear the words AirBnb, you automatically trust that this is legit. But if you’re someone who actually uses airbnb, you suddenly start to smell something dodgy!

I also came across a second scam where they ask you to transfer money through western union. Apparently bank statements are not legit proof you have enough money to pay for a house.

When I asked why a money transfer, this is what they said.

While I hope that no innocent house seeker buys into these thinly veiled scams, it definitely made good conversation starters. And for that, I’m grateful.

The German Maibaum Tradition

The thrill of living in a new country is always unparalleled. Once you get a hit of this drug called travelling, you’d never really get tired of the highs it brings you. When you invest time and effort in getting past the anxiety, the fear of the unknown, the battle with unfamiliarity, the feeling of being a stranger, you will have a bucketload of endless discoveries to make. And there is no joy more fulfilling than that.

Germany has been similar to me in terms of the journey I make in every new country that I live in, but the familiarity of the process of learning – be it a new language or a local tradition you had never heard about, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

One of the most heartwarming traditions here (to me), is the Mai Baum. I went to bed on the night of the 31st, and when I woke up on the 1st of May, there were birch trees in every other garden decorated with colourful crepe paper, and a bright red wooden heart with a lady’s name on it.

I later found out that Maibaum is a tradition going back to the 16th century, and that I had just witnessed the 21st-century version of it. In the modern-day version of it, a man in love with a woman buys a birch tree, decorates it and writes her name on her heart, and then has to wait till the lady (and her family) are asleep before leaving it in her balcony or garden. They have to then guard it overnight so that other men in love with her or just mischief makers who are looking to make a quick buck steal it from where it is.

I heard that in the countryside, it gets a bit more exciting. The boy has to not only buy a tree without raising suspicion, and decorate it so no one sees it, he has to also sneak up to her roof overnight and place it there. If he is so unlucky so as to have his tree taken hostage, he has to buy it again from the treenapers!

The exciting part of it being brought to the present day is that now even girls can participate in this tradition. Every 4 years, it is the girl’s turn!

Do you have a labour day celebration like this where you’re from? I’d love to hear about it!