Funky clubs, groovy galleries, sexy damen and hunky herren… Ich wanna be
a Berliner, says Oscar Humphries
As a child I’d list the cities I’d been to. A precocious and dishonest youth, I listed Berlin among the places I’d really been to. The truth was my visit to Berlin was limited to the airport transit lounge.
‘You must be the last person in the world not to have been to Berlin,’ someone said to me the other day. I hated him — and myself for never having been. Pretending you’ve been somewhere is a poor substitute to actually going there — unless you’re talking about Milton Keynes, a place better imagined than realised. I like German art, German girls and German food. Most of the Germans I meet seem to be from Hamburg or Munich. Those German boys you’ve seen at Automat in Belstaff jackets and Tod’s aren’t from Berlin. The trendy waiter serving them is.
Whenever I’d book a holiday, sunshine or Paris would win. I’d heard Berlin was cheap. Living in London, I sometimes forget what cheap is, so I imagined a city where every lunch didn’t require you to keep the receipt for tax purposes. I’m still on my credit-crunch budget and I thought that spending money there might save me money — something to do with opportunity cost.
Saving money is cool — just like Berlin. Some of the richest people I know are also the gloomiest. One woman told me that ‘things will be pretty grim for ten years’ as her bejewelled hand curled around her martini glass. All people want to talk about is the credit crunch.
‘Britney’s looking pretty good these days,’ I said, hoping to change the subject, but no one ran with it. The combination of my doom-mongering friends, the articles hailing Berlin as the coolest city in Europe that appear with hypnotic regularity, and the opening of a friend’s gallery finally made my mind up.
The flight was expensive. ‘It’s the marathon,’ I was told. I arrived with 40,000 runners, and everyone seemed to assume I was running as well. ‘Running from the marathon,’ I said, but no one got it. Did I look like an athlete? It’s the cigarette I was smoking — that must have given me away.
The taxi to the hotel was wonderfully cheap. I tipped him well — despite the economic gloom, taxi drivers still deserve bonuses. I was staying in Mitte, which is in East Berlin. For the entire time I didn’t once see West Berlin. ‘There’s nothing to see there,’ I was told.
The Fernsehturm was built by the GDR government in the 1960s. It towers above the city like a space-age phallus; you can see it from most of East Berlin, and I imagine that before the wall came down it would have given the locals the creeps. It would have served as a reminder that they were being watched.
It’s a wonderful building and I’m glad they didn’t knock it down, as they have with much of the architecture representative of the Soviet years. I kept hearing about how much Berlin had changed. Many of the streets in Mitte were full of little — cheap — bars and art galleries and organic vegetarian takeaways.
Hotel de Rome was formerly a bank. Banks everywhere may be closing but few could match the grand proportions of this one, located on the Bebelplatz, where the books were burned by the Nazis. From the hotel you can see the David Chipperfield-designed CFA Gallery.
My room was vast, and across it I could see that the management had left me a gift: some sweat bands and a bottle of Lucozade. They thought I was a runner. ‘Enjoy the race,’ the porter told me as he set the bags down beside the ashtray I was using. ‘I will,’ I said, blowing a perfect smoke ring towards the Lucozade bottle.
The hotel is emblematic of the new East Berlin, a public building converted into a place of private luxury. I don’t usually name-drop, but I saw Mario Testino in the lobby. I was surprised to see him as I didn’t know he ran.
I had dinner with friends at the Grill, and it seemed as though Berliners were escaping from the very things tourists look for when they come to the city. It was expensive and looked like one of those large trendy restaurants one sees in LA or Times Square. Afterwards we went to Propaganda Bar, a huge club situated in a former electricity plant.
I wondered how we’d get in and said I might tip the doorman. I was told that if I did, we’d never get in. ‘Berlin isn’t like that,’ they said. The place was epic. Industrial. Everything I thought Berlin would be. Tillmans photographs hung on the wall of the bar and rich kids danced while older men in leather looked on from the sidelines.
Perhaps Berlin is the future. Cheap housing, contemporary galleries where the work doesn’t cost the earth, and lots of black recession-friendly clothes. Snacking on a protein bar I found on my bedside table, I couldn’t help thinking how lucky Berliners are. It is a beautiful city full of inescapable history — both good and bad. It’s very alive. I can add it to my list, which is now a Facebook application. I may also pretend I did the Berlin Marathon.