Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften: come out, little nerds, your time is finally here

This is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from the storerooms of a natural history museum, isn’t it.

I love science, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Ok, I am a little ashamed having written that sentence. But ever since I read my first ever Horrible Science I have always had a not-so-secret love for labcoaty things, and over time this has extended to philosophy and geology and everything else that involves the use of the word ‘hypothetically’. 

Berlin loves doing big events, and in particular has a tradition of holding “Long Nights of X”, where X might be art or museums or theatre or bakery products (it’s more plausible than you think). On these occasions one purchases a ticket and from midday until about 1am the following morning you can romp around the city going to various exhibits and shows to do with the overarching theme. I missed the long night of the museums and the long night of the opera and theatre to my great annoyance, so it was a true moment of excitement when I found out that Berlin had heard my cry and was holding a ‘Long Night of the Sciences’. One has to buy a ticket, but they are ludicrously cheap considering that they are an open pass to everything happening for the event as well as unlimited travel on the public transport until 4am. This Frida, therefore, I checked the time of the first thing I wanted to visit, marched down to the train platform to buy my ticket and got ready to start the fun. Well, until I realised that the reason why my ticket was a little cheaper than expected was because the thing didn’t start until tomorrow and I had got myself all pepped-up a bit too early.
You have got to plan your Long Night because there are literally hundreds of events and exhibitions all over the city extending kilometres into the countryside (i.e. Potsdam) and it isn’t so much a case of simply meandering around hoping you stumble around on something good. However, to plan your Long Night you yourself will need to have a Ph.D or at least a basic understanding of calculus. Trying to figure out how to time all the various things you want to do and the travelling time and waiting time in between (plus a good 15 minutes here and there for faffing) is so difficult I found myself staring wildly at the website for hours with the facial expression of the professor in Back to the Future (“ONE POINT TWENTY-ONE GIGAWATTS??”). While researching it also became apparent that this ‘long’ night is actually shorter than they brag about, most of the exhibits closing around 10 or 11pm. On closer inspection of the transport information it also became clear that not even the transport guys understand the transport. So, with absolutely no idea what I was doing and where I was going and why, I set out into the depths of the Long Night.

The first thing I had on my list was a tour of the coral collection of the Natural History museum, a place worth visiting if only to see the quite breathtaking archaeopteryx fossil which honestly really is, like, way cooler than it sounds.  A friendly and interesting woman delivered a brief and interesting lecture about coral reefs before taking us through endless atmospheric corridors full of empty display cases and pickled fish, accompanied by her colleague and her disarmingly affectionate boyfriend (look dude, she’s trying to give a talk right now, do you think you could wait and spoon her later?). The coral collection of the museum is really spectacular and features examples that would be highly illegal to take to a museum nowadays, which is why it is all now locked away and not available for viewing by the general public. Why? I don’t quite know, but it wasn’t always like that and hopefully might someday be brought back out again. I do hope it’s not just to show kids what coral used to be like before it all died out.

The next thing on my list was a talk about youth fashion at a university for fashion and design. It was delivered by a woman who must have been made up by my own imagination; she was all dressed in skin-tight black with a scraped-back bun, thick Andy Warhol glasses and the kind of stiletto boots you could stab a turtle with. Disappointingly she spent twenty-five minutes telling us what she certainly wasn’t going to talk about during the lecture, ten minutes wrestling with her laptop and croaky throat, and the rest of the time telling us things we already knew – “Young people like to wear alternative clothes and get piercings??? I’ve been so blind!!!” 

I then decided to stop by a robotics exhibit before my next thing, and this is where another problem of the programme became evident: everything is listed as having the same importance despite the levels of quality and ‘worth-it-ness’ being very variable. Thus the robotics exhibit turned out to be less of an exhibit and more like one small trestle table with a single robot and a sad-looking research student. I asked an awkward question to make her feel better and ran out before the creepy-as-all-hell robot made eye contact with me again.

Then I came to the nucleus of the thing, the big science event at the TU. There was a vast stage with breakdancers (yeah, it’s like physics or something innit) and a bunch of stands selling stuff to eat and lebkuchen, inexplicably. I was starving so invested a despicably huge sum of money in a pretzel which went directly into the bin the minute they handed it to me and it turned out to be cold, very wet and mottled with tumors of congealing butter. However, inside there was plenty to sate one’s hunger as there was a stall of scientists who had just invented a type of bread which was 65% water for people who have dry mouths. Yes. And they had free samples. There was another stall featuring non-alcoholic beer tastings, another offering samples of a miraculous microwaveable cake and one very disappointing one which had an entire buffet of delicious real food – for display purposes only. It was to show the kind of good food you should be eating for lunch at your workplace, and since it was real but not to be eaten the long hours had taken their toll and the smell was really quite disgraceful.

My last thing was a talk on philosophy and how it is therapy for the brain to consider philosophical questions and paradoxes such as: “The barber is the person in the village who shaves the beard of everyone who doesn’t shave their own beards. Does the barber shave himself?” I’ll give you a minute.

It was delivered by a crushingly cute young philosophy professor with red cheeks and lots of knowledge, and he used Wittgenstein very well to convince us that it’s not just the answer to the question that makes it worth asking, but also the importance of the question itself. He has a point; if you spend your life wondering whether or not the soul is connected to the body, and then one day realise that our concept of the body itself is not what we originally thought, that realisation alone is pretty darn important. There was then a brief debate involving several very odd old men who looked like they’d been living in bins prior to attending the event, and then…well, then I gave up.

I wanted to do so much more, but the trains were running in a ridiculous rhythm at this point which made nothing doable save seeing the straggly end bits of a variety of Wastes Of Time. I was hungry and frustrated. I had missed the fireworks. I had had my fill of science, the night had been Long enough. I went home and left the breakdancers to it.

Crucial cultural experience. Also, booze.

Discerning wine tasters.

This weekend was the last weekend of the Baumblütenfest, a fruit wine festival which takes place every year in Werder and is, so I am told, the second biggest Volksfest in Germany. A couple of friends and I thought it was about time for a bit of adventure and an Ausflug, and as the daughter of a wine connoisseur whose obsession borders on psychopathic I simply couldn’t wait. If you’re English, a wine festival is a wonderful opportunity to taste some delicate and rare vintages from charming local producers whilst listening to light jazz and swing music wafting over from white marquees sponsored by Waitrose and some four-star hotel. There are hog roasts and organic quinoa salad buffets and everything is so expensive it makes your wallet leak something which chemically resembles tears. Naturally this was not what I was expecting when I was told that this particular festival is more like a second Oktoberfest, but I still had no idea what on earth was over in Werder waiting for us.

The Baumblütenfest is simply wild. On the one hand, it’s rather rural and very sweet; farmers sell their fruit wine from alchemical-looking glass jars whilst wearing straw hats and there’s a Baumblütenkönigin (queen) who is chosen for her beauty and ability to represent a two-week festival of getting completely sloshed. But there’s the rub, to put it pretentiously: the wine costs 2 euros a cup at its most expensive, 1 euro per cup if you’re going for the rough stuff, and is so sweet it’s like drinking alcoholic jam. Thus the majority of people who attend the festival are party-hungry youths who chuck the stuff down their necks and have fights with each other. The stalls that don’t sell wine are flogging (apart from the essential Wurst selection) brilliantly tacky festival accessories like flower necklaces and comedy hats, the ‘live music’ is good old-fashioned German power-dance music and one can participate in all kinds of wonderful vomit-inducing activities like fairground rides and bungee-jumps. 

Yes, it’s intense and the heat made it feel like being inside a cheerleader pompom someone had stuck under a grill. But I had the most brilliant time. I am a country lass, not particularly experienced in the world of festivals that don’t involve ‘best cow’ competitions and live sheep shearing, and that Saturday afternoon this lucky girl got to see real fights and for the first time heard a real, genuine, hearty Berliner accent (‘juuuuuuuuuuut!’). We were approached by an ancient taxi driver and his entire circle of friends and relatives; his skin looked like old leaves, he had clearly already had a good few bushels worth of wine and he chatted us up like an old pro. The wine is sweet but delicious, in particular the dark purple varieties which are so sugary and thick your mouth will pucker up and your tongue will sizzle. Traditional German food is at these times just the ticket, and my giant pretzel was as big as an elephant’s ear. To buy, the wines are incredibly cheap – just £6 a bottle – and would be a great gift if you are sick of forking out for Lebkuchen and fake Lederhosen to keep your friends’ lust for genuine German trinkets satisfied; I particularly recommend schwarze Johannisbeer and Rhabarber-Pfirsisch flavours. You should definitely, definitely go. And when the festival isn’t on, go to Werder. Under the thick layer of drunken crazies, retina-searingly bright knick-knacks and grilled sausage it’s a charming town which seems almost Grecian with its leafy cobbled streets and corny-looking restaurants. As my time here trickles slowly away I am glad to have done this truly German thing, and who knows; next time I might crank it up a notch and have a good old hearty fight.

S41 flew over the cuckoo’s nest

It’s a metaphor.

Good grief, the Berlin public transport system is a scary state of affairs. If you weren’t already troubled by the inexplicably furious bus drivers, the erratic arrival and departure times and the completely indecipherable tram system, the main thing which really poses as a threat to your safety and well-being is the inescapable fact that a public transport system is, well, public. You sit knee-to-knee (and sometimes other body parts are involved) with real Berliners, and while the majority of them are inoffensive or even pleasant, there is a universal rule which applies to at least every single U-Bahn line and S-Bahn carriage.

This rule is as follows: no matter how empty of human beings the carriage might be, there will always be at least one completely mental person making everyone else feel uncomfortable and worried. It first occurred to me relatively early on in my stay here that you meet the occasional eccentric on the trains but at the time it seemed relatively unsurprising; there are eccentrics in every city and Berlin is one of the maddest of all the major conurbations of the world. However having now spent what feels like eight years on the trains I can assure you that there is never a time when there has not been at least one unhinged member of society gibbering away somewhere in my vicinity. 

It is a phenomenon I find baffling and completely fascinating. For one thing, how do these people manage to be so mobile? How on earth do they afford it? Most of them carry all their worldly possessions in a LIDL carrier bag so old it looks like it is made out of elbow skin, most of them seem to get their income from grabbing every single bottle or can they can scrounge from the platforms for their 15 cent deposit. Perhaps a more pertinent question would be: how do they have enough mental clarity to remember to buy a ticket when they are not yet aware that they have a large amount of string in their hair or that their dog is chewing their leg?  Another question which puzzles me so much I sometimes find myself genuinely furrowing my brow and shaking my head about it is this: where are these people going? They are clearly all making some important commute, as no matter how completely screw-loose they are they all seem to reach a sudden moment of lucidity when their destination station comes up and they leave the carriage with all the purpose and seriousness of a big-business CEO.

Unanswerable questions aside, I do find it genuinely mind-boggling (excuse the ill-chosen phraseology) how many completely nuts people there are circulating around the Liniennetz. Just today we had one man (complete with statutory LIDL-bag) who grumbled something incomprehensible and then proceeded to sneeze his entire respiratory system out of his body; he must have sneezed about thirty or forty times, once every few seconds, each time with a gravelly roar and an incredible amount of spit and phlegm which was literally dripping out of his handkerchief. We also had a woman looking out of the window determinedly repeating ‘Ja. Ja. Ja. Ja. Ja.’ and checking her mobile phone, and another man who well, he didn’t do anything, but he did have one eye startlingly bigger than the other.

And then there was the guy who stood in the middle of the aisle loudly growling “BAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH” until he swayed a little, blinked slowly and began instead to growl “BAAAAAHHRRRR-geld” (meaning ‘cash’), evidently realising that the reason why no-one was giving him money was because of the missing last syllable and not because he sounded like an aggressive elephant seal. And then there was the frantic young man on the train back from the tango course who loomed into my face, gestured wildly at my cheek and chin and gabbled lots of things before laughing, while the other passengers quietly urged him to be quiet and leave me alone. I never found out what he said, but I now have a nice new set of neuroses about my cheek/chin region to keep me occupied in darker times. And then there was the man who, as I made my way home from a Stammtisch, thought I was asleep and tried to gently lift my bag out of my hands; once I had clutched it to myself and blurted ‘NEIN’ he began to stroke my hair and suggest I come with him when we reach his stop. 

Be aware, new travellers in Berlin. These people are almost always talking to themselves, if not the entire carriage, and often in their very own language. They are drinking something weird (and I don’t mean alcohol; often they just have a massive pot of buttermilk to quench them) or have a dog with accessories, say a stylish neckerchief or a weatherbeaten rasta hat. Like those weird tumour-like balls of flavouring goop one finds in a bag of sweet popcorn, you will always always come across at least one. However, let us not wish for their absence or complain that they are unpleasant; they are in fact the best way to achieve any solidarity with Berliners. You will exchange knowing looks with your fellow travellers which simply say ‘Yes, here we go…just ignore it…’ and before you know you will feel a part of the Berlin community faster than any volunteer work or coffee morning could ever achieve.