Amsterdam: come for the sex and drugs, stay for the hamburger vending machines

“Ooh seeds, how nice, I’ve been meaning to get some more nasturtiums OH.”

 I am a ‘do stuff’ assistant rather than a ‘look pretty and take notes, doll’ assistant, and as the ‘do stuff’ assistant for a tourism company, this is going to involve a lot of business trips. The phrase ‘business trips’ alone conjures up elegant, luxurious images of people in fine tailored suits, sipping champagne in a quiet plane cabin, soaking in a broad sea of extra legroom. Unfortunately, as the economy is dying and midday champagne is the first step towards alcoholism, ‘business trips’ more often involve an early and cramped EasyJet flight with the added bonus of carrying a wadge of company papers, company laptops and expenses receipts in your minute executive rolly-bag. But I don’t care; something about going on a business trip makes you feel like a celebrity and this week, that cramped EasyJet helltube took me all the way to Amsterdam.

The reasons why I had to go to Amsterdam were sketchy at best. At first, I was to be visiting the Amsterdam office to attend a very important meeting. As soon as I had booked my flights, we established that the very important meeting was in fact taking place the day after my return to Berlin. As soon as I had rebooked my flights and had several arguments with EasyJet, we established that the meeting was in fact cancelled. By that point my boss, a man who makes decisions with the delirious immediacy of a drunken pirate, decided that we would both go to Amsterdam anyway because. So it was essentially a business trip for me to work at a slightly different desk (in actual fact the make of desk was identical but it was at a slightly different angle) for a couple of days.

Once my boss arrived to join me on the first day, everything got going. He marched me out of the flat and stomped all the way to the Apple store with me sprinting feebly behind (my boss is a muscly, striding, crush-a-beer-can-in-his-hand kind of guy), forged towards the counter and demanded that the man bring us a Macbook Air immediately and give us a corporate discount. The laid-back Apple guy was too cool for school and drawled his way through the sale with my boss flinging credit cards at him and abruptly answering urgent phone calls every three seconds. As soon as I was appropriately confused, the boss turned to me and told me to bring him a new iPhone case that was ‘good and manly’. Thus it was that I spent my first afternoon in Amsterdam looking at phone cases wondering which ones were most evocative of testicles and lumberjacks.

Once work was over, I had a chance to see the city in a less frenzied manner. My boss had decided that we were going to go on the ‘Red Light District tour’ together (please, no-one even try to interpret that decision, it is taking me all my energy not to personally) but a sudden crisis happened at clocking-off time, so I got to go all by myself. My regional manager helped me to find the meeting point by instructing me to wait by the monument that looked like a ‘giant white penis’. It was a fitting introduction to the city.

People come to Amsterdam for the sex and the drugs. But wandering through the streets, it was less like a raunchy night of hedonistic urban pleasures and more like a beautiful Monet painting that someone had dumped in a phone booth. The city itself is stunningly beautiful; the buildings are charmingly Seuss-like and lean slightly sideways and forwards all over the place so you feel slightly woozy. Canals ooze between all of the streets and are lines with trees, hanging baskets, chic bistros… And slotted in amongst all this, like pieces of litter in a manicured flowerbed, there are hundred of strip bars, peep shows, sexy-fun-time-‘toy’-shops – and, of course, the infamous booths. Prostitution is allowed in Amsterdam but not on the streets, which is why those lovable prostitutes set themselves up in tiny windowed cabinets facing onto the street so they can gyrate and flirt at passers-by until one of them takes an interest and steps inside so the curtain can be drawn. 

It would actually have been more interesting if the prostitutes actually had gyrated and flirted, however. I was prepared for shocks and lascivious smut on this tour, but the last thing I had expected was quite how seedy and dull it was all going to be. The whores looked pissed off and bored, loitering about in their windows while occasionally scratching their armpits or having a packet of crisps. The peep shows and strip bars were crass demonstrations of nudity rather than thrilling spectacles; apparently there isn’t a single burlesque-style show in town, and the most popular shows involve you simply sitting in cinema seating while a couple of bored people shag each other for a bit or shove bananas up their wiff-waffs for no good reason. Even the few fellow Brits on my tour – a group of four unspeakably white boys with acne, buck-teeth and T-shirts with dragon motifs – couldn’t even muster the energy to give an adenoidal chuckle after a while. Those poor boys came to Amster hoping for the erotic time of their lives, but they were so disappointed I almost felt sorry for the sad little goons.

The sex scene in Amsterdam is like a vending machine. It’s nothing to do with the thrills and the taboos and the lick-your-lips juicyness we hope it will be. It’s just a market, a group of traders carrying out basic transactions: here is a naked lady, would you like to view the range of tarifs or simply pay for a one-off basic option? I began to feel that a lot of Amsterdam is much the same, after a while. The food is deep-fried, portioned up and handed out with no real intent of enjoyment; yes, there really is a chain of ‘restaurants’ that simply have vending machines with burgers inside.

The pot isn’t smoked in a louche, bohemian manner but is ubiquitously tacky, with those awful marajuana-leaf icons everywhere as if we were all fourteen again and thought this was a marvelously risqué, naughty thing to contemplate. Little pockets of the city reek of weed, which itself smells like burnt llama hair and is deeply nauseating.

And this all made me sad, because the time I spent in between the Red Light streets and the chip shops, when I would stumble upon the beautiful streets and historical corners, showed me Amsterdam as a real human city which is worth spending time in. It’s a fascinating place, with masses to do and see and so much character and good GOD such excellent cheese. But I sympathise with the locals, who are sick of being associated with nothing but sex and drugs. Amsterdam has nothing to do with sex and drugs, after all. Sex and drugs are naughty and exciting. Amsterdam’s legend is nothing more than a pervert’s fart. Amsterdam’s brilliance is every single thing that lies in between.

Next week, Barcelona! And don’t forget to keep commenting and emailing the new site email address, ampelfrau[at]gutenmorgenberlin.com with your ideas and questions!

The Urge

Beware the communists!!!


Today was a day that began unpromisingly. I woke at an unpleasant hour thanks to the daily roaring grinding noise that happens outside my window at just before 7am. In the night I had origamied my duvet into an incredible writhing plait that had allowed me to get thoroughly cold outside of the one insulated stripe diagonally across me – you see, German duvets are always half as wide as the bed that accommodates them, so they have a tendency to drift around on the mattress like seaweed on the surf. Thanks to another curious German quirk – their demand for enormous square pillows the size of a dinner table containing very little stuffing – I also awoke with a tremendous crick in my neck and found that the pillow had half-slimed up the wall like a slug trying to escape a flowerpot. 

My entrance into the kitchen to make a pot of tea aroused a cloud of fruit flies who whirred around the kitchen in a black mist. I went to the supermarket and was accosted by a wild-haired man who barked at me, “Excuse me! You! Can you tell me which damn cat food is the cheapest?!?” And I accidentally spilled my compost waste next to the bio-trash bin in the courtyard, sending a thousand furry mushrooms (geez Netto, thanks for selling me these mushrooms with EXTRA fungi!) rolling around like rotten eyeballs.

So, I sat and glumly looked at my computer for a while. Long enough to get The Urge. The Urge is something which hits every week or so, on a day when I haven’t achieved much and have spent more time than appropriate in pajamas. It is the thing which makes me suddenly, and without warning, think: “Hang on! This simply won’t do! It’s been far too long since I discovered a thing! It is time for a QUEST!” When The Urge strikes, it only seconds later that I am donning my coat and most kick-ass boots and slamming the door behind me.

My enormous calf muscles powered me on my way with a determined sense of purpose observers must only, I assume, describe as ‘inspirational’. I marched to Ostkreuz with only the occasional accidental detour and slipped directly onto the right train just as it reached the platform, with a silent and delicious expression of ‘booyah’. And with that, I began my quest to Grunewald to check out Berlin’s epic Teufelsberg.

The Teufelsberg is a surreal and slightly horrifying attraction. It is, in English, the ‘Devil’s Mountain’, so called because it is a rather large mountain formed from nothing but the rubble collected from the wreckage of a bombed and broken Berlin. Peacefully lying at its base is the ‘Teufelssee’ or ‘Devil’s Lake’, which is actually just a lake, although I like to think that it is equally doom-laden and actually filled with something tragic like children’s tears. If that wasn’t all strange enough, the Teufelsberg then had a huge observation tower built upon it during the time of the wall for people to conduct espionage and other devious things within sinister-looking white orb-structures, which have now been abandoned and covered with incredibly atmospheric graffiti. If you want to know more about it, I suggest you watch Matt Frei’s documentary series Berlin, which is amazing and eye-opening and shows you Berlin from the dinner jacket right inside to the entrails. An abandoned observatory tower on top of a mountain of tragic rubble? I had to case the joint.

First, of course, there came the challenge of actually getting there. Given that there was no signage (signs? Telling you were to go? Helpful and useful public information? Such a thing does not exist, child) I was nonetheless confident that an enormous mountain with two large white orbs on the top would be pretty impossible to miss. What I hadn’t reckoned with is the kilometres of thick, plush, green German woodland that surrounds it. Within seconds of striding I found myself in the middle of a vast and endless expanse of trees, and so I decided that the next best solution would be to at least always follow the path that went uphill, given that I was looking for a darned mountain. This also was not a foolproof tactic – although it led me past a gorgeous old-fashioned ‘gypsy’-style caravan nestled between the trees – and I finally arrived at the top of a very tall and very impressive…other mountain. I was surrounded by the epic views of Berlin’s landscape and, also, by loads of hobby model aeroplane flyers, who were whizzing little planes around me like noisy dragonflies. I noticed another mountain to my right with two orb-topped towers on top and uttered a quiet expletive under my breath. The only way from this mountain to that mountain was a crazily-steep smooth, dusty slope downwards, whose curves practically spelt out ‘broken leg’ in fancy handwriting. Luckily, on my climb/slide down I was distracted by two enormous and beautiful blue-metallic beetles pushing hunks of earth around and completely forgot my imminent danger, and I made it to the bottom. 

I employed my earlier tactic again and followed all the paths that led uphill until I reached a strange, angular, concrete structure with a large crucifix on top. “A memorial?” I wondered. “A sculpture? A grave?” I then noticed some people on the structure and a guy delivering a lecture on karabiners and realised that this was, in fact, a large and apparently religious climbing wall, right on the slope of the Teufelsberg. I hope my profound bafflement didn’t cause any of the climbers to lose concentration and fall.

Scaling the Teufelsberg is a strange sensation, because the path is littered with bricks. And cube-shaped rocks. And tile-shaped rocks. And rocks with strange textures. It is impossible to forget that this is little more than a heap of old, bombed buildings, which now have trees growing on them and squirrels fossicking in them. One might be walking on a blasted fragment of the original Reichstag, or simply a bit of brick from a woman’s home, where she lived with her husband and her baby. Maybe the brick belonged to a Nazi’s house, or simply one of the thousand dumbstruck bystanders. And all these rubbles were heaped up by women who, after the war, just had to sweep up their broken city into a nice neat pile, like onion skins on the kitchen floor. 

I knew I was near the top when I reached a double-layer of wire fencing topped with a barbed-wire ridge. It’s not surprising that they would close off the observation towers; they would be a hella sexy place to jump off, if you wanted to commit suicide in a trendy way, and they have been vandalised enough already that it’s worth looking after them just to preserve the rest of what remains keeping them eerie and weird. The fact that they are completely shut off to anyone except paying tour-guests did seem to have disappointed a number of adventurers like myself, however, as I encountered several young and active-looking men on my wander around who all asked me the same question: “Do you know how we can get in there?” (And then the more confused question, presumably because I look like a twelve-year-old: “Are you here all by yourself?”) The most ‘old-spice-attractive’ bunch then had the pleasure of speeding off on their hardcore mountain bikes, probably heading home to shave with a really good razor and drink ice-cold beers in their modern-minimalist apartments. I then had to walk back.

Of course I got lost. Of course! Don’t you know me at all!

But in getting lost it appears that I spent half an hour walking in a perfect circle and then ended up at the amazingly incongruous Teufelsberg Eco-centre, an open garden and ecological information centre boasting attractions like a bee-viewer and a bare-foot garden. Considering that this must be fate, I wandered around; the bee-viewer is in fact amazing, as it is simply a bee-hive with a door that opens on a window into the centre of the hive itself, so you can see thousands of glossy bees wandering over pregnant hexagons of glowing honey. There was a clay oven, and a wonderful vegetable garden, and – thank holy Christ – a WC, which is a joyous thing after two hours of accidental hiking. The hornet-viewer appeared to have been abandoned by the hornets, which was a somewhat unsurprising shame, and in the visitor’s centre they were preparing for a talk, in the universal ritual of arguing over how to make powerpoint work on the projector while one of them pours apple juice into a plastic jug for the refreshments. I realised I had squeezed everything I could out of this quest, and headed home. 

Well, actually I got lost again and ended up walking for 45 minutes to find ANY train station to take me home first. But it was worth it for the adventure. And good exercise for my gigantic, quivering calves.

Click ‘OK’ to restart your commuter

There is a sign on the vending machine on the left which says: “THE CHOCOLATE HAS MELTED. YOU ARE ADVISED NOT TO BUY.”

Working in Berlin, I became a dynamite commuter. I worked in at least two different schools or Kindergärten per day, and they were perfectly geographically arranged to be at least an hour if not two away from each other. I learnt – after many long, hard days of getting it wrong – how to get the right trains and buses at the right time and in the right directions, which stretches were actually quicker on foot, which trams never came on time and which lines would always feature the maximum ratio of on-the-edge-of-sanity people to normal people. I thought, at the end of my year abroad, that my days of travelling for hours to earn my daily bread were over. How wrong I was.

So yes, readers, I apologise once again for the huge gap between this and my last post, which is a direct result of me having started my new job. Living at home and commuting into Oxford every day seemed like it would be such a doddle; Google maps cheerfully told me that the bus journey from the station to my office would take a scant 25 minutes even including the walks between stops, and the train journey itself is a relatively painless affair. I invested in a month-long bus pass and readied myself for being one of those people, salt of the earth, who willingly brave the public transport every day to get to work. 

But commuting in England is a very different kettle of very frustrating fish compared to commuting in Berlin. In Berlin every line runs smoothly and like a large, symbiotic lifeform; the lines link up nicely, the tickets work on every single mode of transport and the coffee being sold on the train platforms is generally OK enough to drink and enjoy for a mere euro per cup. In the UK, such an idea would be seen as a naive utopic dreamland to us bitter, British commuters. The trains stutter to and fro like elderly people driving golf carts, their arrival time on the electronic board simply an estimate of some time in the hypothetical future when a train may or may not be present for a hypothetical person’s needs. The tickets cost as much as a rare white truffle and even then are received by the ticket collectors with furious suspicion, as if you were handing them a Cafe Nero loyalty card with two stamps and a bit of old gum on it. And the coffee? Knowing that you are compelled to buy yourself something warming and dark at a cold 7am in the morning they charge £2.50 for a cup of lukewarm woodchip water. And the buses. Oh the buses.

The bus on my bus pass is like communism: heavenly in theory, impossible in practice. This is a bus which only has roughly 2 miles to travel along a completely straight road and is part of a group of buses each of which follow the same route and collectively depart every three minutes. It sounds like a foolproof, solid-gold system. What actually happens in reality is that this ‘every three minutes’ idea transforms into four of the same bus arriving at the same stop simultaneously, at which point thirty people all begin to board the same one. The other three become redundant as they neither have any passengers nor could leave if they did accrue passengers because they are stuck behind the first one which is currently being mounted by a shuddering old lady carrying a lot of empty plastic bags and a teacozy. Finally, ten minutes after the bus was actually timed to depart, it powers up and leaves only to stop seconds later at the first of about fifteen red traffic lights along this straight and short road. The lights go green, so some Italian tourists decide to saunter casually across the road at this moment to grab a cornish pasty. At the first bus stop, the driver has a long and cheerful chat with the old lady while she makes her slow way out of the bus. A schoolchild has a question which he begrudgingly and slowly answers. In Summertown (half-way there) people daringly run-walk in front of the bus out of sheer desperation to get to the Co-op having waited at the pedestrian crossing for an hour already. At the next stop, someone alights simply to ask if they have the right bus or not and if not, what is the meaning of life? I have arrived at Oxford train station at 8.10am. I get to work at 9am. I could have got to work quicker on a child’s tricycle. 

So now I am an even more hardcore brand of commuter: a bike commuter. I am among the leagues of stringy businessmen wearing high-vis everything and bike helmets that look like a robot shark from the future. I am among those intense commuters who have invested thousands in their carbon-fibre-framed-folding-bikes and bike-to-business converting trousers. These are the scariest commuters of them all; they are unspeakably dedicated, slick and efficient, coated in neon yellow and swiftly lifting their bike from train to train like a basket of feathers. I seem to have joined this sect without reading the pamphlets first, as their looks tell me that I am certainly doing it all wrong. I am the only bike commuter among them who is a short becardiganed girl feebly hoisting my second-hand old mountainbike with the wicker basket held on with string and a beer bottle opener on the lock key. They glare at my ginormous and cumbersome bike shunted between their beautiful slim vehicles which they have expertly hung from the bike hooks on the train (mine does not hang; it is too heavy and too small. If anything, my bike squats).I suspect they imagine I am on my way to visit my grandma or doing my year 10 work experience. 

I then hoick my bike off the train and drill my thunderous thighs up those hills to the office, and arrive half an hour earlier than I ever would using a thing with an engine. On the way home I get to go downhill and go ‘weeeeeeee’ all the way to the station. My coat often gets chewed up into my gears, I cycle into puddles with such ferocity that the water goes right up my skirt onto my knickers, my hair billows into an angry scribble and I arrive home with my hands covered in mud and oil. Good god, I love it.

Tune in next time for some stuff about what my actual job is actually like!

Look before you Leip

“I am Goethe! Look upon me and tremble, future German students!”

On Wednesday morning of my last week in Germany I rose early, packed my bag, bought myself a breakfast pretzel and within an hour was on the train to Leipzig. I had the chance to visit the city because a few weeks earlier I had been at a concert and got to know a girl who just so  happened to be the girlfriend of a guy in the band (yeah, like I just am too cool fo’ skule). She was visiting from Leipzig where she lives in an opulent flat (with low rent and an underground car park for her PERSONAL CAR to boot – man, Berliners have it rough) and generously said I would be welcome to invade her home town if I felt like it. I felt like it.

I had originally applied to spend my year abroad in the Dresden/Leipzig area as my second choice should I fail to get Berlin, so I was curious to see these cities and find out what I’d missed. Dresden had been fantastic but I would rather have eaten an old lady’s wig than have to walk through the Altstadt every single day. Leipzig, on first impressions, was…small. Compared to Berlin that’s like being amazed that a walnut is small relative to a caravan, but the contrast at the time felt rather jarring. However, unlike Dresden, the first impression was of a very sweet place, where the general atmosphere might be summed up by the facial expression one has after a really good bath. It’s contented and relaxed, not filled with tourists, businessmen and lunatics like Dresden or Berlin but rather simply populated with a comfortable number of laid-back inhabitants who all exude an air of “How are you?” “Can’t complain!”. 

After I had set down my bag and wandered with gaping mouth through my friend’s beautiful flat, which costs 70 euros less per month than my hamster’s cage of a room in Berlin, we head out to see the town.


My friend’s idea was to take a bus tour around Leipzig so that I could see all the main bits and get the requisite information one might need. When we reached the bus tour start-off point we were instantly surrounded by dozens of guides who pressed their pitches and flyers upon us, frothing at the mouth with sheer desperation to get us upon their particular bus. All the tours were exactly identical in price, duration and content, lasted two whole hours, and seemed to take one not only through Leipzig but through neighbouring villages, around the local motorways and over to the busdriver’s nan’s house to see how she’s getting on these days. It was ridiculous; who wants to sit on a kitchly painted open-top bus in the wind for two hours having a smarmy man bark tinny facts about Leipzig at you through a loudspeaker? Under the pretence of having to find an ATM we escaped and decided to do our own tour, starting with the Volkerschlachtdenkmal, the monument to the victims of the massacre in one of the Napoleonic wars. No, I don’t remember which one.

It’s a gruesome and terrifying building. Inside, a circular hall is lined with huge stone faces grimacing with agony and misery. Above the faces there is another circular ledge with statues embodying the virtues of man in the most harrowing way you can imagine, with peace depicted as a distressed looking woman holding two huge and brute-like babies to her naked breasts. The whole place was filled with the echoing roar of building machinery due to the renovation works taking place which made the experience even more unnerving, and it was a relief to finally be on top in the open air looking out on the city and away from the big doom-filled cavern. Up there we met a sweet lady who declared herself to be a history teacher and then gave us a fascinating and enthusiastic talk about the monument and Leipzig itself; she was so generous and interested in her subject that I wanted to take her by the arm, buy her a bus and tell her to go out and make her fortune in the city, but instead we went back down and spent the rest of the day wandering around the nooks and crannies of Leipzig, seeing Goethe’s favourite ‘pub’ and stopping for an Apfelstrudel.

The next day we head over to Halle, the town where my companion had grown up. She wanted to show me her childhood stomping ground, and it was as adorable as such a town ought to be. The buildings are low and have lots of dark beams, and all the streets are narrow and charming. Halle is humming with myths and legends, so as we wandered along the labyrinthine alleys we saw, for example, the donkey fountain where a boy and his donkey supposedly got showered with flowers as they were mistaken for a king (happens to me all the time) and a creepy overgrown pathway which was once closed off to quarantine plague victims and was lush with grass when it was later opened as the sick people all died and created a fertile strip of plant life. A brief stop at the Händel museum was fascinating and very impressive – the musical instrument collection was particularly fun, and if anyone needs ideas for my birthday present I definitely want a violin which doubles as a walking stick – but there was also a confusingly large amount of stuff in the museum which had next to nothing to do with Händel at all. Here is a portrait of the man who drew the portrait of Händel’s mum. Here is a photo of the building where Bach, who is a composer like Händel, once had a sandwich. Here is a coin similar to one of the ones Händel probably used to use when he went out to buy a newspaper. It was rather perplexing but ultimately made for a collection that you couldn’t help but scour thoroughly to work out what all these interesting bits and pieces were actually about. Worth the entrance fee, one might say.

We lunched at a strange “Asian” place where I paid an extravagant 3,50 euros for a bowl of instant noodles with a single prawn proudly perched on top and then simply schlenderten through the town, idly drifting through the shops to kill the time before the real event of the day: Harry Potter. Heart-breaking as it was to see the end of my childhood epic mangled into German (eurhgh, vile language) I was so excited I hyperventilated my way through the ads and – nearly – wept at a few tender parts of the action. It’s a brilliant film, if you haven’t already seen it. The kids are admittedly all grown up now; the Weasley twins in particular look like they’ve been briefly let out of the old folk’s home to do their part before afternoon tea, but no matter how big and burly Harry and Ron look these days to me they will always be the goofy acne-dappled youths who seemed to have come straight from the Beano fan club into showbusiness. I was disappointed that Helen Mirren didn’t have a cameo in this film because if she had that would have made the series a complete catalogue of every single British actor living (and recently deceased) within our generation (as part of our 2010 collection, this rather tasteful Bill Nighy, set within a hopeful but pointless and ultimately wasted role!). But oh, it was the end of Harry Potter. It was the closure to a decade of obsession and anticipation. They did a spectacular job, and didn’t even make the epilogue too cringeworthy as the older and now married characters wave their children off on the way to Hogwarts. Although I did feel sorry for Ron, who was the only character to have been made a fat, balding and embarrassing parent as opposed to the chic and well-kempt others. Go and see it for yourself, you’ll see what I mean.

Oh, and don’t waste your cash on 3D; I didn’t feel like I could reach out and grab anything.

Gute Nacht Berlin…

Today I woke up to a view of grey skies, crow-filled fields and a curled-up cat at the foot of my bed. A journey into town involved driving on the left side of the road, and I paid for my new socks in pounds rather than euros. I’m not in Berlin any more; I won’t be coming back for a long time. 

This year abroad has been such an exhausting, exciting, intense series of events that there’s no point even trying to summarise or qualify it. It was what it was, I had a huge amount of fun but it wasn’t always easy and got pretty black in parts. It was ten months in the most electric city in Europe and I think it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done. Drooling infants and all. 

But since I don’t want this post to be a squelchy emotional snooze-fest I’m not going to write about good times and reminiscences but rather simply write about my last week in Deutschland, a week that in itself was pretty hard to sum up in anything less than a multimedia powerpoint presentation; nonetheless, since we all hate WordArt and text effects I’ll just have to give it a try.

For my last week before coming home I wanted to do something new and see a part of Germany I’ve never seen before, and so I arranged a whistle-stop tour of the Sachsen area, calling at Dresden and Leipzig with a brief stop in Halle. I arrived in Dresden Hauptbahnhof on Monday morning after a long and drab train journey and grinned gormlessly with excitement during the tram ride to my bed for the following two nights, a futon belonging to a friend who kindly let me kip in his pad while I was there. He gave me a map, a tourist guide, a list of things to visit and (with optimistic trust I might not expect from friends who know my clumsy, forgetful and ultimately useless self a little better) a key, then he set off to his job in Berlin leaving me to begin my adventure. I divided my time in Dresden into two parts of the city for two days of exploration; the southern part below the river (Altstadt) for the first day and the part north of the river (Neustadt) for the second. 

Dresden’s Altstadt is rather hard to explain. The tourist guide I had claimed that the nucleus of the Altstadt was the old market, which I set as my starting point, but I was amazed to find that when I reched the old market what I actually found was a colossal concreted empty void, surrounded by buildings but featuring nothing within the square except for a ramp to some underground toilets. It’s honestly incredible how large and pointless the Old Market square actually is; nonetheless, all the old and famous buildings one has to see in Dresden do orbit around it so it functions as a sort of black hole, keeping all the parts of Dresden in its pull whilst itself being nothing but a dead emptiness. In the Altstadt surrounding the square the tourists swarm around the major sights, these being mainly pompous old buildings like the Frauenkirche, the Kreuzkirche, the Semperoper and the world’s longest porcelain mural (which makes me wonder how I’ve managed to miss this ‘who’s-got-the-longest-porcelain-mural’ competition all this time). Everything got viciously bombed in the war and has since been renovated and rebuilt, which is why it all looks simultaneously old and beautiful but also brand new. The Frauenkirche, for example, is a startlingly golden monolith of a building, having been lovingly reconstructed in Dresden’s traditional sandstone and only just reopened in the last three or so years. The inside is spectacular and marvellously kitsch; it’s all powder-puff colours, pinks and greens and painted-on faux marble and featuring as the focal point an incredible altar piece. This huge sculpture behind the altar is of a bunch of flowery pastel biblical guys holding shining golden bunches of grapes or crucifixes, all wading among huge bulks of pure white fluffy clouds. It’s like DisneyBaby® Does The New Testament, and it’s weird but pretty, I suppose. 

Beyond the Frauenkirche, however, Dresden’s Altstadt is a rather oppressive place. All the other famous buildings are made of the same sandstone but due to their age and the remarkable porousness of the sandstone they have sucked up every molecule of smog in the air, causing them to turn an ominous and deep black colour. They are so vast and gothic that they honestly do loom over you in an impressive-yet-threatening kind of way, and I found myself getting ever more frustrated by the combination of the unfriendly buildings and the outrageously expensive cafés and restaurants us tourists had to content ourselves with. I was worried that Dresden would be a disaster.

But then the second day changed everything. Evidently the river Elbe is not just a body of water but also a force field separating the forces of dark and light within the city like a Japanese myth. The minute one crosses the river (and after a good hearty walk) one reaches the Neustadt and is met with any number of colourful and vibrant streets full of interesting things to do and see. I spent almost the whole day there, heading eastwards in the afternoon to see the sunset over the heart-wrenchingly beautiful vineyards in the river valley before dinner. After a bowl of the kind of soup that makes me want to passionately ravish whoever the heck cooked it, I head over to an odd little open-air theatre that I had stumbled upon on my wanderings, coaxed in by the fact that they had lampshades hanging everywhere like fruits.

 One buys a ‘Dreierticket’ and can then see three of a selection of half-hour mini plays and performances which take place in all kinds of weird little stage-come-sheds littered around the location. I was aggressively bellowed into watching a bizarre cabaret/circus-style amateur play with my first ticket, which I regretted the minute one of the cast members went ‘offstage’ (read: retreated behind a pinned-up bedsheet) and was wheeled in seconds later, lying on a tableclothed gurney, surrounded by salad leaves, completely naked. With the other cast members playing his buttocks like drums. 

I stuck to comedy for the rest of the night. A huge mass of us queued for something called ‘Die Echse’, which I knew nothing about except for the fact that it was the most popular performance on offer and the man in charge of tickets was wearing a fez. It turned out to be the most hilarious half-hour of an incredibly sharp and witty comedian whose trick is to metamorphose into a lizard puppet with a cigar and a strong Sachsisch dialect, talking about how he and Aristotle founded the first ever theatre back in prehistory. Also, he did a brief warm-up act involving two sheep arguing about their right to ‘baa’. It was brilliant. The last act was a creepy John Waters lookalike with a drawn-on pencil moustache who had been brought in as a last-minute replacement for someone else who was ill and did a stand-up routine of unrelated small and bizarre acts. He took a lightsaber out of a suitcase and did a few swooshes with it, then used it to pick his teeth. He stood at the back of the stage with his hands out, completely motionless, then very slowly curled over the fingers of his left hand and then finally announced that that was his impression of ‘a wallpaper’. He had a children’s book about wildlife propped on a music stand and picked it up to show us a photo of a tiger licking some soil. It took a while for the penny to drop but as he carried on it just got more and more hilarious until we ended up baying for two whole encores which he sheepishly consented to perform for us. The crazy genius. 

I’ll tell you all about Leipzig tomorrow children, as the delicious smells of Dinner At Home are calling me from downstairs. And after tomorrow…well, it’s time to start thinking about finally putting this old dog to sleep. 

Pots-Damn, this place has a lot of castles

Also a lot of Tors, of which this is apparently the gateway to fine Italian dining

You can’t really live in Berlin without being aware that Potsdam is hovering eagerly on the outskirts like the rich but lonely sidekick of the school jock. It lies on the very end of the purple line of the S-Bahn, and normal Berliners go about their days never considering the implications of simply riding that rail all the way down to that far away kingdom. Fortunately poor schmoes like myself and my colleague, whose codename in this article will be Eugene, are already used to taking the Bahns so far out that when we get to our destinations the only other person in the carriage is the janitor in his boiler suit, slowly sweeping in the corner. We’ve never been to Potsdam, we thought, and what a wonderful opportunity to see it before we both go back to the land of Marmite. Yes, it was time for another adventure.

The most striking thing on arriving in Potsdam was the sheer “what, me worry?” atmosphere in the train station. Compared to Berlin Hauptbahnhof or Alexanderplatz, where everyone is marching around and yelling at each other and dragging their dogs about, Potsdam Hauptbahnhof is like a transport spa, with ambient music and pleasant sculptures and market-sellers weighing out cheese (what, you’ve never been to a spa with cheese before?). From there the walk into town was short but briefly unpleasant, as a man with an enormous beard sniffed out that we were tourists and descended upon us, trying to get us to take his bus tour with persuasion tactics which were as violent as one can get without actually touching the other person. Given that the flyer he gave us promised to both ‘lead’ us (führen) and ‘seduce’ us (verführen) turning him down seemed the only safe option. With that little snaggle behind us, we took a deep breath and head across the river towards the city centre.


On the way to the middle of Potsdam, snuggling up to the bridge, is a little island called Freundschaftsinsel (‘Friendship Island’ – awwwww), which we gave a brief gander. It is a very cute mini oasis of plants and one incredible kids’ playground where the children have an amazing fountain and array of sandy water-gulleys to explore in and around, idyllically surrounded by slightly breeze-blown willow trees and flowers. There are also lots of coots there, with their crazy feet proudly on display. Already Eugene and I felt the stress of the Groβstadt melting away. We decided to head into the city centre in the direction of the Holländisches Viertel.

The Höllandisches Viertel, Dutch Quarter, is a funny little nook where all the buildings are designed in the typical dutch village style. Eugene had lived in Holland for three years and was delighted to see that they had even kept the traditional style of Dutch paving, namely where the streets are lined with small grey bricks. And…err, that’s it. The shops were all just random boutiques selling home made okra jam and teapots, so outside of the buildings and paving there is confusingly little to this famous quarter. Its very existence is somewhat of a question; it’s clearly shooting to be a kind of Chinatown, but my friend made the excellent comparison that it’s a bit like having a Yorkshire quarter in the middle of Bristol. Why whack a big chunk of a rather nondescript culture in the middle of a culture that is already vaguely similar to that culture? Still, if you like gables that is The Place To Be.
 
From there we made our way over to the very very famous Schloss Sanssouci and the Sanssouci park, pausing briefly to get our daily fix of MSG from another one of those “Asian” restaurants. Schloss Sanssouci and the whole complex is Potsdam’s biggest draw, as it’s an old sort of Rococo castle built in the 1700s and ceremoniously planted in the middle of a mind-bogglingly huge park. The park contains a total of roughly ten million other castles and important buildings, each of which seem to just suddenly barge into view as you innocently walk around looking for something else entirely. The most striking is, of course, the main Sansoucci Castle, which has in front of it a weird vineyard constructed on stepped platforms with fig trees inbetween each vine, for no reason shut behind barred doors as if it were some kind of fig-tree prison. From the back of the castle you can see the Ruinenberg, a funny old ruin on top of a hill which looks like a taste-test of the Acropolis. We decided to hike up to there via the Orangery, a bizarrely hidden enormous building which, like the rest of the buildings (and like everything in Berlin and its surroundings) seems to find itself in a constant state of renovation. The Orangery is massive and very attractive, although as with all the other buildings you had to pay to go inside and when we looked through the windows all we could see was, for some reason, a very large mechanical crane. Next up was the Ruinenberg, which looks incredible from far away and close up is rather odd, like a minuscule film set for an old flick about Caesar. The ruins surround a perfectly circular reservoir which was filled with deeply green, deeply nasty water and plenty of trash, and given that there was once again zero information or signs about what the heck it all meant we walked back down with a vague sense of confusion and unsatisfied curiosity. All over the park there is not a single plaque to explain anything that you might like to know – evidently the information you actually desire can only be reached by paying the entrance fees – but deep in the middle of the park’s forest we did find one informative plaque about the plumbing of the local mosque. No, I don’t know why.

We then wandered back into town to take another look at the streets themselves. The whole place had a very odd flavour to it, something that it took us forever to put our fingers on: the city looks absolutely brand-spanking-new. The buildings all look like they’ve been painted yesterday, in powder-puff Princess Peach colours that are so soft and matt the walls seem to have been gathered together out of clouds of coloured mist. The street signs are so nagelneu that they literally glisten, and the cobbles are that kind of pristine old-timey style where although they are worn and interspersed with moss they look perfect and artisanal. With all the Tors (gates) scattered around the place, each featuring fairytale castle turrets and sculptures of stags and the like, the city has a very Disneyesque vibe to it. It is also astonishingly clean, which coming from Berlin feels like moving house to the Mushroom Kingdom from the flat in Withnail and I; predominantly, the absence of dog poop EVERYWHERE is just such a treat I got a genuine thrill every time I glanced at the empty pavements. 

Potsdam is definitely a place to see, and it is distinctly beautiful in its way, but after a good day’s wandering we were left wondering what more there was to actually do there. You can’t spend your life simply seeing things, and in terms of tangible things to learn and discover we unfortunately stumbled upon very few. I reckon it’s the kind of town where you really do need to be shown around by a native and get told where the best places are, otherwise you just get lost in the mesmerising labyrinth of foggy mint-green and marshmallow-pink houses. But then again, perhaps it was my fault. Lesson learned: Wikipedia is not a travel guide, despite being an endlessly reliable source of ultra-true facts and objective informative content.

Spot the difference

Check it out, I went to the Ostsee!

 Hang on, I think I have another photo from a different angle…oh yes, here it is.










Ho, hold on…that can’t be right…here’s another photo:

And another shot of those dreamy waters:

Well, I don’t know what to tell you. The earth moves around the sun just 180 degrees and suddenly the beach has turned from the shore of the river Styx to the kind of thing you see in fake retro postcards they sell in hipster shops.

Granted, it was beautiful and awesome to see the Ostsee coast in Winter and be fully freaked out by the eeriness of the milky melancholy water/sky gradient that stretched out from the ground. But being on the German coast in early summer, after a morning of rain and grey clouds that did nothing but wash the stuffiness out of the air, was absolutely herrlich.

I think the Ostsee is probably one of Germany’s most undeservedly ignored tourist locations for anyone who isn’t a native Kraut like us. (Yes, us. I’m one of them now.) The images that spring to mind for anyone contemplating holidaying in Germany are striking cathedrals and earnest cultural edutainments like galleries and museums; one imagines drifting around Gothic-looking streets, gorging on sausage and beer with dirndled locals and having your brain twanged by the latest techno hipsterlectrofunkatunes in Berlin. But no-one really thinks they might end up on a beautiful cream-coloured beach surrounded by soft dune-grass and clear waters full of actual real pink jellyfish. 

Like any British coast, the sea is so cold you spasm into attacks of rapid breathing the minute it goes past your ankles, but that doesn’t matter to the hundreds of fearless and naked children being chucked around by their dads in the shallows and the noise of them having a brilliant time is oddly heartening. The surroundings are adorable, with thatched cottages leading up to the pier and little pubs serving Fischbrötchen. This is a much-loved spot for loads of Germans who come up from all over to this little smidgen of coast in the otherwise land-locked mass; next to us were a family who, I am informed, were deeply Sachsisch (i.e. from Saxony) and had such thick accents I could barely understand what they were saying. When their little boy was playing football it just sounded like he was yelling “poop, poop” like Toad in ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and I only really tuned in to their dialect when he suddenly stopped and demanded that he and his father take a break to eat something or they simply couldn’t continue. At any rate, this sweet family was a welcome change to the people who had previously been in their space, a ‘robust’ man and his wife who lay motionless and nude in the sun for ages like huge legs of ham dumped on the sand. 


Further up the coast the people begin to give way to wilderness and wildlife, and a small ridge of cliff rose out of the ground which was spotted with tiny cheese-holes. These had been dug into the clay by tiny swallow-like birds who flew in and out of the holes tweeting frenziedly.

The bird-watcher my mother implanted in me when I was little squeeed with joy.

Along the cliff there was a low wood and some bushes with pink flowers, and along the shore lay trees which had slumped down off the cliff the last time there had been a landslide. When we finished exploring our friend Tommy arrived wearing layers of thick black leather and clutching a vast black tarpaulin bag; clearly when we said we would meet him at the beach he misheard and thought we said the matrix. At any rate, once he arrived we committed ourselves to proper beach behaviour, namely licking ice-lollies and getting sand stuck everywhere. All these things are things I couldn’t have believed I would be doing when I first knew I would be coming to Berlin, let alone Germany, and I needed it like a sick person needs pills.

That evening we went to a traditional German Gaststätte and were served by a traditional German waiter who was portly and jolly and wore a nice patterned waistcoat reminiscent of my favourite Germanic waiter encountered thus far. We drank Apfelschorle and propped our table up with fifty beermats to prevent our food sliding off the table and down the steep cobbled alleyway we were sitting in. Now, you may want to bum around Berlin or marvel at Munich, but this is what the real Germans do for their minibreaks and it is goshdarned great.    

Driftin’

Flat#1, Residence#3, Home#5.

I’m moving again. Not here in Berlin, of course; the very sight of WG Gesucht moves me to hysterical panic attacks. The horror….the horror……

No, I’m moving in the UK. One month after I return, one month from today, I and my family will be leaving our current house and moving to another modern little number in the suburbs where my parents will “grow” old together (you can see that I know they don’t read this) and where I will spend a good deal of the rest of my life. Life has never been so schizophrenic – in the last few years, I have moved out of my childhood home, into a wonderful new ‘young adulthood home’, skipped between college rooms and Berkshire bedrooms, ricocheted from flat to flat in Berlin and now am on a path to yet another place that theoretically is supposed to become the emotional and geographical nexus of my sense of being. If I do the correct calculations, I deduce that I haven’t been living in the same one place for any one time for longer than three or four months for about three years. If this was a Western, I’d be one of those people described by the local prostitute as Hank the Drifter: “Well now he just breezes on into town one day an’ afore he’s paid fer his whisky he’s breezed on out agin…”

Nothing in life is permanent, and it’s best to embrace that than to spend your life mourning it. And if I were to give one piece of advice coming from this experience of roaming around it would be this: go as many places as you can and don’t stay too long once you’re there. 

Leapfrogging from place to place is the absolute best thing! This year has been nothing if not varied, and every single flat I have been in has made me live a different way and experience an environment with a different flavour. Charlottenburg was pretty, well-developed and underrated, but was also rather quiet and lacking in curiosity. The general slightly-greater wealth of the area is so obvious you could probably taste the difference by licking a lamppost there and in Friedrichshain. My local restaurants in Friedrichshain are generally all-purpose ‘Asian’ cuisine or a hilarious and cheap little Indian place where the staff sit on the doorstep and chain smoke. In Charlottenburg the local restaurants included a lofty French bistro called ‘Pistou’ where I ate medium-rare duck liver and rocket salad and the waiters all wore tiny black waistcoats and had real-live little white towels resting over their left forearms. But another local place, Suppinger, was just a sweet little local nashery where you could get a trough of delicious soup for 3 euros, the whole place was decorated with seasonal felt shapes, and the people there clearly ate there every day and were on ‘how-are-the-kids’ terms with the waiting staff. That seems to be the main difference between east and west that you can really feel: in the west it’s posh but when it’s not it isn’t trying to be anything else apart from simply worthwhile and of good quality. In the east when something isn’t posh it is immediately “oh my god this amazing place where like all the walls are covered with pictures of famous people’s earlobes and and it’s like really cheap because no-one knows about it and it’s in the cellar of an old bombed barrel factory”. In other words, east vs. west seems to be hipsters vs. mums; American Apparel vs. Marks and Spencers.

Prenzlauer Berg was different again, in that it’s sort of somewhere in between. It’s very pleasant and at times picturesque, and there are parts of it that are really coming on in the world whereas other parts are still about as appealing as stacked wet egg-boxes. It’s heaving with bitterness on both sides: from those who used to live there when it was secretly cool but before it became openly trendy, before all the young people surged over there to indulge in the alternativeness and excitingness of the district; and from those young people who have only just moved here and accidentally caused everything to become refined and expensive simply by their mere presence. It’s now, as I have mentioned before, full of babies, but then again there are babies pouring onto the streets both in Charlottenburg and Friedrichshain so I suspect the whole ‘Preggslauer Berg’ idea is rather a myth. 

In fact, from my seasoned perspective I am of the opinion that Berliners should stop trying to compare and argue for their districts as if they were football teams. All the districts in Berlin are essentially doing the same thing and simply have different aromas, like blends of Tschibo coffee. All the districts are ‘alternative’, from the bits of the west where individuality can flourish because it’s not gripped by the determination to be individual to the east where the more different you are the better. All the districts are littered with dogs, children and bicycles, and no matter where you go none of these three groups can accept that they don’t have main priority on the pavements (although they do all agree that regular pedestrians can suck it). All the districts have odd little structural similarities, somewhat like cats that all look completely different but each have a windpipe going from mouth to lungs. Each of the districts I know well revolves around a long and horrible stretch of road, whether Frankfurter Allee or Karl-Marx-Allee or Schoenhauser Allee or Spandauer Damm, and this is always a huge, terrifying ribbon of grey malaise. This is never where the real action happens as the really good and popular parts of the district are always in one or two main capillaries joining this straight long Berzirk-artery. There is always a square where cute and community-friendly events take place and a little intersection of streets where all the 9am-drinkers hand out and toast the passers by (I once actually did raise my coffee cup to an elderly alcoholic when he raised his vodka bottle to me at 7.30am and yelled “PROST!!” – he cheered at my gesture and took a celebratory gulp).

So move around a lot, dear reader, because you will never get more of a sense of a place or of the wider world until you can hold up lots of different places up against each other in your mind and figure out how cities, countries, people work. You can go to the cool places and find them lame, and the lame places and find them cool (or just hilarious). Hell, do what my family are doing in the UK and move from isolated country house to isolated country house, because there’s still something to be gained from seeing a different type of sheep from your bedroom window. And I have to say that I would give anything to see a sheep or two around here. Perhaps their bleating would drown out the sounds of my neighbours’ suddenly awakened late-night ‘Summer loving’. 

Berlin Stylin’

Case study: The Japanesey baby-doll on the far right. There were about twenty of those roaming the garden.

One of the overwhelming senses one gets from this city is the tremendous feeling of freedom that seems to breeze through the people who live and work here. I don’t mean freedom of opinion or the freedom to marry any of a number of different genders or any of the other United-Nationsy freedoms which bore us on a daily basis with their endless bloody controversy; I simply mean a sense of pure personal freedom, the freedom to be exactly how we want to be if that is, in fact, how we want to be. People seem, in a way more pronounced than anywhere else I have ever been, to be dressing and expressing themselves and carrying themselves in just the way that they choose. This isn’t to say that Berlin is a utopic society where the Individual has finally found the personal power and spiritual liberation to realise his true expression without being pigeonholed – on the contrary, the sheer variety of different styles you see on the street have just led to a vigorous and hilarious number of ways to judge people and laugh about them – but the difference is that no-one, who might conceivably be being judged, gives a monkey’s.

This means a lot to me when it comes to personal style, because my own style is a carefully honed mixture of clashing bright colours, slightly badly-fitting charity shop finds and as many different patterns as possible. In my own self-indulgent hipster mentality I try to look as non-standard as I can. In the UK this is a risky direction to take because if you are not willing to embrace leggings as your lord and saviour you have already taken the first of the few steps leading to the Dark Place of fashion ostracism. Here, however, everyone is doing their own thing and while it may not often look great I do have a great respect for the people whose external fashioning of themselves is just whatever the hell they like or feel comfortable in: the dudes who wear heavy-duty work trousers all the time even outside of work just because they’re good and practical, the completely straight not-at-all-gay-or-even-leaning-that-way men who wear skin-tight chest-hair-sprouting tank tops and loafers, the women who wear those lovely clothes imported from Nepal which look more like Queen Guinevere costumes…


This freedom of fashion also means that you get some people who just look goddam great because over here you are allowed to do whatever the heck pleases you regardless of whether it just might be ludicrous. I recently saw three young, not at all related and very good-looking men wandering along the street all wearing identical t-shirts, cargo shorts and espadrilles but just in alternating colours – green espadrilles on one, a green t-short for the other – they looked brilliant purely because it was so subtly weird that it took me a good few minutes to figure out What Was Wrong With This Picture. It also means that you can be a lot more slummy in public as you can in the UK without feeling bad about it. You can wear really, really, really dirty or ragged or pajama-y clothes without worrying that people are assuming that you are a terrible and perverted human being. This has the added joy that people accidentally allow their little insanities to shine through without noticing. One woman on the S-Bahn the other day was wearing a very old and clearly much-worn pair of sunglasses which still had the “UVB 400 LO-GLARE” stickers stuck directly on the centre of each lens. Another guy, a beggar who came onto the train and delivered a wonderfully charming speech about how much he would appreciate someone buying his magazine or simply donating some food and even if not he hoped you would have a lovely day, turned around after his sweet and friendly presentation to display a rucksack with a massive swastika on the back. 

There are, of course, certain groups and sub-genres of fashion that pop up in this place, and I won’t mention the hipsters any more in this post since the poor things have such a hard time; it must be pretty tortuous yearning to be defined by your individuality among a social set where everyone is so purposefully individual that they are all homogenously the same. No, my favourite has got to be the one style which you won’t find anywhere else in the world outside of German-speaking nations, and I refer to the style characterised by that legendary brand Jack Wolfskin. It is the ultra-German fashion of the ‘urban-casual hiker’, a brilliant and popular style of dress where you wear highly outdoorsy and hard-wearing clothes simply to trot around the U-Bahn and get a latte with your Kumpels. Jack Wolfskin, Animal, Ripcurl etc.- any outdoorsy brand will do as long as your ensemble is suitable for both city living and a spontaneous romp deep into the forests, possibly with makeshift-rafting included. These urban hikers wear walking boots all the time regardless of time of year and the real hardcores even go for waterproof trousers and windproof jackets. Of course, because the Germans have better skin than us Brits with our complexions of an untoasted pita, they tan and thus look pretty damned good in all this stuff, even – dare I say it – when they sign off their outfit at the bottom with a pair of socks-with-sandalled feet. 

Me, well, I think I’ll stick with my twee little scrapbook outfits until I find something I can wear which neither makes me look fourteen or forty but somewhere comfortably in between, but it’s nice to feel that whatever I do choose to throw on I won’t be being laughed at. And if I am being laughed at, it’s probably just because I remind people a little of Mr Bean.

Two things that don’t go together at all

Pictured: science.
Pictured: an urban metropolis.

Go to Paris; gaze at the marvellous architecture, wander dreamily around the romantic streets, be absorbed in the subtle drama of the city’s elegant and artistic past. Go to Rome; see the fantastic historical relics, gorge yourself on the authentic version of the world’s favourite cuisine, feast your eyes on sculpture and art which founded a whole new way of creative thinking. Go to London: experience the sheer opulence of the rich and grandiose shopping regions, giggle at the quirky solemnity of the monarchy, take photos of red buses and black cabs. Or come to Berlin, where you can do any damn thing that possibly springs to mind.

Most cities have a distinct flavour that sets them apart from the others, the specific atmosphere that you seek in that one place above all others. But Berlin has no particular flavour, and if it does, that flavour is the equivalent of shoving an entire fistful of blindly-grabbed pick-n-mix sweets directly into your mouth all at once. It is never, ever, ever boring, and quite often just darned surprising. Thus within the space of just a few days I happened to casually pop down to an exhibit of plastic dead bodies and find myself playing volleyball in the blistering sun on a fake beach on the coast of a real lake. 


Bodyworlds – or Körperwelten – is an exhibit of plasticised corpses made, refined and sculpted by the criminally creepy Dr Gunther von Hagens (no, he didn’t also invent the ice cream). Von Hagens made his name in the UK by carrying out a series of autopsies on live television in front of a live and visibly squirming audience while wearing a terrifying wide-brimmed rabbi-style black hat. The man is obsessed with bodies and with death, and he is clearly completely off his trolley.

         
I will kill you, Harry Potter…

 Just do a quick google of Bodyworlds and the sheer number of photos that come up showing the myriad bodies he has plasticised into the poses of copulation will prove to you just how much of a creepy, creepy man he is. Plastination is the process of submerging dead bodies in chemical compounds which cause their tissues to be replaced by touch plastic, so that the bodies can be moulded and displayed to show the intricacy of their anatomy, the workings of their various systems, or just for the sheer hell of making a bunch of dead people play poker for eternity. The exhibit opened recently in the Postbahnhof exhibition hall and resembles the most grisly PSE lesson you’ve ever had: each body is accompanied by a long and oddly flowery text explaining the dangers of something fun like drinking or smoking or being fat. Hagens has deconstructed the bodies in such a way as to display the most important systems within the human body, meaning that each ‘work’ is jarring in its own way, with stomach skin opening up like translucent wings or a skull expanded into several hovering chunks with a lonely brain suspended in the centre. To show the way the muscles do their own thing he also has a huge variety of bodies posed doing activities like chess or archery or riding a bike (although I failed to see the reason for the bike rider’s natty 1980’s tinted spectacles). Fascinatingly, you can also see the circulatory systems of specific organs minus the flesh, which were almost my favourite part of the whole exhibit as the sheer minuteness and complexity of the capillaries in the lungs or the kidney or a whole rooster, embodied in a bright red fuzz of plasticised fronds, is truly something; it is arresting to realise quite how bloody brilliant and clever biology is. Then you turn the corner and see the plasticised giraffe posed climbing halfway up a giant palm-tree and remember that the man who put this all together is out of his mind.

If you need a little respite and mental repose after something so stimulating, might I then suggest that you do as I did and visit the Plötzensee? It’s a smallish lake in Wedding which features one of the best Strandbars I’ve been to thus far in this fair city. Berlin has a thing for its Strandbars, ‘beach bars’ which are filled with sand and deckchairs and where you can watch the sun set with a drink in your hand and where there is literally no perfect type of footwear for such a venue. Take your shoes off and succumb. The Plötzensee open beach is really something else, however, because unlike most beach bars it genuinely does feel like a beach, being on the coast of the lake and featuring real-life swimming, screaming children and red-trunks-wearing lifeguards who sit miles from the ‘sea’ and yell lacklustre warnings while sipping their mojitos. The green waters are surrounded by beautiful trees and in good weather the whole place feels like a secret lagoon. One can also rent a boat there and row or pedal around the lake, observing the herons and the grebes, or you can do as we did and, in true German style lounge, in the sun playing a good hearty round of Canasta. 

Card games on a beach in a forest in the city. You won’t find that in New York.