Go Away - to Berlin

This month errant Skinny reporter Edgar Hyde experiences the weight of history in trendy Berlin. And goes drinking in a secret bar with a radical punk.

Feature by Edgar Hyde | 12 Mar 2007

Berlin: City of Regret. If Channel 5 asked me to make a pretentious, ill-informed documentary about this city, I would call it 'Berlin: City of Regret'. Stark monuments to guilt haunt the landscape. Stubborn, awkward, the sad city inhabitants carry their unique burden. For fans of penitence, this is still the only realistic travel destination.

But that's only half the story, and me and Ted are also here to check the scene, so to speak: find out what the hip kids of Berlin are grooving to these days. Ted's a useful chap to have on-board, as he once loafed around this city for three months, acquiring knowledge and friends. We visit some of Ted's friends in their beautiful, bullet-ridden apartment block on Rykestrasse, near the water tower. Students, they live on the cheap in this exquisite ruin, while the other half of the building has undergone a makeover as ghastly as the yuppies who populate it. Some of Ted's student friends have been in higher education for almost a decade. East Berlin is a slacker paradise.

However, as with all utopias, dystopia lies just around the corner: education is beginning to fail ("it's becoming more like Britain," they tell me), there's no work to be had (many Berliners have scarpered to business centres like Hamburg and Munich), no one in the city seems capable of maintaining a decent patch of grass (muddy playgrounds do not augur well for Berlin's future), and for some reason glass litters the streets (I suppose it's because bottled beer is so readily available — those ubiquitous little kiosks are stacked with the stuff. Yet Berliners are still relatively disciplined: if this was Scotland we'd be swimming through a brittle green sea, drenched in our own blood).

Here I was going to quote from Lou Reed's classic album, Berlin, but sadly I have never heard it. Instead, I offer a quote from the landlord of my local pub back home, Big Lou: "I don't mind people being gay, s'long as they don't make a big song and dance about it." Big Lou is a fat idiot.

Big Lou vs. Stefan, there's an encounter I'd like to see. Stefan is an old-school punk residing somewhere in Prenzlauer Berg, if you can find him. In Prenzlauer Berg, and probably East Germany in general, you're best to avoid the trendy bars where the staff all have a hard-on about how many languages they can speak. Keep an eye out for the places that don't look like bars at all, that look more like people's houses, or derelict buildings. If you don't end up walking into someone's house by accident, you may find someone like Stefan, and a bar that stays open as long as the owner feels like (I'm sure these places exist on the edge of the law, so I couldn't tell you where they are even if I could remember).

Stefan is already incoherent when we arrive. He doesn't speak much English, but his incoherence stems less from this than his immense capacity for drink. At his invitation, we toast communist heroine Rosa Luxemburg (who has a whole area of Berlin named after her), as it happens to be the anniversary of her death. He then tells us London is the best city there is, though when pressed it transpires he has never been there (he is a "walker", rather than a "flyer"). He knows it's the best because of the music: 70s punk seems to be his favourite (later, after he has forced us to drink Jägermeister followed by straight vodkas, he asks us to translate the name Cock Sparrer. In our weakened state, instead of explaining that the band mutated the spelling of a well-known phrase meaning 'plucky fellow', we point out that 'cock' is a type of bird, and confusedly note that it is also a term for 'penis'). Here Stefan is disliked for his punk ways. With vigorous physical demonstrations, he conveys to us that every time he goes out west he gets beaten up by Nazis. And when he strays too far east, he invariably finds himself pummelled by ruthless Nazis.

Stefan is sad to see us go, and we are sorry to leave him. He suggests another toast, but none of us can decide who to drink to. The pause is in danger of becoming uncomfortably long, until Stefan saves the day: "To Rosa Luxemburg," he announces, visibly relieved. "Rosa Luxemburg," we echo heartily, "hell of a woman."

Getting Away

We got a return flight with Easyjet from London terminals to Berlin-Schönefeld for about £60, but it's only a few pounds more to go from Glasgow Airport, and no doubt there is money to be saved if one leaves at some silly hour.