The last time it snowed on my birthday, I was a toddler. I have vague memories of my dad lifting me up to see the snow on the window sill (and letting me have a surreptitious lick of it). This year, it once again snowed on my birthday; only in Berlin, rather than London!
My boyfriend Pip and I escaped to the German capital for a long weekend. The snow was there when we arrived, but fell thickest on my birthday, our last full day in the city.
We were staying in Prenzlauer Berg, a hip former East German district filled with bars, vegetarian restaurants, independent galleries and er, sex shops.
For the majority of the trip I was decked out in a vintage Windsmoor coat and my trusty (fake) fox hat.
Perhaps consequently, we spotted countless foxes around the city, and Pip even made me a lovely birthday present of a lino print of a fox from Supalife Kiosk, a gallery and shop showcasing locally made art and zines.
Gettin’ my pose on with a fellow fox.
After familiarising ourselves with the local area (including Netto supermarket, and, perhaps more importantly, the vintage shops), our first evening’s entertainment was provided by the ladies of Kleine Nachtrevue, in a decadent Weimar-style cabaret show. I had serious wardrobe envy, and Pip and I were both particularly tickled by a Yorkshire lass who sang and danced with great gusto (although she did stop halfway through one number to have a breather and mop her forehead with a hanky!) It was at Kleine Nachtrevue that we came across the Berlin peculiarity Berliner Weisse. This young beer is brewed exclusively in Berlin, and served with a shot of either raspberry or woodruff syrup (the colours of which certainly added to the decadent feel of the evening!)
We are convinced that the young chap featured on this Berliner Kindl Weisse glass is Pip (especially given his tousled locks).
Being a politics nerd, Pip had booked an English tour of the Bundestag, the German parliament, for our second day in Berlin. However, there was plenty to satisfy this art nerd, too; once we had heard all about the plenary chamber, we were taken on what was essentially a gallery tour, and learnt that 1% of the budget of German public buildings goes towards art. I was particularly impressed to spot a Jenny Holzer installation acting as the symbolic pillar holding up the building. Holzer’s piece, Historical Speeches, displays speeches given in the Reichstag and Bundestag, and runs these messages for twelve days without repeating itself.
From messages from the great and the good to messages from a conquering army; in an upstairs room, walls of Russian graffiti from 1945 have been preserved to commemorate the time when the Soviet army overran the city.
In fact, the Russians got it wrong; Hitler’s seat of power was across town on Kaiser Wilhelmstrasse. Still, the capture of the Reichstag became a symbol of Soviet victory over Germany. The messages of graffiti, however, are rather mundane; most consist of name, rank, serial number and date. Only one soldier committed a message of love for his girlfriend to stone (she was named Galina, which, coincidentally, is the name of the lady who runs my favourite Walthamstow-based vintage shop).
The tour concluded with a trip to the top of the dome Norman Foster designed for the Bundestag. We were very chilly by this point and soon were off in search of hotdogs!
Speaking of sausages, I came to Berlin determined to try currywurst, a less-than-appetising-sounding combination of sausage, ketchup and curry powder. In fact it was rather delicious (although this may have had a lot to do with how hungry I was at the time). Pip was very disappointed not to find a vegetarian version at one of the many street food venues dotted throughout the city.
When Pip and I went to see Swedish darling Jens Lekman play back in September, Jens recounted a story about tucking into some nice German vegetarian food (“I know; German vegetarian food?!”) Actually, on the whole, we found Jens Lekman to be right; when we got ourselves hopelessly lost one night, we stumbled across Dolores Burritos, which served up gorgeously fresh Mexican food, with plenty of vegan and vegetarian options. Just around the corner from us, on Gaudystrasse, was the St. Gaudy Cafe, a German-English exchange serving exclusively vegetarian food. On the morning of our visit to the Bundestag we prepared ourselves for our day of culture with a hearty brunch at the cafe, leading Pip to declare that he would always put sun-dried tomatoes in his scrambled eggs from this day forth. My brunch consisted of balsamic button mushrooms, grilled tomatoes and avocado, with home-made sweet potato hash browns and toasted rye bread. As you can tell, I’m still fantasising about it now…
We spent the next morning at the Mauerpark Flohmarkt, where I picked up a few little presents for friends, and we got chatting to an ex-Kentish Town resident who guessed straight off the bat that Pip was from Stratford (after we assured him that we were from the un-trendy end of East London). This ex-pat was also an artist named Mical Noelson who produced many scribbled, scanned, and doctored prints of nature illustrations with hiscollaborative partner. He was such a nice bloke and his prints had such a sense of mischief and quirky charm that I came away with quite a few postcards; I particularly like these two (especially the censored ducklings!):
It was Mical who turned us on to Supalife Kiosk. From my limited experience of the contemporary Berlin art scene, it seemed that many artists favour a combination of sketchy drawing and layering of antique and found images, to create incongruous yet appealing collages and prints. I certainly dig it, and will be seeking out London-based zine distros in the near future.
Art was everywhere in Berlin, from the public buildings to the perhaps even more public art of graffiti. This was plentiful at one of the more unusual visits of our trip; after checking out the flea market it was off to another park; Spreepark, an abandoned GDR era amusement park. Unfortunately our German is abysmal, and so the (apparently very funny) guided tour was lost on us, but we amused ourselves (and attempted to keep warm) by exploring the dilapidated attractions.
One tagger had graffitied “Spooks was here“, and the park certainly was a little eery, although in quite a beautiful way, I think. The frozen swan boats in the lake particularly captivated me (and I have to hand it to the witty tagger who drew the steps of making an origami swan on one of the boats).
After we’d warmed up a bit and had some lunch we spent a few hours in the DDR Museum, where an impressive amount of (highly interactive) history was packed into a small space. Pip was particularly enamoured with a computer programme which allowed you to design the perfect communist.
That evening we made the first of two visits to Becketts Kopf, an incredible smoky little bar with an exquisite cocktail menu, which for reasons I still don’t fully understand, is Samuel Beckett themed (“Becketts Kopf” translates as “Beckett’s Head”, and indeed the writer’s visage stares mournfully down at you from the bar’s frontage). Still, it seemed a very appropriate place for a Performance Writing graduate to have a tipple. As it was still bitterly cold, I opted for the Hot Buttered Rum, which was d i v i n e.
Pip went for the mouthwateringly potent Penicillin, a combination of Scotch Whisky, honey, lime and ginger, which claims to “work for everything”. That may be true; it definitely had to be administered in small doses.
The next morning was my birthday, and just as I hoped, the snow was falling thick and fast. We’d set aside our last full day to go hunting for vintage frocks, but firstly we took in just a little more graffiti at the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery, a stretch of the wall which remains intact, though transformed by graffiti and mural artists. Most of this was a little too “We Are the World” for my liking, but some was quite thought-provoking and displayed a storm of imagination.
After finding a full-length velvet evening dress for a snip, we concluded my birthday with a meal at Bangkok Thai restaurant in Prenzlauer Berg, and then nipped ’round the corner for a couple more cocktails at Becketts Kopf.
The drinks were possibly even more delicious than those of the previous night; Pip started with a Monkey’s Land, which claimed to be “an insane drug of the 20s, made with gin, homemade grenadine, orange juice, absinthe, and English marmalade”. Despite this potent combination, the cocktail was light and very drinkable, with just a hint of aniseed from the absinthe. Pip followed this with a gloriously fruity West Indian Planter’s Punch which was similarly delectable. My first drink was a BK’s Pick Me Up, composed of chocolate brandy, mandarin, herbs, and a hint of champagne, but the real star for me was my second cocktail, a Lusitanian; a tawny port and cherry brandy based mix finished off with a dusting of cinnamon. I’m developing rather a fondness for red wine based cocktails…
Unfortunately, the next morning brought our final day in the snowy city. We returned to St. Gaudy Cafe for a tofu schnitzel burger lunch, and did perhaps the most touristy thing of our entire holiday; we had ourselves preserved for posterity in black and white at a Fotoautomat.
As well as taking this permanent record of our trip, we left behind a transitory message, similar to the message of love the Russian soldier left “Galina” in the Bundestag; Pip und Pinecone Liebe Berlin. I can’t wait to go back!