Tuesday, November 17, 2009


We brought the rain in from India, I think. Berlin was raining and cold. The Germans told us it had been bright and sunny the week before. Still, you can feel a certain something about this most controversial of German cities. There's an energy as well as a sense of lassitude here that is almost palpable. Obviously the continental weather did not succeed in dampening my spirit.

The AEDES Network Campus is in Pfefferberg in Prenzlauerberg, what was once in the east, behind the Wall before the unification, rather the re-unification. Pfefferberg was once a brewery. Today it is a gentrified place, still being renovated and reconstructed, full of art galleries, cafes, a comedy club, a hostel, and a restaurant - Das Pfeffer - reputed for its nouvelle cuisine. I'm staying in a nice bright room overlooking a little garden with apple trees.
The AEDES gallery where the exhibition “What Makes India Urban?” will be on view for the remaining weeks of October and all of November, is buzzing with activity for tomorrow's inauguration. TV monitors and cables are being tested, printed vinyl and flex hangings are already hanging like washing at a dhobi ghat, and Sudarshan Shetty's art work installation is outside in the courtyard on thin iron rods placed in two rows. The cafe that adjoins it serves much needed hot coffee and we sit in the occasional sun feeling important but not quite knowing why.

Why are the Germans so taken up by India? There's a synergy between the two peoples and there's a hard attempt to ameliorate. Is there some primal bonding which anthropolgists and social scientists might better explain? I discard conjecture to simply soak in everything.

Germans have a serious sense of history which is reflected in their museums, and public spaces and places. The burden of recent history seems to envelope them in a wishful state: we wish it had been...might have been.. That's an initial impression. A strenuous attempt to recreate from ruins runs strong in their blood. Yet, the old it seems, must share equal presence with the new.

The strong and contemporary underground culture though is what everyone talks about. Mainstream happenings seem almost pale in comparison. To wit: an afternoon concert held on Tuesdays in the foyer of the magnificent Berliner Philharmoniker. An initiative of it's new director, Sir Simon Rattle, to bring in new audiences, the small group of 6 musicians played to a free audience of at least a 1000 people. I heard tell they would be performing from Ravel's Bolero. Instead, they began with Duke Ellington's Caravan, moved on to a Django Rheinhardt piece and played about 20 minutes more of trad jazz! One thing about classical musicians - they have the skill and mastery of their musical learning to play jazz...but they ain't got no soul!

Nevertheless, an enjoyable afternoon was had by all. But that same evening we went to a club in Mitte which had a DJ playing retro funk and soul music and the place was vibrant and throbbing, all cares thrown to the wind as people danced and a bright glow of energy suffused the place, positively lacking earlier in the day.

So it is the underground/alternative culture that drives it all. I begin to understand what “cutting edge” and “edgy” defines. Christopher Dell tells me a story of how he bought a second hand guitar off the streets, and then played a gig of contemporary music with others, without tuning the guitar. An old and what looked like an abandoned building complex somewhere near Mitte has been taken over by artist squatters. The place has multiple exhibits of art and sculpture, artists working real-time on their creations as you watch, small bars and music everywhere. The authorities turn a blind eye to such squats which are immensely popular with the young as they are for tourists.

Art, film making, theatre, sculpture, and music are all creating and recreating forms, breaking norms and established traditions not in a big-bang, communist-revolution kind of way, but in the small and regular and mostly unpublicised events and exhibitions, installations and innovations which keep happening all over this city, depending solely on individual largesse to sustain their art.

The city itself is in a state of constant change. Here change is the only constant. Topography and typology is in flux at any given time. Berliners themselves express mild astonishment at the sudden changes they see around them; the weight of history has resulted in this, Facades are maintained, though infrastructure is renovated, rebuilt, improved and expanded. The legendary lack of money in the city's coffers is not noticeable when I look at things with a Calcutta perspective. Yet, the citizens have the right to complain, to reject, and to ask for review in urban development policy matters and projects. My lack of the German tongue did not allow me to read newspapers or watch TV, but talking to people brought many things to light. One obvious fact is that big business and corporate spending is minimal, usually absent.

Oh, there's corruption and incompetence, but there's also civic pride and consciousness. Comparisons with Calcutta and Berlin would not be unfair, but useless. I'm not wanting to point fingers; simply making an attempt to understand. To forget history they have to relive it in a way that will prevent guilt and shame. The understated and the spectacular and everything in between vies for attention. Middle paths are found and crossed and always wind up where they started. It is the now cliched 'out-of-the-box', the 'progressive', the 'alternate' which make noise, stand apart, demand notice. The cosmopolitan nature of the city is what is not globalisation. This European crossroads of art and culture defies criticism, rejects labelling and generalisation, and mostly with glee. I often see that the doing is more important than what is being done. Crossovers in art and music are seen as quite traditional. Fusion is classical. Typecasting is shunned, and individualism is the flavour of choice. Freedom is self.

There are of course, the nay-sayers. You can listen to them and form your own opinion.

And there is the urbanity. Calcutta is positively rural if you must needs comparisons. The architecture and utilisation of urban spaces in Berlin are predominant as visual metaphors. (This is why India's urbanity is also examined and discussed in Berlin, the reason for my being there in the first place). Is progressive the word to use? I don't know. Shops don't require you to deposit your belongings when you enter them. Parks and statuary are open on all sides and open to all. Restaurants and bars really have no formal opening or closing hours, though Sundays are generally acknowledged as the day of rest. You can take your pet dog on to all public transport, into restaurants, bars and cafes and other public spaces, into airports and onto aircraft. Bicycles are allowed onto all trains and road space is designed so that 50% is for pedestrians and bicycles and the rest for motor cars. Cyclists have special lanes marked out exclusively for them on most streets and even have separate traffic signals! DB, Deutsche Bahn, the now private company which owns and operates the rail system, rents out bicycles at big U-bahn and S-bahn stations. Vandalism does occur but there's some control somewhere. You are not subjected to body-checks, metal detectors, x-ray machines, or other alert and useless security measures at such places. Three and a half million populate the city and that's no mean number for the capital city of Germany. It is also a city of immense significance for tourism, and yet state control is not freakish, at least not apparently, not in the 19 days or so I spent there. Though... police vehicle sirens often broke the silence of the streets at all hours of the day and night!

People are friendly. English is quite widely understood and spoken by the Germans. It is the other nationalities who speak their mother tongue and the working German they need to live there. Trust is a very strong principle and really a moral that nearly everyone lives by. You buy your ticket voluntarily from a vending machine for the public transport system but I have never been checked even once. I never did chance being a ticketless traveller though. The traffic lights are obeyed religiously. I have often waited at pedestrian crossings with locals with the light red on and no vehicle in sight till the light turned green and we all crossed the road, everyone nodding slightly at each other, acknowledging the wonderful civic sense we shared. When alone, I admit I did jaywalk a fair bit!

Berlin is for those who enjoy what its citizens usually call a bohemian life. You can stay on the fringes as an observer or a tourist, or you could just immerse yourself in whatever catches your fancy. I don't know how easy it might be to do that but the openness and curiosity which people show makes me think it shouldn't be too difficult. And there are young people everywhere. Youth is certainly in the majority. I'm told many of them are a pampered lot, provided with means of survival by indulgent parents as their wards live in this cheapest of all German, possibly European cities, exploring their interests and trying to make something of it. Academia is considered important and the state-run universities offer many courses, some quite esoteric in nature, and they attract students from all over.

I walked an average of 15 kilometres a day and I know this because my mobile phone has a built-in pedometer. It is a city that is friendly to the pedestrian. On my first day I looked around, wondering where all the people were. The next day onwards I was glad that the streets seemed so empty, even though there were occasional twinges of loneliness. But I did catch myself wanting to return to the more populated areas of Alexanderplatz, Mitte and Kreuzberg. I'm told it is the ideal city for a manic depressive. The weather helps in maintaining this state of mind, and the fact that most cafes offer breakfast till 5pm bears out this fact. Food choices are a delight and I ate of the cuisine of Germany, Bavaria, Vietnam, Spain, Turkey, Japan, France, Italy, and even Indian food. And I might add, beer as well from all these countries!

Dr Reimar Volker, the director of the Goethe-Institut Max Mueller Bhavan in Calcutta, gave me a collection of short stories by the well-known Bengali author Syed Mujtaba Ali by before I left for Berlin. Mujtaba Ali had been to Berlin in the 20s, years before WWII, the Wall and the reunification and I thought it interesting to perhaps follow in the man's steps 80-plus years later and see what sort of changes had taken place.
The first story introduced me to 'Hindustan Haus', located close to where Kurfutsendamm meets Uhlandstrasse and I thought it a good place to see what Ali was talking about. During Ali's visit, trhat area must have been a very multi-cultural and middle-class place, full of life and happenings. My visit revealed it to be what is termed an “upmarket' area today, lined with shops stocking big international brands and designer names. Boring and useless, especially when you're converting some 70 Indian Rupees into one Euro! Not that I indulge in such “high class” products at home, but still....

Of course while Mujtaba Ali's stories were immensely readable, it was hardly about Berlin as a city. Rather it was peopled with characters who made up Berlin then and I assume similar characters make it up again these days. Nevertheless, it gave me a sense of purpose and I saw an area of Berlin which the average locals seemed to be wary of.

Checkpoint Charlie was a personal disappointment for me. Having teenage recollections of the place as read about in countless cold war thriller fiction like John Le Carre's, it was like a Hollywood set. In fact the US and East German soldiers who stood at this tourist site were out-of-work actors, mostly amateurs from almost all walks of life. For a small fee, they pose with tourists who want their photos taken at this historic monument to political craziness. Remnants of the Wall are scattered all over the city. In one place in Kreuzberg, the Wall has been deliberately maintained as the East Side Gallery. This part was where some of the famous graffiti had decorated it when it first came down in 1989. The original artists were all contacted and asked to refresh their work which now stands not just as a fine example of modern art but also as a reminder of what the Wall means to the Germans. Unfortunately, my camera battery died on me the day I visited this place so I have no pictorial remembrances to share.

Berlin is a huge city. It is vast and wears its history like a shroud. Besides, there were many places I could not see for lack of time and often, inclination. Yet, that is good, because it gives me the sense of being able to return and see more. The next time I plan to spend at least one day in the Tiergarten, the huge rambling wooded parkland in the middle of the city, and take a nice boat ride down the lazy river Spree.

What did I come away with after 19 days in Berlin? Quite a few things really. Primarily, even if a superficial image of modern urbanity, the cosmopolitan nature of the city which was thankfully, not the American version of globalisation. Advertising on billboards was completely absent so you get clear views of all buildings and the skyline. Comparisons with Calcutta were just as superficial though there was similitude in feel and intensity, something intangible but quite real to me, as it was to Germans who have spent time in Calcutta. The youth are leading the “inner” development of Berlin. While politicians work on what they work at, it is the young people who are experimenting, reaffirming, rejuvenating, and re-establishing whatever comes their way. Cultural exchanges, coupled with random and brilliant ideas are inspiring intellectual development and recreating Berlin every day. Joined with new technology and distinctive scientific approaches, Berlin is defining a future for cities of the world which I find heartening and hopeful. While I have never been to London or New York, or other cities also held up as distinguished urban centres of change, I can understand Berlin is right up there with them all and in all probability will soon be leading the pack.

Berlin, for me, is a place which is offering an alternate version of future history and that might actually be worth living in.

The history, that is. Calcutta is quite fine with me as a place to live. I trust I shall live to see it.


Postscript: Hamburg

Berlin was my "official" visit while Hamburg was a "personal" one. An evening there was well spent with some friends I made last year when they came to shoot a documentary in Calcutta. I was astonished and honoured when Stephan, Max, Olli, Till and Torben were all there to receive us at the station. We ate and drank Italian, caught up with the latest developments in all our lives, and had a merry time of it all. Olli generously offered us his home to sleep in as we were returning to Berlin the next evening. He left early the next morning for a short and sweet break on the north coast and my daughter, Antara and I walked about Hamburg city, took the pleasant harbour boat trip and ate some Portugese food the next day.

A short and sweet trip, Hamburg I realised has a throbbing energy and life to it that is different to Berlin's. It is certainly a rich city, more compact, and its busy port plays an important part in Germany's economy. I need to go back there some day for a longer visit.

More pictures: Hamburg, Berlin


Sina said...

Berlin - very well observed, Patrick!
Thanks for the nice and honest comments concerning our capital.
It was a pleasure to meet you again. You understood the city and its flow pretty good;)

Anonymous said...

Interesting insights....
Well narrated!


chintu said...

hmm, nice flow Patrick.

The pics, i liked 'em.

Kam said...

Hey Patrick, you write interestingly! I wouldn't be surprised to see more of your travel articles being published in some of those popular destination magazines. Travel really does open up the mind, doesn't it?


p@tr!(k said...

@Sina: Hey! Thanks for visiting here and hanging out with us in Berlin! We must do it again, soon!

Thanks Garima!

Thanks Chintu!

@Kam: Too true! Take a dekko at my other travel writings in this blog.

daniel said...

Nice travelog Patrick. Enjoyed reading it, especially your comparison with Cal and other indian cities.

Anonymous said...

IS VERY GOOD..............................