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Saturday, April 21, 2012

How to take Berlin

Just a post about where I live and why Berlin is still a good place to live and visit. Of course there's all the stuff about the 3 opera houses, the jewish museum, and the general arts and architecture of the city and its historical sites, but this is more of a neighbourhood view.
I live in Kreuzberg and, since my flat is just behind my shop, work there as well.It's fairly equidistant from the old west centre and the new eastern one. Before the wall fell this was the main alternative district, next to Sch├Âneberg which is / was the main LGBT district. Whilst Berlin was a small island surrounded by the Russian army and the potential flashpoint for world war 3, it wasn't exactly the most popular of places so various incentives were set in place to keep the west german population up. High subsidies for artists and the waiving of national service were the two that underwrote Kreuzberg. Sadly it's getting more and more gentrified but some spots my place.
The main road where I go shopping every day is here. When I first started transition I couldn't get electrolysis for a while and I did, and do, detest plastering myself with makeup. That meant walking up and down the street as a fairly obvious guy in a dress, past any number of places with their quota of tourists sitting outside, drinking and looking around . I thought at the time that getting through that would be a useful baptism of fire and in many ways it was. Problem was that it also pushed me into staying very very close to home for a year or so. In general Berlin is a tolerant city : rude, intrusive, and in your face, but tolerant. In the centre anyway.There were at least three other early m2f transitioners that I'd see regularly, on the streets or in shops, and slightly more variant types - the guy with the handlebar moustache and mini skirt is the one that sticks in the mind. And there was the slight advantage of having a swingers club around the corner. That's because some of its male patrons wear skirts, for more immediate access to their personal assets, and therefore a guy-in-a-dress could be viewed ...differently.
Within say 10 minutes stroll there are a couple of BDSM places, though friends in that scene tend to go more to schwelle 7. Then 3 or 4 lesbian hangouts, maybe 8 - 10 gay bars and queer trans nights at many of them. And there's a major sex club about 15 minutes away where poly's hang out. I really should get around to going to some. Also to the allegedly awesome friday salon afternoons in f├╝rbringerstrasse  around the corner, which annoyingly coincide with my cooking time. It's not a significant commercial sex district, the nearest brothel is about 20 minutes walk away and there's no street trade. Overall it is more LGBT friendly than many areas in Berlin, but it is a city with a very out gay mayor and probably over 15% of the population, at least, are LGBT.Make that 1 in 5 in Kreuzberg. Partly that's down to the more fringe elements in german society pouring in here to shelter from the aforesaid german society, when the wall was still up. Partly it's just Berlin being Berlin. There's still some sort of nod to Weimar. When I came out to my neighbour, a reasonably conventionally cultured civil servant, she did express disappointment that I wasn't going to be being more performance art inclined.
I sometimes manage to take evening walks in the local park here.When I first started coming here, there were the places in it where you could sunbathe naked, others where you could engage in sexual activity and places for major drug use. That's mostly gone now - though nude sunbathing and smoking dope are generally still acceptable there. The hill gives it's name to the district - it's where the templar's church stood - and gets popular with the lesbian covens at halloween.
Berlin has it's evenings. It's still very affordable to go out to a bar, another bar, a meal, a music bar( LOTS of live music here), dancing bars, karaoke bars and then breakfast bars. ( It's very much of a green bottle economy here. For example, some churches have bars that they open when they put on, say, music gigs. Think cultural sacrament = beer.) Fridays in the shop slot in as early to midnightish for the active crowd. Normally we get about 30 - 35, with most of those eating whatever I've cooked. It's a good place for english speakers to meet and talk. ( My own german is not exactly fluent. It comes from hardly ever speaking anything but english). Apart from students, most have some competence at speaking german, but it's not exactly a comfortable language to use. That means that the place is a sort of conversational dinner party with a lot of people far more open to meetings than if they were in their own country. The occasional tourist, a sprinkling of students, would be students, assorted types of artist, writers editors film people etc. That's the general makeup on a friday and the normal daytime people are similar but with more tourists and academics. The average age is about 32, and my own personal friendship circle is about 5 years older, on average.
I'm very much part of my neighbourhood. One thing that means I that I have some sort of place in the overall street, kiez / neighbourhood soap opera gossip scene. In that way it's a very german thing. The image of the berlin woman sitting at her open window with a pillow in front of her so as not to halt her observation and talk with other women by their windows in the block, is still sometimes to be seen actualised. It's often intrusive and mildly malicious but helps, with many other factors, to give a social cohesiveness. If I'm out for 5 - 10 minutes or so, I'll normally meet someone I know, say hello in passing or chat. Rather think it goes with the standard phrase New Yorkers use about Kreuzberg that it's like the lower east side was 30 years ago.
In Kreuzberg nearly everyone has two jobs, their art one and their survival one.
Kreuzberg has had a riot on may 1st every year since '87. Still. That may say something about the place.
If you want to come for more than a long stop on the grand tour then don't count on easily finding work, even with reasonable german. 4 years back I'd get maybe a dozen or so people a year asking about work. Now it's more like a couple each week. Rent regs have been relaxed and flats are actually sold as well, which has impacted hard on an economy geared around discretionary consumer spending. If you are a budding artist of any kind, you'll surely find a lot of company here - the last 2 years have been big on wannabe novelists - and art / performance spaces are plentiful . If you want to have a long summer hanging out in the middle of europe on a not too extortionate budget, it's still an ideal place, but... WARNING be very, very wary of doing this in winter. That's another world entirely.
Berlin : in the words of our dear mayor, poor but sexy.


  1. I had never realised until now just how mundane my city is by comparison :)

  2. Berlin's been a really exciting place to be over the last 20 years or so that I've been, at least in part, engaged here. Of course there are hard edges - the iron fist of bureaucracy for one thing - but in general it's a more open urban population than most. Still, liked it more pre-unification. Funny having all this LGBT stuff around and not particularly relating to it until the last 3 years