Every city has a soul. Some find their voice through the whispers in museums or the breeze in parks or the electricity of the commuters that squeeze between skyscrapers. But Berlin is different. You have to pay attention to catch a glimpse of its spirit and to trap its essence under a glass jar. Berlin is a city of struggling artists, babbling bar tenders and masked intellectuals where every now and then, you can smell the 1930's and their lamp-litsplendour.
It was May and we enjoyed the air conditioning of the Old National Gallery as much as we did the van Goghs. The five of us had taken advantage of the ubiquitous student discounts on offer to us and meandered through the newly renovated museum. We each used the audio-tour guide at our own pace. Max and Yasemin bounced from painting to painting in each other's arms like lovers do. Bastian was the musician among us and seemed to think this made him a far better art critic. And then there was Cecil. But I will tell you about her later. She was like a butterfly; she goes where she pleases and pleases where she goes. I heard that phrase years ago but never found a person worthy of its simplicity until that day. I will tell you about her later.
I was beginning to 'get' this whole art business. I understood how one needs to stand back, arms crossed and really look at each brushstroke. You need to spend a full minute looking at it, engaging with it and trying to pick out some message. Or so I think. You have more aesthetic sense in your little finger than I ever will. I have no idea how to appreciate the art of art or how to put my finger on what's good about painting. But I did feel the sense of awe at the skill of the geniuses when I looked closely at the individual brush-strokes. What foresight they had! The ability to know exactly how one brush-stroke will look from an inch away and from a metre away was something I couldn't get my head around. Every step I took further away from the painting, I saw more.
I remember being taken to the best art galleries in the world as a kid. I wish I could go back. I wish I could go back and step back.
It was 5pm by the time we left the museum and already the music had begun. That evening, there would be over 100 separates concerts taking places in different parts of Berlin. It was called the 'Fete de la Musique'. Jazz, rock, blues, electronic: the city held all the cards. We made our way down Friedrichstrasse and took the metro to Warschauer Strasse, where Bastian had promised us the best selection of live music in the city. The area around the station we emerged out of wasn't sleek or shiny like Hamburg or full of Gothic architecture like Dresden. It had kebab shops, bars and street performers wanting to tell you their story. The metal stairs creaked and groaned as you climbed them and one could hear English being spoken in all the accents on the world. A middle-aged man walked his dog with one hand and gripped his camera with the other. There were punks with their spiky pink hair and there were rockers with metal-studs in just about every inch of clothing they had. There were hipsters in tight jeans and thick-rimmed glasses whose prescription I will never know. I miss Berlin.
Not every decrepit building in the city is some kind of art-revival project; many have just been left in a state of disrepair. We passed many such veterans - some even had the scars of war etched in black soot across their brick cheeks. The atmosphere by now was something I'd never experienced before. An entire city playing its music for you. We saw a troop of drummers with some hippy agenda or the other, creating the most driving sound. A child of no more than 5, danced in the middle of the circular space left by the on-looking crowd. Though there was alcohol a-plenty, there was not a drop of tension in the air. There were no screams of outrage or cries of anguish, like you'd come to expect and events similar to this in England or India. In Germany you are allowed to drink in public and though this sometimes causes problems, by and large the right is respected and well policed when it isn't. I found the lack of confrontation refreshing.
Rosi's on Revaler Strasse was my kind of place. 2 Euro entry with 2 Euro beers and a band dropping some of the smoothest old school Jungle I've heard. We bounced around there for a bit before heading somewhere a little quieter - it was too early for such high-tempo sound. We went to a charming little bar in Kreuzberg where the mood was more jolly and the crowd were older. As we waited for our mugs of beer, we saw a man in a Steve Irwin style hat sitting on a high-chair at the bar, playing on his guitar. His eyes were closed. No one was even paying attention to him. There was a glance over in his direction every few seconds but we just sat there and silently thanked him for giving the dimly lit bar its character. His little terrier, tied to one of the legs of his high-chair, chirped up every once in a while before returning to the shelter of his muddy trouser legs.
Max told me Kreuzberg was always like this. He lived in the area and knew it well. Tucked between an alley and a rather shady looking currency exchange bureau, this was exactly the kind of bar tourists wouldn't find. We sat there and talked for an hour or so. Max told me how his parents, a lawyer and a school teacher, had moved out to the suburbs after the wall went down. After he finished high-school, Max had moved back to the area. He had been intrigued by the pseudo-gentrification that had taken place in the Kreuzberg-Freidrichshain area in the mid-90s. A fresh, young, creative crowd had made the previously neglected district their own. They had filled it with murals and a spirit of artisan-ship where art had been stamped out.
I am not saying Kreuzberg - or indeed Berlin - is a city only of artists and musicians floating from bar to bar, trying desperately to the avoid the conformity and 9-to-5-ness of other German cities. Far from it. Berlin is one of the poorest large cities in the country and it shows. It has its issues with far-right wing thugs and the other bad habits that result from high employment. What you feel there though, on a Saturday night, is a sense of adventure. It is as if the residents are open to discovering new ways to look at their shabby little slice of town on nights like these and the tremendous collective affinity they feel towards it comes out whenever you speak to them. I had so many conversations with strangers that night. With each little square came a new band and a new crowd. Great big bald men asked me what my views on Indian music as they rolled their cigarettes. They look up and nod earnestly as they lick the smoking paper and seal it in the now grainy twilight.
The sky was purple and the night was young. I talked to strangers almost as much as I did to my companions. When we did speak, it was about important things. Max, Yasemin, Bastian and Cecil all had their own opinions on perhaps the most important institutions in Berlin: the best Doner kebab stall in town.
"Mustafa's!" said Yasemin, "He puts feta cheese inside and it is yummy. Does your friend at Ostbahnhof have feta cheese?"
"No and he doesn't need it" fired back Cecil, "The sauce is what counts and his is the best!"
"If you want the real Doner, you need to go to the real Turkish guys at Neukoln" said Bastian sagely, as if his word was final, "If you tell him you are a Besiktas fan, its better. Shrav, I think you need to try them all."
These Berlin kids talked about it like we in India talk about finding that elusive, sacred Biryani. Whether you're from Bombay or Delhi, everyone has that one Biryani that they swear by. The one they will take their friends from out-of-station to eat. Doner was the street food Berlin was famous for. If you ask me - and I've only had four or five different ones, so I am a rank amateur - Mustafa's 'Gesumsekebap', which means vegetable-kebab, is the bestDoner I've had. The Feta cheese, the three kinds of sauce and the sauteed peppers add something to the standard meat-bread-lettuce combination that takes it to the next level. It is no wonder that every time I go to his stall, there is a half-an-hour queue outside come rain or shine. Doner was serious business.
As evening turned to night we went to Oranienburgerstrasse, where the melancholic Ukranian prostitutes lived. It was an eye-opening experience for a sheltered kid like me. The girls stood wearing fur-coats on the balmy pavement, like smoking mannequins. Bastian told me how most of them were trafficked illegally into Western European countries. Back at home, they would have been taken age 15 and told that if they did anything untoward, their families would be killed. It was the cold unspoken pact of the mafia and there was nothing they could do about it. So every night they stood on Oranienburgerstrasse and sold their frightened bodies - they had sold their souls years ago.
The bar we went to to epitomised everything I loved about Berlin. It was left-wing/alternative like many other institutions in the city. Cafe Zapata was an old theatre/cinema converted into a bar and art gallery. From the ceiling, great balls of fire from flame-throwers burst forth, giving light and passion to the tech-house vibes that the reverberated around the place. There were graffiti artists and paintings in each corner and on every wall. The back part of the bar, which housed the obsolete 'smoking area' was decorated with projections of green-red light and artists' impressions of influential people. It was a thick-rimmed glasses wearing hipster's dream. The little whistles and chimes after each kick-drum beat are what make tech-house unique. It isn't as obnoxious as regular techno music and doesn't have the seizure-inducing lyrics of David Guetta-y type 'house' music. It is subtle and up-beat. It rids you of your inhibitions and nudges you onto the dance floor like your mum did at pre-school birthday parties.
The girls were pretty and slim and wore tights and leather jackets and the men were interesting. The men had tales of fleeing policemen and hiding art by the night's smokey cloak. The only thing cooler than the club was Cecil. She danced in the corner, oblivious to everyone around her. Girls really do go to clubs to dance. But then she walked towards me and we understood each other liked some cliched scene from a movie. I wonder if cliched movie scenes inform our actions? I wonder if what we see unfairly good looking actors do in far-fetched Hollywood plots, reflects in our own motives and actions? That evening it seemed that it did.
She was pretty. Far too pretty for me. She was tall, blonde and had eyes of earnest blue. Unlying, sincere eyes that spoke with unveiled emotion. Her hair was shoulder-length and did its best to hide her smile. She had a slender frame and a delicate movements that called to you across the crowd. She never talked for more than five seconds. She never rambled or waffled like those girls who think they are being ironic. She said only what could be accompanied by a playful glance - nothing more or her charm would escape. She spoke French and didn't know what she was doing with her life.
Yasemin and Max had gone home and Bastian was outside talking to his girlfriend on the phone. Inside the pulsating diaphragm of sound and light were Cecil and I. We danced. We kissed. We embraced. It was a great feeling. Being wanted by another human being - it is a great feeling. Maybe that is what we're here for: to have our vulnerability accepted and embraced by someone else for however long or short a time?
We left the place as the sun had begun to peer over the far horizon. It was an eery kind of dawn. A dawn that wasn't quite ready, a dawn still in bed. Those Northern European summer sun-rises are too early for their own good. Go back to bed. We stood on the platform of Alexanderstrasse station. It was the happiest I've ever been. I mean, we had no past and no future but there she stood in my arms - this beautiful girl who was wearing my leather-jacket. I can't remember what we said to each other. We got on the train and she murmured which stop to wake her up at as she rested her head on my shoulder and slumped onto my side. Is it sad that the happiest I've ever been was on the platform of a train station? Was it the girl or the city I was so hopelessly taken with?
I walked her home. We were both quite drunk and she could barely keep her eyes open. I don't know if it was a mistake that I didn't follow her inside her sister's apartment. I think about it all the time. I knew what would have happened had I gone inside. Instead I mumbled something about meeting another time, in less inebriated circumstances. She gave me one last look from her doorway and turned away. My naive hand reached for her's but it was too late. It was a gesture filled with futility, like trying to shout to someone across a crowded train station. But there was no noise on Felixstrasse; it was the silence that drowned me out.