Europe | Germany | Berlin – Mai Tai gropefest
The lights are low and the drinks are strong. No beer sold here, only rum in dozens of increasingly blurry bottles. A woman in a large headdress, black veil and ‘no nazis’ badge merges with the crowd. Couples dance close, to scratchy old records from years before any of them were born.
Berlin. It’s not exotic and it’s not even new. I’ve been here before. But it’s still travel; it’s still not a place I’ve lived (yet). And Berlin is always changing.
My great grandfather allegedly studied in Berlin, but any investigation is impossible – all university records were destroyed in WWII. So this is interval # 2 in my tale….
1985: hitch hiking from Deggendorf, Bavaria, near the Danube. My mom found the cardboard sign and freaked when I got home – her 19 year old baby hitching through ‘enemy land’! (does she know yet that I went to Egypt in 2002?). Standing by the road side with a fellow art student, five border checks, driving through flat, barren landscape. There was only one gas station on the bumpy East German road; heaven forbid if your car broke down. People waved from bridges, like prisoners who could never leave, watching us drive to fortress West Berlin. A city divided, with a wall down the middle, streets cut in half, electric fences and a moat in between. Guards in towers to shoot anyone who tried to escape.
1987: The same journey by car. Staying in a squat in Kreuzberg. An American tank in the street outside. After a party, my purple-haired hostess says to to get home I must follow the wall. One day we take the subway through ghost stations where the train does not stop, to the customs office. We have only our passport and money, purple ‘hairs’ as she calls them, tucked under scarves; we know we will get searched thoroughly. East Berlin is like the streets of yesteryear, 19th century cobblestones, no billboards, shop windows like museum displays from great-grandparents’ childhoods. All muted browns and greys, foul tasting soup served in chipped cups and men drinking vodka in cafes where they play only classical music.
1993: I’m in a band and we fly to Berlin, my first post-wall visit. We see 2 prostitutes with a man on leash; he is drinking from a puddle in the road. We stay in East Berlin in a newly redecorated hotel. The tv does not work. In Dresden and Chemnitz the hotels still have old lino floors in patterns so ugly you can’t imagine who designed them.
December 2002: Sexton and I visit Conny. She lives in the former East and works for a Communist newspaper. She never saw East Germany when the wall was there, but her colleague did, like me, on a one day visa. He wore a red flag and was told to take it off; the flag could only be displayed on certain days.
We’ve been to visit Conny several times. My husband also writes for the newspaper. It was big in Communist times, but since then sales have fallen. Our bands always play in the former East. This trip is the first time I see much of former West Berlin. And I find it still is a city divided, the 2 sides still different in less obvious ways. You can drive freely wherever you want. It’s not even easy to tell where the wall was. Remaining parts of it are scarce, preserved memories. In the summer we took a boat on the moat that once deterred defectors.
This visit’s occasion is a Polish friend’s birthday party. People flew in from London, Glasgow, Zagreb, Birmingham, Paris and Barcelona. The guest of honour has all the extravagant taste that goes with extreme campness; he has chosen a Charlottenburg night spot well known in the tabloid press for celebrity guests. Conny might be scandalised – communist caught in capitalist bar! Only none of her compatriots would venture this far from home.
Charlottenburg is like London’s Mayfair or NYC Midtown. Our entire Thai dinner and 2 beers in the East were the same price as *one cocktail* in Charlottenburg. Still, the occasion was enjoyed by all, a special gathering like a wedding, sipping drinks and seeing old friends. Though our Commie journalists are too truly socialist to enjoy anything to do with rich people. They kept to a corner (as much as they could – the second bar was tiny) while I spanked the birthday boy (ouch! my hand still aches!), stood on the bar, tried to tell the bartenders how to make a Mai Tai, and groped everyone as is the general mood when this particular group of friends gets together. It was like a cocktail party at my old house only it was in Berlin – and there were frowns from former flatmate Cristina when they had no Caiperinha. But alas the hundreds of rums were superior quality and left hardly a hangover despite mass consumption.
The next day we sat in a café drinking bowls of coffee with whipped milk and powdered chocolate. Thumbing through magazines – listings on ‘art’, ‘film’, and ‘ficken’. Ficken? ‘fistparty’ and ‘pissparty’ were amongst the nightly activities under that heading. Take a guess at what ficken means.
Later we passed a poster advertising a film called ‘The return of the hanging tits’. And that was not even in a red light district. Ah, Berlin.
Last stop was a gallery not yet open, owned by a man with long grey hair who nearly pulled one of the party goers at the rum bar. He had a huge collection of African art, poison arrows and a meat cleaver on the floor. Grimacing bronze castings from 19th century Chad with objects protruding from swollen bellies.
In May Sexton and I thought we could live here. But this time Berlin is cold and dark and spread out, too much like London, too dark too early and it takes too long to get anywhere. We even end up in a traffic jam. We amuse ourselves watching ice skaters and Sexton makes up a story about a bottle bank in the middle of an ice rink. We are glad to get back to East Berlin, to crumbly facades, cheap drinks and walking up 8 very long flights of stairs to Conny’s huge, high ceilinged flat. It is so cheap to live in the East that a friend from New York survives by 2 DJing 2 nights a week. Still, I can’t complain the Charlottenburg party, the visit to places I’d never normally go. An event to be remembered.