Far Kreutzberg

The Family turns out to be a natural-born hipster. While I was busy photographing street art, or admiring architectural points subtle enough to hit you in the face, she took a photo or two which turn out to capture the essence of night-life around Berlin. This happened over and over again, but most noticeably in the far eastern part of Kreutzberg near Oberbaumbruecke. In John le Carre’s cold war trilogy where the spy-masters Smiley and Karla face off, this bridge is the setting where Karla crosses finally to the West. I had a mad moment of imagination when I thought I would search for the gold cigarette lighter given to Smiley by his wife, which Karla stole in Delhi and dropped on the bridge as he crossed it. Instead, I took a few shots of the restored 19th century Gothic bridge (featured photo), as The Family examined what turned out to be one of Berlin’s hot spots: the Watergate club (photo below).

Most people come this far east in Kreutzberg for the many clubs which have sprung up in this area in the last decade. We were too early to start looking for a few sips of beer and music to dance by, but going by past experience, if it had been the right time, then she would have been able to either talk her way in for both of us, or found a different place. By all accounts, the area comes alive around midnight. We didn’t wait so long.

We had come here on a search for one of Berlin’s iconic murals, the one called Backjump by BLU. We stood on the bridge and admired the mural. The light was fading, and it was clear that our photo-walk through Berlin was almost over for the day. The gloomy double-decker Oberbaum bridge was made in that anachronistic Gothic style which we now think of as Harry-Potter-architecture. It was built at the end of the 19th century to take the increased traffic of that time as well as the then-new U-bahn. It was blown up in the last days of the war as a futile defensive measure against the advancing Red Army, and rebuilt in 1994. There was incredibly wild street art at the foot of the bridge (panels above). They were hard to photograph in the narrow space and in bad light.

Under the railway bridge at Schlesisches Tor, Berlin

As we walked back, I was intrigued by a gathering of people under the U-bahn line near the Schlesichser Tor station (photo above). A quick look told me that the kiosk is called Burgermeister, and its main offering is absolutely clear: burgers. This is another of the legendary places around here. I was torn, but decided to give it a miss, thinking of a bigger dinner later. This was a mistake because our dinner experience that night turned out not to be good. But that is another story which ended with The Family’s hipster radar leading her into one of Berlin’s hotspots of street art.

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Grunge, Germany

Germany is not just shining BMWs and Mercedes screaming down Autobahns. There are broken down, unloved areas. Areas which we would mostly not photograph. These are things which a tourist’s eye would slide over, unseeing. Or there are things which are pushed out to places where people would not have to look at all the time. I love looking at such grunge. What a country does not love sometimes tells us as much as what it does.

I see lots of photos of sunlight on cracked plaster or weathered wood from southern Europe, but little of these dreary but atmospheric places in Germany. I wonder whether there is a new genre waiting to become a meme. Click on the mosaic above to get to an annotated slide show.

Emergency Exit

When I first came to Germany I was puzzled by a door with a sign saying “Notausgang”. Why would a door say “Not exit”? It took me a little while to figure out that “not” is German for emergency, and the sign meant “Emergency Exit”. The photo above shows one of the most decorated emergency exits I have ever seen. The door in all its painted glory can be seen in the photo below.

We’d taken the S-bahn to the Warschauer Strasse station late in the afternoon to see the Urban Spree gallery. We spent quite a while there, and then moved on further into the complex of old and abandoned railway works now known mainly by its initials RAW (Reichsbahn Ausbesserungs Werk). We had no idea that we were now in the heart of edgy Berlin’s party area. It didn’t take us long to figure that out.

Very little street sense is needed to figure that a white rabbit sign invites you to tumble down a hole into a wonderland. Deep thumping music was already playing, and a trickle of Berliners walked past us deeper into the complex. The Family was now sold on Berlin’s edge, but we had tickets to a concert by the Staatsoper. The balance, as you can figure out, was fine.

We decided the bar with Yoda’s picture a miss to give. Instead, we chose to explore the area in front of it. This is the part called the RAW-Gelaende. It is an interesting experiment by the Goettinger Kurth Group, which bought up a large chunk of this property and has declared that it will support the street art milieu that has taken root in the previously abandoned complex.

Our self-imposed limit was to walk past the bowling alley which you can see in the photo above, and explore the area behind it before leaving. This section of the workshops is a fantastic array of bars, biergartens, music and game areas, all of them decorated by street artists. The light was fading fast, as you can gather from the photos here.

Inside a broken tower was this climbing wall. The first sight of it reminded me of the stories that middle class Germany likes to tell about the crazy people in Berlin. In most of Germany a broken tower like this would be cordoned off, declared unsafe, and soon be razed. In Berlin this patently unsafe place was in regular use by young people. When I stepped in to take the photo, I realized that the floor had collapsed, and a jury-rigged planking covered in sheets had taken its place.

Behind the tower an open space had become a biergarten. A couple of boys were playing table tennis in the broken building behind it. It was clearly still too early to be open, but the space looked like it would be a nice friendly place when it was full. We didn’t have time to come back here, unfortunately. The Family said “It would be nice to stay for a while in Berlin.”

The artwork here was wild and wonderful. We spent a while in front of this work signed Red Rum. Is that a person or a collective?

The Family asked a similar question about Born 2 Roll. Is that a signature or the title of the work you can see in the photo above?

Filthcake was clearly a signature, but again is it a collective? Aha, this told us that a work will have both a title and a signature. We had to go back to the other works to puzzle out which was which.

On the way out we passed this wonderful piece of stencil art. The light had begun to fail and I reluctantly bagged my camera. We marked this down as a place to visit on our next trip to Berlin. However, corporations are predictable. Right now the Goettinger Kurth Group is earning money on its investment in this property through fairly low (but rising) rents. Once someone in the Group has an idea on how to monetize this property better, there will be inevitable pressure in the board to change its policies. We need to come back to Berlin before the resulting cascade of changes begin.

Closing doors

After walking through the solemn memorial at Bernauer Strasse, we decided to walk in Mauerpark. It is an interesting place. Before the division of Berlin, it was a railway yard. It was broken up into the Soviet and French sectors after the war. Later East Germany built the wall along here, and most of the park became part of the death strip. Now it is an unorganized and badly maintained park. When we arrived on a Sunday after a storm, it was crowded.

Closed gates at the stadium behind Mauerpark

We had an evening with friends planned ahead of us, and realized we didn’t have the time to browse through the Sunday flea market, or spend time at the informal bars and cafes around it. So we climbed the slope up to the sports complex we could see. The doors were shut. We decided to walk around the wall admiring the artwork and the artists at work.

There is an amazing energy here. Over large parts of Germany you see people working hard, making a good middle class life. Here at the Wall Park you see the other side of Germany. The fashionable people from Prenzlauerberg mixing with people who are the grit in the wheels of progress. Something new is being created here and it can be either good or bad.

Sunset at Mauerpark

We admired the golden sunset from the top of the hill for a while. We were a little behind time for our evening. There was no time to rock the karaoke which we could hear. People were still streaming into the park, but we had to leave.

The bookseller

Unter den Linden was dug up. My favourite war memorial, the Neue Wache, was closed for renovation. We walked along and at the gates of Humboldt university, found a stall of used books. I’m a sucker for a bookshop. After I’d admired the bundled-up shopkeeper, I ran an eye over the books.

Many of the hard-bound books were about the history of the second world war. I sort of recognized the book called “The Battle for Moscow”, by the prolific and generally well regarded Polish author of war history, Janusz Piekalkiewicz. The other table contained CDs, records and paperbacks. These were for three Euros each. Used copies of books like the one by Piekalkiewicz sell for less on Amazon. I wonder how these books sell on the pavement.

As you can see, the bookseller was deeply engrossed in a tablet, reading a e-book by the looks of it.

Hallow e’en

As the cold settles in on northern Germany it is easy to understand the idea of Hallow e’en. The celebration of spookiness was not a big thing in this part of the world, but masks and lanterns are now beginning to catch on. If your mind is primed by such ideas, then it is easy to notice cobwebs and old stone walls. The swaying of branches and rustling of leaves holds little fear in cities full of people. But one can see the prey caught in a spider’s web, the silent flight of an owl, the scurry of a dormouse through fallen leaves, and imagine what people in a different age may have felt.

Orchid

I’m more enchanted by hothouse orchids which I saw in this season, growing in a nice warm room away from the blustery wind. If you have a halloweened mind, you could see ghosts and flying bats in them. There’s something for everyone in this dark season before the winter markets start.

Today Germany is celebrating the 500th anniversary of what is called the Reformation in Europe, the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the church in the castle of Wittenberg. This led eventually to a Europe-wide religious war which lasted for a century, and a peace signed in Westphalia which divided the continent. More on this later.

A different new year

When should a new year start? It’s just a conventional date. But all of us have our own delightful customs built around that date. The Bohras of India have a wonderful way of celebrating the last evening of the year; it’s called the “birthday of the plate”. This Gujarati speaking Shia community traditionally has communal meals seated around the big plate you see in the photos here.

On its birthday the plate is loaded with food: half of the dishes are savoury and half are sweet. The dinner starts with salt, and then alternates between sweet and savory, ending with a biriyani. Apart from this the order is open. If someone has a special favourite, he or she can ask for it, and it becomes the next thing to be eaten. The nicest of plates I’ve eaten at had 51 dishes. A tiny taste of each is enough to fill you.

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When you play the slideshow, you’ll see a gap between the end of the loading phase and the first shot of the eating phase. I’m afraid that’s the part where I forgot about the camera because I was too involved in the eating.

Yesterday’s death

The day after Diwali is a good time to take stock. Did you really have so many sweets over the previous week that you now have to go on a diet? When do you tell the kids that there are some left-over firecrackers? Will anyone mind if you left the fairy lights up till Christmas?

I thought this is also a good time to spare a thought for the numerous moths which died by plunging into candles and diyas. Moths breed immediately after the end of the monsoon, and seem to undergo a huge culling on Diwali. I’m afraid the two in the featured photo are now mere memories.

Diwali shopping

Tomorrow is Diwali, and today will be the last day of shopping. In most years I would have refused to venture anywhere near a market in the week before that. But, as a street vendor told me on Sunday, “The market has no colour yet.” I finished my photo walk on Sunday afternoon, when the crowds were thin, and my shots were not continuously spoiled by people jogging your elbow. I walked from the shops selling Diwali lights, to the ones which sell flowers (plastic flowers!), past vendors selling bubble guns and coloured boxes, toys and sweets and even a street-side barber.

Now looking at the photos I see that I concentrated on the universal language of trade: customers trying to choose between options, trying to strike a bargain, or looking at merchandise which is beyond their price bracket, vendors who look desperate to sell, some who are doing good business, and a boy selling plush toys who wanted to have his photo taken. I made his day when I took his photo, and he made my day.

Happy Diwali to everyone.

Fire and smoke

One of the biggest festivals of India is the Durga Puja. One part of the festivities is a dance to the goddess performed with live coals in earthen pots. There was a time when only men were allowed to perform this. The times are changing. At least in one place in Mumbai this year the only dancers were women.