Monday, May 10, 2010

Sundays in Berlin

And on the seventh day Berliners woke up hungover; and they partook of Frühstück, for much Aqua vitae had been consumed and their bodies were much fatigued by the songs of DJ David. And lo behold, the gates of Mauerpark flea market were flung back; and the people rejoiced, for the market was filled with many cheap things. And they saw that it was good.


Berliners are not known for their religious fervour and are, like most capital people, fairly tolerant of other people’s beliefs. It was, after all, Friedrich the Great who said  “everyone should be saved according to their own fashion”. He incidentally also famously exclaimed “A German singer! I should as soon expect to get pleasure from the neighing of my horse!”, yet Germans apparently still think he’s great. They are a very forgiving people, those Teutons. Maybe this  is why they prefer progressive house. Devout they are not though, and yet they keep their Frühstück appointment with pious punctuality. This is partly because Sunday is a day of rest, as most shops are closed, and partly, I suspect, because a ton of toasty Brotchen drenched in enough butter helps soothe the previous night’s excesses.

“Frühstück”, literally “early piece”, is what Germans call breakfast, although at weekends - and reflecting the capital’s nocturnal inclinations - it can be anything from brunch to an early dinner. On Fridays and Saturdays, Berliners’ habits come to resemble those of a vampire, not coming out until Cinderella and other pumpkins are safely tucked in, and consequently most establishments serve breakfast until late afternoon. And for those committed clubers that no longer inhabit our time zone, the Schwarzes Café, a former anarchist haunt, serves breakfast 24 hours a day. 

A “Frühstück” is traditionally a spread consisting of cold cuts, cheese, jam and other additions worthy of a Wind in the Willows picnic extravaganza. Often they carry national themes, so that a French one will contain croissant and some Camembert and an Italian will feature mozzarella and tomato salad, and perhaps some proscuitto or mortadella. Entweder Oder, a favourite establishment, reflects more faithfully Italian customs by offering instead an espresso, a glass of water and a cigarette. This variation is also known as the “Existentialist Breakfast” in other cafés.

You will have plenty of opportunities to dabble in ontological arguments and indulge in some dominical ennui, as the average Frühstück lasts around 3 hours. Add two hours if it is somewhere popular ( i.e. anywhere in Berlin). And another two if it’s outside, just to remind you that yes, it is the temperate climate, not the tropical. After you have finally managed to harpoon the waiter in the sea of fellow brunchers  - setting yourself on fire does not always work - you can then proceed to the second stage of the Berlin ritual - the flea market.

The Flohmarket or flea market’s place in the Berliner psyche deserves a blog on its own. That the burghers of this fair city like flea markets is a bit of an understatement, like claiming that Gollum was quite fond of jewellery or that Tiger Woods has a soft spot for cocktail waitresses. Berliners, perennial part-time hippies that they are, never really bought into Capitalism, but are more than happy to grasp the invisible hand as long as it has been through a couple of hands already. Boy do Berliners like second-hand. And on Sundays, when all first hand shops are closed, they will flock to the seemingly unending array of Flohmärkte that sprout round the city. They spring up everywhere there is flat bit of concrete for stalls. In my previous flat I came back one day to discover that the tenement’s square had been taken over by one of these enterprises. Next it will be my balcony. I will open it one day only to discover that it’s now covered in GDR relics and kitsch copies of David Hasselhoff singles. Germans have yet to discover that the Hoff is immune to irony.

It would not surprise me, as I happen to live next door to one of the biggest and busiest flea markets in Berlin. Flohmarkt am Mauerpark offers everything from pirated CDs to the omnipresent Hoff, from raffish paraphernalia to boxes of nails. Boxes of rusty nails. Although no hammers, presumably so as to not give potential buyers any ideas. There is even a permanent stand that houses trifles of all sorts, a mausoleum for discarded trinkets and also, it seems, a final resting place for discarded mementoes. Cheap photo albums are on offer if you don’t feel uncomfortable at being confronted with the images of its previous owners. In my case it is enough to make me want to order the Existential breakfast.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year’s Eve or Silvester in Berlin: Fireworks, Pyromaniacs and Snow

Yesterday, while standing at the top of Mauerpark hill, it occurred to me, that so far, I have started every new decade in a different country. I stumbled into the world during the 80s, in the throes of democratic transition, in a Spain that had not had a popularly elected government since 1939 and whose current constitution came into force the 29th of December 1978. The 90s started in Copenhagen. A couple of months earlier my parents had driven down to Spain, their progress slowed by a pack of putt-putting Trabants on their maiden journey to the West. The millennium saw me in London, trying to make my way back from South Bank amongst a sea of drunken revelers, unaware that this would be my home for the next decade. This nascent decade found me, as mentioned, on top of Mauerpark hill surrounded by inebriated lunatics armed to the teeth with rockets and catherine wheels, in a scene reminiscent of a pyrotechnic Sarajevo, and almost guaranteeing that I would celebrate next decennium in a centre for the permanently shell shocked. Nothing had prepared me for this explosion of colour and gundpowder.

Street on Fire, the lesser known Kings of Leon number.

Mauerpark is a 5 min walk from my house and seemed to be a good venue for catching some fireworks, rather than being squashed to death at Brandenburg Tor. I was not however expecting an army of pyromaniacs who at the stroke twelve seemed to follow the Spartan command ‘On my signal unleash hell’. Spartans, of course, have more consideration of personal safety. While these Hellenic kamikazes might laugh in the face of death, Berliners hand her a rocket lightened with a cigarette while holding a sparkler and champagne bottle in the other hand. In 5 inches of snow. Then they light another cigarette, take a swig at the champagne and wait for the half kilo of gunpowder to launch. From their hand.

The police pushing their van out of the snow.

Mauerpark or pyromaniac’s paradise in the background.

To somebody who has lived in England for 10 years, where holding a sparkler requires wearing three pairs of safety goggles, this is rather refreshing and simultaneously bloody terrifying. It was obviously too much for my boyfriend, who is actually English, and who went into a catatonic state at first, tweeting to his entire London circle in a horrified stream of consciousness: ‘Aaah, Pyromaniacs!’, ‘Maniacs!’, ‘Fire!’  After half an hour and realizing that we weren’t dead yet, we started thinking ‘Yay, Pyromaniacs!’, ‘Maniacs!’, ‘Fire!’ We then happily wandered down the streets of Berlin, which a that point looked like the scene of a riot. Everywhere we turned there was smoke and hooded people hurling objects on fire. I was almost expecting Rosa Luxemburg running down Bernauer Strasse inciting the masses to revolution before being carried away by the Freikorps. Instead we went to get some much needed alcohol. The revolution can wait.

Guten Rutsch!