Every day life, food & strangeness in a big city

Month: May, 2012

New Kranzler Corner

There are many, many shops on the wonderful Kurfürstendamm: Prada, Gucci, Versace. Sadly, Baddie is only a poor student, which means she pays compulsory visits to… H&M. Today, while inspecting the branch near U-Bahnhof Ku’damm, I noticed that you can go through and exit the shop through the back. This leads to a very nice secluded courtyard, which looks like this.

It might be green, and shady under those umbrellas, but one thing it is definitely not, is quiet. In fact, there’s an intermittent high wailing and eerie shrieking that honestly spooked the heck out of me. I looked around for a bit, and discovered that the source of the loud noise is this:

Can’t see it? how about now?

The biggest clue is that red spot. Yes, this tall pyramid-like construction is home to huge, brightly coloured, and very vocal parrots. But how can they manage to make such a racket? Well, that might be because they have help from their cousins in the second pyramid:

These are the eggs laid by the parakeets:

(no, not really)

And these are some views of the towering glass buildings around, which expulse dapper young men in dark trousers, white gleaming shirts and expensive shoes, around lunchtime.

They  seem to like this place for snacks:

Here is also a view of a bear’s backside. It’s the symbol of Berlin, after all. Bears, not bottoms, that is.

And here’s the front as well. The white building in the back is the lovely Theater des Westens.

All this, I found out from a trash bin, is called Neues Kranzler Eck. Kranzler, as it turns out, is not as I first thought a misspelling of the German word Kanzler (Chancellor).

Johann Georg Kranzler, an Austrian born confectionist-extraordinaire, opened his first bakery/ cakeshop in Berlin’s Unten den Linden in 1825, which was to become Cafe Kranzler around 10 years later. Famous for its service and music, it quickly became the meeting point of “the upper ten thousand”. Handed over from father to son, the cafe was immensely popular during the Roaring Twenties. In 1934 it moved to Kurfürstendamm, and in 1945 it was fully destroyed during the Battle of Berlin.

Rebuilt in the 50s, it was again threatened at the end of the century by plans to modernise the area. In 2000, as architect Helmut Jahn designed the glass complex, the coffee shop became integated instead of being destroyed. Nowadays the cafe’s home is a red and white rotunda, which surprisingly is a part of the Gerry Weber shop, best known for (dare I say it) its middle-aged to mature clothing.

This corner of Berlin is serene and cool on a Friday morning. There are ample opportunities to sit down and enjoy a fresh mint tea, quirky salad or frozen yoghurt. While not very crowded, it’s rather good for people watching, and if bored you can pop in the nearby Urban Outfitters (needless to say I did all of the above).

And now, because nothing is ever plain and simple for Baddie, today’s encounter. As I approached my bus-stop (and that pillar which states the name of the stop and displays bus routes) a middle-aged Chinese tourist takes one look at me, gives a loud “ooohhh” takes a laaaarge step back, and then more or less pounces on me. “Sorry” he begins “U-Bahnhof Kurfürstendamm?” “Yes” I reply helpfully, “that’s here”. “Bahnhof?” “Yes, station” I explain. “No!!!”comes the distressed answer. “I know station. How do you pronounce it in German?!?”. People, I am not kidding. We spent over 10 minutes repeating the phrase, looking at the big writing on that pillar, breaking down “U-Bahnhof Kurfürstendamm” into syllables, and saying it over and over and over again, first me, then him, smiling and encouraging (me) insisting and questioning (him) until he was satisfied. He sounded pretty German by the end, to be quite fair. For all it’s worth.


University Character Studies

Barely over half a year ago, having recently moved to Berlin, I started my courses at one of the city’s most prestigious universities. Germany, you might like to know, takes pride in its open and inclusive attitude – university buildings are usually public, and anyone, may they be affiliated to the institution in some manner or not, can waltz in or out as they please. This liberal atmosphere is, to my mind, typically German. Entrance was heavily monitored at the British university I used to work for – especially after the incident of the man who was caught ambling down the corridors with a canister of gasoline and box of matches, muttering to himself.

When I asked fellow students, the majority declared in favour of the current open doors policy. On the one hand, there’s a general impetus here in Berlin to be (or affect to be) “cool” (equalitarian?) with everybody. I am not sure how much of this comes from within, and how much is dictated by the fear that someone might literally bite your head off if you give the faintest whiff that you are not. The jury’s still out on that one. On the other hand, I guess the eternal academic problem of being perceived as not acknowledging the “real world ” might have something to do with the readiness to include others. Or is it the Others?

But what does this environment produce? Let’s see… The first week of my programme, there was a circular email going around referring to a case of stalking that had happened a few months before. A young student was followed around by a stranger first on campus, then on her way home. The university was holding informational talks, self-defence classes and counselling sessions, and released a description of the man who was apparently still lurking around. But, I hear you say, stalking can happen amongst students too. Fair enough.

My own experience, from the first few days of classes, was being accosted by a man who was definitely not a student but still in my university foyer. Because it was freshers’ week, and all sorts of stands of different organizations were littered around, I just assumed he was with one of them when he asked me if I was looking for a job. The fact that he was not standing near one of the tables, that he complimented me on my looks, was vague about the job offer (a model for trade shows; a VIP guide; a ticket collector !?!), did not have a business card, and wanted me to skip class and go somewhere outside the university with him did trigger some alarm bells. OK, it triggered Big Ben, and no, I did not go anywhere with this trustworthy employer. But the fact that there was a momentary lapse in judgement, based on the security guaranteed by my university surroundings, and the “official” and “real” aspect implied by his simply being there, scared me a little.

A friend of mine who went to the same university also shared a few stories. First, there is the urban legend of the guy going around girls’ loos, with a camera. He supposedly goes in mostly in the evenings, when the facillities are mostly deserted, reaches over the top of the cubicles, and takes photos of girls with their panties down. Needless to say, I never saw going to the loo the same way again.

Then, there is the intriguing story of the unkempt, elderly person going to a series of lectures and, as my friend put it, “pretending to be an academic”. His nails are long and dirty, his clothes shabby and his beard untrimmed, but he takes notes, nods attentively and sometimes asks questions. He collects free pens and is happy whenever free food is offered. Well alright, this could be the description of any student, really (perhaps minus the elderly attribute, although these days you never know). My friend maintains, however, that he has a desperate air about him, and the look of a homeless man.  There is, according to her, a whole crowd of homeless people who attend university events with free catering – they let each other know through a mailing list. (How does that even work? Sorry mate, can you save my spot under the bridge, just got an email on my smartphone about sushi in the big auditorium!) Jokes aside though, what is the story behind the homeless academic? Was he a lecturer in a former life? Is he the ghost of times to come, a warning for us locked in the ivory tower?

Last but not least is one of my favourite tales. My friend worked as a student helper in the university’s Public Relations department, and one day called Human Resources to ask for a file. She spoke to a lady who was very nice and invited her to pick up the documents in the office. When she went to the HR office, the lady seemed to display a bit of an odd manner, but the file was out and waiting for her. Happy, my friend returned to her own desk. An hour later, my friend’s boss came in and asked for the documents. “Who did you get them from in HR?” the boss asked. “Well, I didn’t know the lady… perhaps she’s new” answered my friend. “Oh. Would you mind describing her to me?” “Petite, red-haired, a bit strange…” “Ah, that explains it. She doesn’t work for HR. She’s some poor homeless creature who sneaks into offices whenever someone forgets to lock them, and pretends she works there. She’s done this a few times before. Quite good at it, really.”

Who are these people? And genuinely liberal or not, I cannot help but admire a system that allows enough free play to create these imaginary lives.


Berlin’s Secret Gardens

As I was walking down to yet another doctor appointment (another appointment, and another doctor; don’t ask) I discovered the incredibly charming Fasanenstrasse, which is right off the busy shopping avenue which is Kurfürstendamm. This unassuming street holds several splendid buildings, including the Literaturhaus at number 23, an institution  opened in 1986, which saw the likes of Vladimir Nabokov hold readings and now hosts various talks and events. There is also a quaint but well-appointed basement bookstore and a very popular cafe, with tables laid out in the lively, blooming garden.

By going through the garden gate, you have direct access to next door’s building (number 24) which houses the Käthe Kollwitz museum.

There is an extensive exhibition of the artist’s works, and the garden is peaceful and sprinkled with contemporary art.

Number 25 is the rather exquisite Villa Grisebach, now home to a modern art gallery. Perhaps best known for the Schlesisches Tor Train Station, built around the turn of the century (1899-1901) architect Hans Grisebach’s style of German Neorenaissance cannot but impress through the richness of details. The exterior is characterized by intricate metalwork and excellent proportions, while the interior, basked in light courtesy of the immense windows, holds an elaborately carved wooden staircase and a large beautifully tiled fireplace. Entry is free.

There is a small, secluded garden in the back.

The gardens in Fasanenstrasse now have a special place in a quiet corner of my mind. The silence, the soft light, the flowers. But to quote someone wiser than me, “If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”*

*Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden.

Berghain (extra)

Once in Berghain…

number of times Baddie went in search of the ladies’ loo: 3

number of times Baddie found the ladies’ loo: 0

what Baddie did find instead: a giant swing

what Naggie found: a big burly guy to bump into repeatedly to make the swing fly (he enjoyed it)

what techno friend found (by climbing the chains of the swing): the ceiling



Edit: just found out that loos in Berghain are unisex.

Baddie goes to Berghain (part 2)

So where were we? Ah, yes, in the rain, in a remote corner of dark Berlin. Luckily, pal Naggie has some proper magic skills. I kid you not, I need only think of a cab, and she has summoned one. In the blink of an eye. And it’s a repeat-trick, too! So in a cab again, heading to the Raw Gelände – which turned out pretty raw indeed. Out we scurried through the rain through – you guessed it – a dingy looking industrial space with some grey buildings scattered around. They were obviously “underground” bars and clubs – unfortunately for us, so underground, that they had no signs on. We asked a bouncer about the location of the “Ressort bar” and he looked at us like we were certifiable. We grinned maniacally, just to prove his point. In the meantime, though, behold came the text from techno friend: “we’re not in Raw Gelände anymore… we’re now somewhere 30 minutes walk away” whaaaat?

I break down sobbing. So does Naggie. (No, not really). Given that a) it’s still raining b) it’s after 1 a.m. and c) we really can’t be bothered anymore, we go in the closest bar and have a vodka. Ah, life is beginning to look good again. Techno friend texts again to say they are coming back to our area (yay). I text him the name of our bar. (“Smuty trick”? “Dirty tit”? Something like that.) He text back: “the transvestite bar?” I look at Naggie, who looks at me. We glance around surreptitiously. Nope, none that we can spot, anyway.

A bout of chilling and a vodka later, the guys show up. (Ha! I bet you thought we’d never meet. Well, we thought so, anyway). And we go to another bar in the Gelände with pretty awesome music, where among other things I find out (from gay guy) that there’s such a thing as a gay ball-room dancing. I go “oh, that’s really cool” and he looks at me, looks aside, and murmurs: “uhm, you know… it’s for lesbians too.” I smile, and through my haze of alcohol try to decide if he thinks I’m a lesbian. I’m thinking yes. I don’t really know the appropriate response, so I just produce an inane “oh, cool” again and grin.

Two vodka cranberries later we start off for Berghain. Now, this club is famous. Or infamous. Your pick. Everybody knows that the techno music is absurdly good, and the location is a knock-out. And everybody knows that it’s damn hard to get in. I had read blogs and comments online before, and they were either raving about the coolness of the club, or the harshness of the door policy. People who were turned away went home to change clothes. A few times. Because their look was off or something. Not that anyone can tell you what the “right look” is. Some even changed friends. And everyone warns you against going in larger groups. And by that, they mean anything more than two. I remember reading this sob-story of a girl who pretended not to know her friends in order to get in; only, she was let in, and they were turned down, and as she was in the doorway she turned and a single teardrop shone in the corner of her eye (ok I’m embellishing it a bit) and the mean tattooed bouncer caught on and kicked her out along with her friends. That sort of story.

Well, after walking through the last remaining muddy field in Europe for about an hour (techno friend’s “shortcut”) we finally arrived at the entrance of Berghain. And yes, I concur, the regulated queue with metal bars right and left directing the “common people” coupled with the stark blinding light directed towards us did make me feel a bit like cattle. Which is nicer than what others have described it as (*cough* “concentration camp” *cough*) And you could feel the tension in the queue. People were nervous, and they really really wanted to get in. Anyone turned away (for no apparent reason and quite curtly) looked like their puppy just died.

We get the following low-down from techno friend: “After we pass that bit in the line, we’ll pretend we don’t know each other.” Huh? “Try to look not too drunk” Too late for that, kiddo. “Actually, it’s better if you don’t talk at all.” Double huh? “Don’t be scared of the bouncer.” As if. “Look him in the eye. Say hi or something.” “And pretend you’re German”. Easy-peasy, with my accented German and Naggie’s basic “Zanke and Ja”. I look at techno friend. He nods firmly, turns his back to us and proceeds to ignore us. Hmmm. I look at Naggie and start giggling quietly. She reciprocates. I giggle louder. And then I remember something I must tell my friend: “I AM THE QUEEN OF LESBIANS” I proclaim very loudly. “THE QUEEN OF BALL-DANCING LESBIANS” Naggie snorts. People behind me stare (silently). I insist: “No really…”

Ah, we are at the front of the queue. The guys get in (after they are asked how old they are. Hehe). We wait for a group with passes to get in. In the mean-time, heavily tattooed bouncer comes out. I gaze at him in raptures. Cool tats, and cool rings! Another bouncer asks me if it’s just the two of us. I say yes. A third one give us the once over and waves us in.

Baddie and Naggie get cattle-stamped

Berlin: Napoljonska

TIP 1: Cafe Napoljonska in Kastanienallee

Berlin: Napoljonska.

Baddie goes to Berghain (part 1)

Last weekend, Baddie’s “Indian tonic” (aka Naggie) flew in from London … and almost didn’t make it Tegel due to weird happenings on the plane. But all’s well that … err… begins strangely. For a few days, Naggie, myself, and occasionally Mr. Baddie, painted the town grey. You know, to match the weather.

More of our adventures in the new section of this blog called Baddie’s Berlin. For now let’s stick to last Saturday evening. Naggie had already threatened she wanted to go “to one of those dance clubs” Berlin is so famous for; and me, having watched Queer as Folk religiously, and very much hoping for something Babylon-style, literally jumped at the opportunity.

Let me begin by saying that, like all the other entries I have had the dubious pleasure of writing so far, this is made up out of entirely true stories. And in the interest of truth, we did start the evening by drinking one bottle of white wine, one bottle of champagne, and one of red wine, with two other friends (the fat girl and the black girl). Anyway, that’s almost a bottle per head. During which we found out that in a village somewhere in … Germany? Kazakhstan?  (can’t bloody remember), the inhabitants will literally shout “WHO ARE YOU?” and other such questions at strangers. Good stuff.

Soooo. We took Twain’s adage that “sometimes too much to drink is barely enough” quite seriously and more or less ended up in fits of giggles. Around midnight though, Naggie and I did a Cinderella and took off, as we were supposed to meet two other friends (the techno guy and the gay guy) to go to legendary Berghain. Ok, in the interest of truth again, we weren’t all exactly bosom pals, as we had only met the gay guy the day before, but hey, he was cool and I bond quickly.

Now, our meeting place was called the Ressort bar. The techno guy – friend had sent me a longish text with this name, about four lines with hints and tips about the location, and a final piece of advice to “google it”. Which I did. Without paying much attention to the bits in the middle – who would, anyway? Skimming is soooo much better! That’s how I got to believe we were going here. Nice, no? Well, I did think at the time that it was too good to be true, and my friends would probably not choose such a posh place except by accident (though I would). I also thought that it might be quite dreary to go on a terrace by the river in the cold and rain, but I’m not one to whine upfront (just during and after) so the address we gave to the cab driver was Hamburger Bahnhof.

Oh man. Big mistake. Because that area is dead. And the cabbie dropped us there and sped away as if his engine was on fire. Imagine now, two fuzzy heads, a vacant industrial plot, a large-ish amount of unrelenting rain, no people, and an iphone that does not show the exact location of this club, but appears to believe it is on the right side of the river Spree. Oh, and stumbling across a sign directing us to Ressort, 450m with an arrow pointing vaguely North West. When no such path was clearly visible.

We did what any sane person would never in a million years do: we started along the dimly lit walk way on the left side of the river taking us through some sort of … parking lot? everything closed, empty and dark. After about ten minutes of this cheerful jaunt, muttering maledictions in the general direction of the by now long-gone cabbie, we decided to go back. We went over the bridge. And stopped in front of a large metal gate. This is where my phone clearly wanted us to go through. Even if it was locked. And it said “cemetery” on it. Hmmmm.

Trudging on, then, to the next street. And on. Still raining. Ah, there we are. Going left. Just a bit more. Should have reached it by now… oh, what’s that? The ministry for agriculture? Ok, I give up. We call my friend and ask where he is. He is in Ressort club. And where is that? Raw Gelände, Warschauer Strasse, the other end of Berlin.

The phantom Ressort Club

Baddie and the Box Lady

You know, I’ve been looking back at some of my stories and realized that the majority of the strangers talking to me seem to be men. I mean that both literally and figuratively – as dear Judith Butler puts it, gender is entirely performative… It also looks like whatever I do, I can’t escape being approached by people – it’s as if I have a 36-inch Times New Roman message on my forehead inviting everyone to SPEAK TO ME! 

Case in point: I went to my university two days ago, on a public holiday, to hand in some documents. The place was deserted – just me, a couple of dozy students, and three admin staff. Excellent! I say to myself – there is no way in a million years some stranger will come talk to me now. But wait, what’s that? As I am blissfully ambling along the corridors, headphones in, a short, middle-aged guy in a jogging outfit grins at me, and stops in his tracks. I can see him mouthing something. NOOOOOO! I inwardly shriek. “Yes?” I utter politely, switching off my music. “Where is the kitchen?” the guy repeats. “The kitchen?” I ask puzzled. “The kitchen.” he confirms. How the heck would I know? I didn’t even know our university had a kitchen. “I can tell you where the cafeteria is…” I offer. “No” he sniffs “I already know that” and walks away. Errrr….

But it’s not only men who seem to be compelled to talk to me. Oh no. It’s women too. A few days ago, out of the 50 people standing on my tube platform, who did the middle-aged lady choose to ask for directions? Even if I was visibly listening to music and had my earphones firmly in? And even if I am possibly the least qualified person to help, having moved to the city only a few months ago?  You got it.

Last but not least is an encounter that happened to me while shopping in my local supermarket. Which is rather undeserving of that title, but it’s where I get my bread. Or try to. Anyway. So, the deal is this. I normally don’t have a 1-euro coin to use for the shopping trolleys, and find them too cumbersome anyway for the small space. And they don’t provide baskets. Which leaves me one option only – to store everything in my bags, and take everything out back at the check-out. This has caused problems in the past, as another shopper started placing her items on the conveyor belt immediately after mine. When I hadn’t even managed to get 20% out of my bags. When I shyly pointed out there was no space left for my things, she retorted: “But how would I know you have 100 more bags? Ha! Well. I have fewer things, so I’ll just go ahead of you.” And she did.

This story, however, is a tad different. Because I only had one bag, and so had to pile groceries in my arms. Slowly, the molehill turned into a mountain – and with one sudden move everything spilled on the floor. What are the odds? But anyway, after 5 minutes spent meekly collecting everything, this elderly lady approaches me and points to one of the huge metal boxes the store uses for sales items. “Look!” she goes. I watch her with apprehension. “Come, come!” Oh, I think. Maybe I missed something – those sneaky ham packets sure can fly! I look inside, and can only see some store trash – wrappings and such. “Get that!” the lady commands me. I blink, confused. “Oh, maybe you can’t reach it.” she concludes. “Never mind, I’ll get it for you.” And she reaches all the way down, grabs and produces a small cardboard box, the size of a shopping basket. “Here, to carry your shopping so it doesn’t fall” she smiles and presents it to me. I smile back. I love strangers.