Only in Berlin

There’s a saying used often in New York, sometimes genuine, sometimes forced, whenever people come upon something special, or experience something unusual. There is a particularly insipid section of the New York Times dedicated to it every Monday, called Metropolitan Diary, and while it has become something of a cliché, New Yorkers use it proudly and frequently as if it could not possibly be applied to any other location. It is the phrase “only in New York,” said with a wistful sigh and a downward nod of the head, after one has witnessed two panhandlers battling for attention at opposite ends of a subway car, for example, or with a degree of excitement and disbelief after one has just seen a man in full drag come sauntering down the street with a parrot on his shoulder. But really, this phrase seems to work just as well here in Berlin, or perhaps even better, as the absurd seems to saunter its way down every street, and every corner you turn yields a new wonder you did not yet know existed. Sometimes your “only in Berlin” moment will only last a moment, but sometimes, as it did for me last Thursday, it can last for an entire night.

I started out the afternoon with coffee and cake on top of the Reichstag with Travis. I had been nice enough to transport his video camera all the way to Berlin from New York, along with assorted cables, boxes, and other contraptions that did I know not what, and he wanted to thank me by taking me out on what I would call a “platonic date” in front of one of the best views in town:

From there we biked up to Heidestrasse above Hauptbahnhof, where we hoped to find the Berlin outpost of a London-based gallery called Haunch of Venison, now showing an exhibition of really beautiful, colorful large-scale photographs of what appear to be crushed butterflies. We found the complex of old factory spaces it was supposed to be in, but couldn’t find the gallery itself, and instead ended up walking up three flights of stairs and into a completely different art space, where it just happened that a friend of a friend of mine was working. We stood and chatted for nearly an hour, marveling at the smallness of Berlin, and by the time we walked around the corner and finally came upon the gallery we had originally wanted to go to, it was closed.

So it was back to my house to have tea on my balcony for an hour or so, followed by a strenuous bike ride up to Wedding to meet our friend Hannah, who was working at a gallery opening up there. Now a note about Wedding, surely the most ridiculously named of all Berlin neighborhoods. Still a bit out of the range of cool, this area is to the Northwest of Mitte, and has a high population of African and Turkish immigrants. Those who think far ahead call it the next Neukölln, but right now it’s still pretty grungy, and worse still, a lot harder to get to than my old neighborhood. It has its share of canals, though, and as I discovered, simply outrageous architectural standouts. But first, to the gallery. We found it on a wide and shabby boulevard called Prinzenallee, and Hannah welcomed us in with descriptions of both the art and the artists, who happened to be two intensely good looking young Norwegian men. Travis and I explored out back and found two ladders and a lamppost in the courtyard. As we had all just seen ““Singing in the Rain”:” together, we both exploded into song and attempted to use the ladders and lamppost, all of which actually appear in the movie, as props. A few minutes later Hannah came out and worriedly told us that they were actually part of one of the performance art pieces that were going to be happening later. That would make the second time I’ve been to one of Hannah’s art openings and have touched something I didn’t even know was art. Finally everyone gathered for the performance art piece, and I prepared myself for what I thought would be an utterly pretentious display of self-indulgence. Instead, one of the Norwegians stood up in the window seat at the front of the gallery, clutching one of his wooden art pieces to his chest like a cross, and broke into a beautiful falsetto. He proceeded to sing both parts of the last few moments of Aida, and it was utterly mesmerizing. Then we went outside and, after a dynamic Saxophone solo by the other Norwegian, the singer again approached, climbed one of the ladders, and sung a mournful tune from the point of view of a sort of marionette-slash-court-jester.

But the real fun was yet to come. Determined to go to another gallery opening that the friend we had run into earlier that day recommended (there was a lot going on over the past week due to the annual Art Forum) at a space called, cutely, Micamoca, we decided to make our way by bike to yet another part of Wedding where it was located. We cycled back down Prinzenallee, which turned into the double-wide, not-very-appealing Pankstr., and were busy “admiring” the landscape of urban sprawl (the massive electronics giant Media Markt on one side, a “Sex Kino” on the other), when all of a sudden Hannah let out a shout. “Oh my God! Look right. Look right!!!” We skidded our bikes to a halt, turned our heads a mere 90 degrees, and were flabbergasted by what we saw.

Standing still and glowing across a green square from us was a façade big enough to remind one of the Cliffs of Insanity. It was something between a vampire’s castle and the neo-gothic gates of hell, and we positively lost our minds at the sight of it, as if some spirit swooping out of one of the windows had come down and possessed us. We biked around the square, which turned out to be a beautifully manicured park, to get a better look at the structure, and found out that it was no more nor less than the Wedding Amtsgericht—the local courthouse. We took pictures ecstatically and made up stories, and then took a little detour and biked the streets nearby as well, discovering a canal directly behind the square, which we had now found out was called Brunnenplatz, and some of the most gorgeous buildings we had ever seen, stark and white and full of art noveau detailing. At that moment, something in my mind switched, and I had a different view of Wedding than I had ever had before. Suddenly it was no longer just a cool neighborhood—it was a potential new place to live. And that’s another beautiful thing about living in Berlin. Not only do you sometimes run smack dab into architectural wonders like the Amtsgericht—such a plain name for such a transcendent work of architecture—you can also entertain the quite real possibility of moving to an apartment where you might have a view of it. Nothing is too expensive as to be out of your reach (and, is it turns out, Wedding is a lot cheaper than most).

But the night was not yet over, and we were only on the verge of the precipice, about to descend into an even deeper chamber of mysteries. With a couple of glitches on the way (getting lost, circling back around, checking a map, getting lost a second time even more embarrassingly) we finally reached Micamoca. A gallery and art space in a cluster of old industrial buildings centered around several cobblestone courtyards, it was unlike anything I had previously encountered in Berlin (and that’s saying a lot) and gave me wild ideas about outdoor music and summer nights and jazz dancing under the stars. Every room yielded a new adventure, and as we turned corners like intrepid explorers, we came upon everything from a glass-front room with octopi suspended in what appeared to be an airborne battle, to a beautifully bound book detailing every single sighting of the Loch Ness monster, to, perhaps most ingenious of all, a huge industrial claw that, as you watched, began slightly, ever so slightly, to shudder and twitch, lifting its legs and clenching its body until it was scuttling across the ground in slow motion like some kind of post-apocalyptic crab or spider.

On the way out, observing the moonlight-filled courtyard space, over which an eerie, anthropomorphic black balloon silently watched, an idea came to me that has not let up since. With so many gorgeous outdoor spaces in Berlin that didn’t seem to be used too often, why not start a theater company? There is nothing to fill that niche yet that I know of, and what an amazing concept. I could get actors and performers together to read plays, practice them in a rented space, and then go out into the city and perform them at different locations throughout the summer. A floating theater company, I thought. That’s what I could do. And the most amazing part of it is that it’s all actually possible. You can do something like that here. You can get a great idea and actually pull it off, instead of wondering about how you are ever going to pay your rent and afford health insurance. Berlin allows you the space to dream. Forget about America—Berlin is the land of opportunity, and sometimes, especially on nights like this, it is also the land of dreams.