Saturday, 7 November 2009


One of the weak points of Berlin is definitely the weather. One might argue that I shouldn't go to Berlin in autumn/winter and expect great weather (and one would of course be completely right), but so far I really think it's been worse than your average European autumn. It's raining more than occasionally, it's clouded 95% of the time, and it's freaking cold. So when last weekend the weather wasn't so bad (you could even distinguish some shades of blue in the sky), we decided we could use that opportunity to tackle the second weak point of this city: topography.
Now I'm aware that this might be a Swiss peculiarity, but I find completely flat regions somewhat depressing, and Berlin and it's surroundings are flat. No idea why so many districts of the town are called something-berg. Kreuzberg, Prenzlberg, Schöneberg, Lichtenberg, but you definitely don't find any "mountains" here. The only thing you find from time to time are small round hills with heights of up to 50 meters that look topographically quite unnatural, such as the two Bunkerberge in Friedrichshain, or the Marienhöhe in Berlin-Tempelhof. So how the heck did these hills get into this otherwise so flat area?
The explanation is impressive, if not shocking: they're so called Trümmerberge, debris hills. After the extensive bombing of German cities by allied forces in the last years of World War II whole quarters were completely destroyed. During the post-war reconstruction of Berlin the debris of these buildings was piled up in several locations until dumping sites became actual hills. The Bunkerberge in Volkspark Friedrichshain (now one of the prettiest parks of Berlin) for example were built out of an estimated 2.5 mio m3 of debris. Makes you feel pretty queasy when you stand on them.
The biggest Trümmerberg of Berlin is called Teufelsberg, and that's where we went last weekend. It lies in the Grunewald forest in the west of Berlin and is about 80 meters high. It was built upon the ruins of a Nazi military college and made out of around 12 mio m3 of debris, which is about 400'000 buildings. Crazy stuff.
Anyway, enough of the historical legacy and back to the present: today the Teufelsberg is a popular place for Sunday afternoon family excursions, and a great lookout point over the surrounding forests. Due to it's relative elevation and it's treeless plateau "peak" it's great for kite flying, and there were dozens of kites in the sky when we got there. In winter there's even a ski lift running to allow lowland people to discover the pleasures of winter sports. The real attraction of Teufelsberg is a different one though: During the Cold War the NSA discovered the hill as an ideal place for an observation station to spy on the communists. First there was only a mobile air activity observation station, but soon they built a whole complex with five antenna domes. On request of the US government they even had to remove the ski station because it disturbed the signal reception.
After the fall of the Wall (coming Monday is the 20th anniversary of that historic date by the way) the station was abandoned and all the equipment removed. In the early nineties and the Berlin boom there was a project on building hotels and holiday appartments on the hill, but it's been abandonned due to heavy protests of environmentalists, and the station is in slow decay since. In 2003 they stopped to guard the fenced buildings, with the logical consequence that people started "breaking in" and exploring the structures, not seldom leaving graffiti or less artistic signs of vandalism. The combination of decaying and vandalized military-looking buildings full of graffiti in the middle of an overgrowing forest makes for an amazing postapocalyptic atmosphere that's probably best described by pictures...:

Friday, 30 October 2009

A Short Guide To Berlin... (Ok, Not Sooo Short.)

Today, the first month of my stay in Berlin is over, time for a little sum-up of my impressions of the city!

The first thing to learn when you move to Berlin (or plan to move there) is that looking for a well-situated appartment isn't as easy as it seems. The good old algorithm of the closer to the center, the higher the density of good nightlife, the shorter your way to university, the higher the rent and so on that works pretty well back in Switzerland doesn't really apply here. Mainly because Berlin doesn't have just one center; obviously not if you consider it's size of about 3.4 mio people. Here every quarter has it's own center, sometimes several of them (called "Kiez" here). Of course the main tourist sights like Brandenburger Tor, Fernsehturm or the Jewish Museum are centered in and around Mitte, but social life definitely doesn't only happen there, even less than in other districts. Also, the Freie Universität lies pretty far away from the town center in a rich suburb area where students can't afford living and probably wouldn't like living neither.

The most popular areas among students are Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Prenzlauerberg and Friedrichshain. If you take a look at german flat share sites, you'll get some 3000 to 3500 ads for each one of these barrios - and almost nothing for all of the other ones. So the student concentration and social dynamics are obviously pretty strong. (Dude, this is getting scientific! I should get some ECTS point for this!) And indeed I don't think I've ever seen a city where quarters develop so clearly and obviously over time as here. Every single one of the mentioned quarters has gone through a very similar transformation: First they where unpopular, poor and ghetto-like areas with lots of neglected and - especially in the case of Prenzlauerberg - uninhabited (but maybe occupied) buildings. The low (or inexistent) rents began to attract students, artists and whoever else there was without money, which began to form strong communities there and brought (alternative) culture and social life into these areas. Then pubs, clubs and döner stands began to sprout, rents began to rise, immigrants began to emigrate (at least to the cheaper areas a bit more out of town) and rastas began to grow... And so on. Prenzlberg is probably the most advanced in this development: it has already reached the stage of "Young hip parents - he graphic designer, she with her own small clothing label - begin to invade the area, drink organic cappuccinos there and push the rents" which many inhabitants of the "more real" areas like Neukölln or Kreuzberg look at with disgust. Indeed it's almost impossible to walk through a street in Prenzlberg without seeing at least 5 organic cafés or gelaterias filled with young mothers talking about what kind of vegan substitute for breast milk they feed their kids (it's really the area of Berlin with the most kids). So Prenzlberg isn't that popular anymore and has gained a slight aftertaste of snob-appeal, but without any doubt some of the most beautiful streets are to be found there... Picture perfect cobblestone alleys with magnificent buildings; parquet, huge rooms and ornamental plasterings are standard here. (And you still find an occupied house now and then from back in the early nineties. Chances are they'll sell you organic cappuccino too in the meantime though.)

Kreuzberg on the other hand is still pretty much in the hand of Turks, students and artists, and it's not (yet) as elegant as Prenzlberg. It boasts a density in Döner shops you probably won't find anywhere else in the world, has some great nightlife and is full of weird, funny, alternative, strange and whatnot shops where you can buy pretty much anything from comics from Sierra Leone to gay bondage wear. (You won't find a H&M though.) I myself was lucky enough to get a room in a flat right next to Görlitzer Bahnhof where Oranienstrasse, Skalitzerstrasse and Wienerstrasse meet, probably one of the coolest places you can get in Berlin. If you've ever read Herr Lehmann by Sven Regener: It's all happening right around this area, the bar Herr Lehmann works in is 3 minutes walking from my place. By the way: this book is a must for anyone interested in Berlin, and particularly Kreuzberg. It captures the spirit of this place perfectly, with all its great and not-so-great aspects... And is just way funny to read.
Talking about Kreuzberg spirit, let me try to explain it shortly: Kreuzberg is one of the poorer areas of Berlin, with a lot of unemployment, drug problems, alcoholism and other trouble. I wouldn't call it a ghetto or dangerous or anything, but you'll see lots of very different people from very different backgrounds (and not to forget with very different hairstyles), and not all of them look very healthy. But still there seems to be some inner cohesion and a natural tolerance that makes life very enjoyable here. Or to express it in wikipedias words (SO 36 being the part of Kreuzberg I live in):

Heute gilt SO 36 auf Grund seiner vergleichsweise hohen Arbeitslosigkeit als sozialer Brennpunkt. Zugleich zählt er dank seiner – nach wie vor vorhandenen – alternativen Szene zu den wichtigen Berliner „Ausgehbezirken“ und beheimatet viele Studenten. Zu den wichtigsten Adressen im Nachtleben von Kreuzberg 36 zählen die Oranienstraße und dieWiener Straße sowie die Gegend um das Schlesische Tor (der sogenannte „Wrangelkiez“).

So ist SO 36 in den Augen seiner Einwohner lebenswerter als sein Ruf in der Öffentlichkeit. Geprägt ist der Kiez von der Idee eines starken Zusammenhalts der Bevölkerung. Einwohner von SO 36 zu sein ist in hohem Maße „identitätsstiftend“. Eine große Faszination übt vor allem das bunte, multikulturelle und meist friedliche Zusammenleben aus.

Well said. That's why I love living here.

Another aspect that makes Berlin so interesting is that it's still a Pleitestadt. That means it's cheap, has a lot of alternative culture to offer and has this certain flair of fucked-up-ness that makes it really cool. Ironically the city owes most of these appealing characteristics to the Wall, both when it still stood and after it fell. Kreuzberg (which was mostly in Western Berlin) for instance was left by many of the old inhabitants during Cold War because they didn't want to live in the shadow of the Wall and where subsenquently replaced by artists, students and immigrants that formed the so popular Kreuzberg that still exists today. Prenzlauerberg and Friedrichshain, both mostly belonging to Eastern Berlin at the time, experienced massive emigration after the Wall fell, with many apartments left in perfect shape and still equiped with the prior inhabitants belongings. These apartments where then in the early nineties just occupied by the usual suspects, transforming the former DDR district into hubs of alternative life and culture.
Zynically enough, the city also benefitted somehow from the death strip becoming free space. Potsdamer Platz for instance, one of the city's business centres and landmark of modern architecture was built on terrain where 20 years ago barbwire and watchtowers stood. I mean: find me another city of that size where all of a sudden you just get several square kilometres of construction space right in the very center... Even today there is a lot of abandonned terrain in very central locations, often used for street art projects, as for example this.
This abundance of space has also kept rents comfortably low, at least if you compare to any Swiss city or other capital cities of this size and importance. Though prices have been rising recently, Berlin is still very affordable. You get your Döner for about 2.50 €, a 0.5 beer in a bar for around 2.50 to 3.00 €, and in case you pay to get into a club, it's normally between 5 and 10 €, for the biggest clubs (Berghain, Maria, Watergate...) you might have to pay 12€ on Saturday night. Funny detail here: don't come to Berlin with a nice chemise and shiny shoes to go out. The reason why you wouldn't get into a club here is because you're too well dressed (or, as rumour has it for certain clubs, because you're dressed at all). Now how's that for a dresscode?

OK, that's it for today, I'd have much more to tell, but I'm afraid this is anyway already too long to keep anyone till here... Finito allora!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Freestyle Berlin

Now who'd have believed this... Second day of my blog, second post. Freaking proud of myself! But don't worry, it won't go on like this... I just have some stuff of the past two weeks that I judge worthy of sharing on this humble online-diary of mine.
As for instance the Freestyle Berlin event of the past weekend. Many of you might already have heard of or even been at in Zurich. For those who haven't: It's a pretty big snowboard/skateboard/FMX event that takes place every year in September on the Landiwiese in Zurich, with some 50'000 spectators. Now for the first time they exported that whole concept to Berlin. The coolest thing was definitely the location: This whole thing went down in the out-of-service airport Berlin Tempelhof. This airport is one of the more interesting areas of Berlin: all the air traffic was stopped by October 2008, and the whole area has been unused since. There have been several projects on what to do with this huge surface in the middle of Berlin, and I guess in any other capital city of this size it would have been sold within minutes to the highest bidding investor who'd have stomped a business district or a series of apartment buildings out of the floor there, but not here: The government has decided to transform most of the surface into a huge park, to "balance the city's climate"... I like!
Well, back to the main subject: In the end the event wasn't really much of a success (despite the great location), with only 13'000 tickets sold instead of the expected 25'000 and rain almost all the time. I guess Berlin people just aren't ready to pay something like 50 € for a three day ticket to an event that promotes a sport they'd have to drive about 800 kilometers to practice. This just isn't Zurich. Anyway, I had won two day tickets (thanks, Pleasure!), and went there Saturday with Linn, eager to take some pictures, only to realize when we got there that my camera's battery was almost completely empty... Doh!
I still managed to take a few pics with the last electrons standing, so here they are:

And one final note: never ever allow your children to start FMX... These guys are complete psychos!

Monday, 12 October 2009

Tobi writes a blog now... Ain't that good news?

Ladies and Gentlemen... here it is: The long unawaited, never really asked for and never really needed, but nonetheless henceforth existing blog of Tobi in Berlin!
I must admit I don't really know why I'm starting this. Maybe it's just cause I'm bored right know and it's raining outside and I wanted to find out if I could add my own header and design to this blog (I can!), maybe it's because everyone who's going abroad for more than just a good tan apparently has to write a blog, maybe it's because I think writing a blog would push me to get my butt out of bed more and sleep less so I could tell my appreciated audience about my adventures, maybe it's because I've recently started to feel a bit braindead and thought a little writing might be a good attempt to reanimate my synapses. I'd like to say it's because I get so many mails every day that due to my tight academic schedule I can't answer them all personally and therefor keep my fan base tuned to the latest Berlin gossip with a blog, but I still get more mails offering me penis enlargement and %°CHEAP°PILLS°--°BEST°QUALITY°% than mails asking what's going on in Berlin and how the weekend was. I'd also like to say that I've seen so many things never seen before and experienced so many thrills never experienced before and heard so many stories never heard before (you get the point) that I feel an urgent need to share these things with you, but so far I've mostly been sleeping in (average get up time: 14:00... no really), buying stuff to make my room a bit less spartanic, waging war against university bureaucracy, wandering through (very cool) Kreuzberg and drinking the occasional beer and it's followers... Which was fun, but maybe not what you wanna spend your precious time reading about. :)

Anyway: Here's my blog! Shall it bring joy and enlightenment to all those who find their joy and enlightenment in blogs...