Monday, 23 May 2011

The Kingdom of Quirkiness

Berlin, welcome to the top of my favourite cities list. This is an amazing place. I'd expected less. Cycling through northern Germany had been a little ordinary, with uninspiring scenery and unexciting villages. Then I hit former East Germany and it picked up a bit. The larger towns had something about them, like Stendal, Brandenburg and especially Potsdam, a little shabbier but also quirkier. But Berlin is something else. It is King of Shabbiness in the Kingdom of Quirkiness, at least in Kreuzberg, where we stayed. Other districts are tidier but duller as a result.

There's too much to do. Rather than five days, I could have stayed five months and still not experienced all of it. We saw the Jewish Museum. We had to. There is a strong suspicion that The Lovely Nina's grandma on her mother's side was Jewish. If Jewishness is matrilineal then Nina wanted to connect with her people. As well as the usual sickening holocaust stories, the museum offers some interesting spaces-as-art. One of them, the Exile Garden, is a perfectly symmetrical seven by seven grid of rectangular concrete towers topped with olive trees. The weird thing is that the ground is cobbled and slightly sloping and so while you wander between the blocks surrounded by all this precision you feel disorientated. You have to find your own interpretation. Never employ a German builder, perhaps. There are lots of other stuff like that. It's a museum you come away from with a memory of feelings rather than facts.

We also saw the Stasi museum, housed in the old Stasi headquarters, a massive complex of dozens of utilitarian tower blocks, a monument to time wasted in the name of population control. The museum houses a funky collection of espionage toys, like bugging devices. There was also a secret camera built into a watering can so that people could be spied upon at cemeteries, and a oil drum with a similar device so that it could take pictures of people in parking lots. Bonkers. If they'd spent half as much effort in dealing with their economy as they did spying on their own folk, their socialist dream might not have all gone tits up. It must have been awful living in East Germany during that time, with your every move under scrutiny and everyone desperate to find some intelligence. You must have felt like Katie Price.

When we had our three days in London we rented an apartment. It's about the same price as a hotel but you feel like you're actually living in the city. And importantly you've got a decent kitchen at your disposal, vital in London where a very ordinary meal can cost you up to one kidney. We did the same here in Berlin but, for a capital city, eating out was ridiculously cheap. We've had sushi, thai and Turkish meals for just a few euros. We even ate some German food I think.

And this has been the cheapest place to drink on my ride so far. A lot of minimarts put a picnic bench or two outside their shop. You can pop in, buy a beer from their fridge at normal shop prices and sit outside and drink it chatting to your mates. It seemed to be the way that a lot of the locals in this area socialised. It's certainly cheaper than paying three pounds fifty for a pint of fizzy shite from your local in the UK.

So, in conclusion, I feel like at some point after this ride is over I'll have to live here. It's got too much going for it not to. Kingdom of Quirkiness, let me in.

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