Freelance and non-committal is the way of life if you’re under 30 in Berlin. It gives you a free ticket to guilt-free lie-ins, an excuse to partake in wild Sunday night clubbing exploits which spin on in a narcotic haze into early Monday. The under 30’s in Berlin reject the rat race. Instead they fill their days with journeys to organic supermarkets with tattered tote bags swinging off their bicycle handles, eventually finding time for an activity which provides them with just enough connection to the real world – usually studying or working in a coffee shop. Joining the ranks as an honorary Berlin twenty something, I chose the Irish pub as the steady supplement to my freelance lifestyle.
  
The Irish pub is an international phenomenon. From the Americans who treat St Patrick’s day like a national holiday, to tourists who share Instagram snaps of clinking Guinness glasses, the Irish pub has become a beloved shrine to laughter, song and drinking. It’s appeal plays on the universal fondness for the Irish and our expectations of their charm, amenity and penchant for a tipple or two.

All cultures and backgrounds who step through its doors are looking for the same thing. They do not expect fine dining and they know that the wine list won’t be up to much. The rule is: order a beer. A whisky if you know your stuff. Expect the atmosphere to be loud, for the odd glass to smash above the drunken chatter. But this is all accepted within the bounds of the innocent banter and jollity. A certain tolerance permeates the bar. The vast variety of nationalities leaves no room for judgment.

There is one man in my pub who comes alone every Sunday, sits for seven hours and drinks a Schöfferhofer Weizen per hour. He told me that he is an Irish construction worker who has been in Germany for over 20 years but still doesn’t feel it is his home. I asked him if he would like to return to Ireland. He said there is nothing for him there and he will move on somewhere else. He likes to think of himself as a nomad. He says, “you’ve either got it in yuh or you haven’t”. But his loyal weekly sojourns in the pub tell me otherwise. I can’t help thinking – as he sits there lonesomely staring at nothing in particular – that he is dreaming of his home country. That far away in Germany the Irish pub provides him with a connection to the past or to something comforting he has left behind.

I have noticed this pattern in several visitors. Many sit like the Irish man – couples too. Feeling no pressure to make much conversation, they while away the hours with beers in hand. Their stance is not closed off but open. They observe the others and let out a smile when they see them having fun.

Nationalities become meaningless. As a waitress, I lose the ability to distinguish between German and non-German customers. It is only when I need to communicate with them that their guise of all-purpose reveller is pulled back to reveal their true identity. Since I often forget which language I have been using for each table, I settle for a half-German, half-English approach which ends up with a mélange of waitress jargon that can be understood by everyone – “everything OK?”, “another drink?”, “pay?” (or indeed, for the latter a simple mercantile rub of the fingers will do).

Of course, when you’re on the side of the service, as it gets busy the waitressing style becomes one of no nonsense. Charm and banter go a long way, however, once the place fills up, the customers you were just chatting to become drunken obstacles in through which you are fully licensed to barge using the clutch of eight Berliner Pilsners as a battering ram. One gets used to straight-talking: informing with a weary sigh the more pernickety of punters that the barman will most certainly refuse to accommodate their far-fetched drink inventions. In busy situations, cultivating one-word answers to queries as to the location of the bathroom, the function of the jukebox and/or cigarette machine.

With the exception of one unfortunately snobby English woman I once encountered, who insisted that the Irish stew she was served was inauthentic, the visitors generally accept the lack of sophistication of the venue – even revel in the excuse it gives them to let loose and drink their troubles away!

Image: https://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C9BKJA_enGB643GB644&hl=en-GB&tbm=isch&sa=1&ei=YtxNVvDALqK-ygPdtarwAg&q=irish+pub+guiness&oq=irish+pub+guiness&gs_l=mobile-gws-serp.3..0i13i30j0i8i13i30.3747.5083.0.5159.8.8.0.0.0.0.206.909.2j4j1.7.0….0…1.1.64.mobile-gws-serp..2.6.826.xrv8YLpmu38#imgrc=UAlIHIkgLqi-nM%3A 

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Named the Palace of Tears, the museum on the site of the arrivals and departures hall on the former border crossing between East and West Berlin may seem to have a rather over-romanticised name. However, this title appears justified after your visit. Indeed, this site was the symbolic epicentre of the emotional impact of the internal German divide, where the trauma of families being forcefully torn apart reached its pinnacle.  

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Closely following the demolition of the Berlin Wall, this site was not immediately dedicated to commemoration. In Germany, the compulsion to rebuild the united country took over from dwelling on the past and the space was used as a room of requirement for community events. Political priorities and values having now shifted towards recognition and confrontation of the past, this is an important site which seeks, through part reconstruction, to make contemporary society aware of the true force of impact exerted by the divide on real people. 

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If it is a conscious strategy or not, the impact on the visitor is heightened by the conditions in which you enter the museum, which simulate the experience of the former border crossers. When you arrive, before you have time to absorb your surroundings, you are immediately welcomed by a uniformed woman who firstly enquires as to the intentions of your visit and then dutifully ushers you towards the reception desk. With similar haste and efficiency, you are then whisked into the cloakroom, where you are instructed to stow your coats and baggage in the lockers provided. You then emerge and present yourself to your tour guide, stripped of your possessions and feeling somewhat exposed, as though you too are under inspection at the discretion of the officials. An unsettling ambivalence characterises your arrival: although the you lock away your baggage yourself, you still feel robbed of it somehow. Moreover, although the staff are friendly, you have the feeling of being steered and supervised. Having descended several steps, you now look up towards street level, feeling diminutive within the suspicious open spaces of the museum floor.

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Despite being heavily encouraged to take a tour, I was glad that I had. The experience of our guide, who had relocated to West Germany from Chile, was able to illuminate the glaring contrast between Western and Eastern travel rights. She drew attention to ludicrous aspects to the divide, such as the fact that underground lines, which went from the West, dipped into the East and returned to the West, would not stop at the Eastern stations where guards were stationed to ensure against the more audacious of escapees who might hurl themselves out of the windows. Of course, rather than people desiring to cross into the East — given that, for Westerners, there was little appeal — what was more common were small packages or notes being thrown over, hopeful to reach one’s relatives. 

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In the museum, the visitor also gets the chance to pass through the original passport control rooms. Opening and closing at the whim of the official inside, the doors would sequester you inside a tiny space where you would reach up to present your passport to the man perched atop a high desk, whose accipitrine eyes could peer at you with at all angles thanks to numerous mirrors on the walls and ceiling. Once through this claustrophobic room, the present day entrance of Friedrichstraße train station shines before you through glass: a symbol of imminent freedom from the chilling ordeal of these controls.  

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The most vivid reflection that this museum elicits is how the division of Berlin affected both sides of the Wall. This site reveals the Wall as a terror in itself, independent of the two political systems whose clash sparked its construction. It was a force which bludgeoned its way through and caused psychological torture for the lives of people on both sides. In this arrivals hall, Westerners too came into contact with repression; they had to jump through the same hoops, feeling under observation, suspicion and inferior to the system. 

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Western tourists today — despite our lack of personal connection to the division — must derobe, surrender our possessions and are transported back to a surreal reality. It is difficult for us to imagine the existence of such an organised, efficient system which was maintained on a daily basis and consciously caused so much overt pain to the people whom it ripped apart. However friendly the present day museum staff appear, their presence helps you to picture the routine, mechanical way in which officials would have gone about their jobs to ensure the smooth running of departure and arrivals, without a care for the grief of the divided families around them. 

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On reflection, the ‘Palace of Tears’ has enormous poetic gravitas, for the act of crying is one of the most real and uncontrollable expressions of human emotion. It is painfully ironic that this site be a palace where the deepest suffering of its people is encased by the regime. 

  
Having got an almost imperceptible nod from the barman at Cosmic Lounge when we enquired about the Comedy in English event, we followed his nonchalant point towards the back of the bar. A wobbly descent of some black-lacquered stairs led to a fuzzy peach curtain, half of which was propped open by a shaggy haired man’s shoulder as he guarded the entrance. Once he was satisfied with our names, which we uttered like a secret password, and he had received our €5 entry fee, the guardsman’s sceptical scowl stretched into a wide-mouthed smile which began to produce a jovial, Scottish slur. Hearing my native English beam back at his, he gave me a wink and placed my free shot in my hand.

I couldn’t help thinking that a pattern was emerging here. As I have mused many a time since being in Berlin, the confusing mystery which shrouds events such as this must be quite intentional. It seems Berliners are dogmatic disciples to the God of Underground, whose rules hark back to a time of state control where people would flood to the embrace of the private sphere and where you avoided drawing unnecessary attention. The result is that events appear like an afterthought; a ramshackle mushrooming of people who appear to have spontaneously happened upon a venue in some forgotten corner of the city. Naturally, this automatically qualifies it as the place-to-be.  

Once past the curtain and into the subterranean depths of a mould-pungent basement, we found a seat on one of the wooden benches which had been slanted at a quirky angle from the stage. The room was in shadows save for certain spots that one’s eyes were drawn to: a half-moon disco ball Pritt-Sticked to the ceiling, ripped stickers slapped onto the sides of speakers and the words ‘Cosmic Comedy’ in crumpled tin foil hanging above the stage by string, which looked as though it had been trashed by a bunch of drinker ravers, or had been crafted by the genius of a 4 year old. Either way — and this comes from the reluctant sceptic in me — it was an undeniably conscious attempt to create a tatty, boho ambience; even the haphazard ‘m’ which hung lower than the other letters had been attached so by a purposeful safety pin. 

Looking around at what crowd the promise of free shot and pizza had drawn in, I noticed a predictable demographic of tattooed twinkies shaken with a hint of tourists left over from Lollapalooza. However, when the pizza arrived as a welcome preprandial to the show, their stick-it-to-the-system vibe dissolved into the tentative deference of stooges in an experiment as they pondered how many slices they dare take from the load of boxes casually plonked on some tables at the back. 

Just as the last slice had been eaten, the show began. Our host was a brummie whose style was built upon solid, unfaltering foundations of screeching. His bellows served to introduce a host of amateur acts who were largely British and American expats (or a German with infallible English) and relatively early into their careers in the Berlin stand-up arena. Their jokes were spun from personal experiences of the life of the poor, bohemian student-cum-artist living in Berlin. Their stories were underpinned by anecdotes that happened whilst high or whilst in some dive in Friedrichshain. One frizzy-haired American, whose pride for his geek-fro gained him immediate sympathy, told a tale  — that closely reflected the sentiments of Afroman’s ‘Because I got high’ — of his fall from greatness in a Berlin start-up after having been seduced by the drug scene. Of course, given the German setting, some reliable, old international banter was served up. Many of the comedians raised the roof with their playful teasing of Germans, much to the embarrassment of the few blushing natives in the audience.

An atmosphere of acceptance and good-natured fun was firmly established: the host encouraged the audience on several occasions to be respectful of the acts (mostly by trying to manifest even the smallest glimmer of our giggles into as hearty a laugh as we could manage). If I didn’t already suspect it given the sheer amount of English one hears around Berlin, I certainly came away with a sense that the English speakers in this city are a solid and active community. And funny, apparently! 

Recently, I took in (as one says) two thought-provoking photography exhibitions at Berlin’s C/O Art gallery. The first, entitled ‘Eyes Wide Open!’, mapped out 100 years of photography taken with the Leica camera. The exhibition defied chronology; save the small date which was displayed seemingly unimportantly below each photograph, the attention was turned towards the medium itself. It was clearly significant how the medium had advanced over the century, yet, given that all of these momentous historical events had been captured through the same 35mm lens, the effect was to unite the 100 years of photography; taking each image back to the original, personal moment which inspired it. Inside each black and white image was the snapshot of human experience, which had been petrified and made timeless. 
Among the images which have become iconic of great historical moments were The Man Jumping the Puddle by Cartier-Bresson, The Kissing Couple in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt and the Vietnamese fleeing from Napalm by Nick Út. 

 

The second exhibition was ‘Compatriots 1977 – 1987: Two Germanys’ which depicted selected photographs by Rudi Meisel of life either side of the former East-West German border. What struck me about this exhibition was the lack of stark differences between the Eastern and Western scenes. I caught myself regularly having to check the description card below each image to try to contextualise which side of the wall it had been taken in. The photographs illustrated the prosaic, everyday life of average people who were going about similar, unremarkable lives, regardless of what political system they were under. On both sides of the wall boys were playing football in empty car parks, elderly women were lined up at bus stops and chubby babies were being pushed along in prams. The only overt distinction between the otherwise arbitrary assemblage of photographs which could have been taken from the same family album, was the occasional glimpse of a western brand name on someone’s bag. 

This made me reflect that an image only becomes significant when it is placed in a particular context, and retrospectively imbued with external cultural and political associations. Our collective memory of an event or period in history is dependent upon the images which are most dominant in the public domain and become our reference point for that time. Indeed, pictures can lie; a particular image can become sensationalised and can cause us to adopt a distorted impression of the past. I remember my A-level art teacher once telling me that the Monalisa was of little artistic skill or value, but rather it cost so much due to ‘a lot of hype’. 
 That is not to diminish the two exhibitions I saw today. The style (small sized, black and white images on a sparse background) stripped the images back to the singular moment in time that they represented. In that moment the person that image is disarmed, unaffected and true. 

Looking out of the first floor window of the C/O towards the bridge of Zoologischer Garten train station — a busy, central location in the former West of Berlin — I looked upon the life outside as though I were a photographer waiting to catch a significant moment. The buzz from beneath the window was the sound of lives intersecting and people interacting; individuals woven into a network of others. So many noteworthy encounters or events could have been happening around me in that very moment. 

I wondered what the most iconic image would be of this year, this day, this moment in Berlin. Would it be a young mother on a bicycle with a trailer attached to the front carrying her red-cheeked and beaming litter of three, whose voices warble with glee as she rides over the cobbles of Prenzlauer Berg? Would it be the Turkish wedding band singing and dancing outside Curry 36, summoning the bride from her apartment block in Mehringdamm? Would it be the crazed, wailing shuffle of a troubled drug addict staring at the camera with wild, glazed-over eyes clutching onto a carton labelled ‘Sangrhia’?

It seems that the well-to-do streets around Monbijouplatz and Oranienburger Straße are the new hang out for the suits in Berlin. Out they pour from their stuffy offices to be unwound by beer and a rather unique bite to eat.

Concept bars and restaurants create from within their 20 square metres an oasis dedicated to a particular speciality. Hummus and Friends offer a Menü which comprises essentially of large bowls full of hummus done several ways: with chick peas, Fava beans, Tahini or Quinoa, served with a doughy chunk of pitta bread. With similar audacity, Princess Cheesecake is menu-less, secure in the knowledge that merely their window display bulging full of more varieties of sweet and savoury cheesecake you have ever seen is certain to prove irresistible for any sufferer of the post-work slump. 

  
Also at around 7pm — when the amber sun has leaked down the sky leaving a glinting residue on the rim of the Fernsehturm — this area becomes a haven of all sorts of meet-ups. Wine enthusiasts, tea tasters, comedy fans, arty types or tango dancers; there are meet-ups to cater for anyone looking for a ballast against the autonomy of city living. I happened across a meet-up for internationals which was going on at Cosmo Lounge – a convenient distance from work. I found out that this meet-up had been established for quite some time and had already prospered a close group of regulars. 

  
It took some time, at first, to break away from the comforting ties with which the British corner pulled me in. Together, we shared first impressions of the city and came to the mutual conclusion that, once you think you have a handle on Berlin, it has a sneaky tendency to surprise you with an entire district that it magics out of nowhere. 

Once out into the international crowd, I met a chirpy Italian-South African construction worker who was weary from 2 years of aimless dating. I met a successful young Dutch woman whose achievements in business and property, were it not for her fresh beaming face and sprightly energy, would have made her unbearably intimidating. Two animated Italian guys, whose cheeky flirtations made it clear their stay in Berlin was for pleasure and certainly not for business, accosted me with quip after irritating quip, clearly proud of their English word play abilities. A stout, American giant of a man lumbered up to me. Underneath his looming presence he was gentle and sensitive, straining down to hear what people said and reluctant to share much about himself. A shame since the gem he had been modestly withholding was that he was a scientist working on images of Mars. I also came across a couple of Kiwis, a token Aussie, and a fabulous Latino girl. 

Each of the characters I met, despite their diverse and meandering stories that had led them to Berlin, seemed to share an openness and enthusiasm for the city itself. We agreed that, compared to other highly-touristic cities, Berlin does not sink under the weight of tourism. On the contrary, it gives the immediate feeling to new settlers of an easy adjustment to Alltag (everyday life). 
Of course the room was also punctuated by Germans gravitating towards Berlin from all over the country. With them the conversation was sparked by a discussion of my accent in German, which I incidentally discovered, although decidedly there, could be taken more for a Scandinavian speaking German than a Brit. We reflected on the stereotypes of other languages, the attraction to a person with a particular accent, and the guilt of British people who breeze confidently around the world without having to modify their native tongue. They were intrigued at the reasoning behind my decision to learn French and German. I explained to them that I enjoy the ways in which both German and French shape the English language and revel in the idea that English is a love child of the two.  

Given the variety on offer and the possibility to meet even more people from the international melting pot of Berlin, this certainly will not be the last meet-up that I attend. 

www.meetup.com 

Continuing the theme of Berliners reserving the right to mystique and segregating certain things purely for those in-the-know, the introduction to meditation class I went on was typically near impossible to find. Looking for number 1 on Heidebrinker Straße, I expected to see a conspicuous sign for ‘Dhyana Centre’ where the workshop was to be held. I was left gaping at a concrete void at the address, empty but for a closed dental practice. Contrary to all logic, my first clue lay around the corner on the list of surnames living in a block of apartments, where I happened to spot the tiny word ‘Dhyana’. Thinking it unlikely, but worth a shot, I buzzed for the mystery resident and, to my surprise, the buzz was reciprocated and I was permitted up. A steep ascent followed of peering at the name on every single apartment door until, from the roof-level, a hopeful shaft of light cascaded down from a propped-open door like a message from above. Through the doorway, I discovered a private balcony with view over the city and another yawning doorway beyond which I assumed to finally lie the Dhayana Centre. 

Thankfully, a beautiful cuddle of Asian warmth welcomed me — and this not just by the guru himself! Perhaps it was the relief of having arrived at the correct place and my flushed cheeks from the eight-floor quest, but the effect of taking off one’s shoes, being offered tea and a space in the circle on the floor was overwhelmingly comforting. I had the feeling I had been transported to a very different and special place altogether. 

The tutor began by simply sitting with his eyes closed before us for a period of time which began awkwardly but, after a few minutes of staring at his unmoving presence, became oddly relaxing. When we were quite under his spell, he presented an overview of the so-called formula which would form the basis of the workshop. This formula would challenge the widely held assumption that meditation is a hobby adopted either by stressed out executives or yummy-mummies and involves posing hands-clasped and cross-legged whilst you attempt to ‘clear your mind’. 

Slashing and burning our preconceptions, Navin introduced us to the fundamental idea of his formula: the split self. This consisted of the I-outer which was the public self we construct and present to the world. In other words, it is an artificial perversion of ourselves which we have cultivated and continue to ‘feed’ in order to fulfil certain needs. Navin encouraged us, first of all, to identify this I-outer by asking ourselves how we believe we come across to others. By doing so, the challenge would then be to get in touch with the second, hidden half of the split self: the I-inner which, he believes, is truly us. The question one must pose at this stage is much more taxing: what is your primal desire? Navin said to try to uncover our very earliest childhood memory which may give us a clue as to the forgotten, un-corrupted base to our personalities. Only by eradicating our I-outer, would we live true to ourselves. 

Of course, this can all begin to sound like the airy ramblings of a self-help manual. However, as I sat there atop a random apartment block in North Berlin — perhaps at the absolute pinnacle of the alienation process thus far during the move to Berlin — something certainly resonated with me. All of the familiar routines, settings, objects and people which prop up my life had been removed and what I was left with was, simply, myself. I had no prompts at my fingertips to aid procrastination or distraction from who I really am. This made me reflect that we have all begun to live lives as someone else. We are orientated towards the particular ‘role’ we occupy and the ‘goals’ which accompany it. We hold ourselves up for judgment based on a set of external criteria: someone else’s idea of who we should be. Whilst it is important to have a function in society, we are completely out of touch with what we actually want beyond this.  
Navin’s most powerful musing stayed with me: since human beings have, in real terms, zero purpose on earth — indeed our presence is ultimately more harmful than helpful — we must therefore find a purpose for our own existence, which means something just to us. 
“Life supports you only when you are supporting life”

   Navin Pillay.

Based on a clipped whispering of a recommendation I had heard, a new friend and I entered and ascended the lift of the most unlikely location for a hip, underground bar: a shopping mall. Having firmly left behind the bright commercial blare and buzz from downstairs, we stepped out onto the top of five floors of parking spaces into the shadows. The only other soul who had ventured this far was a pierced and tattooed woman with ratty dark hair which hung down in strands from underneath a beanie hat. Puzzled at the lack of visual clues as to the existence of this bar, we decided to follow the goth as she scuttled off with keen intent. Lo and behold, as we climbed the car ramp behind her, it opened up to a roof-top where a little wooden hut housed a lady demanding €3 entrance fee. Glimpsing the promising view behind her, we readily gave over the money. 
 
Berlin from above did not disappoint. Nor, however, did it resemble any other view over a major city that I had seen before. Looking north from the Neu Kölln end, before us in the distance stood the Fernsehturm at Alexanderplatz, but it appeared a skinny, lonely figure poking up out of an expanse of lower buildings. The grey, higgledy pavement of concrete humming under the volatile night sky certainly had a certain drama, but seemed nevertheless low key and toned down for a capital city.

  
The bar itself appeared like a glorified shack that had originally been thrown together for shelter for smokers or the homeless. Perhaps it was rather British of me to wonder whether this ramshackle structure even possessed an official licence or planning permission! Inside was surprisingly full. There was a psychedelic pink glow that lit up the faces of the people, whose ‘chilled-out vibes’ exceeded any known scale of nonchalance, to the point where many of them appeared almost horizontal, slumped on low sofas in smoky swarms. There seemed a certain smugness among them that they were part of an exclusive, in-the-know crowd. One corner of the bar was occupied by a DJ booth filling the room with a minimalist pulse which had to battle it out against a meaty whiff which was coming from a hot dog stand in opposite corner. 

If at first a little slow to grasp the concept of this underground-come-rooftop scene, we were, of course, keen to make full use of the pass we had been granted into this secret world and revelled in its novelty. 

 
What a fitting setting for a ladies’ brunch! On Saturday morning I attended a Girl Gone International meet-up hosted in a little café tucked away in one of the slightly more well-heeled suburbs of Berlin. The  morning crowd was a tranquil scene of polo-shirt clad dog walkers browsing in craft shops and circles of parents fortressed-in to cafés by pushchairs whose giggling children doodled with chalk on the pavement. 
On the way to the meet-up the breeze carried me down the streets of Schöneberg and I couldn’t help but be drawn into the boutique shops which lurked beyond the doorways of otherwise imposing pale buildings, emitting an intriguing glow like low embers of a fire. The well-chosen pieces and meticulous arrangements of these little shops each revealed the specialist passion of the individual who had inspired them. Artisan jewellery glittered in the cave-like stores and chic handcrafted gifts were sequestered in amongst antique furniture and local art. 
The care which the residents of Schöneberg dedicate to their businesses is paralleled in their heightened consciousness of wellbeing. The cafés and eateries pride themselves on conjuring new recipes with alternative gluten-free, raw and vegan-friendly ingredients. These places aim to fill you with the sense that you are caring for your body and at the same time indulging it. Needless to say, there is also enough incense and meditation music to hypnotise any veteran yoga enthusiast.
Tumabé — the host of the meet-up — was no exception to this. The café was a subtle arrangement of antiques and decor inspired by the owneress’s travels to Bali. The owneress herself swanned around lighting candles in beveled glass jars and placing them carefully in clusters around the room. We sat on low cushioned benches at a tree trunk of a coffee table and could not peel our eyes away from the sumptuous chunks of homemade cake and quiche on the counter. The menu itself changed daily based on the latest fresh ingredients purchased; thereby adding to the overall ephemerality of the place. 

  
   
It was amazing how, from the practical uniformity of the Berlin streets outside, the sheer elegance of Tumabé could have the effect of transporting me to a quite other land: a place which transcended the orient, and enlivened tradition with modern twists and international flair. 

  
This atmosphere of fusion seemed apt for a bunch of travelling gals from around the world, keen share their experiences and form bonds in their new city! The conversation left the starting blocks with enthusiasm for the eclectic menu and from then leaped onto musings on international cuisine, then where to eat in Berlin and soon to a whole range of tips and tricks to life here. I quickly felt an affinity with these girls and, although this was merely the first of hopefully many more meet-ups, I was reassured by the discovery of a community whose experience mirrored my own. 

You wouldn’t know it from the silent side streets, where the oil painting of German suburbia is still intact, that you were in Neu Kölln, one of Berlin’s hippest districts. In the side streets, the hints towards the intercultural cacophony which is blaring out around the corner, are limited to either the odd rattle of Arabic music from a passing car or a glimpse of one of the door buzzers displaying a brilliant card-shuffle of surnames. 

  

It is when you reach the high streets of Sonnenalle or Karl-Marx-Straße that this regiment of pastel-painted flat fronts where all cultures and backgrounds sleep in calm anonymity, unravels. Like rain has dripped onto the canvas and the colours have begun to run, cultures of all descriptions begin to flow and dovetail into each other.  
Fighting for space to show themselves off, cultures compete with each other on a busy battlefield of tastes, smells and bargains. Döner kebabs sprout up from plains of Halloumi, falafel shrubbery grows on jagged cliffs of Pitta bread which slip and submerge into deep, unctuous pools of Hummus. Discount electrical shops butt up against shabby-chic bric-a-brac stores. Graffiti in several languages and peeling stickers and posters advertising a world of Happenings and events decorate the concrete walls of bio supermarkets and newsagents.

  

When you sit yourself down on one of the rickety benches — these are of course less the pavement terraces of Paris, more a bohemian afterthought — outside a given eatery which has taken your fancy, you notice patterns in the coexistence of groups. 

You are looked-at by passers-by, not via a down-the-nose sneer or perverted ogle, but with an undefensive curiosity which presupposes a sense of workaday cooperation and equality. Indeed, you are watching others as they are watching you. 

  

Groups of Arab men gather outside the shop of their close friend or relative, greet each other with As-Salaam-Alaikum and a familial cheer. Grisly biker types outside their antiques business crack open a beer and toast without a care if they loose half of it on the ground. A grey, socks-in-crocs clad man peers in the bin hopeful of finding a discarded plastic bottle to recycle for a few cents. The hipsters are of course hanging about, maintaining the unwashed, grungy look and shuffling up and down in flip-flops. 

Perhaps the most powerful example of the eclectic Mischung being churned out in Neu Kölln today was a young man at the table next to me. He had all the trappings of a goth but lacked the commitment for piercings and make-up. One biker-booted leg cocked over the other, he sat with the elegance of a French intellectual, espresso in hand, scribbling in a little leather notepad and humming along dreamily to the Egyptian drone from the kitchen. 

  

Having been defeated by the tower of avocado, roasted vegetables and humous that the lady in MJ’s Foodshop wanted to feed me up on — it appears I may have to acclimatise to the Middle eastern portion sizes — I wandered home, doggy-bag in hand. 

  

When the interminable blare of fluorescent tubes that make for blink-less eyes no longer faze you. When you welcome the dull, luggage-induced shoulder ache like a visit from an irritating relative. When you negotiate the airport concourse with the fearless, practised efficiency of a mother of five in a supermarket, then you may as well assume your status as a seasoned traveller. 
Upon arrival in Berlin, my mind slowly awoke from the autopilot rhythm with which it had unconsciously squinted up at boards and shuffled in queues and began to sit up straight and look out for what Berlin had in store.
Unlike other capital cities, Berlin is not flashy. On first impression, it lacks the pretensions of a ‘world class’ city. It appears to reject any temptation for sparkle, pomp or glitz; not wishing to lower itself to desperate efforts to impress its visitors. Whereas other capitals sling in their slickest new architecture and most state-of-the-art recycling initiatives on the pathway from the airport to the centre like a pushy salesmen racing out of their shops with dodgy promotions, Berlin seems to have nothing to prove.

Emerging from the plane, not into a grand temple of glass and marble like the airports of Paris or Barcelona, but into an aluminium shed in the middle of scrubland, one then journeys into the centre of Berlin via a circuitous, provincial S-Bahn ride that reveals through the hedgerows not a jungle roar of bolshy sky scrapers and mercantile eyesores, but rather the odd suggestion of a simple suburban twitter. The only structure to protrude the skyline is the Fernsehturm at Alexanderplatz, but even that emits not arrogance, but rather a humble air of purpose. 

There is a refreshing honesty about this city. Rather than trying to overcompensate, Berlin seems to embrace its scruffy edges, preferring — with quintessential German practicality — to simply get on with it than concern itself with aesthetics! 

Photo source: spreephoto.de (Forgive me, I’ll have my own soon!)