I knew before I got to Berlin that I would love it. This is a dangerous recognition that can lead to disappointment, but even in my first few hours and days, my gut feeling about the city was affirmed over and over again. I was only supposed to be here for a week as the final part of my fellowship. But I quickly found that a week wouldn’t be enough time, nor would I be content to only see Berlin in this structured and non independent context, so I extended my stay here by five days.
My University had arranged a beautiful apartment for us to stay in Prenzlauer Berg, a yuppie hipster neighborhood in the NE that is beautiful and full of good food and coffee. It was a nice place to stay, but not representative of where I would like to be in a city. I’m now couchsurfing in Kreuzberg, a vibrant and youthful neighborhood in the SE, one with expressive graffiti, equally good food and coffee that is cheaper, and an abundance of peers.
The first thing I saw entering the apartment of my couchsurfing host was a fixie hanging out the wall. Great start. He had things to do that day, but generously offered it to me for the day to aid in my exploration. Hell yeah. This was exactly the tool to be mobile that I needed.
By bike is the best way to see Berlin, or probably any city. But it is extra special in Berlin, because it is an extraordinarily bike friendly city. Sometimes there are as many bikes are cars on the road. There are bike lanes everywhere, and the cars know to just deal with us. Its also super flat and even though Berlin seems large on a map, the well thought out roads and flatness makes it very navigable on a bike. We had rented bikes last week, but they were these awful cruisers. On them, I felt glad to see the city on bike, but not comfortable to be on that particular bike. On the fixie, I was ready to go.
My plan for the day was to check out a few flea markets as well as just go where the bike took me. Being on bike and being alone is ideal for me. I can stop instantly when I want to, and if I make a wrong turn or see something that is off in a different direction from my destination, its not a big deal because I can make up the time quickly. The first flea market was just off of the canal in this neighborhood, and full was full of young hipsters trying on ugly sweaters in the sweltering heat. The things we do to look cool. There were a few artists selling cool prints, a bike mechanic, a lot of food trucks and all sorts of other cool knickknacks. But even without trying out sweaters, the heat was sweltering so I bought a Fritz-Kola (nice to see Coca-Cola doesn’t have such a strong monopoly here) and relaxed on the bank of the canal, watching old men fish while young kids flirted and younger kids swam.
I then decided to head back to Prenzlauer Berg to check out another flea market that I heard was gigantic. Along the way I crossed over a cool bridge that looked like a castle. Wanting to get a better look at it, I rode down the riverside for a bit and ended up accidentally at the East Side Gallery, which was left on my list of things to see. Accidents are not always bad…
The East Side Gallery is a really wonderful thing, one of the largest remaining sections of the wall is now full of very skilled murals. Its a fantastic exhibit of public art, with a diversity in subject matter and content, all tied together by their exhibition surface. But it has suffered recently, too many individuals have graffiti-ed over the murals, just countless names obscuring the original pieces. The neighborhood is also strange, fancy developments are in mid-construction limbo and nearby kitschy bars blast bad techno. Most people seem more considered with cool selfies than really soaking in the significance of the monument.
From there I rode around for a while before taking another stop in the Volkspark Friedrichshain. I’d seen in on the map and wanted to check it out, but in my previous week never got the chance. Its one of the bigger parks in Berlin, and people flock to it, bring barbecues, swim suits, books, sports and anything else for a day long getaway from the city feeling. Little kids played in the fancy fountains, the lawns were filled with people enjoying the end of the weekend. I had a nice nap and got some writing in, relishing in the fact that for the first time in a week, I didn’t have to rush anywhere anytime soon.
I did a full tour of the park on the bike before heading to the Mauerpark for the big flea market. And by big I mean gigantic. I resisted a lot of purchases because I can’t carry a set of chairs and a desk and a few paintings and cool silver and glass ware. But I got to look, and did walk away with a cool old Kodak Instamatic film camera. In the park was a huge Peruvian festival, so I left the bike locked up while I had a few beers and some street food, listening to drum circles, live bands and watching people sing and dance and be merry.
On my way home I stopped at Brunnenstrasse, a street that had been divided by the wall. It was another thing I’d seen a few times with the group but couldn’t stop at due to our timing. Its a really great public display of history that keeps alive the stories from that period and teaches the struggles that the wall imposed on daily life. Metal spires snake down the street, showing where the wall stood.
It started raining and for a second I thought, this is dangerous. Fixed gear, no brakes, slick tram tracks – I should take a tram. Nah, that’s no fun. This will be an adventure. Thank god I didn’t pussy out. I saw some sweet buildings, an awesome sunset, another art institution to check out, a bakery and more on the totally safe ride home. When in doubt, bike.
For me, its obvious that I’ll enjoy a city most by bike, because I love cycling. The pure act of being on a bicycle is thrilling and revitalizing. But it makes sense for everyone, because it offers a sense of mobility and Independence that aren’t possible on foot or by transit. We took a six hour walking tour and only saw the very center of Berlin. In six hours yesterday I hit so many remote corners and covered so much more ground, all on my own terms.