Berlin is somewhere I’ve wanted to visit since learning about the Second World War in high school. As I planned the trip, I started to hear amazing things about Berlin – it’s constantly touted as a haven for self-expression, liberalism and arts.
Catching the train in was an experience in itself – the rail network is massive and my grasp of the German language is non-existent at this point. I managed to get on a train going in the wrong direction and go a few stops before realizing my mistake. Thankfully with a quick platform change and some advice from some of the rail staff – I’m going back in the right direction – towards my home for the next week.
The hostel I chose is amazing. They’ve refurbished and repurposed an old building and it’s filled with single beds rather than the bunks you’d usually find in a dorm. That doesn’t seem like a big deal to anybody reading this from the comfort of their home – but it is.
I’m now free to fall into a deep sleep free from the movements of the punters that would usually sleep above or below in a bunk dorm room. Downstairs, a library bar that sells cheap beer on tap and has walls adorned with beautiful books on all topics stares out invitingly, imploring you to get involved in the German tradition of having a Bier (it’s always Bier O’clock here, it seems).
I’m blessed again with a room full of cool people who are keen to explore the city together and we instantly form a little family.
“Berlin will never be Berlin”.
When I first arrived I got a bike and rode around the central part of the city to visit a few of the famous historical sites. I knew about a few of them but it didn’t do much for me. It just seems like I was looking at a lot of nice buildings and some historical sites that I had a vague knowledge of, but without knowing more I left wondering if maybe I’d gone to the wrong places.
A few people from my room went on a walking tour of the city so I decided to tag along and put a bit of context to what I’d seen the day before. My god it was a good decision. Our guide walked us to the majority of the major historical attractions in the city (I’d missed a bunch), giving a rich history of how Berlin had changed over the centuries and what it had endured in recent times.
Berlin has been a revolving door for different expressions of culture and politics over time.
Originally known for their religious and cultural diversity and openness to ideas, successive World Wars and Soviet occupation drastically altered the cultural, philosophical and political landscape of the city. It’s fascinating to learn about the many faces this city has possessed over time and to see what it’s developed into today.
As our guide said: “Paris will always be Paris, Rome will always be Rome, but Berlin will never be Berlin”.
Freedom of Expression
What struck me about Berlin was the freedom the population has to express themselves, and the willingness with which they do. The city’s culture is one of acceptance and open-mindedness, which has created in environment in which art, music and various counter-cultures have flourished. I saw some whacky things in Berlin (one side of a park is a nude side, generally filled with old dudes) but nobody seemed to bat an eye-lid. It’s just another day in Berlin, where vastly different groups of people live side-by-side.
The city itself is beautiful, littered with green parks and beautiful architecture both new and old. Walls are adorned with artwork so bright and colourful it catches your eyes from a hundred metres, spruiking political messages and philosophical musings that make you laugh and ponder at the same time.
Then there’s the historical sites. The Berlin Wall. Brandenburger Tor. The concentration camps. Checkpoint Charlie. There’s so much to see, I felt like I was only scratching the surface.
I was in Berlin for the Mauerpark markets that occur on Sundays. We wandered through stalls filled with anything and everything you can imagine, fantastic foods from every corner of the globe and clothes to suit all tastes. After sampling the food we wandered through the park itself. The beautiful weather saw countless people bathing in the sun’s rays, laying in the green grass and listening to the various performers that littered the park.
It seemed like every corner of the park boasted a different act, ranging from acrobatics to acoustic trios – yet none of the noise seemed to interrupt the other performers. I wandered over to a percussion performance and it was like walking into a nightclub – just sunny, and in the middle of a park. People danced where they stood, sipping beers. Whiffs of marijuana floated through the air as everyone stood side-by-side, appreciating the awesome performance the duo were putting on. Some people’s bodies pulsed in rhythym with the percussion, seemingly possessed by the rattles and bangs of the drums and symbols. Others simply jumped up and down with their hands in the air, big goofy smiles on their faces. A happy, sunny place where art the everyday intersected. (If you want to check out a video of this, go to my instagram @oliwilson).
The police rolled through and at first I was disappointed, thinking they’d shut down the performance that had morphed into an impromptu dance party, telling people to pour their drinks out and move on. But it wasn’t so. They nodded and walked through calmly, picked up a couple of bottles and shook their fingers at the youths selling beers without a license.
Again, the liberalism of this part of Europe struck me. Certain things they do here are so strictly regulated and policed at home – but for what? People here seem to be doing just fine while they’re drinking beers in the park. Far from the raucous parties I’m sure policymakers envision when they ban these things, the beers just seemed to lubricate people to the point where they got along better. No aggression. No problems. Just a great time and a great phenomenon to observe.
A Divided City
Staring at the Berlin wall, I was struck by what a crazy experience it must have been for half the population of the city. For those that survived the war and must have finally thought they were free, I can’t fathom what it must have been like to watch the wall go up and divide them from their friends, families and the opportunities that the west offered. The wall has transformed from a symbol of oppression and a division between ideologies to a representation of what Berlin has become today.
The murals all along the East Side Gallery are beautiful. They poke fun at human psychology and politics. Transport you to other weird dimensions. As we stood there a building over the road was being covered in paint by four artists on scaffoldings. And this whole scene was looked over by a Soviet-era building, a stark reminder of the not-so-distant past.
I was meant to drop in and visit a mutual friend Markus at his academy, but he was due to be away for the week I was there. I was also having trouble navigating the transport system (this culminated in a 60 Euro fine – but we’ll pretend that never happened). I had a quick search on Google, and it turns out there was an academy right near where I was staying. I hired a bike and managed to find my way to BJJ Akademie.
I ended up spending my time in Berlin training exclusively here. Rob Nestor runs a great school with really technical classes filled with drills and useful sequences. To add to that, the whole crew is really welcoming and the level is high, making it a really enjoyable place to train. I’m really enjoying the focus on drilling– it gives us plenty of time to get the move down properly and really embed them into our psyche. I learned a lot of things that I’ll keep drilling. Each session I leave buzzing, putting me in a great mood for the afternoon or evening’s activities.
I met some pretty cool people rolling here, including a Muay Thai world champion (NAME) visiting from another city in Germany. It’s such a blessing visiting all these different gyms and experiencing their different approaches to both learning and sparring.
Jiujitsu and quality training aside, it’s a good feeling to be welcomed into a gym with such open arms and to meet a wide range of quality people. There’s nothing like a solid boost of endorphins and a couple of cheeky sweeps to add to an already awesome stay in a great city.
The famous nightlife
Berlin’s famed for its nightlife, and while I didn’t dabble too much I did get to experience it. Beer is cheap and plentiful (I was handed a beer straight after training on one occasion), and the people are free to party for the entire weekend if they want to. It wasn’t rare for me to be getting up to go for a jog or a walk and to see people stumbling home in the sunrise.
One of the staff at the hostel invited us to come to a pop-up, underground rap club. We thought it sounded pretty fun, so a big international group of us tagged along. It was a crazy night. It was shoulder to shoulder in the almost pitch-black club, the crowd pulsing to loud music and bumping into each other up the front. Despite the rowdy vibe, the whole place was filled with super friendly people, and the beers were cheap. Everyone in the club knew the words to the songs better than any of us who spoke English natively. By the end of the night, our group would become one of those I’d seen earlier in the week – walking home as the sun rose, drenched in sweat as if we’d just rolled for an hour.
The next day it was a sore and sorry goodbye for our little crew, and I was off to the East to visit Poland.