Das Runde muss in das Eckige
We said goodbye to Amsterdam on Friday morning, and it was appropriately cloudy and grey. After a 6 hour train ride we drove into Berlin amidst a heavy thunder storm. Luckily, the hostel entrance was only a short sprint from the subway exit – and the hostel itself turned out to be excellent. Worth the prize: colourful, clean, friendly, social, cosy, all you could want. After dropping off our stuff in our private room, I went downstairs to check my email. I found an important message, with a date I knew I had to write into my planner before I forgot about it and asked the guy to my left – round glasses, a full beard, and a mop of curly hair – for his pen. A couple of hours later, such is the social life at a hostel, we were sitting beside him at a tapas bar.
His name was Valerio, Italian, about 30. A physicist, with a PhD from Boston, currently living in Bologna. We soon found out he had travelled extensively – North America, Scandinavia, Africa – and was exceptionally well informed. Global warming? Sex and the City? Kim Clijsters? Bring up any topic and he’ll tell you something substantial about it. Story after story came up over calamares and red wine. The most fascinating one to me had to do with his volunteering in a high security prison. Being around these men – murderers, criminals, monsters, but also brilliant, well-mannered and entirely human – and experiencing first-hand what life in prison is like for them gave him a completely new outlook on right and wrong. Every day when he came home, he said, he felt like throwing up. It is traditional morality “that is the real prison”. After dinner we wandered around the city streets. Radically different. None of the cookie cutter beauty of Amsterdam, none of the jolly pink polo wearing cyclists or century-old sights. Berlin is grave, like its lungs have inhaled too many ashes to burst out in song. It does not go out of its way to charm visitors – if it does charm you, it is completely unintentional. It does not offer itself on a tray, but simply allows you to look, feel, study and draw your own conclusions. There’s no historical cobble-stoned center to gobble up – each district needs to be bitten off and chewed on until maybe there is a chance you may be able to consume a morsel of it. Among the anonymous apartment buildings in grey, browns and other dull hues there are oases. A gorgeous modern museum. Raw graffiti. A cafe with funky chairs. Restaurants from all over the world, including Russian. Occasionally, a stunningly beautiful woman will pass you by, on foot or by bike, but she won’t flaunt. Her clothes are modest in cut, fabric and colour. Extravagance holds little appeal here, there are real issues to be dealt with. The World Cup for the first time saw Schwarz, Rot and Gold flags being hung out of windows and wrapped around bodies. Berlin is moving forward, cautiously, stubbornly, true to itself, gruffly. Like that person at every party who sits at the bar, far away from the dance floor and the spotlight, sipping a no nonsense drink, speak when spoken to and leave quietly. And you watch your mysterious guest walk out, intrigued, fascinated, yearning for a next encounter.