Friday 19 December 2014

through time and space with JJ

JJ, a native of Cork City, Ireland, arrived in Berlin armed with a curiosity about curry-wurst and an MBS in politics and history. A self confessed Berlin addict, John infuses his tours with his intense passion for German history and culture, while employing his inimitable brand of humour to weave the story of Berlin in the great Irish tradition.  How and when did you first come to this city JJ?

I first visited Berlin in the late autumn of 2006, a callow and impressionable youth searching for the city of his dreams. Being an aficionado of David Bowie’s work (he recorded some of his finestwork in the city) I expected to love the city, but I wasn’t ready for the overwhelming experience. I wish I could tell you more about the visit but I literally wandered around in a dream like state, stumbling from one historic location to another, allowing the years of history to wash over me. It sounds so ridiculous now, but visiting Berlin was like a pilgrimage for me, just to follow in the footsteps of Max Liebermann, Mies van der Rohe, and Fritz Lang was a thrill. I have vague memories of seeing the Pergamon Altar and buying an Ampelmann mug, but beyond that it’s more a feeling than a specific set of memories. My experiences must have been positive because I jumped at the chance to move here in May of 2011. I was presented with an impossibly long list of cities by a university professor who insisted that I needed some experience “in the field”. I dutifully narrowed the list down to Berlin and Stockholm, but in reality there was only one real contender. This is where my Berlin odyssey truly began and when my turbulent love affair with the city started. Like any relationship we go through peaks and troughs together but the romance continues to blossom.

With your masters in politics, can you discuss a bit about Berlin's uniqueness in terms of a capitol city.
From an academic point of view I could coldly and rationally put forward any number of completely valid arguments for why Berlin is unique amongst European capitals. From the geopolitical point of view I would be sympathetic to Otto von Bismarck’s opinion that Berlin’s position at the crossroads of the continent has had an enduring impact. We could also look at Berlin’s unusual and sometimes difficult journey to becoming the capital of the German Empire at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. Then we arrive at the 20th century, where we have the destruction and rebirth of the city and the small matter of the Wall. West Berlin became a refuge for young German men and women escaping the stuffy atmosphere of post-war West Germany, a safe haven from military service, and an oasis for artists from allover the globe. Finally we arrive at the post-Wall era, something we are still coming to terms with. The spectacular collision of east and west and the relatively smooth transition to a united Berlin contribute an enormous amount to the city uniqueness.
Beyond the academic analysis we have to appreciate another less tangible factor. Berlin has something special, an almost mystical quality that sets it apart from the rest. The city is like a mirror that reflects the dreams of the people who live here, although it has reflected its fair share of nightmares too. When I first arrived in Berlin I met an incredible man at a language exchange who was supposed to be helping me to improve my German but ending up regaling me with stories from his experiences in Berlin over the course of 40 years. He told that the only constant in Berlin’s is change – the city constantly renews itself; expecting Berlin to stand still is akin to standing on the shore line as the tide advances and screaming at it to turn back. Change is Berlin’s most enduring and alluring quality, and adds much to its unique character.

You're a street art fan.  Did this grow out of living in Berlin?  Do you have a favourite local street artist, or location to find new pieces?
Simply put, Berlin and street art are a match made in heaven. Before arriving in Berlin I would have been quite dubious about the artistic merits of street art, but I quickly learned to love the micro-galleries that populate Berlin’s doorways and alleys. Street art’s raison d'être is its temporary nature and Berlin’s street artists have embraced the mediums fleeting lifespan. Whether it’s a wall-sized mural, a poster, or a piece of graffiti, street art fits perfectly with Berlin’s chameleon spirit. When the wall fell, vast swathes of the relatively underdeveloped east were opened to eager artists searching for wall space. When you add the laissez faire attitude to graffiti in the former western neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg and Neukoelln, you have a city that is too tempting for the world’s most prominent artists to ignore.  
Street art (in the loosest sense) is not a recent phenomenon in the city; in fact Berlin’s first street artist was probably Ernst Ludwig Kirchner who painted pictures of the city’s streets rather than putting paint on the city’s streets. Kirchner was one of the key figures of the Die Brueke movement and his “Großstadtbilder” series documented the city’s bustling neighbourhoods during an audacious age – for example his viciously angular painting of Nollendorf Platz in 1912 for example captures the chaos perfectly.

Nolllendorf Platz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1912

Today Berlin’s street art crews, such as 1UP (One United Power) and the precocious UberFresh Crew (often stylised as ÜF) have dragged the street art phenomenon into previously uncharted territory. They carry out their unique vision for Berlin’s streets with a political undercurrent and a dose of renegade ferocity. Whether it’s entertaining or humorous, thought provoking or disposable, street art has become interwoven into the DNA of the city.

Naturally Warschauer Strasse, Schlesisches Tor, Gorlitzer Bahnhof and the nearby streets are essential destinations for anybody looking for an introduction to the variety of art on Berlin’s streets. Space is at a premium and each and every door way artists clambering playfully for a place for expression. Mitte is also a well established area for street artists, particularly Haus Schwarzenberg near Hackescher Markt. Here you can find some of Berlin’s most respected artists displaying their work within a few square meters of each other. In the city we have some incredible pieces by internationally renowned artists, but my personal favourites are the ones I associate most with Berlin. Take for example the tiny cork figures striking theatrical yoga poses that adorn the city’slampposts and street signs, or the eccentric sixes that crop up in increasingly bizarre locations. There are two Berlin based artists that work under the name Various & Gould who have created a series titled “Sankt Nimmerlein” which is a big favourite of mine. The poster series sought to create ten modern saints for modern day problems that are based on the “Fourteen Holy Helpers” of the 2nd and 3rd century. The posters, which are dotted around the city, mix the surreal with biting social commentary; truly art to get excited about. Of course I have to mention one of Berlin’s most prolific artists El Bocho; even those with a passing interest in street art are familiar with his “Little Lucy” posters, where the aforementioned Lucy is seen to torture her long suffering kitty in ever more outlandish and stomach churning ways. 

Do you make any form of art yourself?
There’s a good reason why you’ve never heard of my art. It could be that like all the best street artists I guard my privacy obsessively, or it could just be that I realised at an early age that my abstract expressionist knock-offs were pedestrian at best. I’ll let you decide!

As we enter the depths of the Berlin winter, do you have any tactics for surviving these long grey months?
When I experienced my first Berlin winter a few years ago, I just hibernated in a warm room and waited for the winter to pass. “How long can the cold weather last?” - I asked myself with an almost childlike innocence. Cue to four months later, with the snow continuing to fall and the temperatures plummeting, I was close to breaking point. The next winter I was inspired by the older generation of Berliners to ignore the bleak weather and carry on as though this was merely a mild inconvenience. Many times I have watched in admiration as they huddle together in the doorway of a train station, before clutching their shopping bags tight and gritting their teeth, they stride with steely determination against the cruel Siberian winds. These people are made of tougher stuff. For the last couple of years I have chosen winter as a season for exploring the city. Too often I get locked in my own “kiez” mentality, so it’s a pleasure to discover some hidden gems. These quests to pastures new often begin with looking at the city map and picking a train station at random. This city is full of surprises; I recently discovered a fantastic Viennese café in Dahlem!

We shall follow your cue and take to the streets, thanks JJ!

Tuesday 25 November 2014

from Schoeneberg to the Oberbaumbrücke with Finn

photo by Alexa Vachon
A native of Bangor, Northern Ireland, Finn has found a home in Berlin.  Sometimes places simply call us, and who are we to not listen...

I first visited Berlin in the summer of 2008 to look for accommodations, already convinced that I was going to move here. I was living in England, where I was studying, and felt ready to move on somewhere new. Berlin captivated me first through its cinema - my favourite movies of the time were 'Goodbye Lenin', 'The Edukators' and 'The Lives of Others' - and then through its literature. I was already a fully-fledged Berlin nerd before I ever even visited. I came to Schoeneberg searching for the queer scene, found my apartment here, and returned a few weeks later to move in. The night I landed, there had been a huge football match on (not being the greatest football aficionado I now find myself looking up the details: it was the UEFA Euro semi-finals, in which Germany beat Turkey 3-2) and I'll never forget taking a taxi from the airport to my new home and seeing in the distance the whole city exploding with fireworks.

You work also for Queer Berlin which has you touring a lot in the former West.  With the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall just behind us, do you feel Berlin has fully 'reunited', or do you experience a particular change in atmosphere from former East to former West?

I do feel myself to be something of a 'Wessie', since I live in Schoeneberg and tend to spend most of my time either here or in Kreuzberg or Neukoelln, other former 'Western' boroughs, when I'm not at work. In fact, having to regularly traverse the whole city (and beyond) on our various tours is something for which I'm particularly grateful, since we do have a notorious tendency in Berlin to stick to our own 'kiez' or mini-neighbourhood. There are definitely differences in atmosphere between the different boroughs, but in the central districts this is probably less attributable by now to the East-West divide and more to the demographic shifts which have occurred in the last few years. The atmosphere in, for example, the gentrified Eastern borough of Prenzlauer Berg isn't so very different from the bougier parts of Kreuzberg; at the same time, the Western boroughs had their own dilapidation to contend with after WWII and also had their own enclaves of Communist support, like Schoeneberg's 'Rote Insel' or 'Red Island', so the supposed ideological chasm between East and West 
was probably never that clear-cut. Plus, due to the vastness of the city, regional consciousness is very strong here in a manner which seems to supersede the East-West divide: it seems to me that people are first of all proud of their 'kiez', then of their borough, and then of being a Wessie or an Ossie. Not to mention the fact that the city is evolving and diversifying so quickly that so much of its identity is still in flux and being perpetually redefined, which is one of the many things that makes it so exciting to be here at this moment. There are certainly problems associated with the new phenomenon of 'Ostalgie', 'nostalgia for the East' or what we might call the commercialism of communism, which to my mind promotes an unreliable understanding of the Cold War, but also garners a certain amount of wry humour. My favourite meditation on the reunification is probably Thorsten Goldberg's installation on the Oberbaumbruecke, the bridge near the East Side Gallery which formerly straddled the border between East and West: two neon hands, one on either side of the divide, playing a game of 'rock, paper, scissors' from nightfall to sunrise.

Your PhD is in film studies.  Do you work in the field also?  Can you write a bit about the film community in Berlin, which has an incredible history from Babelsburg to Weißensee... 

I've been involved in the production of a few films since moving here: as an actor, and also helping out behind the scenes on shoots directed by my partner, Liz Rosenfeld, who has just finished off a trilogy of movies set in the Weimar era. I'm officially Liz's 'historical advisor', but she has a true artist's quest for atmosphere superseding the more minor or factual details, so we have to agree to disagree on certain anachronisms! Berlin's film industry is truly rich: Babelsberg studios in Potsdam, the oldest functional large studio in the world, has been in action for over a century. Before the coming of sound to cinema and the subsequent language barrier, Potsdam was certainly neck-and-neck with Hollywood, and in many ways more innovative; you just have to look at 'Metropolis' or 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' to see how ambitious early German cinema was. Of course the Nazis put a temporary stop to all that in producing their odd and suffusing mixture of bland genre films and overtly racist propaganda; but during the Cold War, Germany produces some of the most creative directors in the world: Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders... and it's typical of Berlin's tenacity that it's now the focal point of the New German Cinema with the modern classics that first sparked my own fascination with the city. Since we walk through numerous different filming locations on any of our tours, I love to point these out to cinema fans!

Berlin also has an incredibly rich queer history.  Do you feel Berlin has returned to or surpassed the openness of the 'Roaring 20's', or do you feel the city and community have a ways to go?  Can you tell us a bit about Queerstories.

A big part of my motivation in moving to Berlin was to seek out queer family, a concept in which I very much believe, and I feel very lucky to have found that here. I feel that our community today is very engaged with its history and looks back with awe and gratitude to the work of pioneers like Magnus Hirschfeld (who you can read a bit more about in Jared's post), one of the first gay rights campaigners in the world and an adoptive Berliner who lived here until the beginnings of the Third Reich. In fact, talking of cinema, Hirschfeld worked on perhaps the first prolific gay movie of all time, 'Different from the Others', produced in 1919. He also assisted the medical treatments of some of the first transgender people to obtain hormone therapies and surgeries; Karl M. Baer, for example, a transman like me, lived in Schoeneberg and obtained legal recognition of his male gender and surgery in 1907. If anything, I sometimes wonder if we are still catching up with Hirschfeld and his contemporaries - you can't help but imagine what Berlin could have achieved in the subsequent decades were it not for the rise of the Nazi party. But as usual, the city bounced back marvellously after the fall of the Wall. These days, queer culture in Berlin is so pervasive that the city celebrated with four different Pride parades this year. If anything, my only fear is that our own political differences of opinion (primarily but not only when it comes to sexual politics) can serve to divide rather than unite us as queer Berliners. I do run a specific Queer tour through Schoeneberg, and my own queerness certainly influences my fascination in these narratives, but on any tour in the city it's vital to remember that Berlin has been shaped by queer figures who have been pioneers in their own times, from Friedrich the Great to Klaus Wowereit. My own homage to Hirschfeld is that tour but also the monthly storytelling event which I co-host in the bookstore Another Country (one of the world's top ten bookstores according to 'Lonely Planet'): we meet for dinner in the basement of the shop, and then have a line-up of musicians and storytellers with some open space for anyone who wishes to tell a spontaneous tale. The night is called Queerstories and everyone is welcome: if you're in Berlin while it's on, please drop by!

In asking the last question I am reminded of a memorial in Berlin that has always touched me deeply, the Neue Wache, as it is a memorial to all victims of war and tyranny, without distinction.  In recent years a number of memorials have been added to Berlin's urban landscape.  Are there any you find particularly successful or unsuccessful?

I also find the Neue Wache extremely powerful, particularly on a winter's day when snow falling through the building's open skylight is dappling the statue below. In keeping with the last question, the Gay Memorial is one of my favourites: I love the way in which the artists who designed it, Elmgreen and Dragset, managed to produce a celebratory, joyous memorial in playing a loop of a montage video of people kissing, a surprise inside a slanted slab of grey concrete. Politics aside (if possible) the Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park is always spectacular, particularly in the snow, and although as a tour guide you can expect to see the entire gamut of human behaviour here, for me the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe never fails to inspire awe. I find the politics of memorialisation in Germany very interesting - particularly when it comes to the nation's unique ability to gaze openly upon its history. You could compare, for example, the understated power of the Neue Wache with an 'Ehrenmal' or 'honour memorial' such as that on top of Kreuzberg's eponymous hill - or consider the curious tradition of adding to WWI memorials subtle plaques quietly commemorating the dead of WWII. To me, the most successful memorial is not only to be found in Berlin, but proliferates in the city: the 'stumble stones', small brass plaques outside the former homes, workplaces, schools, etc. of victims of the Nazis, which detail their fates. Whilst we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall a few days ago, we also remembered the 76th anniversary of the pogrom the Nazis called 'Kristallnacht' in 1938. Returning home from seeing the 'Lichtgrenze', the installation of illuminated balloons marking out some of the path of the former Wall, I was struck to see candles flickering by every 'stumble stone' in my street. That's Berlin as a living memorial, suffused by a history which it bears sometimes with ease and sometimes heavily, but never with complacency. It's a place of innumerable layers and complexities - the city still has memorials to build, but its past is always tangible.

Alongside guiding and acting Finn writes for Siegessaeule, the prominent queer magazine out of Berlin, and is the proud owner of these two pups.  Thanks for taking the time Finn!

Friday 14 November 2014

Jared, on anthropology, magic and dancing

Jared came to Berlin from Indiana where he studied Anthropology and Neuroscience.  The story of how he ended up moving here is one of my favourites from our guides; an entertaining example of one door closing and another opening.

In 2007, I was supposed to go to Africa to run a chimpanzee field research camp in Uganda for an anthropology/ primatology professor of mine, Kevin Hunt, but the expected funding didn't end up coming through and the site was shut down for a year a few months before I was set to depart. At the time, I was also doing a neuroscience degree and had been looking for further education in that direction oversees, or at least somewhere that still valued education as education instead of a lot of dollar signs and debt. Germany ended up being my next best thing, Berlin in particular. I lived in Berlin for about 1.5 years and then again after attaining my MS in neuro-cognitive psychology and some teaching and research in Munich. I had never visited Berlin before and my first reaction was bewilderment. Coming from essentially a suburban/rural satellite town near Chicago in Northwest Indiana, I had come to expect a bit of centralisation, a financial district, and lots of crime. I was initially rather disoriented, this city (Berlin), has no center, or rather everything is the center at once. Forget about a financial district, one can go to Frankfurt to see that. And as for crime, feel free to walk through a park or down a dark alley in the middle of the night and enjoy the scenery (for rates of violent crime in Germany see, As I grew more accustomed to the city I quickly fell in love, it's neighbourhood-centric organisation seems to fractionate Berlin into multiple Berlins - Berlin is many cities in one. If you can't find something for you in Berlin, it probably doesn't exist in the world. Berlin is a safe space (no assholes please), an inclusive space where ignorance and privilege are tolerated about as far as one could throw the TV tower. Feeling uppity and entitled? A bit of the old Berliner Schnauze (Berlin Attitude) will set you back in your rightful place with the rest of the human race. I love this place.
Germany, and Berlin in particular, has a rich scientific past.  Does living in this city affect or inspire your academic work?

I've studied a lot, from high school throughout all of my 20s. I started in American anthropology which has always been since its foundation under Franz Boas and Alexander von Humboldt (Boas' mentor and namesake of Humboldt University in Berlin) a relativist and holistic pursuit of culture, history, biology, and the human condition in general. It was through those studies that I came to neuroscience, via cognitive interests in our hairy cousins in Southeast Asia (orangs, gibbons) and Central Africa (bonobos, gorillas, chimps). Through it all, I've been interested in perspectives and bringing together diverse kinds of knowledge - from personal individual accounts to neuroimaging - as different elements of a possible description of the human condition. Berlin has definately been a muse in these regards, I don't know what I would have done without it. Berlins diversity, its comfort in states of change and dynamism has had me reexamine everything I do. I think Berlin helped me realize that we'll never have a complete picture of all of humanity, because someone is always going to react and break the mold, just because they can, just to try to do something beautiful. In short, I guess Berlin has really helped me to realize that normal is a myth. Magnus Hirschfeld is of particular interest to me in this regard, a gender campaigner and a human sexuality researcher before the term 'gender' existed, before Kinsey, and before Masters and Johnson. Hirschfeld, a self-identifying homosexual and Jew, lobbied and petitioned German society with vigour throughout the 1920s to show folks what might be possible and to chastise them for trampling folks underfoot that are, in the words of his clearly titled film on the topic, 'Different from the Others'. He got some things wrong, but he mostly stands out for me as an example of Berlin at its best and scientists at their best, keeping in mind the political ramifications of any scientific work.

photo by Jared, Berlin
Berlin is also rich in museums, with the range quite amusing and impressive.  Do you have any favourite institutions here, or is there an exhibition you have visited that stands out in your memory?

Hands down, the Pergamon Museum, but not for the Pergamon Alter. Rather, the gates of Babylon. Alexander the Great walked beneath those gates, and it's not so much the awe that might be inspired by Alexander. In truth he was a horrible despot who pressed multiple continents under his thumb and killed thousands upon thousands. It's the thought of this artifact coming from a time when the history we've recorded wasn't even history yet, it was myth and legend all bound up in one complicated mess. This gate is as close to magic as you can get in Berlin, which is a hell of a feat considering that magic doesn't exist. The Neues Museum is right up there too, the Egyptian collection, for precisely the same reason.

Speaking of magic, Berlin is notorious also for its range of free time activities, from its multitude of parks, to its clubs and galleries, all setting the stage for everything and anything.  Have you picked up any new hobbies since moving here?

I haven't really picked up new hobbies so to speak, but I've definitely been able to expand on all the old ones. I've been climbing for over 20 years and this city boasts a plethora of bouldering and climbing halls the likes of which I haven't really seen anywhere else in a big city. The club scene, I guess, would be my other great love in Berlin. This is probably the most inclusive and unpretentious of club scenes I've ever experienced. Dancing at Berghain you'll find a complete cross-section of Berlin in age, ethnic origins, sexuality, and physical ability (tip, if you want to get in, don't show up drunk, loud, macho, or nervous; wear what you want; and if you don't get in, don't fight about it). The music is world class, Berlin's DJs are definitely putting up their best on any evening you might chance to see them. Dancing in Berlin makes you feel like you've reconnected with your humanity. For thousands of years people have been pulling all-nighters, round campfires, drumming, singing, and generally having a good time; this is also possible in Berlin's clubs if you have the right attitude. Finally, I guess it's worth a mention that I absolutely delight in Berlin's parks on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of summer, you can't have a better time just lying around in the grass and listening to excellent buskers (if you hear pan flutes, run the other direction) giving it their all for money and just as often for fun.

Will you share your thoughts on the commemoration of the Fall of the Wall this past weekend.

The date is the 12th of November 2014, and I guess the one thing I and the revellers 25 years ago have in common is that we are both still recovering from the celebrations on a Tuesday. In all seriousness, the fall of the Wall was something I saw as a 7 year old shortly after Tiananmen Square in China. My parents had sat me down in front of the TV as events unfolded and the only thing I can really remember is a wall and a lot of happy drunk and high people dancing around on top of it with a giant gate in the background. My parents explained to me that these folks had been separated by their governments, and I couldn't for the life of me understand the sense of it. It's a surreal experience every time I see the Brandenburg Gate (the gate from my childhood) and think about what's changed from then to now. 25 years ago, I was 7, clueless, and had no Idea I would end up in this weird weird city Berlin relating anthropological, critical, and historical observations of Berlin, including the fall of the Wall, and showing folks some amazing things in the process. I celebrated at Bornholmer Straße, where the wall first crumbled, surrounding me, as I stood on the middle of the packed Böse bridge which once contained a checkpoint, I heard countless tales being related to friends and family about what people were doing on the 9th of November in 1989. I remember specifically a family, talking to their toddler age child, relating that they couldn't see any of their friends in the West for almost 30 years until that night 25 years ago. The child's response, "aber das macht keinen sinn" (German: 'but that doesn't make any sense'), made me think of myself when I was 7, and made me hope that we can get more people to think that way about all divisions and exclusions, I try to show people that child's profoundly and wonderfully naive perspective on all my tours, I think it's an important one.

Thank you Jared, Berlin itself is lucky that you found your way to this city.

Friday 7 November 2014

25 Years Later - The Fall of the Berlin Wall

We take an intermission from our guide interviews this week for the anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.  So many extraordinary resources and stories have been surfacing I thought I would seize the opportunity to compile a selection.
I begin with a short interview from the man who shouted "Open the barrier!” and changed Berlin's reality literally overnight.  "It's not me who opened the Wall. It's the East German citizens who gathered that evening.  The only thing I can be credited with is that it happened without any blood being spilled...  I had never seen such euphoria, and I've never seen it since," Jäger said, smiling.  

Slow travel's look at 25 relevant Berlin locations is really fascinating.   Their first stop, the Bornholmer Strasse Border Crossing where Jäger was stationed on the 9th of November, 1989.

I follow with the chronology of the Fall of the Wall and a view of  the Alexanderplatz demonstrations.

Foto: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1989-1104-437, Berlin, Demonstration am 4. November - CC-BY-SA-3.0-de

Construction of the“Berlin Wall Trail” (Berliner Mauerweg) was completed in 2006, turning the location of a wall of separation into a pathway for both recreational use and historical documentation.

To get an idea of just how drastically the cityscape has changed since 1989, buzzfeed put together a few images from the book “Berlin Wonderland - Wild Years Revisited”.

I end with another interview, this time with Heiko age 52, who was a East Berlin resident in 1989.  She notes many small surprises she found herself faced with upon passing through the Bornholmer Strasse Border, and the relevance of those events today.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Ashleigh and the Berlin of becoming

Ashleigh is another new face of the Insider team.  Not at all new to Berlin though, her adventurous enthusiasm  has kept her busy studying, writing about and exploring this vast city by both land and sea.  We need to start at the beginning though.  When and why was the first time you visited the Berlin?

I first arrived in Berlin on a school trip with some very good friends of mine and our excellent German teachers, who's enthusiasm I would still claim is to thank for my passion for what Mark Twain called "The Awful German Language"! Our group took a walking tour of Berlin with an upbeat Australian female guide, and I remember turning every corner and
finding it difficult to believe not only that one city had seen so much history, but that it's scars and successes were interlaced, coexisting, street by street. My 16 year old self was so fascinated by the city, that upon arriving back home in Newcastle, I compiled an incredibly detailed scrap-book full of my own pictures and commentary, which I still have today. I then came back to Berlin a year later with a couple of friends who were with me on the first trip, and it slowly became an annual event, until I eventually made the then-inevitable move! 

Berlin changes fast.  Is there a place in the city that has been altered/built on/knocked down since you have lived here, that you find particularly exciting, successful or grossly unsuccessful?

I often finish my Famous Walk tours with my favourite quote on Berlin, one which inspired my Masters thesis on 'Cities of Becoming' and which encapsulates the city I live in, but also why I live in it. The historian Karl Scheffler in 1910 claimed that "Berlin is a city destined to forever becoming, and never to being". These timeless words have rippled hauntingly through the many turbulent layers of Berlin’s modern history, coming to fruition more in the past century than the author could ever have anticipated. But his words still linger delicately in today's 'Berliner Luft', as the city transforms before our very own eyes. Much has changed in the eight years I have lived here and at first I found this change difficult to bear, for example the planned destruction of the Palast der Republik, a relic of a defunct state, but also of peoples memories, or the disappearance of Bar 25, a club complex/hedonistic paradise on the river, a relic of memories lost! But there was a moment when giving a tour back in 2008 that changed my perspective on change in Berlin. When walking onto Museum Island a crowd had gathered to watch a dance performance, tens of dancers in luminous costumes, one tiny figure in each broken window of the former Palast, overshadowed by it's size and legacy. It was such an unusual use of condemned space, so much colour and energy in something about to be destroyed. I remember thinking that often Berlin is much more creative in its use of non-space than creating space anew. Today, as the city is littered with more and more projects, hotels, high-rises and apartment blocks, it would and can be easy to mourn what was. But I find that often as places disappear and reappear, the open sentiment remains throughout, and new bars/clubs created from new voids are often a better version of their former counterpart. Of course, this is more difficult with historical sites, but I feel that Berlin is not a city which forgets its history, rather moves forward grasping it, with or without physical reminders. If becoming really is the essence of the cities spirit, which I believe it is, then the process of change is what makes it so vibrant, dynamic, often controversial, but never dull!

Can you tell me a bit about your masters.   Have you found Berlin a particularly interesting place to have as a backdrop to studying European Relations?

After studying German and Mathematics at Durham University in the UK and then a bit of time out from academia, I wanted to ensure that if and when I chose a masters course, it would be something with practical relevance but also something which combined many different spheres of study. I completed my Masters in European Studies at the Viadrina University in Frankfurt Oder this July (the same course fellow tour guide Roy is currently studying!). I thoroughly enjoyed it all, a combination of politics, law, economics and culture, taught predominantly in German but I also took some English courses in Poland and Spanish courses in Buenos Aires on exchange there for six months! So truly international! We had wonderful guest professors from Princeton and Austin, and even the hour commute to Frankfurt Oder a few times a week was balanced out with having a Semesterticket to travel the length and breadth of Berlin and Brandenburg for a very reasonable student price! Of course the final months of writing my thesis were somewhat tedious, but now having survived and emerged with a good Masters I could not be happier! Immediate plans for the future hopefully involve an internship at the European Parliament this winter, but then returning to Berlin in April for our busy summer season, and doing what I love best. Long-term I don't see myself leaving Berlin, perhaps moving a little further outside of the city to live by a lake! But the city has been a fantastic place to study European Relations, the capital of one of the founding members of the original European Community and a bastion of the European Union today. Due to this there are many exciting European projects and initiatives around that I'd perhaps like to be part of in the future. 

Berlin is notorious for its public spaces and the vast range of activities people can indulge in (without having to spend any money) in their free time.  Have you picked up any hobbies since moving to Berlin.  You know, the usual, holla hooping, ping pong, juggling in görli...

I'm a big outdoor Berlin fan and am incredibly lucky to spend so much time outside through work. A favourite summer activity of mine is exploring the cities many lakes, cycling out of the city on hot summer days and going for dip - we're so lucky to have so many to choose from and there are still so many to discover. I fully intend to visit them all one day - though perhaps not all in one summer as was our lovely colleague Barry's aim a couple of years ago! Another 'free' outdoor activity I've picked up since living in Berlin is running, I've done the half marathon here twice now and can honestly say I've enjoyed the training more than the day itself, finding new routes through the city, the Tiergarten or around the abandoned runways of Tempelhof airport. Of course the feeling of running through the Brandenburg Gate or by Charlottenburg on the day is pretty special too, and all of the opportunities to run in Berlin have kept me going! Otherwise, I'm terrible at hula hooping, juggling and ping pong, but have attempted them all to no avail, and recently went kayaking in the Spreewald, a wonderful day made all the more hilarious by my complete incapability to steer straight! An unexpected 'hobby' which I seemed to have picked up over time too is exploring many of Berlins abandoned sites, from ballrooms, to embassies, to entire complexes of unused buildings, all beautiful in their disrepair and with their own tale to tell. Who knows whats next? Perhaps paddle-boarding, or swing dancing, but perhaps not tightrope walking in görli! 

Just like Venice, Berlin is a city of bridges and vistas.  What is your favourite view location of the city?

By far my new favourite spot is the outdoor bar on top of the shopping arcades in Neukölln, Klunkerkranich. A little further out of the city, the view leads on to the city centre in the distance and over the residential rooftops of the south west, highlighting the lack of built up districts in Berlin and red rooftop after red rooftop. It's great for afternoon drinks, pizza, pinpointing landmarks in the distance and then watching the sun go down as the lights of our beloved Berlin begin to twinkle.   

It is beloved isn't it.  Thank you Ashleigh!

Wednesday 8 October 2014

East of West Berlin, with Roy

Roy, hailing from just outside of London, has been working his way up to calling Berlin home for over a decade now.  His passion for history and language permeate his work, studies and hobbies, and quite naturally his thoughtful answers to my questions. 
How did you come to be living in Berlin?
I first came here on a school trip when I was 14, then again at 17 to do an internship at the German parliament. I was brought up with the image of Berlin from Len Deighton and John le Carre novels; an island of spies wearing trench coats and dropping secret packages in dustbins. The Berlin of Potsdamer Platz and the Sony Center was a bit of a shock! I also remember visiting the Allied Museum in the southwesten District of Dahlem, and seeing one of only four remaining Handley Page Hastings on the museum forecourt. 
The HP Hastings was one of the types of aircraft used to transport supplies into Berlin during the 1948 blockade. I was raised just outside London, next to where Handley Page had their factory until they went bust in 1970, so that was for me a very personal connection to the city. Unfortunately the plane has lost some of its lustre since my uncle - the current Chairman of the Handley Page Association, a network of HP enthusiasts and former employees - did some research and discovered the plane at the Allied Museum was actually not used during the Airlift at all!

(The HP Hastings TG503. This photo was taken in 1948 at the Radlett Aerodrome [Herts, UK] where the planes were built. (C) Handley Page Association.)

Berlin changes fast, and I tend to have my socks knocked off each time I happen upon a corner of the city which has been spruced up or knocked down.  The more I ask our guides about this topic the more I realize how pragmatic they are about the (non)issue...  

Every time I came before settling here, there was something replaced or dismantled that had been removed (most notably the Palast der Republik, the GDR cultural center and parliament building riddled with asbestos that was taken down in 2008), but I can't think of anything I would mourn. I think Berlin is what it is because it adapts quickly to the time in which it finds itself, for better and for worse.

You live in what some Berliners would consider 'the deep East' and I remember a great photo series you posted of a day's exploration through Hohenschönhausen.  Do you have an affinity for the atmosphere of former East Berlin?

I don't love East Berlin for what it was, but for what it has become. Berlin is situated in old Slavic marshland, on the cusp of what people have spent centuries trying to define as "East" and "West". In the 1990s millions of Russians of Jewish and German heritage settled in Germany to escape the chaos of the Yeltsin years, and they have made this part of the city their home. Round the corner from where I live, on the border between the eastern districts of Friedrichshain and Lichtenberg, there is a fantastic Russian supermarket that offers a taste of home for anyone who needs it.

The high-rise apartments of Hohenschönhausen and Marzahn/Hellersdorf may not conform to the "Altbau", graffitied image many people understandably fall in love with when they arrive in Berlin, but a lot of people have found a home and quality of life in these unloved areas that suits them. The "deep" eastern district of Marzahn for example was a farming village until the late 1970s, when the government chose the area for a new housing complex that would help counteract Berlin's housing crisis. In the Marzahn district museum there is a series of archive news reports of milestones reached, such as the district mayor handing over the keys of an apartment to the thousandth family to move there, who smile awkwardly for the camera unsure of how to behave. There's even a film of Gorbachev visiting in 1987 making awkward small talk through his translator and playing football with a group of children!

What I like most about Marzahn though is the utopian vision it hints at. I come from just outside London, where after WWII thousands moved out of crowded inner-city slums into modern, spacious "New Towns" with local jobs and a better quality of life. Today those new towns are regarded as something of a joke, while the crowded slums are upmarket apartments or office space for start-ups. Marzahn isn't paradise, but at least they tried.

You speak English, German and Polish.  Any other languages in there?  What is on the horizon linguistically for you?

I learned German at school, and have to study in it, so that's my main foreign language. Part of my MA involves learning a new language, so I chose to take Polish classes. I had always wanted to learn Polish, as I grew up during the time when thousands of Poles were migrating to Britain. It's very hard to start learning Polish, but it is never boring and it is such a gorgeous language to listen to! Issues of identity and nationality fascinate me, and Poland has a notoriously flexible border. In fact, its national poem, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, begins with the line "Oh Lithuania my fatherland, you are like health!"

Russian is more of a hobby. I couldn't speak it, but I can understand random bits and pieces, and reading the Cyrillic alphabet has its advantages. I have a copy of The Adventures of Buratino - Alexei Tolstoy's Russian-language retelling of Pinocchio - that I am going through with a grammar book and a dictionary. Some people sit with a crossword of an evening, I do silly things like that! I like to play with languages, listen to the sounds they make. I think it was Goethe who said that you need to learn other languages in order to understand your own. Languages aren't just there to be used as tools for ordering a beer or laying down a business deal; they are living, breathing expressions of a whole different way of looking at the world.

Tell us a bit about what you are currently working on for your studies.  You recently received a DAAD scholarship, where will this bring you?

I'm studying at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder (not THAT Frankfurt!) for an MA in European Studies, which is an interdisciplinary course encompassing modules in Law, Economics, Culture, and Politics. I focus on culture, in particular on issues relating to Poland and Belarus and their mutual interaction. They have a joint past, but Poland is now the EU's 'star pupil' while Belarus is a dictatorship in all but name.

The scholarship comes with a monetary prize, so I'm hoping to go to the East of Poland next year to practice my Polish and explore the Belovezhkaya Puscha, the oldest forest in Europe and the last home of the European Bison. The region borders Belarus and is a real East/West crossing point - in fact, it was there that the USSR was officially dissolved by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Our guests might be familiar with the region's most famous international export - Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka!

It seems you have a love for many things Slavic and also country western music.  Do you see any overlap here.  Have you found any real gems for country western in Berlin, or Eastern Europe in terms of venues or festivals?

The spirit of freedom and release that country and western music embodies has made it popular in
Eastern Europe for decades. In the sixties, there was a thriving genre of Polish western films set in Silesia, a region they considered their own "wild west" after it was ceded to Poland from Germany in 1945. That's not to mention the famous Solidarity poster in June 1989 featuring Gary Cooper from High Noon! Country music has always represented the experience of everyday life. I always make a point on my Cold War tour of reciting the lyrics to Red Sovine's classic song "East of West Berlin", a song that indicated just how important the Berlin situation had become by the early 1960s - just as important to country singer-songwriters as tractors, whiskey​,​ and ex-partners!  

My top tip for country music in Berlin is the American Western Saloon in the northwestern district of Reinickendorf, a few minutes away from the Wittenau U-Bahn station. They have regular linedancing courses, and live music every Friday and Saturday night from some of Europe's top country acts. If you are here next February, they also organize the Country Music Meeting, one of mainland Europe's biggest country festivals with performers coming from as far afield as the Netherlands, Poland, Denmark, and of course the US of A itself!

Thanks Roy, as an American who grew up listening to Dolly and Patsy, you have yourself a date!

Wednesday 1 October 2014

a spoonful of Barry

Barry radiates with a rare and delightful mix of sharp intellect and playful wit.  He already has a degree in Law and French under his belt, surprising when you witness his boyish looks! We sure are glad Barry found his way out of Ireland and managed to escape Paris too.  Perhaps the German capital will keep him in one place for good. 

I first came to Berlin 13 years ago, on a badly planned trip with my father – we drove around northern Europe in the car, sleeping in it too - as you can imagine, tensions grew somewhat as the trip wore on! 15-year-old me perhaps didn’t have the chance to appreciate the Berlin of 2001, and it’s a big regret that my eyes were not more open to the huge changes happening in the city at the time! I do, however, remember the Brandenburg Gate being under renovation and the huge amount of construction work around the government quarter. All in all though, it was love at second sight for me with Berlin – I came to visit a friend who was studying here in 2007, and having gotten a taste of Berlin life, I knew I wanted a slice of it for myself! At the time I was studying in Paris, and by comparison, Berlin seemed so accessible – in the sense that it was cheap, of course, but also that it was a city “on the make”. Although I adore Paris, it feels more like a city where one is a spectator to what is undoubtedly a cultural giant; in Berlin, one has the feeling of being part of the cultural process. The Berlin I saw went wildly against my expectations – I envisaged a modern, wealthy city, where everything was shiny, and ran like clockwork to the point of monotony. In fact, this was my preconception of Germany as a whole. What a surprise, then, to find a grubby upstart of a city, full of strange people trying to “figure it all out"!

From 2007 to 2014 we have seen vast changes in the urban landscape.  Having taken Berlin as an adopted home, how do you feel about the transformations you have witnessed?

I don’t tend to get overly nostalgic about lost spaces in Berlin – if anything, I think we (especially us expats!) tend to get a little too nostalgic, and “change-averse” in this city. What I do worry about is development that happens too quickly, or perhaps thoughtlessly. If we look, for example, at the new “Mall of Berlin”, the (almost) final development in the Potsdamer Platz area which opened last week, we see a shopping centre built right beside another shopping centre – some of the tenants simply moved across the street! Also, this grand new addition to Berlin’s cityscape doesn’t contain a bookshop, which I find worrying. On the other hand, I think the way that the new building brings back a sense of urbanity to the area is quite impressive.  Do I miss the empty lot that it replaced, which once contained the ruins of the Transport Ministry, with all its links to German history? Not really. Although the existence of big empty, ruinous spaces in the city centre was perhaps unique to the city - and made Berlin a bit special - it was totally unsustainable, and had to be developed at some stage. From the historical perspective, it would have been nice for the new development to have at least a plaque, or something similar, detailing the site’s history, and hopefully this will happen at some stage – at the same time though, I think we have to be careful not to overload on historical commemoration.  

You referred to Berlin as 'the world's most important social laboratory'. Can you expand on this... Where do you find yourself in this laboratory?  

I refer to Berlin as the world’s most important social laboratory because of the sheer amount of ideas that have either emerged from the city, or have been put into practise here. It is incredible to consider the amount of men and women here who have either tried to explain, or even change, the societies we live in. Giants of philosophy have studied and taught here, but Berlin has been, above all, a city of action. From the communists of 1918 to the Nazis of 1933, the avant-garde of the 1920s to the students of 1968, the protesters of 1989 to the thousands of activists that currently make Berlin an NGO hub... for better or worse, ideas haven’t just been discussed in Berlin, but have been put into practise. As regards to where I fit into the picture, as a tour guide I believe we provide an important link between visitors and the city – be it by presenting history in an honest, unbiased way and therefore giving real context to a trip here, or by helping people understand the ins and outs of the city so that the tourist-resident relationship doesn’t get too strained! Outside of tour guiding, I hope to contribute academically to certain fields that relate directly to Berlin, in particular social solidarity and it’s relation to the question of identity. The latter is one of the reasons I think we should be careful with getting too bogged down in history - in a way, the constant eye on the past in Germany can make the national identity very exclusive, rendering the integration of immigrants an even thornier issue than it already is. 

As if he has internalised the energy and variety of Berlin, Barry has taken on an intriguing range of studies and hobbies.  For instance, Barry along with 2 other singer/comedians have married Berlin history with Walt Disney tunes in a bizarre and amazingly effective union! Well, Ill let him explain...

The project of “A Spoonful of Deutschland” was, like so many ideas, the product of far too many beers in a smoky basement bar. Around 3am one morning, myself and a friend blearily realised that “East Germany” fit the syllables of “Under the Sea”, from Disney’s “the Little Mermaid”, and wrote the whole song the next day over cups of tea and slices of toast. So the idea emerged without any pathos, or even any real goals. Having tried out the first song on some open mic audiences, we realised that the idea could go further, and got to writing! We’ve now given the Disney treatment to most periods of German history, and continue to perform regularly on the Berlin comedy circuit. In the pipeline are YouTube videos (we’ve already released our first – the “Merkel of Life”) and hopefully a full length show! We think it could be a fun way, also, to get kids in school interested in history, and might try to pursue a more educational bent at some stage in the future. Either way, it’s a lot of fun, and combines my two greatest passions – singing and nerdiness! For those who want to find out more, our YouTube channel is and we announce upcoming performances on our Facebook page at

Berlin's S-bahn, or commuter rail, consists of 15 lines on a 330 kilometre long network with almost 170 train stations.  One day a couple of years ago I bumped into Barry after he had accomplished an incredible feat, riding to the end of every single line in one just day!

Another passion of mine is public transport – I know, I have just outed myself as one of the single least cool people on the planet! Luckily, there are others as uncool as me, so a few of us decided one day to go the ends of all the S-Bahn lines on one epic trip – it took quite a bit of planning, and ended up lasting from 6am until midnight, but it was a lot of fun, even for the “normal”, non-transport obsessed friends who came with us! I would recommend it to anyone who lives in a big city, or even a tourist who has a couple of extra days in Berlin. Go to the end of the line, and you see real life – sometimes pleasantly surprising towns or landscapes, sometimes equally informative banality. Especially in Berlin, it can be easy to get stuck in an expat bubble of sorts – that certainly isn’t the case in somewhere like Wartenberg. The latter is one of the more depressing East German housing developments, where we told the waitress in a café about our little adventure, and she looked at us agog, as she’d never even considered going to somewhere like Spandau, as it was too far west and would take too long. This came just after she informed us that she had recently been on holidays in Spain! It’s little interactions like this that really help one to understand a city, and although by no means impossible, it is a little harder to come by in the utterly international bars and cafés of Berlin’s central districts.

So, get off the beaten track!  orders directly from Barry

Friday 19 September 2014

The Wagnerian Soprano

Alex is new to the Insider team bringing with her a burst of fresh energy.  It is quite endearing to see the weekly wave of reviews flow into Tripadvisor following her tours to Dresden.  Guests gush with gratitude for both her knowledge and attentiveness.  Her passion stems from the rich musical history of both Berlin and Dresden.  You see, the city itself did not win her over so quickly...

I first visited Berlin in 2010 when I was an exchange student at the Universität Koblenz-Landau. We took the train to Berlin as part of a school trip and it was terrible. Early on I was hit by a cyclist and my camera was smashed, the woman leading our group made a point of directing my attention to EVERY SINGLE monument to a Jewish person/place/event that has ever been in this city (fascinating, but was information dumping at its finest) and I was constantly told off for being too loud... Honestly not a good impression. I knew nothing about Berlin, had no expectations, but genuinely didn't enjoy my first time. I think that was what surprised me the most. Thankfully, my tastes have matured and I now appreciate Berlin for the wonderful city it is today. 

A relic of former East Berlin that is quite notorious is an abandoned amusement park in the middle of the vast Treptower Park.  It has become something of a pilgrimage destination for residents and visitors alike.  Alex has her own special relationship with this location. 

A bit of Spreepark burnt down recently and that's made me quite sad.  I lived around there so while I was writing my history honours thesis last year it was a kind of happy place; an incredibly creepy sanctuary far away from the Tamburini Riot and discussions of elite British culture where I could amuse myself with thoughts of how terrifying most children probably found the amusement park. 

Though Alex does not only write about opera, she is a singer herself which keeps her very busy when not guiding...
I sing and study.  Right now I'm attempting to learn as many roles and songs as possible so I can be the greatest Wagnerian soprano to have ever graced the stage.  I am also studying a masters of global history at the Free University and Humboldt University so I can contextualise my greatness!
For the time being Alex is quickly becoming known for her superb tour of Dresden.  The city is less then three hours away from Berlin, just a hop, skip and a jump really.  Making that round-trip weekly means becoming familiar with some fairly random sites along the way though.

We pass much of interest between Berlin and Dresden, but something I love is the Tropical Islands. Housed in the largest free standing hall in the world, the Tropical Islands is a resort/rainforest complex in the middle of nowhere. The site itself was used by the Luftwaffe from 1938-1945 as a military airfield for the Brand-Guben pilot training school and later front line operations, before being occupied by the Soviets from 1945 who used it as a military air base. Post-reunification the site was abandoned and used for waste disposal, until in 2000, the giant dome was build with the intention of creating airships. This project failed so they turned it into a swimming pool. Naturally.  

Just like Brian, Alex can not deny the importance of The Threepenny Opera in connection to Berlin.  With three opera houses the city offers a multitute of inspiration.

Really, the work I associate right now with Berlin is Dostal's operetta 'Clivia' because I'm still blown away by the Komische Oper's production this year. AMAZING. My life was changed that night.

Well there you have it!  Is there a better place to end then with a life changing experience?

Wednesday 10 September 2014

the one and only Brian

I caught up with Brian after his 2014 season of guiding.  The man has quite a reputation, and having been on his Famous Walk tour, I will say, I did indeed both laugh and cry by the end.  If you are in Berlin during the summer months do not miss the chance to jump on his tour, he will open your heart to Berlin!

I asked Brian about his first experience with this city.  He answered in all capitals.  I think this is an expression of enthusiasm for his adopted home, so I left it as so...


Berlin is known for its continual and fast paced transformation, for better or for worse.  One often has the experience of walking down a street after a few months and finding a new glass and steel construction, a garden where an empty lot once was, or a building block were a favorite park had been.  I asked Brian about locations which he has seen change during his years here.


Those who have joined Brain's tour know that it ends with beers at Cafe Cinema.  I offered him the opportunity to invite any former Berliner for a talk.. 


Brian splits his time between Berlin and the rest of the world as an opera director, his thoughts on bridging his work... 


And when he must leave, what does he stock up on for the rest of the year??! 


Thoughts on your annual departure?


With that, we too anxiously await Brian's return.