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

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