Friday, 19 November 2010

The Best-Kept Secret in Berlin Is...

Thanks to the gap in exchange rates and economics, the first few weeks of my stay in Berlin were spent in financially neutral territory. Night after night, I made myself go out on the town, buy coffee, cocktails, snacks, club tickets... and yet, my bank balance stayed more or less static. It seemed to move down only in microscopical intervals. Whenever I checked my account online, I would end up shaking my head and wondering if the bank had made a mistake. But it hadn't.

Berlin is cheap. It's so cheap that I felt almost cheated by it, at first. Thanks to London, I had become accustomed to the idea that hemmoraging cash equals a good night out, so much so that I actually felt pressured to make a dent in my savings. I realized then that I had a financial sadist living within me, one who wouldn't be content until she was able to put her head in her hands and cry, "I spent it all!" (while secretly gloating, because spending it all meant having fun.)

That inner sadist is now silent - not because I have spent all that money, though. It's still there (well part of it, anyway) but thanks to a computer cock-up at HSBC it's now in a virtual, suspended-animation time lock. That's another story, though. The bottom line is that I am savings-free for the time being, which means that I am officially in sync with the Berlin economy. Just like a native, I have begun refusing to go anywhere with an entry fee. Just like a native, I am now eating and drinking at an exclusive place called Chez LIDL. The closest I have gotten to a 'trendy' night out lately was spent sitting on an empty beer crate in a cramped, one-room space by candlelight, drinking Korn. By this, I do not mean that I was hanging out at one of the 5,000 Berlin bars which match that exact description; I mean that I stayed home. Earning like a Berliner means spending like a Berliner, too.

Luckily for me, Berlin as a city is not defined by what its population spends money on. In fact, it's the opposite. In the past 150 years, Berlin has been defined by industrialization, socialism, fascism, the Cold War, squats, street parties and underground techno, in pretty much that order. These are all things which bring to mind images of a spendthrift - or even austere - society. And yet Berlin has at least two other big attractions which, while free, and yet very far from being austere. Wide open spaces and nature are both plentiful here. While they are rarely mentioned in the tours and guidebooks, they are what make the city liveable for those of us on a restricted income. So today, I'm going to write about two local attractions that I have visited lately to commune with open space and nature (and save money while I'm at it, naturlich).

Templehof Airport is one of the city's best examples of space (with a bit of nature thrown in) and it can be found a 15-minute cycle ride from my Kreuzberg flat. The original airport structure still stands in good condition. Apparently, its occasional use as a festival/rave site justifies its continued upkeep. This means that on the 360 days a year when there is nothing happening there, one can behold the sight of a totally deserted, well-maintained airport standing to attention like it's just waiting for the gates to open and pilots to arrive so it can start operating again. It is both creepy and nostalgiac; a living ghost. And then there's the massive field and runway. To describe these as really, really big is a really, really big understatement. They're so big that they actually play havoc with your perspective - people look like they're only 20 feet away, but they're the size of ants. Sounds impossible but if you go cycling there one day, you might just see what I mean.

(The photo above is from because I still don't have a camera of my own. Second hand donations accepted gratefully!)

The next best outdoor, natural sight is also about 15 minutes away but in a different direction: Spreepark. This is an abandoned, GDR-era 'theme park' full of abandoned, carnivalesque whimsies that still somehow manage to be weighty and ponderous. Without the bright, shiny paint that they once wore, the structures beneath are revealed as unwieldy and inhuman. To me, Spreepark's rides speak volumes about the gloomy reality many people experienced under GDR's ever-watchful, image-conscious gaze.

(This image is taken from the website 'Modern Ruins' which has a great article with photos of Spreepark.)

London feels like it would be nothing without its buildings and streets like a turtle without its shell. In Berlin, the plentiful resources which drew the first humans settlers to the area are still teeming among the high rises and historical sights. Everybody can enjoy them in a free, unrefined state - for three seasons a year anyway! Personally, I like to think that this is where Berlin's underground attractions get their energy too; free, unrefined and direct from nature.

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