Berlin #1 (Neukölln)

I lost my Berlin virginity in the year 2000. I’d just got a compensation claim for an injury at work and decided to blow it on Eurotrips. The first Berlin trip was far from a success. I got robbed in the dorm of the youth hostel, losing 200 Deutsche Marks (about 100 euro.) I also decided to be a rebel and use the underground without paying (I was young and stupid then) and it was fine for the 2nd and 3rd day, but on the final day, I experienced a different kind of fine when, on the way to the airport, I got collared by a ticket inspector and made to pay 60 DM.

Undeterred, when my brother Gerard hit 18 the following year, we decided to mark the occasion with a Eurotrip and booked 8 days in Berlin and Poland in mid-November. My workmates, whose idea of a holiday was 10 days sitting hungover on a beach in Benidorm in July, thought we were crazy, but we had a blast. About 4 months later, while in Chicago (I got around a bit then) I was sharing the dorm with a German guy, Arne, who’d been living in Berlin for 6 years. He was my age and seemed a pretty cool and laidback guy with a similar love of alternative music, beer and football. We swapped emails and ever since we’ve caught up when I’ve been in Berlin.

In 2005, when I left Valencia, I even looked into the possibility of teaching in Berlin, but the feedback on the city, like the feedback on teaching in most north-west European countries, was dire, with stories of low demand, high supply and all round poor conditions, poverty wages and spaced out lessons in far-flung corners of the city. Sadly, a decade on, nothing seems to have changed. I saw this on a teachers’ forum about a month ago

I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone come to Berlin looking for TEFL work now. I’ve got over 20 years’ experience in the business, I studied German at university, I arrived just before the start of the academic year and I’ve been extremely proactive in looking for work AND accommodation. And it’s been a washout, pretty much.

I’m going to be making 164 euros next week – roughly half of what I should be making – because of cancellations and classes that have yet to start. I’ve spent something like £3500 since arriving less than four weeks ago. What’s the point?

I’m probably going to knock it on the head. My contract on the present flat runs out on October 20th. I can easily book a single flight back to the UK on that date. If I stay longer, things might improve, but I’m really not sure it’s a risk I want to take.

Ouch. 😦 Consequently, Berlin has joined a list of places which includes Stockholm, Sicily and Peru which I think would be fun to live in for a year, but aren’t doable this side of a major lottery win.

Berlin plays a part in the story of how I ended up in Riga in the first place and, after moving to Riga, I made use of the Riga~Berlin cheap Easyjet link to get to Valencia and Belfast.

I’d done a second trip with my brother in February 2003 which became similarly legendary to us, as we constantly reminisced about it afterwards. Being chased for a considerable time along Skalitzer Strasse under the U-Bahn line by a bulky German guy who’d seen us pissing in the bushes at the side of his apartment block was one of many boozy adventures that stick out. So, when talking to my brother back in August, I mentioned that Ryanair had started a Riga~Berlin link from late October. A couple of days later, we’d booked what would be my 16th and his 4th trip.

I looked down the “25 top attractions in Berlin” with a bit of depression. Done them all, most of them more than once. On the other hand, this allowed us to relax a bit more and focus on essentials like beer and football. After all, they’re as much part of Germany culture as museums, right?

There were some advantages. When I arrived at Schonefeld airport, rather than join the 20-person long queue for tickets at the machines downstairs, I smugly went up to the platforms and used the ticket machines there, which have no queues. You learn these tricks when you visit places often.

We’d booked into Pegasus hostel in Friedrichshain where we always stay. I’m sure there are better hostels somewhere, but it’s just a tradition to stay there. The street is quiet, there are metros, bars and a supermarket and kebab shop nearby and it costs 10.50 euro a night. What more do we need? My bro arrived 3 and a half hours before me and, since he’d begun his journey from Belfast at 02:30, the plan was for him to get some sleep, but the hostel, annoyingly, doesn’t allow check-in before 4. Our original plan was to try and get tickets second-hand for the Marilyn Manson concert that night, but we scrapped that plan in favour of my bro catching up on some sleep.

pardners in kryme

pardners in kryme pre-hangover

First up was some food. We headed to Prenzlauer Berg. 15 years ago, this was a fairly grubby district, now it’s really yuppified, with streets full of trendy restaurants. It also has Berlin’s biggest beer garden which, inevitably, was closed for the Autumn. We ended up at Juki, a Korean restaurant which my bro enjoyed, but I felt was a bit of a let-down as I’ve had better in Almaty and Riga. With food out of the way, it was beer o’clock. So we headed down to Neukölln.

Immortalised in a David Bowie song from the Heroes album, Neukölln is the most heavily immigrant district of Berlin, with about 40% of the residents coming from a non-German background. This trend started around the 60s with many, mainly Turkish, immigrants arriving and taking advantage of the cheap rents and proximity to the Templehof airport and its supply of jobs. A number of Arabic residents arrived not long after and, in recent years, sub-Saharan Africans and Eastern Europeans have moved in. Like other parts of Berlin, though, Neukölln has seen gentrification, with younger German professionals taking advantage of cheaper rents and the opportunity to work from home that newer technologies present. The Bundestag constituency that covers the area was gained by the right in 2009 and regained by the left in 2013. Like much of Berlin, Neukölln is a-changing.

Quite a few guidebooks are now promoting the area on a “catch-it-while-you-can” basis. Like most Berlin districts, I’d been before and, yep, for better or worse, it’s losing a bit of its character. Once guidebooks start pronouncing a place the hip place to go you know it’s screwed. We started our visit around Hermannplatz, then moved on to Sonnenallee and finally to Weserstrasse, which has almost back-to-back bars. Gerard noted that they looked cool and atmospheric with candles everywhere, but we soon noticed that *all* the bars looked that way. We also had difficulties finding the name of some of them, as they either seemed to hide it or go for odd Prince-style symbols on their signs instead

“meet you at pink and black square”

While we found a couple of good places we’d have liked to stay in longer, we insisted on doing a one-in-each-bar pub crawl. Schammerl, a Bavarian restaurant bar, was probably the best we went to and the barman giving us free shots was a nice touch. After a final beer in Astra,

DSC05480

a quite grungy pro-St Pauli football club bar and the inevitable doner kebab it was off back to Friedrichshain to enjoy the hangover.

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