It’s nearly four PM on a hazy Sunday afternoon as Alex and I walk past one of the top clubs in Berlin. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much – a dilapidated factory, one of many former industrial buildings that birthed Berlin’s underground rave scene in the early 90s.
The party was still going from the night before, as black-clad gothic types stumbled from the club into the hazy afternoon light, their eyes either squinting from the sun or glazed from the club drugs. Even more were lined up to go inside, waiting to get past the notoriously selective bouncer.
“Day-walkers,” joked Alex. Neither of us have ever been into the EDM scene – and certainly not Berlin’s hardcore expression of it.
“Not quite carpe diem,” I added. It was nearly my 29th birthday and I was feeling more mature, as if my years of all-night partying were surely behind me.
By contrast, the scene before us seemed post-apocalyptic. In an overgrown lot, small groups of people sunned themselves on concrete ruins. Down the road, a young guy dangled his feet from the window of his apartment, high on something, blasting Janis Joplin, and smiling blissfully into the sun.
It was hard not to judge it as excessively hedonistic – even nihilistic – as if they were partying like there really was no tomorrow.
Berlin is a hard nut to crack for many first time visitors. At first glance, it seems dirty, run down, and gritty. In short, it’s completely unlike any other major European capital.
In place of the skyscrapers are Soviet-style architecture from the 1950s. Squatters live in abandoned buildings five minutes from Parliament. Stickers and posters call for political asylum for Edward Snowden. Middle-aged men ride the subway dressed in drag. And a Sunday walk through Friedrichshain reveals said partiers, as well as hundreds more.
But this is what makes Berlin Berlin. It’s a city of freedom. And the key to understanding why Berliners value their freedom lies in the city’s recent history. So in our recent episode, instead of diving straight into where to go and what to do, Alex and I decided to create some context around the Berlin during the Cold War.
After WWII, Germany was occupied and partitioned by the Allied and Soviet Armies. East Germany was communist, occupied by Russians, and part of the Eastern Bloc, while West Germany was capitalistic and part of NATO. This conflict came to a point in Berlin in 1961, when these ideological divisions manifested in a physical wall dividing the city in half.
Its East German builders claimed it was to keep out foreign “fascists” from the west. In reality, it was built to keep it’s subjects in, to prevent them from entering West Berlin’s airport, from where they could fly to the west.
If the wall squeezed East Germans physically, then the secret police (known as STASI) applied the pressure mentally – spying on their citizens, torturing dissents, and encouraging families to betray their kin. They ruled through fear, like a real-life version of an Orwellian distopia.
That Sunday, I walked along the Berlin Wall, trying to imagine how it would have been to live during those times. We traced the wall’s 140km long footprint through Mauer Park, once divided and now one of the city’s largest gathering places. Only 5 of the 302 guard towers remain, standing incongruously against the modern cityscape, like an airport control tower dropped randomly onto a city corner. Without the wall, they make no sense.
The same could be said for Berlin today – without knowing its history of oppression, it’s hard to grasp Berlin’s love of freedom. Tolerance replaces the bigotry of National Socialism. Street art brings life and community to a wall that once brought only death and division. Snowden’s struggle makes him a hero to those who remember life under the STASI. And all-night partying sure beats having a curfew.
Alex and I didn’t have time to dive into the party scene, partly because filming is strictly prohibited inside. What happened inside remained a mystery to me. I’d only heard wild rumors – most of them revolving around huge orgies happening in the dark corners of the clubs.
So on my last night, I decided not to judge. I met a local girl (thanks Tinder) who invited me to meet her at midnight in a club housed in what seemed like rickety shacks squeezed between dilapidated factories and a bridge. It felt like place where vampires would hang out, and admittedly lot of people were dressed in black.
It wasn’t my scene, and for a moment I decided to leave. Then I saw her wave to me from across the room – even cuter than her profile pictures. I bought us a round of drinks and commented that there were a lot of people here for a Sunday night.
“This is nothing. It’s early. You should see it on the weekend – people come Friday and don’t leave until Sunday afternoon.”
I stifled a yawn and asked her how late she was staying.
“Noon,” she said,
I told her I normally don’t stay out that late, that I had a plane to catch the following day so I couldn’t be out until dawn.
“Suit yourself,” she said, snapping her clutch closed and leading me out on the dance floor, where I found myself surrounded by the same crowd that I’d seen earlier that day. Earlier, I’d judged them for wasting their day. My early rising gave me a sense of superiority, as if I were getting more done. Accomplishing more. Making more progress.
Now I was among them, trying not to look like a total douche as I attempted to adapt my American bump-and-grind dance moves to the scene.
My date noticed, and we both laughed. I changed the subject, and asked her why they didn’t allow filming in the clubs.
“Because here it doesn’t matter what you believe, how you dress, who you love – anyone is free to be who they are, to live how they wish. It’s a place of freedom, and recording would take away from that.”
I checked the time. My flight was leaving in 12 hours. If I left now I could get my eight hours, maybe even send off a few important emails before I left. But what would that really accomplish?
“Still thinking about leaving?”
“No,” I said, putting away my phone. “I can stay longer. I’m free.”