Sucking up the Soul of a City

A day in pursuit of the spirit of Berlin

Photos by Tessa Mythos

I wake up smiling in a lunatic asylum, where every room is a work of art. People party on through the crack of dawn. Cucumber, cream-cheese and crackers for breakfast. In front of our tent is a wild-looking woman, sprawled out on the grass, with sand in her eyes, cursing her tobacco pouch, early-morning rolling skills, and her businessman boyfriend serving 3 months in some easy jail for his perceived right to personally enjoy free public transportation. Everyone in our camp shares a giant watermelon.

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A painted prayer in progress

Last night, my beautiful partner and her circle of witches prayed for the mighty forest across the ocean, burning from human desire, and I learned that this place, where free spirits are right now celebrating life, once was a wicked way-station for some of the more than two hundred thousand disabled people, who were sent to the gas chambers during the eugenic Nazi-nightmare they call the ‘Krankenmorde’. Peace is a post-war phenomenon.

This is a Lost Place; abandoned buildings with caved-in roofs and rusty old bed frames. Looming trees by a still lake. Perfect backdrop for a street-art festival boiling over Berlin’s creative cauldrons, stirred by the slow and steady hand of history – forever adding stories to the tale of a place that was once torn in half by the victors of war, and left for the people to restore. Alas, I am 80 kilometres away from the glorious mission of this sunny day; savouring the soul of a city I’ve only known briefly, but always with great curiosity.

This time around, I only have a single day to infuse myself with the underground essence of the New York of Europe; where punk meets ayahuasca during corporate lunch-breaks, on a second-hand couch in a brick-walled back-room of a daytime nightclub, serving maté sorbet and a cool chardonnay with a shot of vodka to take off some of that formidable edge. The gritty spell of Berlin has a certain grasp on marginal city-rats like myself, who live off the scraps of The Economy and don’t mind the sweet smell of sewerage, so long as it keeps on flowing. I really should get going…

My beautiful partner has work to do, concerning visionary art, so I kiss her goodbye and I hike up my bag and I stick out my thumb with a buddy. We get onboard neatly on the second try; a penitentiary social worker, and her elderly mother with a cast on her neck, will gladly take us to Neustrelitz station. They laughingly welcome my broken German and tell us that Mutti broke a vertebra on her very own kitchen floor, oh no, and Katrin thinks that drugs is the biggest issue – by far – among the juvenile delinquents, whom she is making into better people, or at least she does her best. Forty minutes later, we are crammed into a regional train to Berlin.

where did it go?

Art in abandon

Buddy is a deep thinker and in between prams, bulky bags and bikes, he tells me about cutting edge computing and the frightening future of neural learning. Two old-timers speak in my mother tongue, bike-helmets on and pillow-pants, clickety shoes and sunscreen stuck in their smiling-wrinkles. Artificial intelligence is the natural extension of language and mathematics, it’s just another level of abstraction. They are cycling all the way to Berlin, they say, with a wink in their eyes, although the oldest can hardly see anymore. His friend consequently bridges the navigational gap by always staying ahead of him, to warn of potholes and slippery plots. The blind spots of algorithms equate the bias of the data that you feed them, and you can’t really track the process in real-time. It’s always noon somewhere in the world, so the rules can be bent just a little today, and the first pair of pints will be soon enough pulled, in a bodega at the next station. I think I understand, that the computation of a GPU, involves handling all information at once.

Back at the shack; shit, shave and a shower. Time for a coffee while I check out the map. First things first, I hop on the S-train, bound for a lump in the park. I ignore the first twenty-five dealers in Görlitzer, prowl my way deeper inside. Senegalese guy, chill with a beanie, hooks me up easy for a tenner. I pick myself a gentle slope in the glaring sun and roll up my pants and a joint. Clusters of youngsters and families picnic while gangs of guys are alert to the heat.

I’m sweating when I get up to go. Casually chasing the ghost of myself, over the canal into Wagenburg Lohmühle – one of the many wagon-squats that sprouted up in pockets of the no man’s land, which appeared when the Wall came down, thirty years ago this fall. I stayed here once, and now I stand – dizzy in the summer heat – looking at a precious piece of my implausible past, in the sunlit dust of the urban micro-eco-village, where they meet every week to discuss their affairs, and to make sure everyone’s happy. An inflatable neck-pillow calls me softly through the haze from their put-and-take freeshop, still quietly giving and taking whatever you need at exactly the perfect moment. I sit for a while on a bench by the Spree and watch a raunchy party-raft putter on past me, relaxed and joyful by the calm gleaming water.

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Colour rebellion in no mans land

In sleepy Alt-Treptow, a hot quiet block has turned into an ad hoc flea market with old toys and clothes and books and records. Soup on a white plastic table – help yourself. Residents mind their own little business outside every second front door. Mix of immigrants and broke German youth, waiting together for the cool of night, might as well turn a few bucks while they’re at it. I dream-walk along on a cloud of thoughts and I get lost in the rhythm of my steps.

I see that they have brought me to Oranienstrasse, where hundreds of hipsters go social-marker-shopping, with confusing facial hair and ambiguous glances across the street. Rows of cold-pressed coffee bars, interspersed with bike-shops and barbers and boutiques. I happily stroll the gauntlet, with my big bushy beard and my loosely tied hair-bun, looking – for once – like I should belong. Suppose if I had any savings I could, but I should like to doubt that I would. Vanity insanity is mostly for the privileged, but poverty can also be a choice for the vain, and I am not really sure where I fit into that. Meanwhile, the item that I really need to fit, is hanging on a metal rack on Frankfurter Tor. I step onto the U-bahn and head to Humana, and on the third floor of this second-hand haven, I pick up the first pair of shorts to be cool.

From there on it’s only a skip and a hop to another old haunt – the square where I tracked down a runaway-friend, about a decade ago. The band didn’t care that he took all the money, but they worried if he was okay. Since I was already headed that way, I spent my days cruising along underground edges, asking distrustfully squinting squatters for leads on a burnt kid, hiding from himself. When I gave up the hunt, I found him at last – shoulders up and a thawing frown – and we had ourselves a blast on Boxhagener Platz, when the crusty old punks had the power. I see the gentrified playground in the middle now, bustling with prim parents, gently fuzzing over their little ones. No hustling out in the open air and dogs on leaches everywhere.

Last thing I heard, he’d followed the Lord into the mountains to pray, and to take up a job in sales, they say. He would’ve OD’ed on his life, anyway, in the streets of Berlin if he hadn’t done that, so I take off my hat for a good old fellow, who traded an age-old pillow of myth for his magical misery tour. Happy days were often so much worse than I remember, but a story is a story and a good one hangs around. I don’t, though, this square is too square for me now.

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Yours truly in a door of perception

Still, I do have to get with the times, so I download an app for electric scooters, much to my own surprise – I would almost even say dismay – but I toke on a pier with the Molecule Man, before I search for my very first ride on one of these beefed up tourist toys. They just look so fun, so fuck it man, I’ve got a whole city to be in, and I’m hungry for it’s heart, and for some food too – come to think of it. I drive myself into a dead-end for a start; a wasted couch in a broken sea of twinkling shards of glass, is a daylight haphazard art piece and probably a nighttime shooting gallery. I get out of dodge with maximum nineteen km an hour, keeping in mind the delicious burgers they serve in the old art nouveau pissoir on Schlesisches Tor – underneath the tall tracks of the U-bahn.

The Fuck Parade is blocking my way, at a glance they look like a riot. A thousand misfits, marching to techno with torn sweaty shirts and the right kind of beer. They started out demonstrating against greedy street-party organizers, who masked their big business as a demonstration, put on commercial displays of love and left the massive clean-up bill on a municipality desk. After raining on the Love Parade, with a decidedly dark aesthetic and a hundred and forty beats per minute, they went on thundering about a whole range of social issues, and it looks like they don’t like Nazis either. Police are present in combat-gear, gotta get my PTSD out of here. I bully through the mob on my ridiculous scooter, losing the clusterfuck fading behind me, still on the lookout for grub.

A red light finally catches up, I stop and spy my salvation; Some tattered parasols reach out to me, from a sausage corner stand. Two tables and a one armed jack – three geezers having a snack. I ditch my wheels and order myself an unpretentious curry wurst – not the worst I’ve had. Greasy meals in grimy shops always get me grounded. Surrounded by the stark utilitarian decor, the tiniest spark of a smile in such a store will never fail to comfort me. There are scores of beautiful people in the ugliest of places, and the sausage man and me – and the three old wheezing geezers – we are doing quite okay, I think, for being who we are. We nod a bit in the slow dusk and focus on our food.

By the bombed-out church of St. Michael – the angel – Wim Wender’s epic film gets a remake in my mind, by the foot of a ruin frozen in time, a scar left behind to remind us of war. On the pretty promenade by the pond, a brown humming girl, in a flowing white dress with a feather in her hair, is gliding through the air. Picking up plastic from the path to the bin, breaking my heart with the beauty of this whole fucking mess that the world is in.

Shady station Kotti is a killer after angels, and heaven and hell in the sun by the church and the pond in the park. This unforgiving intersection refuse to admit to its grit. No thank you, cocaine pusher, yeah, gotta make a living I know, I’m catching a circus show in the abandoned airport, if you’d ever let me go. He sends me off scowling with a mocking shrug and looks for a sucker to pester anew.

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Street art detail near Tempelhof

Windsurfing long-boarders follow the train on the desolate airport terrain, which serves as a refuge for the fleeing and some of the various innocent creatures among us. Vegetable gardens now flourish where an airbridge once nourished half a city that was cut off from the farms that fed it. If you go for a walk on the strip you will get it; Tempelhof is a giant heart, beating ever so softly in the whistling wind of change...

I happen to know, very well, the whole troupe of The Greatest & Second Smallest Circus In The World. I’ve seen them grow from a suitcase into a convoy of trucks and trailers, always beautifully battered from the never-ending road. I take a off a load on a stump by their campfire, stoked by the friendship of travelling fellows. The years between visits mean little to wanderers chancing upon each other, yet again, in yet another new wondrously foreign land. The youngest one, my earnest friend, is cycling through his languages accordingly, wishing he could stay up all night long to see the morning beams.

I make a new friend on the fringe of the fire. One with a lot on her mind. She’s built herself up with a solid base here, only to find that she traded off the endless exciting logistics of travel, with boredom and the slow burn of joy that you get from a daily recurring stability. Where is her burning exploding identity hiding the adventures in her lunchbox? I have no advice; in between paying my rent in fuel and building other people’s houses, I can’t say I’ve often nailed the spot where my soul can soar away in freedom, at least not twice in a row. Not including, of course, when I sometimes go on a holiday, from a holiday, from a holiday to a bill to pay. I count my money in time spent holding a hammer, working my ass off to get it all over with, so I can ride that privilege into the horizon again. Burning my candle in both ends, make me feel lighter by the minute. Nice chatting with you too, we’re lucky to have choices to begin with.

I’m beat and my left shoe has burst a seam. Long day at the office for a modern flaneur on a schedule and a shoe-string budget, during a continental heatwave. I limp along stubbornly, squeezing the last few drops of the soul of this city, into a box of falafel and chips. I’m licking my lips and end up eating a bit of the plastic fork – I’m still going full torque on Berlin, but I gotta get myself horizontal soon. Back at the shack, I stick on a flick about a good man, with a bad case of wanting to belong. It doesn’t really matter how it ends, because, I am… Already… Drifting… On…

Faith & Framing in America

This is an approximately 8-minute read about my introduction to the beautiful art of timber framing. In my last post, I was just getting ready to join a workshop in Upstate New York, and here are some of my impressions and thoughts from that…

Show Me The Way!

It was a hot day for hitching in Saratoga County, and my tool-pack was getting heavier for every car that passed me by and disappeared in the heat shimmer. The humidity was oppressive and the tarmac stuck to my steel-toes, but I was, nonetheless, in high spirits as I held out my thumb, and prayed for someone to pick me up and take me to Christ the King.

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The boring machine that I am using here, was made in the 40’s. Apart from being quite efficient, it also allowed me to listen to the birds rather than the whir and screech from power tools.

I had seen the light, so to speak, only a few weeks earlier – in the Kootenay Rockies, BC – when a dedicated brother had recommended me to take up this journey. But it wasn’t so much Jesus that I was in search of, as it was the secrets of his worldly profession. You see, Jesus was a carpenter too, and I was about to discover a way of wood-working, that has been practiced since long before he was born and our calendar begun: I was about to take my first steps into the world of timber framing. More

Finding My Feet In The Kootenay Mountains

There is nothing like camping out for a full week at an unimaginably loud and dusty electronic music festival, to make you feel like relaxing by a nice and quiet hot spring, somewhere deep in the Canadian mountains. At least when you know it’s an option, it can easily become a semi-serious obsession as the party progresses and you find yourself peeling your sleeping bag off your grimy back in the mornings. I am speaking out of experience, of course.

A snapshot from the Shambhala Music Festival by the Salmo River

A snapshot from the Shambhala Music Festival by the Salmo River

I had been volunteering my carpentry skills at the legendary Shambhala Music Festival in the Kootenay mountains of British Columbia, and it had been a most delightful and wonderfully intense week of hard work and elaborate partying, but now I was positively pooped and – as per usual – down to my last 100 dollars. More importantly, I needed a long, hot bath and a 24-hour nap. More

Welcome To The Jungle!

After a whole year in Denmark – the longest time I have spent there for about 5 years, I am now again on traveling foot and loving every minute of it. This time I have been granted a 1-year working visa for Canada, and although I am only a month into my travels, I already feel like it won’t be enough with merely 11 more! This country is just so incredibly beautiful and the people here are some of the nicest people I have ever met. Here is a brief account of my very first meeting with this great land and it’s awesome humans… More

Tribute To A True Friend

I wrote this piece for a beautiful friend of mine who recently chose to end her life. I met her in Golden Bay on my first journey to New Zealand, and it was friendship at first sight. Cheyenne had a troubled background, and growing up she suffered severe trauma and abuse. Despite these hard odds, she was an inspiration and a joy to be around and I am honored to have known her. This is my tribute to a brief but powerful friendship that etched a strong impression in my being…

I could tell straight away that she was on a journey of sorts. Outside the nightclub, the fireplace in the cosy yard had caught her full attention. All around us carefree people were laughing and drinking, but as she sat on the ground and stared down the flames, her face was grave, with a strange hint of awe. I was a stranger in town and took my beer in a corner, observing the scene in silence. Suddenly she caught my eyes and fixed me with the most intense stare – piercingly hard and straight through me – yet it wasn’t aggressive but somehow almost pleading. Unusual. I could only return her gaze in hypnotic surprise. She was in a cosmic state of mind and seemed to be navigating a particularly rough patch of universe just then. A solitary psychonaut making her way home through a soulful storm.

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You Just Can’t Walk

Ras al-Khaimah – February 2016

The banana shake in my hand seems to have a scoop of strawberry jam at the bottom. My friend agrees after an eager sample and convincingly adds: ”Why not?” I try again and decide that it just isn’t right. I love exploring new cultures and their food, but I simply cannot embrace all customs, hard as I might try.

We are waiting for our parathas to arrive, a late lunch on our way to the barber. Outside the restaurant, a couple of boxes make up our chairs on the roadside. Under the glaring sun, in the dusty heat. Nobody sits outside, except two sun-depraved Scandinavian men.

It’s 3pm, an hour until siesta-time is over, but the old carpenter next door is back in his plywood workshop. In a country with no trees, laminate goes a long way. Two hijab-wearing women in a sleek black sedan pull up at his shop and honk for attention.

The old man goes to them and a slow-paced negotiation, probably about some furniture or other, unfolds through the half opened passenger-window. The locals don’t seem to like being outside much. More

Killer Coffee

Muscat, Oman – January 2016

Sultan Qaboos was staring right at me in full regalia, armed with a sable and a dagger. I counted 20-odd medallions on his wide and ribboned chest. He was looking sharp and merciful.

Next to him was another photograph of the Sultan, wearing army fatigues and looking 40 years younger. All shops in Oman hang pictures of their beloved leader on their walls, but this coffee-shop was more dedicated than most. All across its tea-stained walls, Sultan Qaboos was stepping in and out of private jets, shaking hands with world-leaders, inspecting parading soldiers and waving at his minions.

Now where did that image go..?

His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman

I was near the capital’s busy and touristy market, the Mutrah Souq, waiting for a round of instant coffee as it were. Made generously with milk and sugar, the way they take it, and the way I love it. From their halwar kameez dress, I figured the staff was Pakistani, but the customers wore mostly Omani dishdashas. I was definitely the blond one out… More

Ireland Revisited

I recently spent 3 fabulous weeks in Ireland with some good friends – new and old. (If you are just here to see some sweet pictures from my latest trip, then scroll down to the gallery part). It was probably my 7th trip there in the decade that has passed since my first impromptu immigration to Ireland. This near-mythical island fascinates me with its resilient culture, at home and abroad. Between 9 and 10 million people have emigrated from Ireland since the 1700’s, and today the Irish People and their descendants count more than 80 million humans. This post is an introduction into the migration-happy Ireland that i have come to know and love.

Fáilte go hÉirinn – Welcome to Ireland!

 

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Also known as “The Emerald Isle”, Ireland is indeed a very green place. Lots of old castles and rugged cliffs too. Just like the brochures really, except they don’t always mention the incessant rain…

Early Irish Impressions

When I was 20 years old, I was living in England’s “San Francisco” – the lively seaside town of Brighton – where young back packers and middle-aged party-addicts spontaneously get stuck until they run out of money or mental health.

I ran out of both after about a year of odd-jobs and shoestring-debauchery – but what a year it was! This was my first bit of proper impromptu migration, traveling alone and with nothing but opportunity and adventure ahead of me. Here I made friends from around the world, and one such friend was the Irishman Joe (Great Mystery rest his soul). More

Tui Turns 30!

Almost 9 months ago, I promised you to write about my experience of living in one of New Zealand’s most remarkable communities – Tui. Then life happened and swept me onto new adventures and I forgot all about it. But as Tui is turning 30 this year, they have asked friends of the community to write a little something for the occasion and I realized that this was my chance to both give them my story and redeem myself to you, dear reader…

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Daylight full moon rising over a corner of Tui with the Abel Tasman National Park in the back.

 

Here is what I sent to the Tuis:

 

My name is Cornelius and I am a Danish globetrotter and community enthusiast who first learnt about community-living in the 1000-people strong Freetown of Christiania – a famous and controversial community in the middle of Copenhagen. From small grungy squats to large scale utopian projects around the world, I have since visited and studied a great deal of communities. Some of them – like Tui – I visited for the purpose of making a radio documentary. My focus with this is to document intentional communities that are long-standing and non-religious, in an attempt to uncover what makes an alternative and individually diversified community last through the generations, without succumbing to the all-too-common problems of fanaticism, commercialism and inter-personal conflict.

 

Stumbling Upon A Gem

I was hitch-hiking near Nimbin in Australia, when I first heard of Tui,  A lady who picked me up, turned out to be a fellow community aficionado and I told her about my community documentary project and that my next destination was New Zealand. Her response was to tell me about one of Tui’s founding members, Robina McCurdy, who happened to have just visited the Nimbin area to give a talk about permaculture. She then told me about Tui community and I decided then and there to visit the place, as soon as I got to New Zealand.

My second impression of Tui came from their website. I was curious to know a bit more about the community, and keen to arrange for me to stay there for a while, so I tried googling them. Having seen so many unkempt community websites over the years, I was very impressed with Tui’s home in cyberspace. Here was a community that, not only updated their website more than once every couple of years, they had also posted relevant information and up-to-date contact details!

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Me and my favourite three co-wwoofers; Ine, the Beast & Mari. A very special time that was for 4 strangers turned family.

I wrote to Tyson, the current (excellent!) visitor coordinator, and told him that I was hoping to do some work, in exchange for a few weeks of accommodation and possibly some food. I also wrote that I was interested in conducting a few interviews for my community documentary. Little did I know that I was going to spend 3 whole months there, working for the community as well as nearly every household, doing more than 20 interviews and no doubt winning some genuine friends for many years to come!

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Tonga & The Tropical Trouble

If I say ‘tropical island kingdom in the Pacific’, would you think of political riots, racial tension, corrupt authorities, roadside pollution, feudal rule, poverty, alcoholism and natural disasters? I’m guessing no.

Nonetheless, this is also part of the otherwise picture-perfect postcard that you get here in Tonga. It would be easy to write yet another envy-inducing traveller’s blog about how cute all the traditional costumes are, how friendly the people are, how white the sandy beaches are and how fresh the cheap coconuts taste.

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Even though the World Cup is on these days, local rugby matches draw more attention than any soccer game will ever do.

 

Of course, all of that is true and the weather is great too, but you know me; I can’t help but digging up the dirt and the quirk. So here we are – welcome to an alternative peak into the Kingdom of Tonga.

A Cash-Conscious Church

Tonga is the only Polynesian island nation that has never lost its sovereignty to a foreign power. In other words; they were never colonized. For that reason, it is probably also the best living example of uninterrupted Polynesian culture with all the feudalism and taboo that this entails.

That is not to say that new ideas and cultural traits haven’t been introduced. Take Christianity for instance. In the 1800’s Tonga started receiving missionaries of all sorts of Christian denominations; Mormons, 7th Day Adventists, Catholics, Wesleyans, Lutherans, you name it. In modern day Tonga this translates into a 99% Christian population.

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Even the smurfs have their own church in Tonga!

 

Yet, the Tongans didn’t so much get converted as they converted the church practices into a distinctively Tongan version. One example of that is the widespread practice of drinking the anaesthetic juice made from the roots of the Kava plant. In the Free Church of Tonga, the preacher and the congregation thus get moderately stoned together right before and immediately after church services.

Another uniquely Tongan church practice is the in-your-face money collection, which happens during service and ends with a public counting of the loot and a subsequent public reading from a list of givers and their contributions. Talk about peer-pressure.

 

Traditional Pressures

Where Westerners often feel pressure and expectation in their work-environments, Tongans feel their societal obligations most strongly within their families and churches. Tongans will apparently often take out expensive loans just to afford an ‘appropriate’ donation to the church and when a family member dies, the family absolutely must perform certain rites that are often cripplingly expensive.

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