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.

where did it go?

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.

where did it go?

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.

where did it go?

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.

where did it go?

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…

Old Friends In New Places

I barely made it back to Nimbin before I got a message from my old friend Kristian – or Madsen as he is known to friends. He was on his way to Byron Bay only a few hours from Ponyland. What are the odds? I quickly made my way back to Byron…

Madsen has landed a job as a tour guide for Danish students. His itinerary includes Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Thailand in the next 6 months. Sounds like a dream job if you ask me.

Now where did that image go?

And Suddenly Australia Became very Familiar

So here we are, hanging out in Australia together. It always feels great to have friends from home who knows what you have experienced in foreign lands.

On top of that, my good friend Tash wrote to tell me that she will be joining my other friend Anton and myself at the Eclipse Festival in North Queensland in a few weeks!

And then Anton called and said he might drive all the way there from Perth and pick me up on the way. I mean, that would be fantastic, but I don’t blame him if he changes his mind. It’s a 5500km drive…

This country is huge and would easily fit in all of my friends, so by all means, do come visit!

 

 

38 Hours Across The World

My flight out of Copenhagen departed in the leisurely afternoon hours, allowing me the time to wake up slowly, hug a few more friends that I had yet to salute, and arrive stress-free at the incredible place we call an “air-port”, where you can show a few papers to a few uniforms and up in the sky you go!

Since I was a child, and my family was based in Greenland, I have been flying in and out of Denmark (and around the world) more than I would like to admit to my environmental conscience. Some years I have counted 15 flights or more, and sometimes I can’t help wondering if any amount of resources I manage to decrease in my everyday consumption will ever make up for the giant size carbon footprint I have already made…

I Can Fly!

Still; it is an incredible thing to fly. And every time I sit on a plane, I always wonder how the hell it is even possible, not only to move through the sky in a tin-can with 900km an hour, but also to find the time to complain about the temperature of the coffee. For god’s sake mate: YOU ARE FLYING THROUGH THE FUCKING SKY! Would you just sit back and enjoy it!

Having said that, being a seasoned air plane passenger, I do value a good on-board service. And having flown with everything from Air Greenland helicopters and Air Laos’ propeller planes ( dating back to the Vietnam War) to the largest top-of-the-line commercial air crafts, I trust my own judgment when it comes to picking out the best available options. That doesn’t mean, of course, that my finances allow me to chose them.

But on this particular journey; from Copenhagen via Qatar in the United Arab Emirates, on to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and finally arriving in Coolangatta Airport on Australia’s East Coast, the first two legs were wonderfully luxurious (Qatar Airlines is the bomb, just letting you know…). The third and last leg of this incomprehensibly fast migration, however, was spent on yet another dirty, no-frills Air Asia machine, complete with broken seats, exhausted stewardesses and cramped leg space.

Random Connections

I spent quite a lot of air-time wondering where and how to go, once I touched down in Australia. Hoping to hit the ground running I had yet to receive any news from the random connections I had on the East Coast. Then, as I was watching the tell-tale mix of Indian labourers and Saudi Arabian oil sheiks lemminging through the gates of Qatar Airport, I suddenly remembered a particularly random connection: Radhesyam, or just Rad. 5 months before, I had made friends with Rad in the outrageously utopian, and slickly spiritual, intentional community of Auroville in South India.

Over a cup of masala chai one day, she had told me to drop her a line if I ever came Down Under, saying that she would for sure hook me up. So in the midst of Qatar’s commuting commotion, I sat down to drop Rad a few lines. And thank god for that! She has hooked me up with a deeply spiritual and joyful festival, transportation, a job and hours of fun and interesting conversation. You will hear much more about her later…

A Close Shave

In Malaysia I had a 12-hour layover, and for once I had actually pre-booked a hotel – knowing that I wouldn’t be up for hanging out on an airport-chair for a whole night. On the Net I had found what seemed to be a convenient yet slightly pricey option which I settled for – not getting any younger after all. Turned out to be a block of concrete sitting right next to the low-cost carrier airport terminal, like a turd looking at brick. Owned by Air Asia, of course.

Already tired from the first two flights, I still decided to take a bus into Kuala Lumpur (gotta love that name) since I’d never been there before. I had just enough time to see the wacky and world-famous KL-skyline from a mono-rail train, get a dish of street-kitchen chicken chow (try saying that out loud) and buy another 1GB of RAM in one of the many typical Asian electronics shopping centres. Just another day in the life of a modern nomad.

Of course I couldn’t sleep most of the night anyway, and ended up watching two mediocre films on my 10 inch screen, all the while dreading that I wouldn’t wake up in time for my flight. And guess what? I almost didn’t. From the moment I opened my gravelled eyes to the moment I stood in line at the Air Asia check-in counter, I doubt that more than 10 minutes went by. I ran like a rocket and I might have knocked over a few smaller travellers – but I made it!

Lost And Found

Next time I woke up, I was suspended 10.000 feet over a massive arid, burnt orange-red canvas of sand, dust and rocks, with scar-like cracks running parallel for hundreds of kilometres. My first sighting of Australia.

People had told me of the anal customs officers in Australia’s airports. Absolutely nothing organic, which hasn’t been sterilised and sealed, is allowed into Australia, seeds of any kind in particular. I was prepared to lose the small bag of Copal my dear friend Philip had given me as a parting gift, but I didn’t see this one coming: They took my bloody juggling balls! Filled with seeds they were, so that was a no go.

Got my stamp. Got my bag. Got a bus. Got a hostel (thank you Philip again, sweet place!). Got a bed. Got there. Before I nodded off that first night, I remember wondering how long it would take for my soul to catch up.

Retrospectively I can confidently say that it took just about 6½ days.