My bookshelf is overpacked. Every new book I buy represents the challenge of making it fit among the others, a nearly impossible mission.
And here I am, wishing I had played more Tetris when I was younger, trying to squeeze in another book on the shelf.
This shelf is very special to me, as it contains mostly books that, one way or another, changed my life.
One of them is the portuguese translation of a famous german autobiography by Christian F. called Wir Kinder vom Banhoff Zoo (We Children of Banhoff Zoo), in which her life as a teenage drug-user in Berlin is documented.
This book marks a turning point in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I never did drugs.
I am talking about one of the happiest times of my life: when I finally got out of the bubble that was private school (a nuns’ school, to make it worse) and ventured into the reality of public high school.
How exciting it was! How diverse this universe was! Not everyone was white, nor rich or even portuguese! People were minding their own business instead of judiciously observing and gossiping about others. Not everyone was catholic, some even dared not being religious at all! Students were not competing against each other, a generalised feeling of comradeship ruled instead.
Seated in front of me in the classroom was a rebellious girl. She smoked weed, had a cool boyfriend and some badass friends, and lots of piercings and tattoos decorated her body.
I remember looking at her back, her hair tied in a messy bun showing a large tattoo on her shoulder, and thinking just how mysterious she seemed.
I never imagined we would soon become great friends, and that I would learn so much from her.
Knowing I was an avid reader, she decided to offer me the book that, in her opinion, could teach me more about life, showing me a reality I was not familiar with. And that is how Wir Kinder vom Banhoff Zoo got into my bookshelf.
Thanks to this book, Berlin became part of my list of travel destinations at the time, but it was only last year that I had the chance to tick it off the list.
Berlin, nowadays the capital of Germany, is the second most populous city in the EU.
One of my best friend’s birthday is very close to mine, so we agreed on a trip to Berlin in late March, as a way to celebrate one more turn around the Sun for us. She flew from Portugal and arrived earlier, and I took a long bus ride from Prague.
Thus, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall (which divided the city both physically and ideologically), I arrived on that evening full of expectations.
I am not gonna lie, my first impression was very disappointing. The streets were cold and looked dirty, and were either full of junkies or completely empty. I was uncomfortable and did not feel safe.
I got on a bus and asked the driver for directions, realising too late that he could not speak or understand a word of english. Aside from him, also every passenger on that bus seemed to not be willing to make the effort. Too late, the bus was moving and I was on it. So I found a seat and hoped for the best.
Two hours and three buses later I had already seen most of the city when I finally reached the hotel.
On that same first night we went out. We wanted to experience what is considered the heart of techno music, the parties and raves that promote freedom and hedonism.
Berlin is the place where some of the most famous clubs are located. There is not a single electronic music fan who hasn’t heard of Berghain or Tresor, for instance.
These clubs have unique locations (they can be found in underground bunkers or closed-down swimming pools) and don’t have a closing time (the party continues through the morning in what is called an “after hour”). There is no dress code for these parties, but there are some interesting rules one should follow, such as not taking pictures or recording videos inside. Mobile phones are forbidden on the dancefloor.
Techno is a blend of repetitive mechanical sounds with a loud pounding rhythm. It is built for being played out in massive sound systems and combined with dark lighting.
This creates an intense trance-like atmosphere. Your heart beats faster, and you can feel each beat bursting inside your head. It is an unique experience that not everyone likes, but I figure everyone should give it a try.
We could not help but notice that everyone was enjoying by themselves: eyes closed, heads continuously hammering and minds lost in their own world. Also due to the volume of the music, any exchange of words between two people was pointless.
I wonder if that is why most german guys I know lack social skills… Is their way of partying affecting their ability to relate with girls? Should techno culture be blamed for my frustrating awkward dates with german guys??! Oh well, let’s move on.
We soon got tired of those parties. And spent our last few nights in Berlin’s oldest gay club, SchwuZ, at the sound of pop music and drag performances that we could not follow properly due to the language barrier.
SchwuZ is located in Neukölln, Berlin’s most racially diverse district in an industrial-sized building. The whole venue has a decrepit warehouse feel, with walls full of graffiti and dim purple light.
This is a very inclusive club, where you can find a broad spectrum of people that dress extravagantly, act queer and radiate happiness. To sum up, it is my kind of place. I absolutely loved everything about it.
During the day, it was possible to admire the impressive monuments scattered throughout the city.
The roof terrace and dome of the Reichstag Building can be visited for free upon registration. This building houses the German Parliament and its large glass dome has a 360 degree view of the surrounding cityscape.
The Brandenburg Gate is one of the best-known landmarks of the country, built on the site of a former city gate that marked the start of a road from Berlin to the town of Brandenburg an der Havel.
For a fan of street art like myself, the East Side Gallery easily became one of my favourite spots in the city. This open-air gallery consists of a series of murals painted directly on a long remnant of the Berlin Wall. The afternoon was cold but sunny, which enabled a good walk along the gallery and several photos that would be my phone’s screensaver for the next months.
Very close to the East Side Gallery we found a cozy cafe called Tante Emma. The vintage feel of it and the tasty cakes they served enchanted us.
Also close-by is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Consisting of almost 3000 concrete slabs of different heights, and supplemented by an underground information centre exhibiting photographs, diaries, farewell letters and short biographies of Holocaust victims, this place is extremely important to keep this horrendous historical memory alive.
In an attempt to change my impression of it being a city that lacked colour, I went up the Television Tower. With its 368 meters of height, this is the tallest structure in Germany and presents the capital at our feet in just 40 seconds.
Did my opinion change? Not really. I regretted the money I wasted on the ticket the moment I reached the observation deck. All I could see was grey, austere building blocks and almost no green spaces to provide Berlin the touch of warmth that I was so desperately looking for.
Berliners seemed to match their environment. They seemed tough, detached, pragmatic and very open-minded.
Finally, it is worth mentioning the beautiful churches and cathedrals of Berlin.
The Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral), located on Museum Island, is absolutely breathtaking.
St. Hedwig’s Cathedral fascinates all visitors with its striking dome and the modern, simple interior. A psychedelic cross suspended from the dome conferes a magical atmosphere that is hard to put into words.
Being itself a city of strong contrasts all mixed together, also strong contrasting feelings blend in my heart. It is a love-hate relationship full of moments that activate all my senses at once. Like one of its raves.
Make sure you don’t miss the chance to be overwhelmed with this city. At least once in your life.