One of the coolest things possible to do in Berlin also happens to be one of the simplest. And it’s completely free. Outdoors tables for ping pong are everywhere in this city. You can even play by streetlight.
The Germans are mad keen on the game and one of their most famous sporting exports is Timo Boll, a former World Champion who’s almost as famous in China as David Beckham. Have a look at this ping pong themed website which claims Germany as ‘ping pong country’. It’s like a porn site for ping pong fetishists. Not only that, there’s a popular bar in Berlin called Dr Pong, where the sport doubles as a drinking game.
The beauty of table tennis is that anyone can play it. Even girls. Panda had never seen a ping pong ball in her life before arriving in Berlin. Yet within a few months of serious tischtennis-ing she was managing to beat players that even she would admit are far more stylish/ technically competent/ athletic/ big-headed and experienced than her. Well, she basically got lucky. In my defense, Panda was formerly an Olympic contender in a very closely related field of sporting endeavour (swimming) so you should take that into account when wondering how on earth your bearish hero managed to lose to her. Six times.
These days we call it table tennis or ping pong, but did you know that the game originated in the Victorian dining room and was originally called ‘wiff waff’? Here’s London’s mayor, the hilarious buffoon Boris Johnson, reclaiming ping pong from the Chinese the night the Beijing Olympics ended and explaining the genesis of wiff waff, a quintessentially English invention: Wiff waff wideo
Get stuck into some wiff waff if you’re in Berlin. It’s loads of fun and good for the ticker. And pray you don’t run into Panda.
Part of the reason for the long hiatus between this post and the last (about four months I think) is that one has less time for blogging when one is engaged in the real world business of settling in a new city.
For me, this ‘settling’ has taken a number of aberrant forms. For example, I started an indie-folk-rock band called The Bears Grrr, played some gigs and recorded a soon-to-be-[self]-released EP to be titled Panda Loves Dogs. Panda, by the way, LOVES dogs. Woof. Grrr.
As something to do in Berlin – whether you’re here for a weekend or a year – I would highly recommend starting a rock band for kicks. Go for it kids! What have you got to lose? As I discovered, being barely able to play your guitar or sing beyond warbling throatily is no hindrance at all to starting a band in Berlin, or perhaps anywhere else for that matter.
This is how I did it:
1. Set up a practice session in week 1 with a hastily gathered bunch of friends and friends-of-friends who could play a bit and start writing melodic songs.
2. Go out busking the terraces around Boxhagenerplatz, Kolwittzplatz and Bergmannstrasse in search of affirmation and small change. Be sure to wander into self-proclaimed ‘legendary venue’ White Trash Fast Food to wow the owner Wally with an impromptu set
3. Start playing occasional open mics, such as the excellent one hosted at Madame Claude in Kreuzberg (where the sound guy really knows what he’s doing, the atmosphere is supportive and the room sparkles)
4. Tempt in other musicians by the sheer madness of your enthusiasm and the semi-plausibility of your vocal hooks
5. Graduate to getting invites to play ‘twee’ parties, occasional charity gigs, house parties
6. Return to aforementioned ‘legendary’ venue (in truth, it’s become a glorified Hard Rock Cafe with over-priced burgers and snotty, overworked staff) for a ‘proper’ gig way before you’re actually ready for it. Rock, in your own quiet, shambolic way, and be told upon leaving the stage “That was shit. I hated it .. but the girls seemed to like it” by Wally
7. Set aside a weekend and record a demo EP at home, which we did a fortnight ago.
I’ve played music before on stage (just a handful of times), I’ve recorded bits and bobs at home, but until I came to Berlin I’d never formed my own band. Call it creative freedom or the stimulation of being in a new city, or a culture of acceptance of cultural effort here in Berlin, or the fact that not being in England in amongst your own can feel like a hindrance lifted – but it’s been a joy to start a band, write a bunch of songs (we have about 15), play some gigs and record. Where we go from here is anybody’s guess, but I’ll keep you posted.
Some of the recordings we’ve done are already on the obligatory myspaz here if you care to listen. Next step will be getting the CD pressed and packaged – to hand out, to sell etc. Maybe I’ll blog about that.
Berlin has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to drinking holes, pick-up joints and hang-outs and there’s plenty to get the blood pumping. Neil Goodwin helps you plot a course through the arteries of the savage city, from Prenzlauer Berg to Mitte.
Some call it the heart of Europe, some say Vampire City. Others talk of it providing the lifeblood for contemporary art, social change and possibility. For surelich, Berlin is still arguably the most florid outcrop of Europe’s cultural evolution, with genius lodged deep and immovable in its DNA. But when the loft spaces fall dark and the peripatetic thinking takes pause, the city provides a smorgasbord of opportunities for entertainment and relaxation, all easily accessed by the excellent public transport system.
Follow me now as I take a carefully chosen yet random night out in the heart of Berlin – from the hip and pretty Prenzlauer Berg, which has grown from working-class backwater to haven for avant-garde artists, writers, homosexuals, political activists and young well-to-do parents – to Mitte, or ‘Middle’, the city’s historic core.
Let us begin the evening with the city’s superior vena cava – lying above the heart and receiving blood from the head and upper body region. Enter if you will the calm, brooding ambience of Wohnzimmer (‘living room’).
To get there from Eberswalder Str., on line U2 of the U-bahn, take the first left off Danziger Str. down Lychener Str., then on to Lettestrasse 6, where you will discover a charming and welcoming space serving beer by the bottle, coffee and cocktails in what appears to be a flood-damaged sitting room with a sprawling array of sofas, armchairs and chaises longues.
Besides the always pleasing selection of music at Wohnzimmer, it’s the diastolic atmosphere, warmth and lighting that aids the circulation and prepares you for the next stage of your journey.
The atrium is the pacemaker of the heart and Zu Mir Oder Zu Dir (‘your place or mine’) on Lychener Str. acts as such with its glittering disco ball, psychedelic and kaleidoscopic strobe lights, retro chic furnishings and funky soul grooves on the turntables. An excellent cocktail menu and a lively atmosphere warm the proverbial cockles and set the low pressure pumps to fill the ventricles and relax inhibitions just enough to befriend a stranger or three.
After a few mojitos, caipirinhas or whatever floats your boat in Zu Mir, head around the block to Revolution on Pappelallee and allow the inferior vena cava to be pumped from the pelvic organs and lower body regions by DJs who deserve – but don’t ask for more than – the nominal one euro cover charge. Wednesdays and Sundays witness chilled-out grooves and carefully chosen crackling vinyl, but take a chance with any other night and you’ll find the place throbbing to house, electro or funk.
This bar is a tall-ceilinged throwback to the DDR and not a single detail appears to be post 1974. Friendly, generous bar staff and the freedom of space make this a place in which you could gladly while away the whole night. But wait! Berlin has more to offer …
At the bottom of Pappelallee take the U2 artery one stop to Senefelder Platz. Here you have the option of soaking up the alcohol a little with some hearty fare at White Trash Fast Food, which is not only a live swing/rockabilly/rock n’ roll venue but also evokes the burlesque and decadence of 1920s Berlin, with a tattoo parlour and barber shop under its roof to boot. It also shows films.
The food menu at White Trash is sumptuous: fish “skinned and fried in our anti-terrorist beer batter” & “zero tolerance fuck-you fries”, a special Caesar salad served with “one fat-ass Scampi”, “meal-size bowls” of soup, and much else besides.
Almost directly opposite White Trash is the too-cool-for-school 8MM bar on Schonhauser Allee 177. This is a teensy rectangular space with subtley patterned black wallpaper and minimal furnishings that attracts artsy folk, Scandinavians and assorted flotsam and jetsam.
Most nights a film is projected onto the end wall, typically a Godard, a Fassbinder or a Bergman – occasionally, a Japanese zombie movie or an episode from the classic TV series ‘Monkey’. Always an interesting and pleasant place to have a drink before stumbling a few doors up to the one and only Bassy Cowboy Club.
Club Bassy is arguably the most eccentric cowboy club in Western Europe. Knock on the door to enter and find yourself stepping into 1950s Hamburg. A live music venue with a separate smoking room full of 50s kitsch and a jaw-dropping jukebox, Bassy is a friendly kinda place where you’re likely to meet all sorts: Teddyboy, Mod, Rocker, Tranny, Tourist, Drag Queen, Cowboy, Funkster and Everyday Average Joe, all grooving to pre-1969 country wildstyle, surf, rythym and blues, Northern soul, rock n’ roll in perfect harmony. It’s very easy to lose hours enjoying the sights and sounds of this unique venue and you will promise yourself it won’t be the last time.
Step outside into a new dawn and close the ductus arteriosis with a breath of fresh air and head to bed for well-earned diastolic r&r, but a word of advice: avoid your liver filing for divorce (citing years of domestic abuse) and dose yourself with a few drops of milk thistle and B complex. You wouldn’t want to have to rule out another intrepid fun-seeking mission tomorrow, now would you?
What? too early for bed you say? No problem… it may be 7am, but rest assured, you’ll always find elbow room at the bar over at Kaffee Burger on Torstrasse, a mere eight-minute stroll down Schonhauser Allee from Bassy. This is the home of Vladimir Kaminer’s Russian Disco and it hasn’t changed a bit since the DDR melted into air.
The DJ plays popular hits – ya-hoo wheee spin-a-lot! – and the girls who like boys make no secret of it. It’s a flirter’s paradise.
Upon waking, the heart may well be creaking. For the very finest restorative, head to the superb Olivin wellness lounge, a beautiful and spotlessly clean sauna with bamboo gardens, plunge pool and a dignified clientele all going about their wellness with German integrity and humility. Rent towels and a robe here for three euros extra on top of the 11 euros entrance, and detox to your poor heart’s content in Zen-like surroundings.
Leaving Berlin can be heart-breaking. But knowing that this city is as vibrant as it ever was in the 1920s, and in many ways is humbly leading the way forward towards a more social capitalism, can give you the strength and hope to fight on for a better world.
And you will return! Mark my words.
Berlin is fortunate at present to be hosting not one but two separate artworks by pioneering Canadian experimental duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. They are Murder of Crows, a polyphonic sound installation currently housed in the cavernous Hamburger Bahnhof; and Ghost Machine, a hugely affecting and weirdly unnerving interactive video piece set in the Hebbel-Theater, a building which itself becomes the unlikely star of the show.
The image above gives an impression of the visual experience of Murder of Crows – an arrangement of 90-odd speakers sitting in chairs, placed on stands and dangling at various heights from the ceiling – but can do nothing to communicate either the vastness of the space or the grandeur of the aural assault that make this installation a must-see.
It builds on an earlier piece, The Forty Part Motet (2001), a circular configuration of forty speakers, from each of which a single voice in a choir sings out. The polyphony is multiplied further with this work, in which a 30-minute audio sequence includes spooky snatches of a concerto, a folkie number (sung beautifully by Cardiff), the bellowings of a possibly Russian male voice choir and, most dazzlingly, the wingbeats and frantic cawing of a flock of birds, which one presumes is the murder of crows of the title. At this point, the speakers hanging overhead come into their own – the crow sounds bounce around the configuration, giving a realistic sense of a circling murder. It is faintly ominous, and utterly thrilling.
Having experienced that meisterwerk, we hopped immediately on an S-bahn to Kreuzberg, where the dynamic duo’s other piece is playing (until May). Ghost Machine, described as a “video narrative” or “video walk” by the artists, did not disappoint.
On arrival at the Hebbel-Theater, you are handed a camcorder hooked up to a set of headphones and directed to sit in a chair in the middle of the foyer, facing the entrance. You then press ‘play’ (the camcorder is for watching a pre-recorded film, rather than for recording) and are immediately unnerved by a view of the foyer, as seen from your present perspective. Janet Cardiff, who has sat here before you, begins a narration, instructing you to follow with your camera the film that will unfold. A mysterious and beautiful Asian woman then enters the theatre (in the film) and heads up one of the stairwells. Cardiff instructs you to follow her. And so begins a magical mystery tour of the theatre, winding through deserted corridors, up spiral staircases and out onto the stage itself.
I can’t reveal anything more about the film’s narrative without spoiling it. Suffice to say that much remains mysterious, you enjoy a moment of erotic frisson with the Asian figment, the artist introduces herself by way of a mirror, and you are left with an uncanny sense of having been co-opted into the unfolding drama.
Cardiff and husband Bures Miller have done an incredibly original thing with a theatre. You get to sit in your seat and watch a stage, sure enough. A visit to the theatre wouldn’t be complete without that. But this is not a play, and it achieves so much more than a play ever could.
The artists let you into the theatre’s secrets, its hidden crooks and crannies. Imagine staring at a stage and expecting to see yourself staring back. Or discovering that part of you that always wanted to perform.
It’s a bit like entering a funhouse or a hall of mirrors. On a mushroom trip.
Try not to miss it.