“This is Poison Ivy – she’s five years old.
Does she have any strange personality traits?
Well, she snores quite loudly… She likes to ride in cars, with her head out of the window. And she doesn’t know what privacy is. She follows me everywhere – to the bedroom, to the toilet. She just wants to be with me all the time.
I couldn’t imagine life without Ivy. I’m so happy to have her. When I’m sad, or my moods go overboard, I can take my dog outside and everything’s fine.”
Letters from Berlin is a collection of 12 weekly essays, each focussed on a different district of the city. Bringing together photographers, filmmakers, writers, translators and theatre directors, Letters from Berlin (published by The Pigeonhole) reflects the many creative facets of this uncanny city, creating an album of vivid snapshots.
Enjoy an excerpt from one of our favourite essays, Marcel Krüger’s walk through Wedding, and enter our competition to win a free subscription to the series.
Links, links, links, links,
Ein Lump wer kapituliert.
Links, links, links, link!
Der rote Wedding marschiert!
– Erich Weinert, 1929
Wedding was a raw expanse of towerblocks, tattoo pits, kebab shops. Nogoodniks in mauve-coloured tracksuits decorated every corner. We had a properly respectful air as we passed through. This was how Berlin was supposed to be. […] The rearsides of the towerblocks loomed either side of a dirt pathway itchy with catkins beneath our sandals, and the word ‘proletariat’ rolled its glamorous syllables over my tongue.
– Kevin Barry, from ‘Berlin Arkonaplatz – My Lesbian Summer’, 2012
…Sometimes I think that while Berlin is the ever-changing Moloch on the plains of Brandenburg and the wetlands of the Spree, its outgrowth Wedding has remained endearingly static over the last fifty years. Maybe it always had a certain roguishness that prevented beautification and change. Wedding is allegedly always up-and-coming. ‘Der Wedding kommt’, Wedding is coming, some of my friends used to say when I visited Berlin for the first time in 2001, staying near the fleshpots of then ungentrified Prenzlauer Berg. Some keep repeating it to this day. Der Wedding kommt.
It’s Sunday, by now after lunchtime and I’ve walked a bit: it’s definitely time for refreshments. I take a detour from Seestraße and step into a neighbourhood brewery, Vagabund Brauerei on Antwerpener Straße. Three American home brewers opened a small taproom here in 2013, and they serve their own craft brews together with classic German and Belgian beers.
Like many other working-class areas, Wedding has a long tradition of brewing, which is slowly being rejuvenated. On nearby Müllerstraße is Eschenbräu, one of Berlin’s first craft breweries, open since 2001, and also close by is the best small beer speciality store in Berlin, Hopfen & Malz. There’s also the VLB Berlin (Versuch- u. Lehranstalt für Brauerei in Berlin), which provides research, training, education and service for the brewing industry. Founded in 1883, it moved to its current location on Seestraße in 1898, and until 1981 it even operated the Hochschul Brauerei, or brewery university, where students could try brewing different types of beer, which were then sold to the public.
Vagabund Brewery has become a poster child for the local craft beer scene. It has been featured in articles in The New Yorker, Forbes travel, Der Spiegel and a plethora of German newspapers feting the craft-beer trend. One could easily say that Vagabund is a pub catering only to moustachioed expat drinkers and not to locals and is therefore a prime example of gentrification pushing out existing social structures, a topic hotly discussed in Berlin. As I enter the bright interior of the taproom, almost deserted so early on a Sunday afternoon, I’m glad to see both Matt Walthall and David Spengler, two of the three owners, manning the bar. We soon start chatting about beer and gentrification.
‘So often people ask us about this “trend” of locally brewed craft beer,’ Matt says. ‘David and I studied history, and that is part of what draws us to brewing: there’s so much history involved. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, every Berlin neighbourhood had its own brewery – so, for us, the whole appeal is not about being trendsetters. We clearly see ourselves as part of a tradition.
‘We didn’t plan to come to Wedding specifically. We looked all over Berlin for a year and a half, but we couldn’t find the right combination of brew room, taproom and a big enough basement. I was actually the one who was the most sceptical of Wedding – I thought of Bernauer Straße, Plattenbauten and so on. And then I moved here and now I’m the biggest promoter. Wedding still has a strong community feel to it, and there are no areas here where whole blocks have been bought by developers, like in Neukölln. And it’s one of the few places in Berlin where the classic population structures have not been pushed out – the majority of our neighbours have been here for twenty or thirty years.’
Indeed, the neighbouring commercial establishments are a strange mix of shisha bars, corner pubs with Sternenburger posters (‘Sterni’ is the cheap and mass-produced Berlin beer preferred by many inhabitants of Wedding) and bookmakers with bright neon signs reflecting off the street’s wet cobblestones. Three years ago, a man ran amok on the street here, armed with two knives and an axe, and was shot by the police. But in general nowadays, things are fairly quiet.
‘We love how laid back the street is,’ David chips in. ‘Sometimes when I’m in some of those “happening” districts down in the southeast of the city, I’m amazed because there’s just so many people. In our little promenade street, it’s much more laid-back and chill. I also like knowing the people from the neighbourhood and even having a drink with them sometimes. I think that might be harder to do somewhere else.’
‘In the beginning I was quite nervous about whether the neighbours would accept us,’ Matt admits. ‘There was this elderly woman walking past the shop every day when we were renovating, and she was always giving us this look, and I thought, “She probably hates us.” Then one day when I was outside cleaning the windows she came up to me and said, “Oh I’m so glad that you kids are here now!” Afterwards we learned that the previous tenants were Hell’s Angels.’
I ask David how he feels about gentrification, especially in Wedding.
‘I guess some people would consider us gentrifiers,’ he says, ‘but really, that word just plain sucks, along with its negative connotations. We didn’t take over the entire block with the intention of knocking down all the old buildings, building new high-rise apartment complexes and charging three times the rent. That, to me, is “gentrification”. We just built a small brewery and bar in a place that once sold heroin out the back door. If a small, independently owned coffee shop or bookstore or chess store opens up, is that also gentrification? Where is the line, the gentrifi-demarcation? I made that last word up, by the way.”
We both laugh, and I drain my glass. Time to walk more of Wedding. I finally hop on one of the trams and travel along Osloer Straße to the former border, clanking past the Currywurst booth on the corner of Prinzenallee, where sausages are served with the hottest sauces in Berlin; they have names like ‘Pain Is Good’, ‘Ground Zero’ and ‘Holy Shit’. We cross the Panke, the small, ancient river that runs all the way from Bernau in Brandenburg through Pankow and Wedding until it ends in the Berlin-Spandau shipping canal, another former border between East and West. I switch from tram to U-Bahn and emerge onto the corner of Brunnenstraße and Bernauer Straße soon after.
After the Second World War, Wedding became part of the French sector of Berlin. French troops occupied a large military complex near Tegel airport and erected a cultural centre complete with a 15-metre-high faux Eiffel Tower on Müllerstraße. They protected the Western Sector, but the development of prospering Wedding still lay in the hands of the West Berlin city council.
The buildings on the north side of Wedding’s Bernauer Straße and the street itself, including sidewalks, were in the Allied sector, while the buildings along the southern side were in Soviet territory. When the Berlin Wall was erected in August 1961, many of those who lived in these buildings frantically jumped from their windows before the buildings were evacuated and the windows bricked up. Wedding was also the western terminus of one of the first refugee tunnels dug underneath the Berlin Wall. The tunnel ran from the basement of an abandoned factory on Schönholzer Straße in the Soviet sector to another building in the West, passing underneath Bernauer Straße. Though well constructed and successfully kept a secret, the tunnel was plagued by water from leaking pipes and had to be shut down after only a few days of operation. Near the spot on Bernauer Straße where the tunnel ended, a section of the Wall has been reconstructed as one of the official memorials to the division of Germany.
A few weeks before my walk, I was talking to Sven Goldmann, a journalist for the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, who remembers growing up in Wedding during the Cold War: ‘My grandmother often reminded us how good we had it,’ he told me. ‘In the Thirties, Wedding had been a communist area and dangerous. People were shot here. Every third man was out of work and the women were sitting at home. Well, my grandmother was old. The younger generations had a better time: all the communists were living behind the Berlin wall, and there were no people out of work here. As kids we were happy: our parents worked at the Wittler bread factory in Maxstraße or at the Rotaprint printing press, and we played football on the many empty spaces among the buildings. Well, at least until the builders came and we had to find another pitch.’
As Annett Gröschner writes in City Spaces: Filling in Berlin’s Gaps (Readux, 2015; trans. Katy Derbyshire), when the Wall was built, the neighbourhood around Brunnenstraße ‘lent itself to urban planning experiments. For the reconstruction of Wedding, soon revealed as its eradication, a gigantic money-wasting machine was set in motion, private land was bought up by non-commercial housing associations, old houses demolished and new ones built that looked thin-skinned and made only for sleeping in.’ Today, this is known as Brunnenviertel, a striking conglomeration of 1970s concrete and plastic.
‘One day our teacher took us to one of the watchtowers for tourists, from where we could observe East Berlin,’ Sven Goldman said, ‘and she told us how lucky we were to have all the new buildings here while the people in the East had to live in the shabby old houses.’
After the Wall fell and capitalism had defeated communism, Wedding suffered. In a united Germany, Berlin companies no longer received state subventions, and many of the factories in Wedding closed as business was outsourced. In the last twenty-five years, unemployment in Wedding has been at a steady fifteen per cent, and even though there are initiatives by both state and city to tackle this, it seems many people here will remain without jobs for the foreseeable future. Petty crime is also widespread. Soldiner Straße near Gesundbrunnen, for example, had such a bad name that footballers at the 2006 World Cup described it as ‘Berlin’s Soweto’. Around the turn of the millennium, various groups were formed in an attempt to bring some positive energy to the area. The arts initiative Kolonie Wedding, founded in 2001, set up studios and galleries in what would be otherwise empty shop fronts and once a month hosts coordinated vernissage weekends with walking tours between the different venues.
I take the U-Bahn and re-emerge from its depths on Nauener Platz, where the owner of the local kebab shop calls me ‘neighbour’ every time I stop by, and where a punk with beer on his breath once helped me out with washing powder at the laundrette. I reach my little apartment building again, the grey, two-storeyed one, nestled between the five-storey Wilheminian buildings to its left and right. The sun is finally out and the drunkard/madman gone, and on the other side of the street Turkish teenagers sit on benches in the park tilting their sunglassed faces skywards. As I enter the building, I find a poster hung there by Berlin police, informing me that someone has broken into our building while I have been out.
This is Wedding: fifty-year-old corner pubs that once catered to off-shift workers and now serve those in need of a drink at ten in the morning; communists, resistance fighters and morphine addicts; a mini Eiffel Tower and young Americans reanimating the age-old brewing tradition of Prussian Berlin. It’s not a particularly nice place, but it is a prime example of the fascinating ruggedness often associated with Berlin that is fast disappearing from many other places throughout the city.
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My mother used to put stuff in boxes. Professionally. She did it for 30 years at the same small-sized suburban Italian company and while the boxes were sent everywhere in the world, my mom and her career weren’t exactly going places.
My dad, the only male among four siblings, had to drop out of middle school to help his father in the fields. Like many of his peers, he learned to think of work as something that is closely related to suffering, sacrifice and blind obedience.
Whenever I tell my parents about company breakfasts, team building events and gamification, they share a very specific look that I’ve come to interpret as “Our son is lying to us. He doesn’t have a job in Berlin. He’s squatting an abandoned building and carries stolen drugs across countries in order to pay for his groceries.”
I get that look. I do. Growing up with a blue-collar mindset made me both conscious of my current luck and weirdly aware of the seemingly absurd sides of the startup life.
This series of posts is the natural consequence of that.
CHAPTER 1: FINDING A JOB
This is going to sound obvious, but in order to work at a startup – in Berlin or anywhere else – you need to either found one or be hired by one. I’m going to focus on the latter ’cause I’m a slacker and I’ve made it my life goal to achieve less and less every day.
If you’re smart you’ve probably created alerts that fire off an email every time a desirable position is available, either through Google Alerts or more specific job hunting platforms like Indeed.de or BerlinStartupJobs.com. What you might not know, though, is that when it comes to job titles startups can be as quirky as the side character of an indie TV series.
The chances that your alert will be triggered by the keyword “customer relationship manager” are thinner, for example, than the ones for the keyword “Customer Happiness Ninja”. Stop looking for “Sales Manager” and keep your eyes open for stuff like “Customer retention power ranger”, “Office management karate kid”, “Java Sorcerer” and any title that could have easily been invented by a Dungeon Master after his sixth pint of mead. ‘Cause nerdz.
Startups want their jobs to sound so cool that it’s impossible not to want them. I’m perfectly happy with my own job, but if I ever read an ad for a “fluffer of moral erections”, I’ll drop everything and go, even if it means I end up teaching old ladies how to dance salsa in a holiday resort a la Swayze in Dirty Dancing.
The exceptions to this rule are the internships. Companies don’t even try to make these “jobs” sound cool, given that the word “intern” is at times already an euphemism for “slave”.
Centuries ago, before the invention of coconut M&Ms or, like, minimum wage, I was doing an internship. Money was so tight that I felt compelled to rewrite the Wikipedia page for the term to reflect my true real feelings about the matter.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Unfortunately a Wikipedia editor told me I wasn’t being – air quote – objective about the facts. Fine, Mr. Logic. Whatever.
Anyway, you need to really read those job postings and check off the required skills one by one, even if that’s boring. And when you’re doing so, try to be honest with yourself about your real capabilities. I once thought my brain had no boundaries, but then it turns out that things like the Norwegian language or “Ruby on Rails” (I still think that’s the name of a synthetic drug) cannot be learned overnight.
Once you’ve found a position that seems perfect for you, don’t just start shooting off applications like crazy. You need to pick the right startup before even letting them pick you. Of course you wanna be employed by a winner and there’s one basic criteria to discern whether an internet company is gonna take over the world. Mark my words: It’s all in the name.
Look around: the “General Motors” days are over. Don’t look for class, meaning or authority in a name. The startup world is now calling for “Goojdi”, “Faamp”, “Leerk” and “Huora” (which was gonna be the name of my own startup until someone told me it literally means “whore” in Finnish). In other words, you need to look for a name that sounds like something between the first words of a baby and what your cat may have written while walking on the keyboard.
The only acceptable alternative to this are Latin words. A lot of startup founders pick these, probably by listening to Harry Potter spells and noting down stuff that sounds nice. Sometimes it works, but other times your web agency ends up being called “ferocity” in Italian.
In the next episode I’ll teach you how to actually apply for the startup job of your dreams.
And then it does.
Having had threesomes, tried out suspension bondage and attended a sex party, I was wondering how I could possibly add more notches to my bedpost. That is, until I received a Facebook message from one of the organisers of the sex party, asking if I wanted to attend a “crazy bisexual orgy” taking place in a hotel suite a few days later.
No need to guess what my answer was. As always, my first concern was the dress code, especially after I found out that we would all be attending dinner at this fancy restaurant before heading back to the hotel.
On the big day, I hurried down the stairs at work as soon as the clock struck 6pm. Chugging a much-needed beer on my way home, I jumped in the shower to get ready for the evening. After a quick wardrobe check, I ended up settling on a long 90s black dress I had found at Humana, paired with faux pony-fur platform sandals and a baseball bomber jacket. Casual chic, I thought, not entirely sure of my outfit choice.
Thankfully I ran into a foreign tourist in the U-Bahn, who, upon seeing me looking at my reflection, told me I looked really pretty and didn’t need to check any mirrors. He asked me for bar recommendations and I couldn’t repress a smile when he asked about my plans for the evening. “Oh nothing much, just meeting some friends.”
I was the last guest to join the table in the backyard of a Mitte restaurant. (Not the cool part of Mitte; the boring fancy part.) All eyes were on me as I greeted the couple I knew and was introduced to the other participants.
I soon realised that we were basically three couples and me. Fine. The men were considerably older, which kind of worried me, but at least the women were cute. Almost all of them were Russian. Journalists, writers and entrepreneurs – no doubt part of some sort of free-thinking, free-loving, travelling elite.
They were certainly very interesting human beings, and I enjoyed listening to their stories of going to the opera on LSD and driving across Europe on motorcycles. Most of them were divorced and had children, making me feel like a little like a child at the grown-up’s table.
As dinner was served, our conversation switched to opinions on Berlin’s various sex clubs. I listened, occasionally answering questions, unable to shake the thought that I was about to experience something my mind couldn’t have fathomed just a few months ago.
Once everyone had finished eating, one of the guests paid for our meal and announced that we would be making our way to the hotel.
We walked for a few minutes while I talked to this Russian journalist. He was older than my parents and very sweet. His arms were covered with several large tattoos, which I asked about after we’d talked about mine.
“Let me tell you the one thing I’ve learned about tattoos,” he said.
“Growing up, my mother always told me there were three rules she wanted me to follow. One of them was: do not get tattoos, for they will stick with you for all of your life. As you can already tell, I didn’t really respect this one. She passed away several years ago but I still think about her very often. Actually, I was lying on the beach last month and looked at my own tattoos, which reminded me of her rules. And I thought, ‘You know what, Mom? All of your life is really not that long.’”
I was deeply moved by these words of wisdom coming from a 60-year-old man, and decided that whatever was about to happen, the evening had already been worth experiencing.
Arriving at our suite, the host started putting together an incredible cheese platter and serving glasses of insanely delicious Italian red wine. The guy who’d invited me had already asked whether I was into drugs, so I was expecting more of a “pick me up” before getting naked but, to my surprise, everyone started making out before I could take my first sip of wine.
Since I was absolutely not attracted to any of the participating men, I was working on ways to refuse their advances. Thankfully, this really hot Russian girl started kissing me, keeping me busy while the others were at it themselves. We had sex while her boyfriend watched, leaving me to spend the rest of the evening sipping wine and smoking cigarettes half naked on the suite’s balcony, occasionally going back inside to see what was happening.
I never considered myself much of a voyeur, but I found it easy to witness what was going on. Girl-on-girl-on-boy-on-girl-on-boy-on-boy, basically. A string of naked bodies spread over the suite’s living room and bedroom. Heavy breathing, the occasional burst of laughter. Random enquiries along the lines of private parts smelling like cheese – there was a cheese platter, remember.
I decided to take care of the soundtrack, occasionally interrupting our host mid-sex to ask him to unlock his iPad, which for some reason was absolutely no big deal.
I stepped out to get more cigarettes and ended up entering a tacky nightclub to use their vending machine. I was buying three packs, which confused the people standing in line behind me. “It worked, no need to put more money in! Look, your cigarettes are right here.” I briefly considered telling them it wasn’t my fault – I was buying smokes for a whole orgy – before leaving the club and getting back to the hotel.
By then things were coming to an end, and we all chatted some more before the organiser’s girlfriend announced that she wanted to go to sleep. I quickly got dressed and suddenly was standing on the street, feeling slightly dizzy from this oh-so-weird evening.
I bought myself a beer and entered the U-Bahn, which I left again to change directions after deciding some dancing was in order. I had a sip, sighed with satisfaction and smiled about the fact that none of the other passengers had any idea what I had just been up to.
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Meet Matthew Gordon, the co-owner of Taiko Gallery, a new tattoo studio and art space on Schönleinstrasse in our beloved Graefekiez.
Originally from Sydney, Matthew first landed in Berlin two years ago, after travelling to Europe with his Taiko partner Wendy Pham. They visited fellow tattoo artist Uncle Allan in Denmark, who mentioned plans to open a German outpost, and invited the Aussies to join him. Already half a world away from home, they were unphased by the last leg of a journey to a city they’d never even planned to visit. As Matthew says of his fellow countrymen, “we’re all crazy anyway!”
Moving to Berlin was just the latest in a series of risky but rewarding moves for the young artist. At 19, he quit a promising career as a 3D animator, designing levels for video games and fly-throughs of skyscrapers in Dubai, and persuaded the guy who had started covering his body with ink to train him as an apprentice. Then Gordon cut his apprenticeship short to move to Melbourne, where he opened up a private studio with Wendy.
Inspired by Grime of San Francisco’s Skull and Sword, Shige of Yellow Blaze in Yokohama and local hero Owen Williams of TAMA, Matthew started carving out a niche in the tattoo world: “I don’t look at any other work or references. I draw from my head, and if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. It’s the only way to give yourself a style”. That style, which Matthew calls “open illustrated Japanese”, renders Eastern-inspired imagery in vibrant colour and (not surprisingly) perfect 3D, with dragons and snakes covered in intricate, interlocked scales that pulsate from the subject’s skin. He conservatively estimates that his forthcoming art book contains over 5,000 hand-drawn scales.
The desire to be different that informs Matthew’s work is also shaping the shopfront that he single-handedly renovated from a water-damaged, nicotine-stained Fahrschule into a beautiful, white-walled, multidisciplinary space. “We’re trying to create something different, that’s not just a little hole-in-the-wall studio,” Matthew explains. Taiko Gallery is “more about the art, and less about making a million dollars,” serving as an exhibition space for the founders’ paintings, and a venue for life drawing classes and other creative events. Above all, it is “a positive place”.
Unfortunately, not everyone is pleased about the latest development of this small Kreuzberg side-street, where old school Berliner haunts like the 24-hour bar Bei Schlawinchen rub up against the internationally-owned curiosity shop The Cheese Mountain Tragedy. The subject of thoughtless protests against the perceived gentrification of long-gentrified Graefekiez, Matthew finds himself cleaning spit off the gallery’s window almost every day.
But far from feeling threatened by such low-level hostility – “I’ve got a scythe in the back; I’d like to see them try” – he has been surprised by the extent to which foreigners are tolerated, if not always embraced, in Berlin. “Most of my time is spent in my own little bubble. I feel like an alien sometimes, but that’s OK. I’m in my own little world, no one really pays attention to me, and that’s fine.”
“It’s definitely opened my eyes to the way that Australians deal with foreigners. If you go to Australia, and you have trouble speaking English, it’s horrible for you. People are abused to their face, and it’s just shit. If I ever go back and see that, those racists are getting told to shut the fuck up.”
Provincial attitudes aside, Matthew is optimistic about the future of Taiko Gallery and his adopted home: “Even in the two years I’ve been here, I’ve noticed more art going on and I’ve met lots of interesting people. Berlin is a great city. It’s a good place to have a new thing, one that doesn’t really exist yet. In five years, you’ll have built a reputation, with expats and Germans alike.” Put simply: “Being able to see Berlin grow is cool.”
Matthew’s book of snake illustrations, the Compendium Vipera, is now available via Illustrated Monthly.