There was something… annoying happening… a disturbance. Why? What time was it? I rolled over. It was my alarm which I set to ring at 10 AM—the alternative walking tour! Distinctively remembering there were always two times for a tour, I rolled back over to sleep for another two hours. The 1PM tour it is.
For some reason, I was extremely hesitant to go on this “Alternative Walking tour”—and it wasn’t because I hadn’t been able to sleep until 4 AM the night before. Just something about the name repels me: will there be many “alternative wannabes” on this tour? Would this tour really show me usual, non-touristic sites or was it just a scam for people who didn’t know how to discover cities?
The meeting point for these tours is outside of the Starbucks at Alexanderplatz. Standing right outside was what was painfully-obviously the tour guide. He wore a brown beanie, the signature square frames of anyone “hip,” and a bright neon green ski jacket.
What was also painfully obvious was the fact that he was alone.
I glanced down at my watch: 12:55. Well. Sounds like a great time for a coffee! As I stood in line for coffee, my eye kept wandering to the lone neon guide standing outside, handing out fliers for the tour like a street peddler. Yikes.
Around 13:10, there many clusters of people standing outside Starbucks; that they were bereft of obsessive phone-checking and a cup of Starbucks signified that they weren’t standing outside just for wi-fi or for kicks. So I joined them. There were more solo travelers in this tour than the Sandeman tour as well as a higher population of youths. There were these British hipsters standing around with piercings on their faces and mohawks, there was this one lone backpacker who seemed like she came straight off the bahn from another town, and also this prim woman who obviously took time to straighten her hair and put on her face that morning, looking a bit uncomfortably out of place.
When we finally departed onto our tour, the crowd was large enough to split into two groups. Belatedly, I regretted having downed my entire small cup of coffee—this tour was a supposed 3-3.5 hour jaunt; even if we took a break at the halfway mark, it would stretch my bladder limits.
I’ll just share some of my favorite spots and stories from the tour…
BRIEF HISTORY OF STREET ART IN BERLIN
Our first stop was at Hackerscher Markt. Haha again, tour guide, my cool host already brought me here yesterday!
Here, he talked about the origins of graffiti (and more importantly for me, the origins of the kebap. I would talk about the origins of the kebab, but I have a feeling that my love for them is solely my own). It first began, like many things, with the wall. Although East Berliners were not allowed anywhere near it, to the West Berliners, it was a large expanse of canvas on which artists frequently expressed their thoughts and political beliefs. It was also against the fact that Berlin was becoming increasingly corporate and selling out. Technically, it wasn’t and still isn’t legal to graffiti but the theory of the police there is that unless it’s clearly visible or on any of the public transportation, there are more important things to worry about than catching artists.
He did expand on some of the most famous graffiti artists of Berlin, but in typical fashion, I failed to note any of the names.
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT KREUZBERG…
Have you heard of Kreuzberg yet? No? Well, Kreuzberg is known as the center of the counterculture in Berlin. Or… it had been until hipsters started moving towards some other part of town now, I’m not really sure what. If you really want to know, I suggest you ask a Berliner, because they love talking about that. Usually in the context of stupid hipsters making their neighborhood cool and therefore raising the rent.
Because it’s the center of counterculture, there has been a history of riots the first of May. Protestors would gather in the center of Kreuzberg, near the firemen statues, and throw a week-long riot about anything. The residents got so tired of the violence in the heart of their neighborhood that they’ve started to schedule a week-long rager on the same dates to counter it. Either way, if you’re heading over there the first of May, you’re going to find some very interesting events.
But there is something strange when you walk through Kreuzberg… can you notice it?
There are no major chains in this district.
A few years ago, McDonald’s attempted to baptize the Kreuzberg neighborhood with the glory of the chain restaurant before it realized how against chains these Berliners were. There were huge protests almost on the point of violence against the opening of this restaurant. So, after its attempts, McDonald conceded and relocated to another neighborhood, leaving Kreuzberg safe for now. Since then, no other chain restaurant has stepped up to the plate to try again, fearing that those in Kreuzberg are still just as opposed to it as they were back then.
SQUATTING CULTURE IN BERLIN
The squatting culture in Berlin, although not as strong as it used to be in its colorful past, is still pretty rampant. If you peek your head into some abandoned hospitals, you’ll find a community of squatters made of up artists and small children. Some of these communities are actually a good alternative for the children, who otherwise would have to take to the streets. Although there are occasionally some news regarding local gangs or protests that originate from these little outlets, it is considered safe.
After our guide mentioned these little spots throughout the city, I SO wanted to take a day to explore abandoned Berlin and to interview the squatters that I met along the way. He did warn us—if we were to do so—that they dislike large groups poking their heads into their lifestyle. I managed to somehow forget completely about this adventure I could’ve had, but if you get to do so, remember to be respectful and approach gently!
Like many other countries, there are weird rules around the usage of marijuana. For example, in some states, it’s illegal to transport but legal to use; in others it’s illegal, period. Some may call these degrees of legality, others call them loopholes. In Berlin, they definitely use the laws to their advantage, finding loopholes to keep the business running. Yes, it’s illegal to move marijuana and to have a quantity over an amount past personal use; however, if the marijuana isn’t on the dealer’s person, it’s not in his possession, it becomes part of public property.
So, in Berlin, you will find dealers standing around in parks with a large sack of marijuana at their feet. It’s like they’re basically bodyguards of the sack. The transaction goes like this:
Buyer: Hey, can I have __ g of weed?
Seller: Yeah, it’ll be ___€. Give me the money and take it from the bag.
Police: Is that your marijuana?
Seller: Nope. It’s just on the ground. I’m watching over it.
YAAM: YOUNG AFRICAN ARTIST MARKET
YAAM, or Young African Artist Market, lies right across from the East Side Gallery. You would never notice it unless you know what you’re looking for. At first glance, it looks like a place where you’d find Bob Marley and all his followers although it would’ve been a little less sketchy and more hippie if it were in the summer… and not raining. My friends who have gone in the summer tell me they throw awesome summer sand bashes, so be sure to check that out.
There were some boys skateboarding on the mini half pipe, two boys battling each other through a ping pong watched and commented on by one of the venders sitting on the edge of his booth, a group of alternative Berliners sat around one of the outdoor tables of a restaurant laughing and sharing a meal, each holding a beer. Wedged between two fingers of a hand for each was a smoking cigarette.
In this little grotto, there is a basketball court, a mini skate ramp, and a handful of food stands. It took me forever to decide on this dinky little food stand at the end of the path, where it seemed as if only a few people had visited that day. As I ordered my fried plantains, we started up a conversation… and I discovered that he spent a good portion of his life in the army before coming to Berlin and finally opening up this very food stand. He was stationed in Berlin for a few years and, like many others time and time again, he vowed to come back to live here. The majority of his income comes from when he brings this portable dinky truck to all the music concerts during the summer, most of which he gives to his son who is completing an education here.
Oops, I’d been holding up my entire tour group!
“I’m so sorry, but I really have to go!” I said guiltily.
“Oh, no problem! Here, it’s almost done and afterwards, I’ll put it into a takeaway box for you, ok?”
“Oh man, thank you so much!”
He finished wrapping up my plantains carefully in a box and handed it to me, smiling. “You have a wonderful time in Berlin, ok? Be careful of the firecrackers during New Years!”
It was almost hard to leave him behind, with so many questions unanswered. The lives of the people here are so colorful! I couldn’t contain my curiosity towards every single person I met during my stay in Berlin, although sometimes I think I came off as a rabid dog going after clues of people’s past.
The Berlin alternative tour is in the middle of the road when it comes to showing you places that you usually wouldn’t venture to—it’s by far better than the Sandemann’s alternative tour I’ve heard, which just shows you places you can stumble upon on your own. My guide paced things quite well; although it was a lengthier tour (3 hours or more), I never felt like I was tiring or the information was boring. And, did I mention this was a free tour? Of course, as always, pay your free tour guides.
* * *
The rest of my day, I met up with yet another amazing Couchsurfer, Alex, who gave me a personal tour of Berlin and took me out for Schwarma in Kreuzberg. As we parted ways, he invited me out to what would be my first Couchsurfing event—as well as my first bar night out—the next night.
Oh, and do you remember how I was essentially homeless for 2 days after finishing my stay with my current host? Well, on this night, I received a message from a host that previously rejected my request (holding a grudge… ) asking me if I still needed somewhere to stay. A few hours before that, I’d just posted in the EMERGENCY COUCH REQUESTS section (that I would rather avoid because you never want to have a host that you have to stay with). SO happy that I had another host—and was therefore NOT homeless—I immediately accepted his offer.
Linking up with Bonnie!