In Flight: Berlin

Some cities have a larger literary presence than tangible. Paris balances the two. London weighs towards the real, rather than the page. But Berlin, for me especially, is a city explored first in media, only peripherally in the real. Mr Norris Changes Trains, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold gave me a sense of the shutaway city. The city’s structures and location I garnered from history and politics textbooks. The look from the amazing City of Angels and Cabaret.

Visiting it in the real has always been in passing to me. I think I’ve stopped here maybe three times on press trips. Now the press trip, more so than most business trips I suspect, is a coddled affair. I’ve been on many where I’ve done nothing more than follow instructions, travelling just with my passport. Food and drink are often paid for. Hotels are booked and paid for you. The itinerary has often been decided, from cradle to grave.

So when I’ve been Berlin I’ve had to employ strange tactics. The first time, brought by NamcoBandaiAtariInfogrames was an overnight stopper, if I recall correctly, where after the event bar shut, a couple of us hopped in a taxi to the Reichstag, just to see a little of the city before we left. The next time is even more blurred, but I recall having enough time off to visit the museum at Checkpoint Charlie. This time we’d been offered a night’s stay in a hotel on the Alexanderplatz (a strangey familiar name), right by the great spiked awl that acts as Berlin’s equivalent of London’s post office tower – another great sign of what the future once was.

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Our nailed-in itinerary took us to a part I’d never seen before, the sprawl of bombed-out buildings that houses the nightlife. I’ve often been told that the majority of the life in Berlin happens hidden away, away from the statuesque facades of the West or the relentless identical blocks of the East, and I guess that this was that place. A long strip of buildings that looked like accreted spray paint that happened to have sagged into the form of old warehouses and walls without roofs. Walking through it in the snow, we felt like we were going to be mugged; but Berlin has that joy about it, that the sectors don’t reflect the prejudices of the anglo-saxon climes. Graffiti here isn’t a sign that this is a bad area, but that it’s an artistic area.
Inside our warehouse was a great flat room where a game was being shown. I’ll skip over this quickly, as it was not unusual. Presentations, hands-on and interviews, the old routine. Then we were sent off to our hotel, with a bag of game memorabilia we would have been as happy without in hand. I’d only managed one hour of sleep the night before (working on a StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm review) so I crashed out.

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When I woke, it was suddenly dark. We returned to the graffiti strip gaming warehouse and the rest of the evening was a performance of traditional German drinking, eating, drinking, bagpipes and more drinking. But it was still all molly-coddled. At the end of the night, as the PR was waving us off, he suddenly decided to take us on into the city, imprecating with bright-eyed hesitancy that “you need to see some real German techno.” It was too much for me, exhausted as I was, but the others followed him to an apartment in an old block on Alexanderplatz which had a club in it, playing music closer to Europop than techno.

In the morning, with a head fogged by beer, I snuck out quickly for a very short walk around the block. I was heading for a distant wooden church spire when a man strolling towards me suddenly looked up, cried out and rolled onto his back, before spasming onto his front, twitching. I’d never seen a seizure before and didn’t know what to do. I vaguely recalled that you meant to roll the victim into the recovery position and pull out his tongue, but I could see from the puddle of blood spreading out from his head that he’d started biting into his own face in his spasms. Someone more aware than me ran over to help the man, whilst someone else rang an ambulance, and I was waved, thankfully, away.

Again, this visit was so short, so coddled, so incoherent, that I still have no sense of Berlin. It’s a fragmentary city to me, efficiently small hotel rooms and indistinguishable apartment blocks and odd dead-ended canal-rivers and huge stone buildings and circus tents and the Wall covered in graffiti. It’s also unpeopled; in all my visits, I’ve not spoken to a native Berliner, not penetrated past the famous surface. It feels like I have to come again.