Written by: Jonathan Garfinkel, author of In a Land without Dogs the Cats Learn to Bark
My love affair with Berlin began in 1998. It was a different city then. During the chaos of the post-Wall 90s, Berlin was very open, existing in a kind of liminal space between east and west, past and future. With unemployment levels at 20%, nobody ever seemed to work. There was a lot of drinking, all night dancing, and talking about politics and art. I’m glad I got to taste the end of it. Masha, a Russian girl I met on the train from Warsaw, took me around Prenzlauer Berg, sneaking into abandoned apartments to retrieve discarded furniture (I helped her carry out a couch). My new friend Holly took me to the Weinerei on Torstr. Here you would pay whatever you felt like (or could afford), dropping Pfennig into a bowl. You’d be given a cup, encouraged to take however much wine you wanted. There was always a big pot of food. While I have at times mourned the gentrification of Berlin — and the inevitable increase of rents — Holly always reminds me, “Berlin is a city of change.” And so it continues to evolve, and with it, my lifelong love for this place of creativity, difficult histories, and interesting people.
The ceilings — marked with Peter Pan frescoes — and a hanging, crystal sailboat, have always felt like a kind of soul-marker of the city: a place where you can be what you want. Kumpelnest is a place for all ages, all genders, all types. The bathroom is like walking the narrow plank of a ship; it’s always crowded with people making out or ingesting various drugs. The general atmosphere: trashy joy. The music: ‘70s and ‘80s; the dancing goes until 11 a.m. Holly likes to say he came of age here. Coming back here after two years of lockdowns, I marvel at the 70-something bald man dancing on tables; I join him; we touch, we dance with reckless abandon.
From the schmaltzy to the high-end cocktail bar. What else is Berlin? My favourite place to wear a suit and ingest fancy cocktails. Named after the famous Luis Buñuel film where twenty people are invited to a dinner party and mysteriously find themselves unable to leave, I have often found myself trapped by the beauty and majesty of the place (once I had a thing for the bartender, whom I’d wait for until the end of their 5 a.m. shift). The ceiling is its original 1920s design, with a draping chandelier. It is here that Holly, Sandra, and I discover the “Berlin Station Chief,” so named by Norman Mailer: Bombay gin and a drop of single malt Scotch. An “intelligent” drink. Warning: never have more than two in one sitting.
Berlin is a city of museums and art. The Kunstwerke (KW) is where I love to go for cutting edge contemporary stuff including the Biennale; the Scharf-Gestenberg if I want surrealism (and the surreal walk through the Schlosspark). There’s Museum Island in Mitte, and endless galleries and exhibitions throughout the city — my outdoor pandemic favourite was East Side Gallery, a 1.3 km stretch of the Berlin Wall painted by various artists, post reunification. Now that things are open again, Die Neue Nationalgalerie is a special place for me in winter. A kind of reprieve. Designed by Mies van der Rohe in the ‘60s, I like to come here when the hours of light shrink; when the sky is dark and heavy and disruptive; I come here not just to look at the art, but to live in the architecture. 5000 square metres of windows let in the softest light. After perusing the basement of its homage to 20th century art — Picasso, Miró, Ernst — I like to sit on the floor of the upper level and look out. To see the city in striking ways. An homage to iron, steel, and glass.
A 15-minute walk from my house, Mauerpark is where the Wall used to run near Schwedterstr. Parts of the Wall remain (nearby on Bernauer Str, there's a fascinating homage to Konrad Schumann, the former East German soldier who leapt over the Wall-in-progress in 1961 to escape to the West). Mauerpark is a central gathering place. In the summer and on Sundays, you can always find several DJs spinning records and people dancing to techno in the field. There’s a “karaoke” amphitheatre where people gather and watch aspiring and esteemed singers crooning to their favourite melodies with cheesy background music. The flea market used to be a real bargain spot — you can still find gems if you search. In fact, much of my apartment was decorated with junk from Mauerpark and nearby Arkonaplatz. Oh, and you can see the Alexanderplatz Berlin TV tower over my left shoulder. Some say it’s really a subversive disco ball in disguise.
I live in the district of Wedding. Comprised traditionally of Turkish migrant labourers who came over to Germany in the ‘60s (so called “guest workers” who never left), Wedding is known as a bit of a rough, working-class neighbourhood in West Berlin (it bordered the Wall with Prenzlauer Berg on the other side). Specifically, I live in an area called Gesundbrunnen, which, due to its natural springs, used to be a spa in the late 19th century (there are remnants of the spa today which now houses a library). This was covered over in the early 20th century as it became a factory destination for coal. Today it’s a multiethnic world: Turkish migrants, Palestinian and Syrian refugees, international artists, and German students. It’s slow to change, which in my books, is a good enough pace. The streets are dirty, the food is fantastic — lots of wonderful Turkish holes in the wall — and the bars, while perhaps less plentiful, are more reminiscent of older days. I spent much of the pandemic walking the Panke Canal. It’s a body of water that goes through the north end of the city spanning several dozen kilometres. Here people smoke, play table tennis, drink, have picnics. There’s a beer garden, bars, an art gallery or two. In summer, I like to sit by the canal and read. It's a place where wilderness confronts the urban landscape in surprising ways.
Piano Salon Christophori
One night, post lockdown(s), my girlfriend and I were walking along the Panke Canal. There was an enormous warehouse that caught our attention; we could hear classical music trickling out of its doors. Curious, we approached the building and found well-dressed people smoking and drinking wine. When I opened the door, we discovered another world: walls lined with candles and parts of pianos. In fact, there were pianos everywhere. We entered the piano restoration warehouse, discovering a small stage housing local classical musicians. For 15 euro a ticket, several nights a week, you can sit on cheap plastic folded chairs and listen to Bach, Bartók, or Brahms. Solo piano, trios, or quartets. And there are plastic cups to help yourself to water and wine.
JONATHAN GARFINKEL is an award-winning author. His plays include Cockroach (adapted from the novel by Rawi Hage) and House of Many Tongues, nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama. The controversial The Trials of John Demjanjuk: A Holocaust Cabaret has been performed across Canada, Russia, Ukraine, and Germany. He is the author of the poetry collection Glass Psalms and the chapbook Bociany. His memoir, Ambivalence: Crossing the Israel/Palestine Divide, has been published in numerous countries to wide critical acclaim, and his long-form nonfiction has appeared in the Walrus, Tablet, the Globe and Mail, and PEN International, as well as Cabin Fever: An Anthology of the Best New Canadian Non-Fiction. Named by the Toronto Star as “one to watch,” Garfinkel is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in the field of Medical and Health Humanities at the University of Alberta, where he is writing a memoir about life with type 1 diabetes and the revolutionary open-source Loop artificial pancreas system. He lives in Berlin and Toronto.