On visiting one of the many tourist stores that populate Unter den Linden, I find myself leaving not with the usual tourist tat but instead with my own little piece of history in the form of a fragment of the Berlin Wall, the enduring symbol of a divided world and warring ideologies, now broken and sold as a symbol of freedom and unity. We non-Americans can but hope that the world doesn’t see history repeated with the erection of Donald’s Divide.
For a major capital city Berlin feels surprisingly spacious; it is busy of course but without the sense of over-crowdedness (the sense in question being frequent shoulder-barges) that accompanies you on travels through London. Something it sadly does share in common with London is a scant regard for personal space, and, with Berlin’s ratio of occupied:unoccupied space leaning favourably in the latter direction, at times this bekommt right auf meine Titten.
Later in my stay I think I discover the reason why Berlin doesn’t seem crowded – they are all at Berlin Zoo. And every one of them seems to think that they are the only person at Berlin Zoo. Within the tropical confines of the Aquarium & Reptile House this makes for a gruelling test of endurance and paitence – not a challenge I’m well equipped to rise to, the former having deserted me when arthritis curtailed my running at the age of 21, the latter never in my armoury to begin with.
Still, the outside exhibits more than compensate; Berlin Zoo is by some distance the best zoo I have visited. While zoos invariably evoke mixed feelings – the awe at seeing magnificent animals tempered by wondering how humane the whole concept actually is – the animals are seemingly content and the habitats spacious (in contrast, no amount of money could entice me to revisit the concrete hellhole that is Belgrade Zoo).
Firsts: getting shitfaced on my own in an Irish bar on wine, Pina Colada and Gin & Tonic; sending scattershot messages to unsuspecting friends (whilst maintaining impeccable standards of spelling and grammar, but of course) and winding up in a 24 hour bar/restaurant with a plate of cheesy nachos. So maybe the grass can be greener; well, for a few pissed up hours at least.
Customer service in Berlin is the very definition of a contradiction in terms. I was told by a local that in Berlin, “the customer isn’t king.” I wouldn’t be quite so generous; in fact I would suggest that the customer is treated like a piece of turd being wiped from a shoe (if wiping turd from a shoe required no effort whatsoever). Customers are pretty much held in open contempt and each time you are served you are made to feel as though you are being done a favour.
That being said, the blow is somewhat softened when you are served your meal by Glen from The Walking Dead (albeit a Glen that isn’t quite as cheerful as the one that spends the better part of his life avoiding having his innards feasted upon by the rotting corpses of the undead).
As a single man in Berlin did I see any action? Well, the birds are very forward here and whenever I sat down to eat or drink they would invariably have a good sniff around. And they were all after one thing…
Would I recommend travelling alone? Absolutely. I won’t deny that at times I would have preferred to have somebody to share my experiences with but that was far outweighed by the invigorating sense of freedom. Stepping out into the big wide world alone leaves a stamp on more than just your passport; it stamps your mind with indelible memories and leaves its imprint on your sense of self, imbuing a worldliness whose absence once unfelt becomes a chasm forever closed.
Anyway, I was never truly alone. With good music to listen to, good books to read and an iPad on which to offload my thoughts, I’m forever in good company (and with a can of Red Bull to wash it all down with life doesn’t get much sweeter – you can’t argue with 27g of sugar); and in the modern world of social media, whatever its demerits may be, we can remain connected to others, whatever the distance between us.
I began this post by wondering if a theme would emerge. I’d venture that it has. At the beginning of this trip loneliness was towards the forefront of my consciousness. As this chapter comes to a close it is another word that dominates: freedom.
It has been said that youth is wasted on the young and that freedom is wasted on the free but I have a response to that: let your spirit remain young and recognise the freedom that is yours, a priceless gift bestowed upon you for being alive right here, right now.
Whatever your personal circumstances life is for living. You only get one life so live it; fully, fearlessly, grab it by the neck and don’t let it go. It’s one hell of a ride.
Bat For Lashes
Grimm Tales – Philip Pullman
The Blunders of Our Governments – Anthony King & Ivor Crewe
NW – Zadie Smith
Gin & Tonic
Baileys Irish Cream
Tea (Earl Grey wherever possible)
Free As A Bird – The Beatles