Hallo Berlin! Part One

Yes, there are the museums and the galleries and the nightclubs, but what’s most exciting about Berlin is the sense of openness and what is possible.

By all accounts, Berlin’s Panorama Bar is the greatest place to go out dancing since God divided day from night. I was finally there, in from New York, standing at the threshold, and the bouncer was telling me to get out of his line.

You have to understand that I don’t go to nightclubs with entry conditions. On the rare, blessed occasion that my 23-year-old self takes over and commands my 32-year-old body to stay up and go out, I go to places that are happy to see me and my cover-charge cash. So, confused, I just said, “Excuse me?”

“You are not getting in tonight.”

“Excuse me?” I seriously thought I was hearing him wrong.

He sighed. “You are not coming into the club.”

His was a simple statement. And yet apparently I still needed more clarity, because I blurted, “Is it because of how I look?”

He sighed again. “No, you are just not coming in. This is our party, and we have our criteria. I’m not going to get into a conversation about our criteria with you.” Now, what you have to imagine is me, pathetic and confused, hearing this from a well-muscled man with a shaved head talking with a rich German accent. Go ahead: Read his words out loud in your best German accent and see if people around you don’t just start putting their heads down and leaving the room in tears.

“Well, I’m…sorry,” I said.

“There is no need to be.”

I walked away, through a long, sad courtyard, but then turned around to talk to some cheerful dudes who had also been judged and flushed. “Oh, it’s random,” one of them said. “They can only fit 500 people, and they have 6,000 people who try to come, so they just have to turn people away.” I think this made me feel a little better. “Actually,” he continued, “He is an artist. At the door he is creating an art.”


“Like a soup. Like he is making a soup, and he decides that tonight maybe he needs Swedish tourists and some Spanish people to have the right flavor. And it’s early right now, so he needs water. And maybe we are not the water he needs. It’s not personal. You should come back, because when you do get in…” He gave a huge smile and a big thumbs up. He was obviously on drugs.

This was not the most auspicious start to my trip in Berlin.

Granted, this place is known for excitement, for art and youth culture, and not necessarily for warmth and welcome. And yet what I did find, despite that bouncer, was a sense of invitation and openness, a sense that so much is possible.

I found that sense coming upon a park, where by day there was a massive flea market and where, at twilight, kids were dancing, swinging flaming chains, and stumbling around sharing drinks and cigarettes. I’d already missed the dance party and the metal band, but I stuck around for a half hour of fire twirling and an occasional streaker.

I found that sense when I asked friends if they wanted to meet me for fried chicken, and arrived to find that they’d made a couple of last-minute calls and brought a dozen of their friends, writers and literary impresarios and musicians, all ready for conversation and ludicrous quantities of chicken and beer.

I found that sense when I asked a club bouncer—a different club bouncer—where his favorite place for currywurst was, and he proceeded, with the sun rising behind him, to give me detailed directions to an obscure wurst shack in an obscure corner of the city.

And most of all I found that sense simply while riding around the city on a bicycle. I have to confess that I hadn’t been on a bike since the 5th grade, and so at first I wanted to know why it wasn’t better to just take public transit. But quickly the feeling of freedom, of the ability to exercise a just-stop-here-and-look curiosity, won me over. The bicycle made the city human-scale, and suddenly all its parts, from its buildings steeped in fascinating and horrific histories to its most pedestrian nooks, felt so available. I was there during the two-week bloom of the Linden flowers, and their scent covered the city, like the air itself was offering a gesture of welcome.

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