Berlin and Uber-Coolness
Berlin is Europe’s capital of cool. Or so they say. Yet when we asked our friends who’ve been there what exactly makes the German capital so damn cool, what they told us sounded unconvincing: “It’s fun to walk around”, they’d say, or “There’s lots of parks and fun bars and galleries and stuff.” Sounds alright certainly, but hardly the “capital of cool” of a continent that’s been perfecting the art of cool for centuries.
I mean, who’s to say Warsaw isn’t cool? We have a bunch of parks and galleries and fun bars and sometimes, when the weather cooperates, it can even be fun to walk around. Or if you prefer something more well-known, why is Berlin cooler than the tapas-eating Madrid or the well-heeled Milan, for example? Maybe we’ve been in America too long, but from where we sit pretty much every European capital has cool coming out of its manholes.
Since we weren’t getting a clear answer, we decided to go see Berlin for ourselves. The great thing about living in Warsaw is that Berlin is only 5-and-change hours on a comfy train (with a beer and pierogi-serving restaurant), so a long weekend trip was easy enough to pull off.
As my good friend Simon, who's lived in Berlin for the past few years, informed us, apparently we chose the perfect weekend for seeing how cool Berlin actually was. It was both Gallery Weekend, an annual open gallery festival, and May Day, during which he promised to take us to something Berliners call "The Anarchy Party".
Art and anarchy? Sure, sign me up!
As soon as we "landed", we went to see the two most-talked about exhibits. The first gallery, up a rickety stairs hidden in a courtyard, featured video interviews with Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore reenacting interviews with refugees. The space was buzzing with a thick crowd of casually hip, wine-sipping patrons, many of whom spoke English. We've heard Berlin has become very international, which if you're not a fan of globalization isn't very cool, but after a year in the rather homogenous Warsaw, for us it was a refreshing sight.
The second exhibit we checked out was Rosa Parks' house, which American Berlin-based artist Ryan Mendoza recently moved from Detroit, where it was slated for demolition.
He put the 19th century house in the front yard of his own home in a sleepy Wedding neighborhood. We may not have ventured that far on our own, but we joined Simon, his wife and their 1-month-old daughter as well as their friend Sally who wrote about the project for The New York Times to see musicians who flew in from Detroit specifically for Gallery Weekend. It was a stuffy room with Germans and Americans, from very old to toddler-young, listening to acoustic soul, jazz and hip hop, all very authentic and very unique. In fact, it made me think how unlikely I would have been to ever see such a scene even in actual Detroit.
On Sunday, we were told to head to Mauerpark for a weekly open-air karaoke. I've never seen an open-air karaoke, but I imagined it as a small crowd picnicking around some local daredevils with mediocre singing skills. I'm typically not a fan of karaoke, in case you couldn't tell, but after a somber morning contemplating the Berlin wall memorial, a relaxing afternoon in the park with some music sounded just about perfect.
Yet when we got to Mauerpark, we were completely flabbergasted to find this karaoke scene:
Or this, happening above it:
Or this, happening all around:
Besides the giant karaoke stage, there was a huge DJ party down the hill and an impressive open-air market with international food carts and hundreds of stalls with brick-a-brack for the taking. To us, it looked like Berlin's Mauerpark was San Francisco Dolores Park's cooler cousin.
But the ultimate proof that Berlin was indeed the King of Cool came on May Day. Remember that Anarchy Party my friend promised? Since Simon was once again bringing his baby, I imagined it'd be anarchy party was a square with a bar and several dozen people tamely anarchying to some German punk rock.
What I did not imagine was the entire neighborhood of Kreuzberg (which is Berlin's epicenter of coolness and is Very big) filled with stage after stage of live music, Turkish food hawkers steaming up the streets, DJs spinning on every corner, and thousands of party-goers stretching from square to square to street to park to the underpass.
The only way to equate Berlin's Anarchy Party with anything we've seen in the U.S. would be if you mixed San Francisco's Bay to Breakers (minus the running) with New Orleans' Mardi Gras and New York's Halloween night and put them all into one huge urban area of Germany.
But besides its impressive size, for me, the coolest part of Anarchy Party was the ability to watch the madness in the company of a 1-month-old (Simon's) and a 2-year-old (daughter of my other American friends in Berlin). And don't go thinking they were the only kids there. Berliners love to party and they clearly don't shy away from bringing their kids wherever they go.
To me, continuing to live your life and bring your kids along - be it to galleries or the Anarchy Party - is the ultimate definition of Coolness. It is not something you'd ever see in the States. And it's a model that we find extremely refreshing and well, uber-cool.
So here is to Berlin that has proven itself worthy of its title.