After the blissful mayhem of the night before, I woke up in a smiling golden haze, bleary eyed, no hangover. The Austin girls were gone, left for an 11am flight after a couple of hours sleep. I got dressed and floated through into the lounge and kitchen, greeted by everyone I passed on the way, all smiles and hi fives and back slaps. I felt like the coolest guy in the world.
It was Tom’s last day and he wanted to see the Berlin Wall. We were waiting for Bob to get ready to come with, but he went for an hour long shit so we ditched him and leapt onto the U Bahn, surfed it to Schlesisches Tor, and explored the Soviet relic while sipping a couple of Club Mates. We walked back via the Markthalle, where we sat on some wooden steps and ate enormous beef brisket sandwiches.
I had a flat viewing at 6pm, and headed to Tempelhof, which is a district that until 2008 was home to an enormous airport that today sits empty. In the summer everyone picnics on the airfield, which is now a vast, flat park. Berlin flat viewings are not normal. Demand is so high and supply is so low that every viewing is attended by multiple prospective tenants. I arrived at 5.45 and hung around outside the flats entrance, while gradually more people showed up.
Eventually there were about seven of us, which is bloody awkward when you are all blisteringly aware that only one of you will get the room, and you are all therefore competing. Enemies. A young Chinese man walked up to me and asked politely if I was here for the flat viewing. I told him yes, I smiled politely, and he smiled back. Bastard.
We got buzzed into the flat, and an apologetic-looking 20-something in a creased shirt answered the door. He had bloody good reason to look apologetic. The place was a building site. It was a grotto. It was a gremlin’s den. We walked into the cavernous main room, which had a couple of chairs, a stove, a fridge, and maybe a shelf. No flooring, no wallpaper, no windows, nothing. Someone was cooking a forlorn pasta on the hob.
“So ziss is zie kitchen and, uh, living room,” our guide informed us dutifully. He seemed well practised in his spiel. A couple of attendees silently left immediately. As for me, I was actually quite impressed to start off. The bedroom up for rgrabs was like a warehouse, stretching away forever into the distance, with a sparse lightbulb dangling over a double mattress slumped on the floor. My optimism blinded me. It was so bohemian! So edgy! So punk!
It was a building site, it was shit, and it was €400 a month. The floor hadn’t been laid yet, it was uneven plywood and wood shavings. The shower was in a little nook in the wall. Halfway through our guide’s closing speech on the house rules, a drill went off, and I peered into one of the bedrooms to find an arse crack staring back at me as some gruff German builder was busy fitting windows. Our guide offered us the email address to contact if anyone was interested. Most didn’t bother to note it down. I took it out of a 50/50 mixture of naivety and a desire to be polite, which is the bane of my life.
I asked one of the girls living there if they were having trouble selling the room. She told me they have about 80 people a week come over, and so far no one wanted it. A draughty empty cave way out of the city centre, in conditions so bad that a squat would literally be a vast improvement? Baffling that it hasn’t sold yet. Landlords who think they can house people in squalor like this want shooting. Some people seem to have this abhorrent ability to mentally block the fact that we are all human beings. If I ever put a profit before a person, I implore you, euthanise me.
So, a little dejected, a little confused, I headed back to the hostel. Tom was leaving, and we hugged goodbye. I still miss that massive ginger Australian. I sat with Bob and we talked, and it was around this time that I started to realise the downside of hostel life. Relationships are intense, but so fleeting. A different best friend every three or four days. It makes me miss my friends and family back home. Short term friendships are fun, but the ones that maintain you are the relationships built on deep understanding and shared experiences. You can’t exist off a thousand fleeting encounters. I don’t think there’s lasting happiness down that road.
I text my friend Michelle and asked what she was up to. She came over to the hostel, which is the same hostel she spent six weeks in when she moved here last year. I’ve been here a week. I can’t imagine six. She told me she was off to some night, something to do with ASMR, which I knew nothing about. Apparently, it stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, and it’s the sensation people get when exposed to certain sensory triggers – that relaxed, tingly, calm and cosy feeling. For me, it’s the vacuum cleaner or hairdryer. If anyone uses one near me, no matter what my mood beforehand, I instantly feel calm and safe.
I had no idea how this could be a show, though, or an event. Would it be a room full of people just blowdrying each other? Would we just stand around vacuuming? Actually, there might be a business idea there. Find people who are extremely ASMR-prone and assemble a team of happy tingling free-working house cleaners while I rake in the dough. Anyway, Michelle invited me along, and we took about 20 minutes to find the place, despite it only being over the road. That’s what I love about this city – there is something going on everywhere, and always.
The venue was an open plan gallery wedged in the middle of a block of flats behind my hostel. The venue was white walled and sparse, with various exhibits lining the edges. There was a tarp stretched out in the middle of the room, with a circle of leaves around it. A tank with a murky blue liquid squatted in one corner of the room, and in the other there was a television screen showing macabre computer generated imagery. It was a loop of various rotating 3D objects, mangled and meshed together. A throbbing snake, a clump of hair, a pair of tits, an arse, a high heeled boot, and so on. Like a lot of art, vaguely sexual and deeply disturbing.
I can’t help but hate stuff like that. I don’t know why, because in so many aspects of my life I’m anything but cynical. I can comfortably embrace the weird and wonderful, but bizarre pseudo-sexual modern art just makes me wince. Maybe that’s the point of it, I don’t know. I just feel like a lot of that kind of art is ‘do a weird sculpture and dream up an explanation of why you did it later on’. I got a C at GCSE art for my final project, which amounted to what was essentially a brown smudge, due to the explanation I gave of my ‘process’. My true ‘process’ was that I was both bone-idle and shit at art.
The performance began, and we were all invited to sit on the floor. Someone spilled beer everywhere as they sat, which is sooo not ASMR, god. The performance began as people teetered into the room and stood in a circle clutching booklets. It was dead silent. A girl stood at the front and lightly tapped a glockenspiel, or xylophone, or some silly instrument. As one, they all started whispering. It was a kind of rhythmic chanting. There was an inner and an outer circle of people, all speaking in time. Here’s what there were saying:
Shush to Come
Shush to Shush
Shush to Come
Shush is Coming
…Yeah I don’t know, either. The words were projected on a big screen. Around the outer circle, other performers were reading from a script of straight prose, very quietly. At first I thought this was people in the audience talking over the performance, and was half a second from shouting “OI WOULD YOU SHUT UP I’M TRYING TO LISTEN ERE!”, when I realised it was part of the show.
So, they whispered. And they whispered. And. They fucking. Whispered. The same three words. A hundred times over. A thousand times over. Whispers maybe get some people all tingly and warm, but not me. They just make me on edge. I think people are talking about me. Saying I’m a wanker. So I sat listening to this endless ‘shush is coming’ nonsense for about 30 minutes. It finally finished, the glockenspiel girl whispered ‘thank you’, and the room exploded into rapturous applause and cheering. Eeeh.
Michelle wanted to hang around after and mingle. I hugged her goodbye and headed back to the hostel, confused and irrationally grumpy about the silly art whisperers.
Back at the hostel, I bumped into Bob again, and the couple from Perth; Jack and Casey. It was around half nine. We got talking and they told me they were thinking of heading out to this place they’d been to during the day that had been closed, but was now open. It was a squat, apparently the biggest in Berlin, and one of the most famous in Europe. I was half wondering if they’d been to the same house viewing I had. Jack told me it was a place called Kopi, and it was only a few blocks away. It’s free to go in and explore as long as you’re respectful, and dozens of hardcore punks live there and throw parties and gigs every night. They’ve been living there for 26 years. 26 years telling the government to do one. Nice.
The four of us headed out with a few cheap beers Jack handed out. Approaching the squat, you can see the landscape change. Kopi inhabits an entire city block, and a wire fence runs all the way around, thick with posters and flags, tarps and political slogans in all languages. We reached the front gates, and, I won’t lie, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be the first go to in. The entrance has a couple of sofas dumped in the street, marking the spot where there’s a large gate in the fence and a covered walkway inside. We headed in past a couple of people standing around wearing all black.
It was like nowhere I’ve ever been on earth. It’s a towering, squalid building, maybe six or seven storeys. You emerge immediately into a courtyard with the building on three sides of you, and the gate behind. It looms up and over you, aggressively. What’s so aggressive about a building? Well, this one has a six story roaring tiger face painted on it. It also has a 5 metre high mural of a man with one eye exploding out of his head, along with a patchwork of skulls and violent imagery that makes the Bayuex Tapestry look like an advertorial pamphlet for a retirement home.
The courtyard is strewn with grime and broken bicycles, beer bottles and a lopsided outside bar. Multi coloured festoons cross the yard, and large signs demand absolutely no photos be taken. The four of us dawdled in the empty yard with no idea where to go. There was an iron door in the right wing of the building, from underneath which there spilled green light and screaming music. I said I wasn’t going in first – hey, I won’t apologise for being cautious. Casey took the lead, and we followed her inside. It was a bar, but not like any other bar you’ve seen in your life.
Imagine a dive bar. Imagine the worst dive bar you’ve ever been to. Imagine the most intimidating, alien, deep down dirty gutter bar you’ve ever been inside. Now give up, because, you’re nowhere near. We filed inside, wearing jumpers and jeans and walking boots and scarves. Ten pairs of eyes swivelled over to us.
Every square inch of the room, including the roof, was absolutely thick with graffiti and peeling stickers. The bar was knocked together out of old wood, with uneven ranks of spirits behind. The ceiling is low, and the air was thick with smoke, swirling slowly in the gloom. At the bar, there were two long haired old rockers wrapped in worn leather jackets knocking back beers. On the far side, a girl with a foot-high Mohican and shaved sides was kissing a man with earlobes you could pass a rugby ball through. There was a battered pool table in one corner where two guys were playing, drenched in studs and safety pin piercings and dyed hair. Over on another table there was a huge white husky dog, sitting on a chair and panting gently while its proud owner lovingly stroked its ears. The room was smoky, close, and blasted with raw punk vocals from huge speakers high on the walls.
Casey hesitated on her way in, withering under the stares of the locals. I rallied and headed straight for the bar to order a Sternburg. He popped the cap off and handed me it, eyeballing me the whole time, and went back to washing glasses. We pulled up stools to the bar once the others had got beers, but conversation wasn’t really flowing with the furious thrashing guitars in the background. I asked the bartender over and used my limited German to ask if he spoke English, then asked him where the live music was. He told me it was across the courtyard. I thanked him and asked if he lived here. He nodded, and I said it was insanely cool. He smiled as he went back to his glasses.
We headed across the courtyard and found a stairway descending into the basement, which was reverberating with anguished yells and crashing drums. A cobwebbed rib cage hung from chains halfway down the stairs. We found our way into the gig, which was in a tiny, hot, ear-smashingly loud room with crumbling brick walls and vaulted ceilings. There was another skull-flanked web-heavy bar down there, and at the front of the black leather crowd there was a band of three young punks absolutely hammering away at their instruments.
The drummer was topless, his hair stuck to his face, his body ripped and gleaming with sweat, kicking at his drums with his arms almost a blur. The bassist was in the crowd, being flung around with the rest of them yet somehow barely missing a note, head banging the whole time and giant afro flopping around after him. The lead singer had jet black hair, gelled into huge straight spikes sticking out at all angles. He was shouting hoarse German into the mic, his face straining with the force of it all. The first four rows of people watching were busy flinging each other about and leaping all over. The crowd was a mix of hardcore punks and curious Berliners. A couple of girls were down there wearing hijabs, moshing freely at the front. I couldn’t stop smiling.
Despite the skulls and the violent imagery, I felt completely safe. Everyone was respectful and friendly in this anarchist mini-society. Anarchy, contrary to its usual portrayal, isn’t simply a synonym for chaos. It’s a political system, or rather, it’s apolitical. With no government in place, anarchism says it’s down to the people to contribute, to do their bit and chip in for society. Essentially, you do what you want, but you look out for each other. If someone needs help, you help them, and ask for nothing back. You just know that next time you need them, they’ll be there for you, too. I don’t think it would work in wider society, because anarchism assumes that everyone would want to help each other, and would be unselfish. Unfortunately, as we are being shown more and more on the news these days, that’s just not the case. It makes me sad that the downfall of so many political systems that should make everyone happier is shitty human nature itself. Anarchism can function as a sub-society, however, and Köpi seems to have perfected it.
The lead singer’s amp broke for a minute, and he smiled sheepishly into the mic. “This is what happens when you play metal,” he laughed.
We watched a few more songs before leaving. We headed back to the hostel and I climbed into bed. All of this happened in one day – a day in which I woke up at 11am and was in bed by midnight. It’s truly amazing what you can experience here.
Here is the squat. I saved the photo for the end to let you imagine it first.