vendredi, mai 04, 2007

BerlinPartei Day 1: Immer Hellwach

So, this story begins right where Thursday left off (I'll be posting Thursday a bit later, but the important bit is that DJ came over for dinner to help me clean out my fridge).

At sometime after midnight, I kicked DJ out of my room and I started getting ready for my flight. My flight was at 6h30 from Orly airport, so I was going to leave around 3h30 with the hopes of getting there at 4h30. You see, I was flying EasyJet, and they don't do reserved seating, but if you get there when check-in opens (2 hours before), you get into the first "seating group," which allows you to choose your seat before the other groups. Either way, I'm so used to getting to the airport 2 hours beforehand for overseas flights, that it was pretty much habit.

Anyway, it was clear that I was going to get no sleep. It was almost 1h00 and I still needed to pack, clean, do the dishes, shower and generally get ready. Oh, and DJ and I had shared two bottles of wine (one red and one rosé), and DJ had brought along his bottle of Four Roses bourbon. So I was reasonably tipsy.

So I did the dishes, packed, got ready, and headed out. I managed to catch the one taxi with the talkative driver. He was very nice, but I was in no state to hold up a conversation. When he heard I was from Canada, he said: "Oh, do you know Glenn Gould?" "Of course," I said, "I did my undergraduate in music in Canada, he's inescapable." From there, the rest of the cab ride was a discussion about baroque keyboard composers and the piano/harpsichord debate. Again, not unpleasant, just a bit early in the morning for that sort of thing.

I got to the airport and got in line, but things were a bit of a mess. There were three different flights for EasyJet that morning, and since the employees hadn't shown up yet, everyone was sort of forming a line from a randomly selected counter. Thankfully, I was pretty close to the front of the line, but things got confusing when a couple of employees showed up and started checking in only travellers going to Athens. When I got to the front of the line, I asked what I should do if I'm going to Berlin, and she just said "Wait in front of the empty desk over there." I was a bit suspicious that she was just making that up to get rid of me, but I went and waited nonetheless. While I and maybe 10 more people waited for the Berlin flight, a few more employees showed up and opened the desks in front of us. As they were getting ready, the screens behind them suddenly changed to "all flights," and the big group of people travelling to Athens started to rush our much shorter line. I've been in France long enough to know how to deal with this, so I glared, elbowed and otherwise got all snippy to prevent people from pushing past me.

The rest of the flight was pretty straightforward. I got my way through security and over to the gate, and quietly knitted for what felt like an eternity, praying that I wouldn't have a hangover in a couple of hours. We finally got on the plane (I scored a good seat, thankfully), had a decent flight, and landed in Berlin at around 8h30. Since I had heard that Schoenfeld Airport is rather far from Berlin proper, I was prepared for a nightmarish series of buses and walking to get into town. However, it turns out that one of the S-Bahn (Strassenbahn, a kind of light rail system) lines runs all the way out to Schoenfeld. Alas, I just missed the "Express" train, which apparently goes from the airport to downtown in under half an hour, but the train that I did catch got me into Berlin within 45 minutes.

I made my way into the Southern end of Mitte (the "middle" area of town, one of the quarters that ran along the East side of the Berlin wall) and wandered around until I found my hotel. The place was about what you could expect for 25-30€ / night. It was essentially one chunk of an old communist-era apartment building converted into little rooms. Like so many cheap hotels, the room is just a room, with showers and bathrooms shared on the floor. Thankfully, the bathrooms and showers are kept very clean--bare and colourless, but very clean. Interestingly enough, the hotel has apparently decided to save money by going with this concept of all minimalist hand-made furniture. The obviously hired a carpenter and gave him a ton of cheap wood boards, and he/she made pretty much everything out of it. The chairs in the welcome area are just wood boxes on an angle with felt for seating, the bed is a large boxspring made out of wood, so is the nighttable, and the "closet" is a series of wooden shelves with a hanging rod sticking out of it. Hardly glamorous, but at least it's clean and simple. As a fan of minimalism, I prefer this to the ghastly paisley-print stuff you usually see in cheap hotels. The furniture was actually pretty ingenious, so I'll upload some pictures of them soon...

Anyway, it was still 11h00 and my room was nowhere near ready. When I asked when it would be, she informed me that check-in was between 17h00 and 20h00 (5 and 8pm!). Fuck! So I left my luggage with the person at the front desk, having not slept since Thursday morning, and prepared to entertain myself in Berlin for the next 6 or 7 hours.

The first thing I did was get some coffee. After that, I wandered up and down Friedrichstraße from my place (Stadtmitte) to the big Friedrichstraße station, and back. Clearly, this old neighbourhood has been caught up in the post-reunification wave of new buildings, but the little shops that make a neighbourhood haven't quite kept up. Since Mitte was one of the neighbourhoods that was close to the wall, many parts of it were effectively abandoned during the DDR era. Now, all the buildings have been restored or replaced, the architecture is a dizzying mish-mash of pre-, during- and post-communist styles, and there are office buildings everywhere. However, there are occasional Starbucks shops and one or two Imbiss stands (take-out food stands), but very little of the old neighbourhood haunts that make a place feel like home. I have to walk about 10 blocks to find a drugstore or grocery store. However, this will come with time. In the meanwhile, many of the other neighbourhoods further from the wall in both directions seem to have well-established communities.

So, to keep myself busy, I think I covered all of Berlin on foot (Google Maps has a good view of Berlin if you want to follow along ; I moved around a lot). I walked over to Potsdamer Platz to check out the new buildings, especially the Sony Centre. This is a ring of large buildings with restaurants and theatres of and offices, with the center covered by a glass canopy with several openings and canvas hangings. The result is a fresh and breezy area with partial sunlight. Allegedly, there was free WiFi available in the entire area, but the damned thing didn't work for me. I tried restarting my computer numerous times, connecting in various places within the centre, and fiddling with my settings. Other people seemed to be connecting with little trouble, so I eventually gave up and moved on. This has happened to me before, and I've come to wonder if there's just a particular server technology that doesn't work well with Macs. Meh.

From there, I wandered around the Tiergarten for a couple of hours; this apparently used to be a large swampy hunting ground ("Tiergarten" = animal-garden), which was landscaped during the 19th century in the fashion of a French-style public park (like the Bois de Boulogne or the Bois de Vincennes in Paris). This thing is HUGE and sprawling, like Central Park in NYC, but with more water and islands and boats, and more nude sunbathing.

After exploring the eastern end of the park, I crossed the Brandenburg Gate and headed east along Unter den Linden, the major downtown street before (and after) the division of Germany. Unter den Linden looks like what would happen if you bombed about 75% of the Champs-Elysées, and then replaced the destroyed buildings with several layers of architectural styles. Comparing from my last visit to Berlin in 2002, most of the Soviet-era buildings have been removed, while the earlier ones have been restored and nearly every empty space has been filled with shiny new modern buildings. I wandered down the long row of buildings and past the museum district and over to Alexanderplatz. Towering over the plaza was the Fernsehturm ("television-tower"), ostensibly built during the communist era to broadcast TV channels, but also in reality used for surveillance over its own people as well as those of West Berlin.

From there, I wandered for a bit through Nikolaiviertel (advertised as one of the best-preserved pre-war districts in Berlin), then up to Hackescher Markt, which is an old merchant district dating from the 19th-century industrial boom years. I picked up a döner kebap from an imbiss (food stand), which was amazingly delicious. I don't know what they do differently here, but it's probably good for my health that street-meat isn't this good and cheap in Paris or Chicago.

From there, I wandered up Oranienburger Straße until it met with Friedrichstraße, and then walked all the way back down to my hotel. I got back at 16h50 and there was no one at the reception, so I stood outside and waited. After a while, another guest at the hotel let me in so I could make use of their WiFi while I waited. Thankfully, the WiFi at the hotel works just fine. What's better, I can actually get a signal in my room! Far more than I had expected, really.

When the receptionist for the evening finally showed up, he apologized and gave me my keys and showed my around the hotel. I tried to maintain the conversation in German, but a lot of the vocabulary was out of my range, so eventually we had to switch to English. As much as I have a basic command of the German language, it's clear that I need to spend a lot more time here (I'm looking at you, fellowship boards!).

As soon as I got into my room, I took a quick but much-needed shower, pulled out my contacts, and finally rolled into bed. It was 17h30 at the time, so I set my alarm to 23h30 and went to sleep. Or, at least I tried my best to sleep, while a group of children in the courtyard next to me frolicked, yelled and cried when they scraped their knees.

Perlon Night @ Berghain in Berlin: Sammy D, Audio Werner, Zip with surprise appearance by Baby Ford

Much to my surprise, I woke up just before midnight feeling rested and refreshed. I took a moment to get myself together and prepare for my night out, then looked up the 24-hour train map, reviewed my map to Berghain, and started moving at about 1h00. Since the 24-hour train map didn't show any trains running to Ostbanhof ("east-train-station"), which was the closest stop to Berghain, I took the U-Bahn ("Unterbahn", under-rail, or subway) to a nearby stop called Jannowitzbrücke and started walking towards Ostbanhof. As it turned out, the other train lines continue running past 1h00 on weekend nights (including tonight), but only every 30 minutes. Either way, the rather long walk to Ostbanhof was probably for the best, since the place was still pretty empty when I got there at 2am.

On the way over, I stopped for a moment to look at my map and was approached by a well-meaning teenager. His German was rather fast and had an accent that I couldn't follow, so it took me a while to figure out that he was offering to help me and not asking me something. I kept saying "I'm very sorry, but I don't understand..." until he finally said "Where do you want to go?" in very plain German. From there, it was a comedy of errors, as I gave him the name of the club (Berghain), which he presumed was my mistaken attempt at naming one of the neighbourhoods in the area. He first tried to correct me ("Friedrichshain or Kreuzberg, not Berghain."), until I found a way to clarify that I was giving him the name of a club, not a neighbourhood. He didn't know the club himself, but when I told him that I needed to get to the far side of the Ostbanhof, he was able to give me directions. I was actually doing fine finding the place, but I appreciated his determined efforts to help me. After some effusive thanks from me, we went our separate ways.

Berghain is at the end of a long, long unlit driveway that cuts between several old warehouses and an abandoned train yard from the socialist era. Once you get to the end of the driveway, there's suddenly a lit pathway to the left that leads up to the club itself. The club is in what appears to be an old power plant--at least, based on all the empty transformer boxes and switches found all over the club. You can get an image of the front of the club here, although the article itself seems a bit bitter in tone. Nonetheless, that above-linked Wikipedia article echoes what I've heard from some folks, which is that the bouncers maintain a strict but unexplained door policy. Apparently, this bar (and it's former incarnation as Ostgut) was known for being the techno-club cousin of the KitKat Club, which is a notorious sex club in Berlin. Although the "Panorama Bar" section on the third floor is more populated by straight-ish hipsters, the the main floor has always been gay-centric, complete with darkrooms for sexual play (although apparently sexual play isn't restricted to the darkrooms), and there is apparently a separate entrance for a hardcore fetish sexclub in the basement. For these reasons (allegedly) the doormen do their best to shoo away visitors who might make denizens of Berghain any less willing to get freaky. Although the bouncers never explain their decisions, what I've heard from those who've had problems is that the bouncers don't want youngsters (indeed, there were no teenagers in the club), suburbanites (they should at least dress and act like city folk), tourists (except for a certain kind of tourist, I suppose) and anyone that looks too conservative. For the record, I got in without a problem, although I was nervous as hell at the time.

Another consequence of these issues is that photography is 100% verboten, and they have a strict no-camera policy that they apparently enforce without compromise. Thankfully, I was warned of this from club reviews before going, since I usually bring my camera with me every time I go out. Anyway, this explains why I don't have any pictures of the evening in this post. On the upside, this means I don't have to edit and upload pictures and video this time. Nonetheless, you can see a lot of very well-done pictures here, here, here and here. Note that the images with the super-high ceilings are of the first floor club, which isn't open on Fridays.

So I passed the bouncer, who graced me with a "Hallo," and then into the ticket-booth area. I had a surprisingly thorough search from a rather friendly guy, bought my ticket (only 8€!) and started climbing the stairs. Coat check was a painless affair (2am is apparently still very early), and then I headed over to the main room of the Panorama Bar. I was surprised at how small this part was. When I had heard rave reviews about the size of the club, I had just presumed that this applied to the entire complex. The club had perhaps half of the dance-space of Le Rex in Paris (but with a nice wraparound bar with seating). Nonetheless, there were less than 50 people in the bar at this point, so it seemed like a good fit. As the night went on, more and more people piled in, peaking between 4 and 5am, but not petering out at all during the entire time that I was there.

Drinks at Berhain were delightfully cheap--at least compared the prices I pay in Paris. A fancy long drink with various juices and alcohols (e.g., caipirinha) costs 8€ and comes in a glass twice as large as the 11-15€ drinks at Le Rex. Similarly, the most basic beer (Beck) costs 3€ here, in comparison to 6€ for a half-pint of Kronenbourg beer (which is crap). Anyway, I hadn't eaten anything since the döner kebap I ate at 17h00, so I was I cheap date that night. =]

0h00-3h30: Sammy D

Since I got in around 2h00, I only caught the last half of Sammy D's set, but it was a very good warm-up (it's funny to think of the the warm-up period extending to 3h30); it was minimal techno (in keeping with the label featured that night, Perlon), but not yet pounding or frenetic. I wandered around and checked out the various nooks and crannies of the club, then positioned myself near the front of the club to boogie for a while. I noticed a woman speaking to someone else in English, so after the other person left, I leaned in and said, "Hey, are you North American?" "Oh no, I'm Dutch." Once again, the Dutch amaze me with their flawless English; she had a vague but believable North American accent and a great command of the language. We chatted for a bit about what brought us to Berlin that night and what we thought of Berlin so far, as well as where our hotels were, etc.

A little while later, I noticed a guy dancing next to me wearing a Minibar t-shirt, which is a minimal label officially based in London but with strong ties to Paris (two of the three label founders are French). I asked the guy in German if that was indeed a Minibar shirt, and he answered in French, "Yeah, are you French?" "No, well I'm Canadian but I live in Paris right now." "Oh cool. I've seen everything there, and now I live here." I thought that was a pretty succinct summary of many narratives of Berliner implants. They may like their hometowns, but Berlin always wins. On the clubbing front, at least. I'll have a word about the food in tomorrow's post, I think.

At some point during the set, I saw a guy hanging out with the rest of the DJs who looked an awful lot like Baby Ford (as seen a month ago in Paris). After taking a moment to be almost certain, I wandered over and asked him, "Excuse me, are you Baby Ford?" As it turns out, he was. I complimented him on his set last time he was in Paris (which was no lie; it was easily the best set of the night), and told him how much I wished his set had gone on longer. He told me that he was actually going to be spinning that night, since he was in town visiting Zip (another DJ listed that night). So, at 3h30, Baby Ford got on the decks...

3h30-5h00: Baby Ford

Baby Ford's set started off with pretty low-key minimal techno, but about 30 minutes into the set, things got much harder and intense. For me, this was the 1-1/2 hour-long set I had hoped for when he was in Paris last month. In general, his track selection seemed to highlight heavy patterned bass (i.e., 4/4 bass patterns with additional detail, such as displaced or doubled beats, secondary rhythmic patterns, melodic lines, etc.) with moderate detail in the mid range and very little in the high range. I sort of wish I had been able to record the set, as it was a great example of what I like, but you sort of had to be there and experience the music pouring out of their fantastic sound-system.

During his set, I chatted again with the Dutch woman (whose name I never got), and admired her rather cute friend. A moment later, a guy approached me and said in English, "It's a really great vibe, innit?" As it turns out, this very friendly guy was part of a stag party group from Scotland (he's from Inverness), where a few of the guys split off from the main group to find some good techno. To their credit, they came here. Anyway, we chatted for a while about the usual get-to-know-you stuff (Where you from? How's Paris? Have you been to Scotland?), and then did the "affective check-in." This is the phrase I'm using these days for the near-ritual of checking on the affective states of people around you: "How're you feeling?" "What do you think of this music?" "Are you having a good time?" As I've said in other blog posts, a lot of this seems to go towards building a sort of intimacy by ensuring that there's some mutuality of feeling between you, and trying to find an alignment of affect. Most of the time, the hoped-for answer for these qustions is "Yes!" "I'm feeling great!" "I'm having so much fun!!", although sometimes you might be looking for someone to share your non-fun, as well (see the write-up for Mark Broom's set in this post).

A little while later, without even realizing it, I did the exact same thing with the French guy with the Minibar t-shirt.

5h00-6h00: Audio Werner (Live set)

Great set. Minimal and punchy, although not quite as dynamic and wide-ranging as Baby Ford's set (this is a common problem/risk of live sets). From what I could tell from the reflection of his computer screen on the back wall, he was running Ableton Live.

For whatever reason, everyone seemed to want to ask me for drugs during this set. One guy even asked me twice, apparently unconcerned that I had already said no a few minutes ago.

6h00-???: Zip

I can't even guess at how long Zip continued spinning, because most clubs in Paris would be closed by now. I left at around 7h30 and the crowd was still going strong. In fact, one guy asked me who was spinning, and then mentioned that he and his friends had only just arrived (at 6h30). I had heard before that Berghain is sort of legendary for running right into the afternoon, so a lot of people end up here after partying elsewhere.

Anyway, his set was great, although he leaned more in the microhouse direction than any of the other DJs that night. The rather large windows at Berghain have a set of blinds that they bring down as the night turns into morning. Then, during daytime sets like this, they will occasionally open the blinds for a few seconds, and then close them again. Everyone cheers when this happens, even though it bathes us all in sunlight and makes the results of a night of partying rather hard to ignore. The late-evening nap had given me a lot of energy to keep partying, but at 7h30 I finally gave in and headed home. I probably could've stayed a bit longer, but I didn't want to totally destroy myself before Saturday night.

On the way home in bright sunlight, I realized that I really need a set of sunglasses.

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