America is often called (mainly by Americans) the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.” Since brave tends to be a more subjective term, freedom is what I would prefer to focus on. When I arrived in Berlin in 1998 I was convinced, like many of my countrymen pre 9/11,that all other countries in the world strove (in vain) to attain the unfettered freedoms and zenith of liberty that we in the states had achieved through our unparalleled system of free market democracy. So naturally it was a bit of a shock to discover that German’s were free to drink in the streets and no lawlessness or anarchy ensued as a result. As my eyes narrowed with the suspicion that I had perhaps been misled I discovered there were many more examples of liberties which the Germans were privy to. Could it be that we were wallowing in the mistaken belief that America was the most free nation on the planet?
As my brother had been a bartender for years I had always assumed that the heavy security at all drinking establishments in the U.S. was a sad but necessary measure owing to the dark side of human nature. Why was it then that there was no bouncer at any of the watering holes in Berlin? In fact many bars I frequented only had a wisp of a girl tending bar alone and no other staff at all in the entire establishment. Many was the time that I caught a heady, perfumed whiff of cannabis being smoked while the staff calmly continued working without even pretending to care.
Another thing I discovered was the non- existence of government mandated closing times for bars in Berlin. What was this crazy society that allowed its population to police itself and let the bar staff decide how long they should be open? How was it that they did not have violent drunks getting into fights, or crazy marijuana addled junkies looting and pillaging if no one was supervising them? How can they allow their teens to drink legally in bars and have less of an underage drinking problem than we have in the states? Why did the word loitering make no sense to my Berlin friends?
Yet another astonishing liberty the people of Berlin seemed to take for granted was the concept of hanging out in a park at night. As a teenager in America my friends and I could be often found in the evenings sitting in a park or at the beach drinking beers only to be run off by a police car cruising by, hoping to catch us “delinquents”. Did the founding fathers truly mean for our right of assembly to be taken away once the sun goes down? When I arrived in Berlin in 1998 the parks were an amazing place to be regardless of time day or night. It seemed so natural that people who were there during the day could watch the sunset and remain in the park as the stars filled the clear night sky. They would gather around campfires often with guitars and drums , passing bottles of beer (among other things). How could such sublime, beatific moments be unimaginable in the states without police intervention? Though you can still experience this today in most parks in Berlin there is no better time and place than on a Sunday afternoon at the Flohmarkt in Mauerpark.
On the weekends flea markets (Flohmarkt in German) are a beloved Berlin pastime. They are an odd assortment of junk and gems all thrown together in a decidedly unorganized and therefore very un-German manner. Tables full of old fashioned doorknobs and lamp fixtures, second hand furniture and homemade art are side by side with WWII bric-a-brak , and even VHS videos, 8 tracks and audio cassettes for the technological troglodytes. One of the most overrated flea markets takes place on Saturdays and Sundays and is located next to Museum Island on the western bank of the River Spree. This is known as the Kunstmarkt and due to its very central location it has become a grossly overpriced tourist trap lacking the charm and personality of its counterparts around the city. One of the more venerable flea markets is located on the Strasse der 17t Juni by the Tiergarten S Bahn. It takes place on Saturdays and Sundays and before the establishment of the Mauerpark in 2004 this was the most famous in Berlin.
Since the fall of the wall a few outdoor shopping opportunities have started up in the former east of Berlin. One of these takes place on Sundays in a lovely square in Prenzlauerberg called Arkonaplatz. Here you tend to find the nouveau riche of Berlin wearing Uggs and sipping on lattes while searching for hidden treasures. On the other end of the spectrum, also in the east, is the Flohmarkt am Boxi. This is in the more blue collar/punk neighborhood of Friedrichshain on Boxhagener Platz. Here you can find an interesting assortment of memorabilia from the disappearing East German population as well as the younger, transient punk Berliners.
The south-western Berlin district of Kreuzberg is also home to a few markets worth mentioning. The antithesis of the Arkonaplatz market can be found at the on the weekends at Moritzplatz. And not so far from there is a fantastic outdoor Turkish bazaar which happens Tuesdays to Fridays and is a ideal place to experience the ethnic subculture of Berlin. It is located on the Landwehrkanal which is one of the canals branching off from the River Spree. My personal favorite however is the Flohmarkt in Mauerpark.
Mauerpark(the Wall park) is named after a section of the Berlin Wall that runs through it. Here you can find local graffiti artists constantly tagging and re-tagging the remnants of the Cold War monument. The park itself is a treat on the weekends, bringing together an assortment of unique Berlin characters, from jugglers, buskers, and the local drunks as well as families, tourists and expats all seamlessly melting together. On Sundays however Berlin’s largest flea markets adds to the normal everyday chaos and the park takes on the appearance of a country fair. The locals bring their own wares to the park for some ad-hoc capitalism and often you can see up to five different bands playing simultaneously throughout the length of the park. The coup de grace of the Sunday flohmarkt am Mauerpark is the outdoor karaoke. This has become a cult classic with hundreds of people coming together for impromptu karaoke goodness. You have to see it to understand the magic of it but one story which emphasizes its beauty is when last summer a man proposed to his girlfriend.
All in all there are many questions raised about freedom and how some countries are able to achieve greater levels of it but for me it took stepping out of my own culture before I was able to appreciate and understand another. The craziness of Mauerpark for example would never be allowed in America simply due to the open container laws not to mention the issues of the unlicensed vendors. Whether these regulations have helped or hindered our society is a question worth investigating but I will leave you with the words of an idol of mine, Ben Franklin. “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”