When I first arrived in Berlin on the first of May 1998 I was put up by my aunt in her beautiful, 130m2 apartment in Moabit. As I strolled around discovering the neighborhood I found an abundance of what I later dubbed “Schultheiss Kneipen” after the local brand of beer in West Berlin. These were bars where old men sat around listening to German “schlager” music, drinking “korn” and flirting with the equally aged bartenders. It was a great place to learn German since their English repertoire consisted of “You are American? I speak English good!” but not much else. I was a bit disheartened to say the least by the dismal state of nightlife in my neighborhood until my cousin and his friend brought me to the banks of the river Spree and over a couple six packs of beer and whatnot we discussed life, the universe, and everything. It was a combination of a few different factors, the fact the sun did not go down until about 10pm, the warm summer air, the surprisingly floral bouquet of the Berlinerluft, the boats drifting by us as we sat and laughed the night away, and perhaps the fact that it would never be allowed in the States which gave it that illicit thrill. For whatever reason it became one of my favorite things to do in Berlin, whether on the banks of the river, by one of the many lakes, sitting in a park, or even just sitting on the sidewalk watching the people hurry by, some primal basic human need is filled by the simple pleasure of being outdoors with friends, surrounded by nature, without a care in the world.
I first came to Berlin to study German at the Goethe Institute. Since I was 23 years old and experiencing life overseas for the first time, attending the lessons was not a high priority. Instead I chose to go to the Tiergarten with a book, lie in the sun and contemplate how amazingly complex the world is once the blinders are taken off. Buckminster Fuller said it best, “The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery ….The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.” Henry Miller, Milan Kundera, Dostoevsky, Gunter Grass, Gore Vidal, Bernard Shaw, and Italo Calvino became my best friends that summer. It may have been this reprogramming of my brain which had such a profound effect on me, cleaning out the cobwebs and relearning all I had been taught as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra had preached, nonetheless I still give credit to that great big park in the middle of Berlin which I love so dearly.
Lakes in Berlin are the only way I survived being landlocked for so long. Luckily there are a number of lakes to help beat the summer heat. Everyone has their favorite and there are a few factors which help make this decision. Like almost everything else in Berlin proximity is key. Most people do not stray far from their kiez (neighborhood) and since Berlin is 880 km2 this seems entirely reasonable. Using this logic my favorite lake should be Weissensee but since I first discovered the lakes when I was living in Steglitz in the southwest of Berlin I prefer the Schlachtensee. To be perfectly honest I also must admit it was here I discovered the German FKK, or nudist culture. I could swear all those teenage and 20 something girls were enjoying watching me squirm as I was exposed for the first time to public nudity. Looking back though, as uncomfortable as I was in the beginning I did learn to overcome the prudish behavior which had been bred into me growing up in New England. Some other lovely lakes include, Teufelsee, Wannsee, Glienicker See, Muggelsee, Lietzensee, and the Tegeler See.
Though admittedly not one of the most beautiful parks in the city it does have the cultural advantage of having the Berlin Wall running through it as well as the Max Schmelling Halle and the American football stadium in Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn Sportpark. Most people nowadays know it for the Sunday flea market however. Over the past 5 years this has become one of the main attractions to Berlin and rightly so. Not only the bearpit Karaoke attracting thousands to sing in the outdoor amphitheater but numerous bands playing spontaneous, impromptu gigs throughout the length of the park make it a music lover’s paradise, as opposed to the techno capital that Berlin is generally known for. Although the park itself is a small strip of green connecting Eberswalder Str with Gleimstr the crazy characters and people watching make the Sunday spectacle truly something to behold.
In recent years (since the movie Hanna) people have been raving about the abandoned amusement park in the south east of the city called Spreepark in the Planterwald. There is a fascinating story about the Witte family who attempted to use their rides to smuggle cocaine into Germany and got caught. The park has been derelict ever since but since last year there are now guided tours of the fairgrounds.
Another sight worth seeing in the Teufelsberg. It is a 80 meter tall mountain made out of rubble from WWII but since Berlin is quite flat this is the largest hill in the city. It is also located in a huge forest in the west of the city known as the Grunewald. During the Cold War the US has a radar installation on the top which has long since been abandoned and is now a tourist attraction. Many of my friends who rave about it have had religious experiences there due to either being trapped in inclement weather or taking large amounts of chemicals but it is something all the transient tourists feel needs to be done at least once during their stay in the German capital.
Berlin has a huge forest called the Grunewald covering the southwest of the city. I once saw a wild ram in the woods not to mention the more common sightings of stag, wild boar, foxes and bunnies. Aside from the numerous lakes in the forest as well as the Teufelsberg it is also a lovely place to take stroll through the woods, or wandern as the Germans say. Germany is an extremely green nation and it is therefore no surprise that the capital is as well. Berlin has over 400,000 trees just lining the streets alone. Don’t believe me? Take a look next time and you will see each tree is numbered. You can believe what you hear about German efficiency and organization. You can also believe what you hear about the Germans having a special relationship with nature, even in the biggest, most populated city in the entire country. Green is good.
If you’re looking for cheap tickets, this time of year is probably the best.