I returned to Berlin, just because I could. While Leipzig was undoubtedly charming, in a German bunker kind of way, I was drawn back to Berlin. And given that there was 24 hours until my rendezvous in Paris with my wife (where else in the world can you say that without sounding wanky, whilst simultaneously sounding wanky) I couldn’t resist returning to the German capital. I reorganised my hotel booking, and left early.
But this time, it was for a single reason. To go to a German nightclub.
I’d done the tourist thing when I first arrived. And while Brandenburger Tor is awesome, and museums are educational, with toilets of generally high quality, I wanted to feel what it was to be German, not a tourist. Just once. Where else better to do it than in a club where no one can hear my terrible German?
So I caught the train back to Berlin. Again I was offered crystal meth on the streets, just to make me feel welcome. I navigated my way to Hotel Nhow, a brown brick building with an asymmetrical black square atop, that hangs precariously over the Spree River in a way that if Asher built it out of Duplo, I’d give it only seconds before collapsing. Every room has baby pink and grey décor, with psychedelic floor coverings that would make Austin Powers weep. It could not have contrasted the cinderbricks of Seehausan more if it tried. It sits a stones throw from the East Side Gallery, the outdoor mural that is the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, in deep within East Berlin. This is the new East Berlin. This is an area I will affectionately call North North North Fitzroy.
* * * * *
The following morning I rose at 5.30am, and again hopped on my bike, heading for Berghain/Panorama Bar. There were no dapper business men to pass on their bikes; it was Saturday morning, or more accurately for everyone else, late Friday night. I gripped my map tightly as I rode, my fingers tightening in Berlin’s fresh morning air. I headed past one club, up the main drag, past the train station, took a right up a long street, and on finding its Y intersection, began to look for a sign.
No sign to see. But very loud beats to hear.
I figured I would be safe to follow the sound. I rode down an impromptu path that seemed to lead into an industrial estate. As I turned the corner, I found myself looking up at an old power plant, surrounded in scaffolding, some barbed wire as decoration, and a door at the front. Three men stood there, the only people in sight.
I parked my bike and walked on up.
* * * * *
I guess I may have been nervous if I had any idea that this is rated as one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, with a notoriously strict and random door policy. I only learnt afterwards that there are whole websites devoted to advise on getting in – but even then, there is a code that is at times uncrackable.
“Guten Tag. Sprechen sie Englisch?”
A giant out of Lord of the Rings grunted and cleared his throat. “Yes.” The earth shuddered as he spoke.
“If you get in,” he boomed.
“Oh, okay,” I said.
He feigned irritation, but by this stage it was 6.15am. There was no one else waiting. It was clear where a line should be, from the eight steel poles bolted into the dust, worn bare from thousands of hands. I’ve since seen photos of these lines, three-hour long queues that often end in a soul crushing “no”. I remember that feeling – butterflies at the pit of my stomach at the thought of having my entire night ‘ruined’ – but now I’m nearly 40 now. If he said “no”, I would have ridden off through North North North Fitzroy, politely declining offers of ice as I went.
I stood for a moment, raising my eyebrows in question. One enormous creature spoke to another. I examined his shaved head quizzically, realising that it was one of the biggest skulls I have ever seen. He stood, and it all began to make sense. I didn’t have time to estimate his height beyond about seven feet, before a third man came out. A black T-shirt covered his potbelly, a denim jacket over this. He had a mane of grey hair and an matching goatee. And he had about twenty facial piercings – not unusual for this part of Berlin – but his skin was more blue, than pink, due to an intricate web of tattoos decorating his entire face.
He just looked pissed off.
“Wait here,” one of the giants said. I couldn’t localise the sound.
“Okay,” I replied.
I stood there for about a minute. They all stared at me intermittently, before looking away if I caught their eye. Perhaps they were sniffing for pheromones, disappointed by my insouciance, borne of the fact that I was entirely unaware of this exclusive club I was attempting to enter.
They quickly bored of the game; power only exists if something is at stake, something of which all parties are aware. I wanted to enter, but clearly less than most of those who had gone before me. Finally, I was waved in with a frustrated paw.
And in I went.
* * * * *
I rounded the corner into an antechamber, where I was patted down. My phone was discovered in my front pocket, and two stickers were placed over the camera lenses. I was ordered to remain where I was standing; something I was not planning on challenging. And then I was waved through.
As I walked up the concrete stairs to Panorama Bar, I began to feel the house music through my entire body. I pushed in my own earplugs as a walked the two flights of stairs. As I entered the main room, I was hit in the chest with a wall of sound. ; only later did I learn that the baseline volume sits between 95 and 110dB.
There, to my left was the stage. Through 180 degrees to the right, were hundreds of people. I stood for a moment, feeling distinctly un-German, un-inebriated, and un-cool. I looked up at the roof, 18 metres above, at the lights, pulsing in time to the beat, bathing the crowd red.
Everyone was having a blast.
* * * * *
I soon settled in. There is something about this place – It was a conspicuously unselfconscious crowd. There were no mirrors, no photos allowed, no way of viewing yourself at all. It was just a place to dance. It’s a distinctly German trait. I don’t know what it is about these people, but they seem to manage to be, without needing to prove anything.
It has been said of Berghain that it is ‘still the best club in the world because it doesn’t care about being the best club in the world. And maybe I’m being naïve. But the girls were stunning, but no one was looking. Several gay guys and girls were mauling each other, but no one was looking. There were nooks and crannies in which all sorts of transactions were occurring, but again, no one was looking. The guys that you would call hipsters in Melbourne, were just guys with beards that weren’t even slightly ironic.
And there is something about house music, in a power plant, in a city of concrete, that once sat behind an iron curtain, which just makes the whole industrial grit just that little bit more real.
I can’t say I’ve ever before had reason to begin drinking at 7am.
But now I have.
* * * * *