Berghain 2.0 – The Lab.Oratory

The city of Berlin in general had left such an impression on me, and I had enjoyed my time there enough to warrant a round trip and pass through a second time, but I would be lying if I said that my arrival on a weekend had been at all left up to chance. The first time around I had arrived on a Friday night and proceeded to have a wild night out with Donatella and Simon, making a bunch of temporary bender friends and stumbling home in the sunlight. This time around I was staying with Ralf, and as a fellow gay man he had a few more ideas of other places in Berlin that I might want to experience. He assumed – correctly, of course – that I would want to return for a final night of dancing at Berghain, but we both agreed that going again on a Sunday evening was probably a better plan of attack. But it was Friday night, so we had to do something. Ralf tossed around a few ideas.

“Well, depending how adventurous you’re feeling, we could go to the Lab,” Ralf said, in a rather nonchalant way that I would later discover to be very misleading. I knew that Berghain was a huge venue that was split up into different, smaller venues in the same building – I had experienced both Berghain proper and Panorama Bar during my last visit – but Lab.Oratory, or simply “the Lab”, was another one of the minor off-sets. I have to admit, my experience with sex clubs was practically non-existent at this time, so I was more than a little intrigued when Ralf was explaining the Lab. “It’s more of a bar for hanging out and cruising rather than dancing,” he continued. “Saturday nights are speciality nights, but on Fridays its pretty open and general.” Speciality, it was explained, referred to the variety of wonderful and kinky fetishes that the Lab catered for. “You don’t want to end up there on the wrong night, or you can be in for a bit of a nasty surprise,” Ralf said with a giggle. As someone who used to work in a fetish store in Sydney, some of the more eccentric themes Ralf listed even made me squirm. “But if you wanted to see it, we could go tonight? It should be pretty… well, not vanilla. But less… extreme.”

As adventurous as I would consider myself, I decided that I did have some limits, and so I agreed to check out the Lab that night. When we were getting ready to go, I felt like I was missing something, and it wasn’t until we set foot out the door at around 10:30pm that I realised I was completely sober. Back home my friends and I would almost never head out to any kind of club or bar without first consuming at least a few alcoholic beverages, and even in a lot of the other cities during my route around Europe I had bought a couple of beers to polish off before heading out, which was to ease away some of the social anxiety of entering a new place by myself as much as it was to save a bit of money by not buying so many drinks in the club. But as a non-drinker, I guess it wasn’t even a blip of Ralf’s radar when he was preparing to go out, and I wasn’t enough of an alcoholic to demand a beverage before we left. It was just a subtle reminder by omission of the kind of crazy partying life I used to have, and how it was possible to divert from that every once in a while. Having said that, though, we were going to one of the most notorious nightclubs in the world. I guess I’d just finally learnt you don’t have to get wasted to have a good time.

When we did get to Berghain, Ralf led me away from the main door, where a substantial line was beginning to form, and around the corner to another entrance. There was already quite a line for that door too, but he assured me were in the right place. The same could not be said for the rest of the people in the line, however. There were the usual suspects – pairs or small groups of men, a variety of body shapes and sizes, even a range of ages, but all looking very stern and solemn as they waited around. Some were dressed up with a suggestion of leather fetish, others were dressed rather plainly. “Dress like you’re not trying to impress. At all.” Ralf had given me advice when I’d been unsure of what to wear myself. “You’re more likely to get in looking like a homeless person than you are an attractive or pretty model.” So it was obvious who wasn’t going to get in the Lab – although I can safely say most of the people who weren’t going to get in were probably in the wrong line anyway. Guys dressed up in fancy collared shirts, or groups of people that had girls with them (Lab.Oratory, for obvious reasons, is restricted to males) were turned away at the door, but most of them looked slightly embarrassed or confused as they passed back down the line, rather than the disappointment or even devastation often exhibited by people who had been turned away by the infamous bouncers of Berghain.

I was a little nervous as we approached the front of the line, but having Ralf there to guide me was definitely a reassurance. He did all the talking, in German, and we paid and walked through the dark club entry. Upon entering we were each given a large plastic garbage bag to put our things in. Some people just stripped down to their underwear of jockstraps, other got completely naked, while some people kept their kinky outfits and just deposited their valuables. I followed Ralf’s suit and put my phone, wallet and keys in the bag before handing it back over the counter. They wrote a number on my bag and then, using a big black permanent marker, wrote that same number across my bicep. When we ventured further into the depths of the club to the bar, all you had to do when ordering was point to your number, and they bar would keep a tab for you that you would fix up when you were leaving.

It was definitely a handy system, because the Lab isn’t the kind of place you’d want to be carrying valuables around in. It’s dark and gloomy, the lights angled in such a way that they created more shadow than visible light. It was grungy and dirty, and the main crowd of people was an even mix of silent solo cruisers, pairs or groups of guys engaging in conversation, or pairs – or groups – of guys having sex. Ralf had been right in his basic description – it was essentially like Berghain, just with no women, less dancing, and a lot more blatant, hardcore sex. For the most part Ralf and I were rather well-behaved, with him giving me the grand tour of all the different sections of the club. There were private discreet corners, there were more open areas to accommodate larger groups, and there was even elevated levels that would appear to be stages, where other patrons could play spectator to whatever happened to be going on. I watched on for a few minutes – half horrified, half intrigued – as the hopefully self-explanatory act of double fisting happened right before my very eyes. Even all the work in a fetish store and the theoretical knowledge that came with it couldn’t have properly prepared me to witness some of the things I saw in the flesh.

Other highlights were the shower rooms which hosted a whole range of water sports – no, I’m not talking about water skiing – and metallic structures with grid floors, so you could either stand up the top and urinate through the drain, or you could stand at the bottom and… well, you get the idea. Given my work experience I found it all incredibly fascinating just to watch, but my participation was extremely minimal. Ralf and I left to head home at some point in the early morning, still rather clean in the physical sense, although some of the things I saw will never be unseen.

***

Berlin, and quite a lot of Europe actually, was experiencing a heat wave that weekend. For an Australian, low thirties in Celsius is hardly a heat wave, but German buildings aren’t really designed to have to cope with such temperatures. As a result, Ralf’s top storey apartment became something of a furnace, so we threw open all the windows and sat around in our underwear trying to keep cool for most of the weekend. But come Sunday evening, we donned our shabbiest outfits and headed back out to east Berlin so I could experience Berghain one final time.

It was quite a different experience to actually go there with someone else. Ralf told me that last time he had been to Berghain – the time he had met me – he had arrived with a small group of people and proceeded to lose them in the crowds as the night progressed. I asked him, trying my best not to sound too needy, if he would please not lose me tonight, since I had no idea how to get back to his apartment from here after the U- and S-Bahn’s stopped running. He just smiled at me, pulled off the plain white shirt he was wearing, and stuffed it behind one of the lounges in the more chilled out rooms next to the dance floor, seemingly oblivious to the threesome of blowjobs that was happening on said couch. “As long as the shirts still here, then so am I.” I could find a million and one flaws in that logic, but his cheeky grin and carefree attitude reminded me that this was hardly the place to be pedantic about such things. Regardless, we still spent most of the night together, dancing under the intense speakers, getting up close and sweaty with the other ravers, and losing ourselves to the beat.

“I think so much when I’m out there on the dance floor,” I remember explaining to Ralf on the bus ride home. “Like, when you’re drunk I guess you just forget a lot of things, and your mind goes to jelly and you don’t think of much at all. It’s all pretty basic and primal. But when I’m with you… well, I was relatively sober. It’s almost like meditation – the beat just blasts through my body and sends me into this kinda trance. Except my mind is going at a million miles an hour and I can’t stop thinking.” Visiting Berghain has been described by many as an almost religious experience, and while I didn’t have quite that kind of connection, it was definitely a surreal place for me. It kicked my mind into overdrive and forced me into having several minor epiphanies.

We weren’t there for quite as long as I was last time, but my second time at Berghain was just as ridiculous, getting lost within the cavernous rooms, passing people on the dance floor who were completely naked, and seeing orgies take place next to a group of people having a casual chat over some drinks. And those are some fond and freaky memories that I’m sure I will treasure for life.

From Tourist to Traveller: Berlin Sightseeing

After an exhausting weekend that nearly destroyed me, I decided to take some time out of the crazy Berlin party scene and do a couple of touristy things. Of course, I needed at least a full day just to receiver from the messed up sleeping patterns and diet that consisted almost solely of booze and currywurst. But on Tuesday, when I finally felt human again, I set off in the morning to do a self-guided Trip Advisor walking tour of Mitte, the central district of Berlin, also known as the Government Quarter.

But before I begin that recount, I need to do my obligatory rant, or rave, on the public transport situation for a new city. And I have to say, notwithstanding the train delays on my journey to actually get into Berlin, I am in love with their local train services. There are two kinds: the S-Bahn, which runs above ground and are actually integrated into the national rail system, and the U-Bahn, the underground trains that are essentially the German version of a metro. Trains on all lines come frequently at regular intervals, and between these two highly integrated networks, it’s possible to get almost anywhere in Berlin with relative ease, although there are so many different lines and interchanges that it can be a little difficult to wrap your head around at first. The only real issue I had with the U-Bahn and S-Bahn was the price of a ticket: €2.80 for a single trip seemed a little steep in my opinion, but then I guess I had still be paying student fares in Sydney right up until I left – welcome to the real world, kid. Although there’s one tip I can offer that you won’t read in any Lonely Planet book – there’s no barriers at the stations for which you need a ticket to pass through, and checking for tickets on board the train is very infrequent. Now I’m definitely not condoning fare evasion, but… there a few short trips I make where I felt it was worth the gamble. So for a system that is well-established, efficient, and if you can’t get away with it, free, Berlin public transport gets a general tick of approval.

***

The first stop on my walking tour was the Brandenburg Gate. The most famous of all the east-west crossings of the Berlin Wall, it’s a symbol of the division that once ran through the city, though during my time in Berlin I’d learn that while the wall came down in 1989, distinctions and differences between East and West Berlin are not unrecognisable. Visually, the gate is probably the most iconic feature of Berlin, so I posed for a photo before continuing through. The time I was in Berlin also coincided with a visit from the US president Barack Obama, and so Pariser Platz, the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate, was full of security guards and scaffolding, as some type of arena seating was erected in the clearing. I passed through the arches of the gate from east to west to find the Tiergarten stretched out before me, and turned right to head towards the Reichstag, the German parliamentary building. According to my Lonely Planet guide book, there was a popular and impressive view of central Berlin from the glass dome ceiling of the Reichstag, and that it was free to go and see. What the guide book failed to tell me was that you needed to make a booking prior to your visit in order to secure your spot on the viewing platform. Slightly disgruntled but not really that bothered, I left the bustling tourists to their lining up and headed back towards the Tiergarten.

Gate

The Brandenburg Gate, with just a suggestion of scaffolding.

In front of the Brandenburg Gate.

In front of the Brandenburg Gate.

The Reichstag, the parliamentary building which I unfortunately didn't get to enter.

The Reichstag, the parliamentary building which I unfortunately didn’t get to enter.

The Tiergarten is a huge expanse of greenery right in the centre of Berlin. I don’t know much about it historically, other than it being the name of a Rufus Wainwright song, but it was beautiful place to stroll through a park and lose yourself in the gardens. I made an arching route in and out of the Tiergarten, admiring some statues along the way, before emerging at the haunting piece of artwork that is the Holocaust Memorial. The memorial is a collection of 2711 pillars, all evenly spaced apart across 19,000 square metres, and which appear to be of a roughly similar height. However, as you walk into the grid you begin an unexpected descent, and discover that the ground is uneven and awash with hills. When you enter the grid, the pillars come up to your knees. After a few moments, they’re towering above you, and the only thing you can see in all for directions are long corridors created by the towering monoliths, and the occasional other person who crosses your path along the way. As I emerged from the memorial, I took a seat for a moment and reflected on the reason it was there, and who all the pillars represented: the victims of the Holocaust. Each one was the same essential structure, a homogenous collective, yet each pillar was also individual in its unique height. I’m not sure if that’s the actual rationale behind the memorial, but it struck me as somewhat symbolic. Afterwards I took a photo with the memorial, as a tourist souvenir – only afterwards was I told about a website that makes fun of men who use such photos taken at the memorial as their profile pictures on online dating sites – there happens to be quite a lot of them! That was a little embarrassing, but I just made sure to never upload the picture to my Grindr profile.

Lion statue in the Tiergarten.

Lion statue in the Tiergarten.

Holocaust Memorial: view from above...

Holocaust Memorial: view from above…

... and the view from below.

… and the view from below.

After the memorial I headed back east and eventually reached Museums Island, a block of land that is surrounded by canals, so technically an “island”, and is home to a cluster of art museums. I had a wander around, admiring some of the beautiful buildings, but decided I wasn’t really in the mood for museums. I continued along the path, looking at a few churches and stopping for a photo with the Karl Marx stature – the sociologist in me just couldn’t resist. Eventually I arrived at Alexanderplatz and the TV Tower. It’s not a particularly pretty building, but it is tall, so I went inside and took the elevator to the top. The TV Tower is one of the few sky scrapers in Berlin, and by far the tallest building, so it provided a complete panoramic view of the city, although it was so high up that so many of the sights were minuscule and almost unrecognisable – even the Brandenburg Gate looked no higher than a couple of centimetres from up there. There was a fancy rotating restaurant at the top of the tower, but I decided to save my euros and eat at Hackescher Markt, a nearby market down on the ground. I think there might have been more of the Trip Advisor tour, but the day had involved a lot of walking and I’d found myself rather exhausted. For something that’s isn’t really extremely exciting, sightseeing can be exhausting. I finished my lunch and jumped on the U-Bahn to head back home.

Berliner Dom, the cathedral on Museums Island.

Berliner Dom, the cathedral on Museums Island.

The Karl Marx statue.

The Karl Marx statue.

The Rotes Rathaus, or Red Town Hall, near Alexanderplatz.

The Rotes Rathaus, or Red Town Hall, near Alexanderplatz.

TV Tower.

TV Tower.

View of Berlin at the top of TV Tower, from the Tiergarten to Museums Island - essentially, what I'd just walked.

View of Berlin at the top of TV Tower, from the Tiergarten to Museums Island – essentially, what I’d just walked.

***

The only other touristy sightseeing I did during the week was a few days later when I visited Checkpoint Charlie, where you can still see the sign that “You are now leaving the American sector”, a remnant from the days of the war. However, with the men in uniform trying to sell you pictures with them, it’s all a little gimmicky and so full of tourists that I could only bring myself to stay for a short time. I would have visited the Jewish museum, but the weather had gotten so hot over the past few days I could bring myself to walk the rest of the way. It was there at Checkpoint Charlie, though, that I reached something of a turning point within myself: I made the conscious decision that I wanted to be a traveller, not just a tourist. I didn’t want to just check off the list of sights listed in the guidebook and take photos in front of the famous monuments – I wanted to experience what the city was really like, meet the locals and see things from their perspective, and see what Berlin was for them. Being a tourist can be exhausting, with the weird pressures you can feel from people to “do everything” and go to all the “must see” sights. For me, being a traveller is all about doing whatever you wanted to do, and going places that you actually want to be. I’d seen some of the wild and crazy sides of Berlin, and if was looking for more of that, I definitely wasn’t going to find it in a Lonely Planet book.

Checkpoint Charlie.

Checkpoint Charlie.