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.

Where Art Meets History: East Side Gallery

The train from Prague to Berlin was probably one of the worst trips in the whole of my travels through Europe. It sat idly at the station for over half an hour before it finally departed from Prague, and suffered major delays along the way. Parts of the air conditioning weren’t working, and the cabins inside the train were reaching ridiculous temperatures, with everyone on the train dripping in sweat before we were even halfway there. When the train attendants came down the aisle at one point handing out bottles of water to everyone, I knew that the problems were actually pretty serious, and I had no hope of getting to Berlin at my previously anticipated time. But as it is with such unavoidable nuisances, all I could do was sit there in the stinking hot train with a bunch of other travellers around me. Everyone was was so hot and bothered and looking rather fed up with the whole thing that I wasn’t even going to bother trying to strike up a conversation to pass the time. I listened to my music, read my book, and closed my eyes, dozing off and dreaming of my current destination.

The last time I was in Berlin I had stayed with my family friend Donatella and her assortment of wild and zany housemates – Lola’s words about never leaving the city were still nagging at the back of my mind as I found myself drawn back to it. But after meeting and staying with him for the last two nights of my previous stay, Ralf had said that I was welcome back to stay with him any time I was in Berlin. I don’t think he had anticipated my return being quite so soon, but he agreed to let me stay with him when I told him I would be coming back on my way west to Amsterdam. I’d really enjoyed the brief time I had spent with him last time, so I was pretty excited to seem him again. Of course, the train was running late, so some of the logistics in actually finding each other were a little difficult. Yet when I stepped off the train at Berlin Hauptbahnhof there was a slightly different feeling that I hadn’t felt in quiet some time, and that was the feeling of returning to a familiar city. Not since arriving back in Bangkok after the bus ride from Hell had I arrived in a city where I was able to say: Yes, I recognise this place. I know where I am and I know where I have to go. As much as I love the excitement that comes with discovering a brand new place and city, that kind of familiarity with a place is strangely comforting. When I finally met Ralf – and had changed out of my soiled travel clothes, showered and freshened up – we had dinner, and I told him all about the adventures I’d had throughout Europe since I had last seen him. He listened and smiled as I told him my stories, and I was glad I had come back to Berlin – that adorable smile was the cherry on top of all the things that I already loved so much about the city that had drawn me back here.

***

Ralf had to work during most of the week, so I had to find other things to do to amuse myself. I spent a lot of time just resting and hanging out, happy to have a place to myself while Ralf was out, but one of the major things to do in Berlin that I hadn’t gotten around to doing last time I was here was see the East Side Gallery, which is actually the painted and decorated remains of the Berlin Wall. I had only briefly seen it in the dark with Dane on our first attempt to get into Berghain, and I wanted to go back and really take it in. I have to say, I had seen to some pretty amazing art museums on my travels – famous notables include the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the Louvre, and the Vatican Museum – but I have to say that out of all of them it was the East Side Gallery that captivated me the most. The artworks are such a diverse collection, from detailed masterpieces to simple murals that could have been done by children to sections that looked more like elaborate graffiti more than anything else. In fact, despite it obviously not being allowed, many sections of the wall had been vandalised, but in a way I feel like it was almost some kind of artistic extension. The wall is part of a long history for Berlin and Germany, but the periodic graffiti that marks it almost gives the face of the wall itself a traceable history, a reflection of ideas presented in both an official and unofficial capacity.

Whether it was the graffiti or the actual murals, the thing I loved about the East Side Gallery is that there is such a strong and powerful meaning behind each and every word and image. With the wall itself long being a symbol of division and oppression, that’s hardly surprising, but I often found my slow stroll coming to a gradual halt just so I could stand there and look both ways, up and down the wall, and just take it all in. I have no idea what it would have been like here during war time – I couldn’t even begin to imagine – but for me these paintings scratched the surface of the emotions and impacts of the wall that inspired them. It was art and history seamlessly combined into one, and it gave me shivers to behold, something I can’t say for any of the other artworks I’d come across.

At the start of the East Side Gallery walk.

At the start of the East Side Gallery walk.

Beginning my walk down the wall.

Beginning my walk down the wall.

I got excited because I'd been to all of these places - well, almost everywhere.

I got excited because I’d been to all of these places – well, almost everywhere.

Doves carrying the Brandenburg Gate, an iconic symbol of Berlin.

Doves carrying the Brandenburg Gate, an iconic symbol of Berlin.

An image that doesn't need much explaining.

An image that doesn’t need much explaining.

A beautiful and intricate rainbow piece.

A beautiful and intricate rainbow piece.

I loved this painting. So simple yet so powerful and suggestive.

I loved this painting. So simple yet so powerful and suggestive.

A colourful mural tainted by graffiti.

A colourful mural tainted by graffiti.

Even exchanges between graffiti like this I found fascinating, the ever changing face of the wall and the continuing history or perspectives.

Even exchanges between graffiti like this I found fascinating, the ever changing face of the wall and the continuing history or perspectives.

That’s not to say that all those artworks in the previous galleries didn’t have any meaning – there was plenty of beautiful and moving pieces in all of them. But there’s just something kind of sterile about the museum environment, where things are locked away behind glass cabinets, or sectioned off with velvet ropes. There’s a division between the viewer and the art, and it’s kept pristine and preserved in its slice of history. The East Side Gallery at the Berlin Wall had none of that – it was real, it was there in front of you. You could feel it with your hands, and it had moved forward and changed, developing its own history, for better or for worse. It’s not your conventional art gallery, but then I suppose I don’t really like conventional art galleries all that much. There were plenty of other ones I could have visited while I was in Berlin, but I had found such a sense of fulfilment after seeing the East Side Gallery that I really didn’t see the need.

***

It felt great to be back in Berlin, but there’s a danger in getting too familiar and thinking that you really know the city when you still have so much to learn. Previously in Berlin, I had only bought tickets for the U-Bahn about 50% of the time, rationalising it with the fact that you don’t need them to actually enter the trains or platforms, and I had never seen anyone ever checking for them. I had bought them the couple of times I’d travelled places with Ralf, because I wouldn’t be able to play ‘dumb tourist’ if I was hanging out with a local. But for the times I was out on my own, I took a chance and skipped the ticket machine on my way into the subway.

Never really expecting to have it happen, you can imagine my surprise when someone did come around inspecting tickets – of course, on my journey back from the East Side Gallery when I was not in possession of a ticket. I fumbled wildly through my backpack, triple checking my wallet for a ticket that I knew wasn’t there, trying to convince the plain clothed inspector that I had bought one, and I must have lost it somehow. He wasn’t buying any of it. “For not having a valid ticket you will have to purchase an increased fare ticket,” he explained to me, which essentially is a glossed over way of saying you’re going to get a fine. “It’s going to be €40. You can pay for it now, or you have two weeks to pay for it at one of our offices.” I stopped and thought for a second.
“I’ll pay for it later, thanks.” I was only going to be in Berlin for another 4 days, so I figured if I skipped town there was little they could do about it. The guy had already taken my Australian drivers licence to record my name and address, and he told me it would be in the system for two years. He gave me a pice of paper with the payment details and was on his way again. I hadn’t given them my passport, which I feared might have caused migration problems, but he did have my address in Australia. “I’m not going to pay it though. There’s no need, right?” I had said in a discussion with Ralf. “It’s not like they’re going to send me a fine to the other side of the world.”

Fast forward a few months to me sitting on the couch, finally in the United States, with my new friend Mike in Washington, DC. As we were drinking red wine and watching The Walking Dead on Netflix, my phone vibrated. It was an email from my mother with the subject line: “The Germans are after you!”
Yo Bob, got a bunch of what appear to be angry German letters from your letterbox today. Something about not having a ticket. Care to explain?
Well I’ll be damned – I certainly got a schooling in German efficiency. They sold the debt on to debt collectors who had also sent me letters. I have to admire their tenacity, as I had never really expected them to send a single letter, let alone a few. In hindsight, it was a reckless disregard for another countries rules and I do feel a little bad about the whole thing now – though not bad enough to pay the fine, which to this day I still haven’t done. But I did learn a lesson from the whole ordeal – from that day on, no matter what country I was in, I made sure I always bought tickets for the public transport. 

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.