Kelly, my first couchsurfing host, is confident, outgoing, and independent. She lives on her own in a studio apartment, and has only ever travelled alone. She loves it that way, she says. “You can do anything you want, you don’t have to check with anyone, and you can change your plans without having to think of anyone else!”
Having Kelly as my first host was brilliant. When she picked me up from The Pink Cafe I was raw with emotion and wanted to curl up and cry under a blanket and stay there. However, with Kelly as a host I wasn’t able to. Which actually, was great, and exactly as it should have been. Her enthusiasm for total independence helped me get my gears moving.
As we walked the streets of Neukölln she told me about the area, “This is the hipster part of Berlin. All the young people come here. It’s where everything is happening.” I told her about my plans to go to Adlershof and Pankow. “Why you go there? There is nothing there! Everything is here!”
When I searched for things to do in Neukölln online I read a post stating that Neukölln’s rapid growth from dust to popularity had happened with such speed that even Google Maps was struggling to keep up with it. As I used it to navigate destinations later that day, it was certainly evident, although not enough that it became problematic.
The streets of Neukölln were filled with graffiti, posters, Turkish cafes, Turkish supermarkets, an huge array of quirky vegan cafes (it is the hipster part of Berlin remember!), grotty pubs, and high street shops. The buildings went seamlessly from blocks of suburban flats, each with their own balcony trailing with foliage, to magnificent gothic structures. Yellow was a favoured colour when it came to painting these flats, I noticed.
Most of the blocks of flats I encountered were fronted by two huge wooden doors, the rooms with high ceilings of about 3-4m. Kelly later told me that in the really old buildings, the ceilings could be as high as 5m. In the case of Kelly’s flat, you walked through the huge wooden doors at the front to another set of doors, and then to a courtyard, where three tall trees grew up in the middle of the four buildings conjoined with one another. Ivy trailed everywhere, covering the walls, and as I later climbed the stairs to Kelly’s flat, found it poking in through every window, blocking out all of the light. As well as the trees, were bikes, chained to every bar and drainpipe available.
In Neukölln, everyone cycles. The life there is so fast paced. Everyone is going somewhere and doing something. Even the bikes seem to be designed with this in mind. Slim, small, streamlined, minimal (no gears), with uncomfortable seats (my bum was bruised from only a 20min ride on one of Kelly’s bikes!). There is no moseying around, or stopping to observe the surroundings. The only people I saw stopping were homeless people begging, of which there were many. Neukölln might be increasing in growth and population, but it is still destitute in many ways.
At one point, as we walked round a Turkish supermarket buying food for our dinner, I mentioned this sense of urgency I had noticed in everyone to Kelly. “Oh I hate it. Everyone is rush, rush, rush. Now, now, now. It’s horrible. That’s why I like yoga. Because you have to stop.” But even as she spoke these words, she struggled to let me look around the shop. I sensed a feeling of urgency once we had our groceries, to leave and move on to the next destination.
On my first day of exploring Neukölln I found myself in a small hipster cafe called Coco Liebe. I asked the woman working there what there is to do in Neukölln. “If I were you I would walk to Kreuzberg, hire a bike, and cycle along the canal there. It is lovely.” I entered the location on Google Maps, and off I went with Google telling me which way to turn every now and then.
I walked and walked and walked. Taking in everything. Looking at everything. Absorbing the people I saw and the interactions they had with one another.
I passed huge gothic churches and eventually found the canal, although in place of cycling, continued walking.
This was when I found the bar Van Loon, and tried my first Berliner Weiße. It was a bar situated on a huge canal boat, over looking the water and a part of Kreuzberg. There were at least a dozen huge swans in the water.
For those of you who have tried a Berliner Weiße in the UK, I can tell you that it is nothing like what they serve in Germany. In Germany, a Berliner Weiße is a type of beer that you add a syrup to, either red or green. Red is raspberry, and green is woodruff. It is much sweeter and more sour than any Berliner Weiße I have had in the UK, and is served in a short fat glass with, to my surprise, straws! Beer, with straws?! I chose to have the red one and in flavour can best compare it to drinking Haribo cherry sours.
The next day I woke up with ambition in my stride. It was my third day in Neukölln, and I felt ready to embrace the rest of Berlin! I got ready to go and walked to the S-Bahn station where I bought my Welcome Berlin card. For any of you considering visiting Berlin, I highly recommend purchasing one of these. You can buy it for single or multiple days, and it grants you free travel on all public transport, as well as huge discounts on tourist attractions and tours. It also comes with a brilliant guide book, that has walking tours you can take yourself on in it.
I boarded the S-Bahn at Sonnenallee, changed at Ostkreuz, navigated the large station, boarded the S7 in the direction of Potsdam Hauptbahnhof, and got off at Alexanderplatz.
When I got off the S-Bahn. I could have cried. I nearly did. Not because of sadness or fear, but because I was here, I was doing this, and, I was absolutely OK. I was proud of myself.
I walked outside and explored.
Alexanderplatz is Berlin’s TV tower, and is known by those who live here, fondly, as Alex. It is 368m high, the highest point you can go to is 207m, I went to 203m. It’s bloody tall. On the ground looking up, it hurt to crane my neck to see the top. Standing up there and looking out over across Berlin, I felt woozy, and gripped the metal bar for support. At this point I can officially confirm that having seen Berlin from the top of Alex on a clear day, that Berlin is fucking massive. It stretches out further than the eye can see. It was amazing, and so beautiful.
The night I arrived, when Kelly had taken me to the roof top bar I spoke of in my last blog post, she had pointed out Alex to me. I now wondered which direction to look in to see the place where we had sat.
Using the Welcome Berlin guide book, I took myself on one of the walking tours detailed within and explored the city’s beautiful architecture.
I sat beneath trees on benches and watched yellow autumn leaves fall over the canal as boats sailed down it taking people from one end to the other.
I went to a cafe and ate a bretzel and drank a short, strong, black coffee.
It turns out that although Americans are known best for pretzels, Germans have taken them over in their own right here in Germany. They are supposedly softer and tastier here in Germany than in the States.
At around 1600 I decided to turn back and head for the S-Bahn station. My feet were tired, and I wanted to give myself plenty of time to get home incase I got on or off at the wrong station heading back to Neukölln.
As I turned corners and wound my way back to Alexanderplatz, I stumbled across a small, but lively German market. Music was playing, people were drinking weiße bier, and stalls were selling food. There were doughnuts, bratwurst, and Vietnamese steamed buns with hot cherry sauce. It was a beautiful gem to stumble upon on my route home.
That evening when I got home to the flat, I had four hours to myself before Kelly was due home. It was lovely to have some quiet, quality time with myself. I wrote, read, and emailed friends. I was happy. No tears had fallen on this day. I was settling in. I was getting there. I am OK.