Arriving at Schönefeld Airport on Berlin’s first sunny day of the year, we boarded the S-Bahn, which gets Berliners into the heart of town in a cool 30 minutes, and confused tourists like ourselves only about half as long again. The roaming data plan I bought immediately after we touched down proved instantly useful in discovering I had boarded us the right train, but in the wrong direction. Without it, I might’ve tried consulting a map or even attempting a conversation with the smattering of German I hadn’t bothered to learn in weeks previous. Instead the age of connectivity allowed me to get on with the task at hand, gawping at the natives and the gently coalescing urbanity that is Berlin viewed from the S-Bahn as it slinks elevated into Europe’s second most populous city.
We were joined in our carriage by a punk couple pushing their 50s and a few other remarkably unremarkable types. I suppose these are exactly the kinds of people you might expect to find on a metro train. But I had the immediate sense that something was missing. ‘Where are the commuters? Where are the young professional types with the slightly too crisp hair does, who busy themselves with hive minded team speak, huddled in packs around briefcases. Or the rotund belly stuffed shirts and rolled up broadsheets of the office-land silverbacks. Or even the shaved heads, poorly branded apparel and jeering looks of the menial underclasses. Were are the working Berliners?’ It seemed too quiet in general for the time of day. But my body clock was pretty messed up and local time proved to be 10.30 am and, so I diverted my attention to the view beyond the slightly too clean toughened class.
Outside buildings stacked regular like lego, growing in vertical and lateral dimensions as we drew into town. By this measure, Friedrichstraße came sooner than I might’ve imagine.
Emerging finally into the city proper, I prepared my senses for an assault, visual, audible and olfactory, which never came. Instead everything seemed, quiet and clean, civilised even. Had we gotten off at the wrong station? A quick check of my phone confirmed we were indeed at the right station. So we made our way across the Landwehrkanal, our London legs outpacings the locals.
Upon our arrival at the Generator Hostel Mitte we were greeted by a genuinely fun and friendly staff who spoke immaculate English and all looked like they had decent academic degrees, which having spent the night in a few hotels in this price bracket in the UK seemed entirely infeasible by comparison, but I wasn’t about to complain. I hate to say it, but they really know their market, which I must sit very squarely within. The wood panelled reception counter curved neatly round into a cafe with comfy yet formal seating for new arrivals In the home country I was no stranger to spending faux productive afternoons in pretentious coffee shops, so despite the lack of blaring sirens and filthy streets outside, I felt instantly at home.
With the formalities of check-in dealt with with we followed club land coloured bands ingeniously designed to guide visitors in all states of repair through the building to our room. Inside the rooms were utilitarian without being Spartan, dare I say minimal, but for that refreshingly free of the pointless furnishings that serve plump out a feature list in add land bumpf but are of absolutely no use to the mid twenties traveller/reveller on a short city break. In their stead guests were provided with useful services, like sensibly priced cycle hire and left luggage storage, as well as less useful ones like a ping pong table in the courtyard. Most importantly it was really, really cheap for its location, especially by London standards.
Anything that makes life too easy and accessible for tourists can easily draw fire for a lack of authenticity, and it would be easy for me to criticise Generator Mitte for this. I could say everything was a bit too well organised, a bit too easy, but I also think that would be ridiculous. Travelling doesn’t have to be a pain, and sometimes a little pre-packing is exactly what you want, especially when you’re new in town and are cramming as much as you can into every minute last minute of your stay.
Judging it brunch o’clock, we made our way the short distance to the newly opened House of Small Wonder, which was to be found without sign post in an unremarkable bloc on Johannisstrasse. Upon entering we were presented with an indoor garden centred round a spiral staircase that stood like a great Sequoia uprooted directly from fern gulley. Following the steps upward past garden tools and a vintage radio set, the restaurant floor proved part oasis, part observatory from which to view Berliners and Berlin, as if we were atop an urban tree house. We sat down at suitably high seating overlooking the view, whereupon the proprietor greeted us. Keen to impress upon us his unimpressiveness in the manner that befits Island folk like us Brits and the Japanese, our host who hailed from neither of these shores but seemed to share an affinity, was perfectly an alien at home. At detail and with humorous asides he explained the ethos, a synthesis of an outsider’s observation of the complexities of Japanese table manners, and the psychology of body language, that had lead to him opening a Japanese Brunch fusion cafe/restaurant with a horticultural décor.
The fare itself achieved a delicate balance between the lightness one might normally associate with Asian food and the heaviness of a traditional Western Brunch. We found several interesting fusions on the menu, especially the highly fragrant rice balls but ultimately favoured the traditional option presented by the croque-madame, which was fragrantly delicious. To finish we shared a slice of the chiffron cake, which whilst upon initial inspection appeared rock solid, proved to be incredibly soft and light, and the perfect anti-thesis to the overly heavy pudding. Served with a side-cup of cream, its cloud light texture prompted wonderment with every mouthful. The french toast was a hearty twist on the french classic for those with a sweet tooth. All in all, the tranquillity of the restaurant floor made House of Small wonder a rare and joyful moment of calm in an otherwise pacey 24 hours.
Back at the Generator we jet-laggedly slept off our meal, and awoke to find the sun already set. After the necessary pre-clubbing deliberation of where, when, with whom and what, we ended up at the infamous Watergate club. An experience, which I seem to hold very little recollection of, or is for the most part unprintable. Suffice to say, we had a good time.
Waking up earlier than expected the morning after, we explored Mitte that bit further to find it composed mostly of coffee shops, squats and boutiques, which from the outside at least, proved largely indistinguishable. Stopping at Cafe Fleury we enjoyed a light brunch and an hour off our feet. There we met Rick from Alternative Berlin, he runs underground walks in the secret spots you wouldn’t know about, he treated us to a mini tour of Mitte’s street art, which boldly contrasts the order presented by its numerous galleries with vibrancy and chaos that reflects the cities poignant history.
For an area so central to a city of this size, I was taken aback by the general lack of big brands on display. Save the grey Mac Book apple logos in the windows of St Oberholz, this was an experience of urban life without the omnipresence of chains that litter cosmopolitan cities. Can you envision a Soho or Shoreditch that many fewer franchise coffee shops and brand name outlets? Then you’re some way to Mitte. If we forget any eponymous stations or crumbling regimes, this is the real legacy of Marxism, a city uncluttered by the excessive intrusion of logo’s and advertising into every corner of its denizen’s gaze. Yes, if you go looking, you can and will find chain stores, but they are dwarfed by the numbers of high quality boutiques and one-offs. Alongside cheap rents and the generally low cost of living, it’s easy to see why all the Berliners I’d met were such relaxed and friendly individuals. Even those going about their jobs seemed cheerful, which is probably why I had failed completely failed in spotting them upon my first arrival. Like many visitors to this city, I had succumbed to lifestyle envy.
Unfortunately however, it was already time for me to leave. We got a taxi with ease, but the roads had snarled up just in time for our departure. Terrifyingly our taxi driver decided it was in all of our best interests to speed up the wrong hand side of the road, which was probably the first and only bit of bad driving I saw in Berlin, and I was very glad of it. Arriving within five minutes of our gate closing, I tipped the driver handsomely and we boarded our plane. Leaving town, my thoughts were fixed upon the date of my immediate return, and whether my London rent was really worth it after-all. A week on, and I’m still not too sure.