Adam Bird


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Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The Curious Case of Benj in Berlin


Twenty years ago, before having my heart broken by long haired permed blokes with dodgy moustache's, prior to a realisation that a nation's infamy was due to atrocities carried out many years earlier at the control of one of history's most notorious figures. I sat watching various news reports, that, whilst kaleidoscopic in recollection left memories in my mind. Those images were unprecedented at the time, showing scenes of joy, peaceful anarchy, violentless destruction, witnessing at the age of nine probably my earliest memories of "current affairs". Scenes that were of course those of the Berlin wall coming down, East meeting West, end of the Cold War, things that to a nine year old were politically insignificant, but visually powerful enough to understand a certain importance and to remember many years later.

So when Will emailed asking if anyone fancied keeping him company on his brothers stag weekend, two days in Berlin, it was an opportunity that I wasn’t going to miss!

Having actually known Will’s brother, Benj for longer than I have known Will, (when we were kids he went out for a long time with my sister’s best friend) and the fact the Benj created the ring that sealed Stephanie and I’s commitment to marriage, I felt almost obliged to attend!

In leading up to our weekend away, it became clear that this weekend was to be very different from those that Will and I had experienced with our own group of friends, specifically, Tallinn, Budapest and Amsterdam. It was to be arranged by the Groom himself, who made an agreement with his best man that they would arrange their own “last weekend’s of freedom” seeing as they were both marrying in the same year and were each other’s best men. It was to be a totally bespoke arrangement, no guide in sight and living up to the carefree nature in which Benj’s personality is so beautifully crafted.

Therefore, left to our own devices, with no pre-booked minibus to the airport, a grateful Will, Geoff (Mr Buckby Snr), and brother in law Keith headed towards Stansted chauffeured by the ever so cheerful at 3am Mrs Buckby.

Going abroad for a stag weekend has been made possible by the introduction of the “low cost” airline and we flew into Berlin on one of the early low cost pioneers, Ryanair.

However much these airlines have opened up the entire continent for easy exploration, they have certainly complicated the requirements for going abroad, which could also be interpreted as “taking advantage of the naive traveller”. Having had my flights booked for me, by Will and having flown with Easy Jet three times in the last two years, I did the same as what I normally do. Pack a bag and go. However, with Ryanair, you need to have certain bags, that are certain sizes, that are certain weights and go in certain places. My bag, which contained hardly anything at all, was an insufficient size for the overhead compartment and so I had to pay £20 to put it into the hold, which was also the same fee for the return flight! A lesson harshly learnt!

Stag weekends aren’t the places for disappointment, so rather than sulking about doubling my flight price, we headed to the bar where an enthusiastic Will, making an early attempt at “cooler” older brother by buying a round of drinks, including 8 Apple Sourz for us and the first batch of friends who had arrived alongside Benj. Over the next half an hour, amidst the stag party filled Wetherspoons bar within the Stansted departure lounge Benjy’s party started to assemble.

And so, no sooner than it had taken us to polish off a pint and a sourz shot, we were heading through the tunnels that led to our plane. Will, who played his “cooler” older brother role so well a moment ago, was upstaged by me, playing the “muppet” older brothers mate trick, the oldest one in the book. Walking and talking, not watching where you are going and smashing your kneecap into a bench that was obviously put there just for this occasion. With a wave at the “Wayhays” I managed to pass it off quite successfully, even if the limp and tear filled eyes gave it all away.

Being a peripheral figure on a stag weekend, does have some advantages. First of all, on this instance, it was great to be sitting on a plane next to someone other than Gareth. I mean that quite nicely, as Gareth isn’t particular offensive, just that he insists on getting as completely drunk by the time you land as possible. With Will and I, we certainly partook in the drinking ritual, but it was not hardcore and we managed to walk off the plane in a straight line.

Benj, being a seasoned traveller, with the laid back attitude in which all seasoned travellers seem to possess, used all of his experience by booking us into one of Berlin’s premier hostels. At first, I was rather wary, not so much for myself, but maybe for some of the older guys in the group, who maybe wouldn’t be ready to “slum it” as I imagined it to be. Maybe I ought to have not watched the two Hostel films by Eli Roth, which are enough to be the fear into anybody!

Situated on the beautifully named “Templehofer Ufer” the hostel, far exceeded my own expectations. The bunk beds obviously featured prominently, but so did the normal single beds, and a perfectly clean and adequate bathroom. Much to Will and I’s surprise the toilet even came with a urinal, which can be found in any public toilet in the world. First time either of us had seen one inside a hotel room!

We wasn’t hanging around on Templehofer Ufer for very long, firstly the hostel wouldn’t let us check in until 2pm and a group of twenty guys needed beer and breakfast.

I cannot presume what the local waitress thought when twenty guys walked up and settled upon the tables outside her establishment, but after the initial shock she probably saw the € signs light up as we had a good couple of hours sat outside, a few beers, some breakfast and in Benj’s case, a tomato juiced based concoction which threatened to make a reappearance.

There is one rule in my eyes for a stag. Anything goes except anything containing tomato juice! If you buy the stag something with Tomato Juice in it, the rest of the group need to show solidarity and take the drink alongside him. It’s vile, rank, evil, putrid stuff, and a massive salute to Benj who drank a good three quarters and managed to keep in self contained.

With things starting to get into full swing, a new destination was called for, which presented a logistical problem, one that would become familiar as the weekend evolved. With 20 guys, and a vast city to explore and not knowing precisely where places were exactly, we piled into a convoy of taxis with garbled German street names hurriedly text to one another so that we could show our driver where to go. Strabmannstraße, Schamweberstraße, Singerstraße all sounded similar and other than the iconic Fernsehturm gave no real focal point of direction.

On our way to the next destination, crawling along in the lunchtime traffic, Mr Buckby had an emergency nature call, which wasn’t likely to hold out until we got to where were going. Out popped Mr Buckby from our taxi and into the line of trees that separated the road we were on to the parkland beyond. As he disappeared, the taxi in front of us also dispersed with one of its occupants as he too followed Mr Buckby into the tree’s.

As is always the case, the basic formula of beer+time=carnage played out over the course of the afternoon, ably assisted by a ranging variation of word association games that caught out more people than perhaps they should, most notably Mr Buckby, who along with his friend had caught us up to join in the fun. The trickier than it sounds name game gave a couple of laughs, but “Bierce Prosnan” as uttered by the aforementioned Geoffrey had everyone laughing for the rest of the day.

Prior to our Berlin trip, Will enthusiastically told me about his previous weekends trip to a pub in Gravesend, where he took on all comers and reigned supreme on the pool table. So at the first opportunity we had to sink a few balls we took it, with Will obviously the next Ronnie O’Sullivan I had to up my game.... or at least that’s what I thought. Will no longer wishes to play pool against me after I humbled him three games to nil. We could have played best of 7, best of 9, best of 11, such was my supremacy I would have won them all!

Before heading back to Templehofer Ufer and the Aletto Jugendhotel, Will and I went and ate in a Wagamama style restaurant where a couple of the other guys were also enjoying a bite to eat. We had been drinking quite heavily all afternoon and so some spicy noodle concoction went down a treat. We sat talking back upon Amsterdam and how we should maybe get some whacky glasses and try to recreate the vibe all over again. I’m a firm believer that you cannot falsely redo something that was originally spontaneous, so suggested deviating slightly and get a funky hat rather than glasses, it will be the same but different!

Amazingly, there was a shop opposite the Noodle place that would cater for our needs. Will and I had a brief look around and found ourselves a hat each that was both to our liking. Sporting our new headwear we walked back up to meet Benj, Keith and Mr Buckby so that we could catch our cab back. Benj looked rather displeased to see me, which was rather strange as his normally always smiling, or sporting a cheeky grin of some kind. “What the hell are you wearing?” he asked, “You not like it?” I replied. “No Birdy, it’s awful, take it off”.

Apparently, Benj didn’t like my hat, which was ok, because it was actually really nice and he couldn’t see the bigger picture, everyone was bound to like it, “don’t worry” I told him, “it’s fine”.

Having the blessing of a quick hours catnap isn’t something that is usually allowed, but this weekend, the usual rules went out the window. On our return to the Alletto Jugendhotel we had an hour to kill before meeting in the hotel bar for more drinks, so we slept the hour by. I woke up with the worst headache I have had in a longtime, an evening hangover is always the worse, except it was made more intense when I had seen this bright white thing on the floor of our room. This monstrosity of a hat, cowboy in style, with a black ribbon and a wide rim which was straight rather than the traditional ‘curved up’ rim. Brat Pack, it wasn’t, crap Pack it certainly was and Benj was owed an apology!

Seeing as we were in a hostel, and I was still half drunk and half hungover, I figured that there must be a catch somewhere as everything was normal, in fact it was a lot nicer than the place we stayed at in Tallinn. I figured therefore that it was the shower that was the weak link, it had run out of hot water and the only way to shower was the Eskimo way. It was freezing! I had never been so cold, great for sobering up, terrible for my headache. So I cautioned Will as went in to be quick as it was cold. He had no problem at all, apparently the dials went in the four directions which I failed to notice and that the hot water was working just fine!

That evening, a varied mix of bars, beer, Jagermeister, Red Bull and taxi’s as we weaved in and around Berlin on the hunt for a decent bar, music and local people having a good time. With a rep or tour guide you are always in the right place at the right time, but with a DIY tour it becomes a little hit or miss.

Our first bar, dark and atmospheric was a great place to start, most notably as one of the lavatory’s had been daubed “The Worst Toilet in Scotland”, a tribute to Trainspotting which wasn’t far wrong.

After a bar or two we head off in search of a nightclub, which proved to be tougher than first thought. We attempted to get into the famous Watergate Club which we were all pleasantly declined entry due to being too many people en masse, not quite posh enough, too drunk, too English or a mix of all four.

Opposite the Watergate Club was the rather large looking Speicher club, which we headed too next, but it seemed as if were slightly too early for all of the action. Right on the river Spree, the opposite bank to Watergate we sat outside on the large terrace enjoying the views and the late summer night air waiting for the hoards of German clubbers to arrive.

With one last throw of the clubbers guide to Berlin dice, we decided not to wait for the party, but to find one of our own. Heading on to another of Benj's “Top Tips”, a club called Icon, just another short taxi journey away. This place, was awesome! Well, I loved it anyway, I cannot speak for anyone else, as on arrival, finally finding clubbing mecca, I head off into the mass of people, found myself at the front of the dance floor and let myself jump wildly around to the booming electronic trance music that was engulfing the cavern and two hundred so sweaty German clubbers.

After a while, fairly alcoholically inebriated, the wild jumping turned into a more sedate and somewhat typical of me dance movement, closed eyes, waving arms, not really in time with the music but exhausted, drunken appreciation of the noise and ambience surrounding me.

Fully aware, that I was in my own little planet, I made a conscious decision to return back to earth and see if I could find Will or some of the other guys. It was a little odd, but returning back to the bar I was introduced to Robbie Coltrane, or at least that's who I thought it was, instead it was Benj's best man, Mave, who has an uncanny resemblance... in the dark.... through drunken eyes....

Reunited with Will, admonished on two accounts for a) drinking water, and b) doing a disappearing act despite my protests. We spent the rest of the evening dancing along to the hardcore trance music and appreciating the subterranean setting and passion in which the German locals enjoyed their evening.

Leaving the Icon club is hazy, but I am certain that a taxi would have been involved! At some point a McDonalds came via our path. I know this because Will had a Big Mac, then another, and another. He ate so many Big Mac's that I cannot remember whether it was six or eight! Even so, Reaso, who once ate 40 chicken nuggets and a family sized desert by himself would have been immensely impressed!

Six thirty Will and I made it home, we had a great innings! Not sure what happened back at the hostel, but I awoke three hours later, in bed on the top bunk to an empty room and the door wide open into the hallway. I was at first relieved, normally I find myself in a hallway on the floor, or am being awoken by someone who finds me in the hallway on the floor! But Will was missing! I checked the phone, he had sent me an earlier message, shortly after arriving home that he was next door in with Benj. He had awoken naked in the top bunk, sharing a room with three other guys!

If the previous day had been an exploration into some of the various watering holes that Berlin has to offer, day two offered a little respite and a rare opportunity to see some of the sites that make up Berlin's colourful history.

As no day's activity had been prearranged, Will and I, armed with a map and chief navigator, Mr Buckby, head off on foot towards the Brandenburg gate. On previous stag weekends we had spent most of the day go-karting or in the case of Budapest, shooting guns. But, luckily we were left to our own devices and saw up close things that we had only previously read about or seen on television.

Before reaching the Brandenburg gate, we came across the “Place of Remembrance”, a stunning memorial to the Jewish people murdered in World War II. Although nothing is obviously ever going to make up for those atrocities or make amends to those who were wronged, the memorial itself is something to admire, even if it is purely on architectural merits. Comprising of 2,711 concrete blocks of different heights, lined out within a grid panel, the symmetry and lines created by these blocks amidst undulating ground is something well worth seeing.

Still feeling hungover, still tired and on a never ending supply of orange Fanta we reached the Brandenburg gates alongside hundreds of other tourists.

Unlike some of London's historical sites the Brandenburg gates themselves were slightly underwhelming, or at least not as imposing as much as I thought they would be. It wasn't until you compared them to their surroundings you could tell of a greater significance, or at least a hint that matched the knowledge of their past. On either side of the gates was a road, longer than The Mall in London in either direction, east and west, completing the historical picture.

Hardly mature, or at all respectful, nonetheless Will and I thought that we would make our mark at the gates, by placing ourselves in the background of as many tourist photographs as possible, whilst posing, as if pondering a world weary problem and upon the threshold of a solution. It worked a treat, although Will was much more successful than I, due mainly to being able to keep a straight face, whilst I, 29 years old, giggled like Oliver.

During the course of the early afternoon, passing many sites on the West side of the gates heading back to our hostel (where we were to meet with Keith), walking through various parks, past historical looking buildings and generally people watching I got the impression that Berlin was a place that I would very much like to come back to. In fact, all of the places in Europe that I have been over the past two years I would love to come back with Steph and have a proper exploration, a look around and a sample of the proper “tourist” attractions that are on offer.

On reaching the Templehofer Ufer we received news of a rendezvous, a bar alongside a local craft market, which was on the Eastern side of the gates, a place in which I would frustrate Will and Benj by politely eating my Pizza with a knife and fork rather than rolling it, folding it and flopping it all in. After the welcome pitstop, in which beer made an unwelcome reappearance we took a walk back as a group, taking in the sites of the East side before finally ending back at the Brandenburg gates, albeit the other side to which Will, Geoff and I were only a few hours before.

Unsure of a certain plan of action, unlike the gates behind us and what they signified, we divided, split by taxis and destination unknown. Will, Geoff, Keith and I made our way back to the hotel in order to find a local bar showing some Premier League football.

We found a bar, a small, cosy place, sitting in the back as if in someone's back room whilst watching Fulham vs Arsenal. The beers, at first going down rather delicately soon found a niche and back in the game we were! All the while, telephone messages where being directed too and fro between Will and Benj whom had found a bar in which he declared was pretty awesome!

By the time we had showered, changed and made our way to this “awesome” bar, Benj was in pretty bad shape!

Barely able to talk, stand up straight and drinking Mojitos, Benj was truly in the stag spirit and should be commended for his performance! The bar itself, lived up to Benj’s billing and was pretty damn awesome! We were drinking in the garden of a bar off the main street. The garden itself was actually one of Berlin’s famous “Urban Beaches”, sand (lots of it), beach huts, palm trees and the best bit for me, was the sculptures dotted around made up of recycled materials and used for seating. For example, an old bath, with a “U” shape cut out, seating material laid at the bottom for a bespoke settee.

If the exterior sculptures were a surprise to me, I was not prepared for what else was in store. Berlin is famous for many things, as mentioned throughout this blog, but it’s growing a deserved recognition for its “Urban Art”. Alongside the beach were a series of fairly dilapidated looking buildings, of which one overlooking the beach had a bar on or around the fourth floor, offering a great vantage point at the beach below.

To make your way up to the bar, you had to go into a doorway that looked, upon first impressions as if Nelson Mandela House had been hit by a bomb. There was the interior springs of an old mattress covering the floor, the walls were adorning with graffiti, fliers, posters and the floor was littered with all of the same. In fact, we all paused, wondered if it was the right way to go, but it was. On closer inspection of our surroundings, other than the natural dust of a concrete stairwell the whole place was immaculately clean. All of the paper, fliers and posters were naturally placed there, as too was the mattress carcass. It was all created as a work of art, in which we were walking through. Each floor as we made our way up towards the bar was openly accessible; the rooms that inhabited each floor were artist’s workshops where paintings, craftworks and sculptures were on display for sale or for show.

Its places like this, like the open air nightclub in Budapest on top of a building that surprise and delight, making the stag experience slightly more memorable after the alcohol had done its work in blotting it all out.

As we continued on into the night, Benj defying all of my expectations in lasting until the early hours, standing at the bar, feeling the love, wanting to buy the whole world a drink as a gesture of gratitude, Will and Mr Buckby, convincing him that there was no need (there really wasn’t) a tender moment ensued when the Buckby trio embraced, a choked up Benj declaring his love to all, but mostly to Laura, his wife to be.

Will and I, having said goodnight to Benj, who finally ran out of gas and Mr Buckby and Keith who were erring on the side of caution with an early wakeup call of 7am in the morning to catch our flight home, head off along with the other guys, in an attempt to find a club that would see us through until dawn.

Despite numerous attempts to communicate with locals, it appeared as if the Bang Bang Club didn’t exist. We managed to find it eventually, after entertaining ourselves en-route by various light hearted conversations and misleading flirting with several “ladies of the night” who lined the main street. But it appeared once again that our timings where all wrong. The Bang Bang Club, despite what it may sound like is actually a live music nightclub with a performer each night , which we had unfortunately missed.

Will and I, deep in conversation at the bar, turned around and the rest of the party where nowhere to be seen! Not having anyone else’s number we weren’t able to call and see where they had got to, they couldn’t have gotten far. Never mind, seemingly lost and abandoned we would have to fend for ourselves! As the Bang Bang Club was winding down, we left, hailing another cab and headed for Matrix, a club we had seen on a flier earlier in the day.

As with the previous night, Matrix was on the money! With one large floor split into three different dance floors, a large outside area, and a bright, funky interior it seemed a shame we had lost the others! Knowing that we had time to kill before our wake up call, Will and I spent the rest of the night dancing along to the R&B sounds whilst watching scantily clad podium dancers gyrating high above the dance floor and respecting the German enthusiasm for having a party!

All good things must end, and indeed they did. Heading back in the early hours of the morning, we ambitiously decided to walk back to the hostel, not really knowing where we were, or which direction we needed to go! I was under strict instructions to keep Will from entering a McDonalds establishment, finding another German street food vendor instead and enjoying a Bratwurst roll with all the trimmings, something all visitors to Germany should sample! We eventually gave up, the days walking, night dancing and more early morning walking had taken its toll and we flagged down our final cab to take us back home.

Each place, each weekend needs to be taken on its own merits, comparing Tallinn with Budapest, with Amsterdam and Berlin is nigh on impossible. Different cultures, different sights, sounds, history and diversity. It’s also the people that you share your experiences with. If I was to learn anything from Berlin, it would be about people’s ability to learn from the past, that people we were years ago are not the people that we are now. If a nation of people has the ability to mend deep wounds, too unite in the face of diversity, our petty squabbles are shown in the context that they really are.

The whole weekend was a sleep deprived exploration of one of Europe’s greatest cities, if not one of the world’s greatest cities. Berlin is for sure a place to visit again, and one that I will hopefully go back to. Finishing this off, ten days after our return is something of a rarity for me, but the combination of work commitments coupled with sheer exhaustion as a result of those two days has meant a little delay on this blog, for that, Es tut mir leid.


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