Guten Tag, my fellow travelers,
I recently read an article in the Guardian that described Berlin as a “wunderkammer” – an eclectic cabinet of wonders. Quirky places to visit in Berlin include the dinosaur-themed amusement park built by the East German government and abandoned for the past 15 years; the “Bridge of Spies” used to exchange captured spies; and the derelict NSA listening station that collected intelligence.
Another of Berlin’s oddities is Hansa Studios, where David Bowie recorded “Heroes” and Low. Built in 1913 as a builders’ guild hall, the building later served as a concert hall, cabaret, and den for Weimar era artists and writers until it was converted into the recording studio that it remains today.
Wrapping your arms around the complexity of Berlin is a challenge. Let me share with you three of the best books on Berlin I’ve read during the course of many a steaming bath.
1. Berlin Now: The City After the Wall by Peter Schneider
Peter Schneider weaves a fantastic tale about the architectural wars following the collapse of the Berlin Wall when the vast wasteland in the middle of the city (once dominated by the Wall) suddenly opened up for development. The fight quickly turned ideological: “Glass, steel, and aluminum windows stood for plurality and democracy, while stone, perimeter blocks, and wooden moldings represented a reactionary attitude and monolithic structures,” Schneider writes.
He also chronicles the mass influx of artists who took over abandoned buildings following the collapse of the Wall, shaping the wild club scene of today. (I spent one memorable New Year’s Eve in a former shoe factory dangerously lit for the evening by large, drippy candles.)
2. Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town by Thomas Jerome Seabrook
His few years in Berlin were an innovative time for David Bowie during which he wrote and recorded powerful and imaginative songs such as “Heroes." Bowie hoped to shake the cocaine habit that had nearly destroyed him in L.A. but many of his adventures in Berlin were as wildly high as ever.
Seabrook writes about Bowie spying the car of a drug dealer who had cheated him parked on the side of the street. Not wanting to confront him personally and get killed, Bowie rams his Mercedes into the drug dealer’s car for a good five minutes. Later realizing the magnitude of what he had done, Bowie and Iggy Pop, his companion in music, drive round and round the garage beneath the Hotel Gehrus trying to decide whether they should just crash themselves into a cement wall. Until they run out of gas. A couple of weeks later, Bowie titled one of the Low songs “Always Crashing in the Same Car.”
3. The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
Isherwood’s chronicle of living in Berlin from 1929-33 drops you into a communal flat full of quirky characters headed by Fraulein Schroeder. There is Sally Bowles who sings in a husky voice, talks frankly about her lovers, calls everyone “Darling,” and drinks Prairie Oysters. Eventually Isherwood moves in with the Nowaks – the son a Nazi and the mother longing to have the Kaiser back. The mother and father sleep in the dingy living room full of solid old-fashioned furniture. Isherwood’s first meal in the kitchen – which smells of fried potatoes and cheap margarine – is lung hash, black bread, malt coffee, and boiled potatoes. Yum!