We finish our fifth beer in the shabby-but-charming Zum Schuster Jungen and sink sleepily into our chairs. This is a no-nonsense pub, selling no-nonsense German grub: the remnants of three pork knuckles, one fried fish and four gooey stacks of sauerkraut wallow, unfinished, in our greasy plates. Behind the bar, two sturdy Teutons raise an eyebrow at our defeat.
Nestled amid the posing, self-conscious cool of modern Berlin, the pub is a peculiar anachronism: a relic of the pre-unified East, where both flat caps and floral wallpaper are worn without irony. Part of me wants to abandon our quest for the avant-garde and settle in here for the night, but the choice is made for us by a robust waitress who indicates that we should give up our table for newer, hungrier arrivals. We hand over our money and haul ourselves into the street.
“Hang on,” says Joe, pointing at a nondescript building on Eberswalder Strasse. “I think this is it.”
The rest of us turn to frown apprehensively at the blacked out windows. In one corner of a window is a tiny sign, not much bigger than a business card, that says: <– Dr Pong. It’s a little before midnight – early doors for Berliners – and from outside, there is little sign of life.
We file through the door into a dingy, graffiti-covered den. Inside, the music is surprisingly loud and the air is thick with weed and tobacco smoke – the smoking ban, clearly, has not found its way to Dr. Pong. The hallway and bar area are dark and sticky-floored, but the main room, the ping-pong room, is starkly lit and packed with people in their early 20s. It feels as though we’ve stumbled into a kind of university common room; one that’s trying very hard to disguise its geeky undertones.
We head to the bar for beer and bats, then sidle into the circle around the ping-pong table. The idea is to keep the circle moving, with each person taking one shot at a time. If you miss a shot, you drop out, until there are only two people left – who then play a ‘proper’ game of ping-pong. It occurs to me that our boozy, soporific greasefest may not have been the best way to start an evening of physical exertion, but luckily I turn out to be so bad at ping-pong that I’m knocked out of each game before the speed escalates from ‘slow shuffle’ to ‘racing wildly around the table’. The rest of my group fares almost as badly, and we soon find ourselves huddled in a corner, drinking beer and marvelling at the ability of young Germans to take such a daft concept so seriously. No one seems to be enjoying themselves much; other than the odd glimmer of schadenfreude, players and observers follow the game with humourless intensity.
With the exception, that is, of a sulky French boy in a striped T-Shirt, who is instead scowling at us with humourless intensity.
“Can I help you?” snaps Joe, at last.
“Are you talking to me?”
“You’re staring right at me. Can I help you?”
“Are you trying to say something to me?” says Sulky, half off his chair.
“We were just wondering why that girl’s bat is so big,” I say quickly. “Doesn’t that give her an advantage?”
Sulky relaxes. “Perhaps you would think that, but actually a larger bat is more difficult. A smaller bat is better.”
“I’ll take your word for it. I’ve never really played before.”
Sulky sneers. “Okayyyy. So what sports do you play?”
This strikes me as a peculiar question to ask an adult. Perhaps he is practising for an English Oral Exam?
“Er… does cycling to work count? I’m not really a sports person, to be honest.”
Sulky stares at me with naked disgust. “I feel sorry for you, I really do,” he says. Stunned, I am in the process of concocting a withering reply when I notice that, behind him, DBF and Pete have begun a new game that involves smacking each other over the head with their ping-pong bats and laughing uproariously. I decide that perhaps it’s best for us to leave.
We stop for beer and cigarettes at a shop with outdoor tables (a laid-back touch you never see in Britain), then decide to try our luck in the nearby Kulturbrauerei. Originally built as a brewery, this collection of cobbled courtyards and 19th Century buildings has now been converted into galleries, cinemas, theatres and clubs. It’s a lovely piece of well-preserved architecture – and, as the name suggests, a fantastic space for “brewing” culture.
Guided by a faint thud of bass across the quiet cobbles, we find our way to a cute under-the-arches club called Alte Kantine, weave between a group of people doing the YMCA dance, and head to the smoking room, where the music is quieter and Magnum PI is playing on a giant screen.
“That’s odd,” I say, as we get another round of beers. “I wasn’t expecting to hear cheese in Berlin.”
“It’s very different to Chalet,” says Joe. “Chalet was all techno and minimum security and girls on drugs hanging out in the mens’ loos.”
“Perhaps we should go to Watergate? Or Berghain?”
We look wistfully at our table and the Magnum PI and the mostly gay crowd on the dance floor who actually seem to be enjoying themselves. Compared with what I’ve seen of Berlinishe “cool”, I’m pretty sure I prefer this version of Berlin. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I prefer no-nonsense Teutonic barmaid Berlin. Or spectacular museums-and-art-galleries Berlin. Or painful-history-just-beneath-the-surface Berlin. Or unexpectedly-finding-a-tribute-to-largely-ignored-victims-of-the-holocaust-in-the-Tiergarten Berlin. Of all the great and fascinating and visceral aspects of this strange, mutable, intriguing city, least compelling is the avant-garde cool for which Berlin has become a byword. For all its apparent levity, Berlin is a place that takes itself seriously – that takes the idea of “cool” extremely seriously – and serious places are not easy places to have fun.
Fun is a serious business: Dr Pong
Top 5 Berlin Survival Tips:
- Carry cash. Outside of (possibly) your hotel or hostel, you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere that takes payment by card.
- Get used to the staring. Being shamelessly looked up and down by strangers who aren’t trying to lure you into a fistfight is alien to most Brits, but it’s pretty standard practice in Berlin. I’ve heard that the less Aryan you look, the more pronounced the phenomenon, but judging by how self-conscious my blonde, blue-eyed, 6ft boyfriend felt by day three in the city, I’d say it’s a pretty unilateral experience.
- Get your timings right. Bars in Berlin don’t really pick up until the early hours, but most restaurants start winding down by 10 or 11ish. If you want a proper sit-down meal (as opposed to street food), this means either going out a bit earlier and sitting out the quiet spell after your meal, or popping home in between to get ready for your night out.
- Have a backup plan. Basic information that you’d expect to be readily available in other European capitals seems markedly hard to come by here: signposting is weak, opening/closing times are tricky to find and train stations and U-Bahns are generally unmanned. Suggesting to service staff that they could perhaps have kept you in the loop tends to be met with either bafflement or hostility; our hotel receptionist, for example, seemed genuinely astounded that I would prefer to be asked before he tried to take an extra €200 “deposit” from my credit card on a room I’d already paid for!
- Make sure your boots are made for walkin’. The U-Bahn system is superb for getting around, but you’ll probably find that most of your exploring is done on foot. The major museums, parks and galleries are enormous – you could easily spend half a day in the Gemäldegalerie alone – so be prepared to do plenty of walking! All this trekking about is, perhaps, why you never see a Berliner in heels.