Graffiti-walled and glass-domed, the city of Berlin shouts its morning greeting. Barbed wire fences and orange cranes intersect beneath an overcast sky. The buildings, like multi-sized gift boxes wrapped in cellophane and tin foil, stack in clusters along the streets.
Mr. Meanwhile, our tour guide--who has earned the nickname due to his questionable and prolific usage of the word--points out the "Berlin Punks." These dudes, with their neon pink mohawks and silver-buckled boots, hover like pop art against the gray city walls. For every punk, there is an entourage of pit bulls. "The government pays the punks to take care of these dogs," Mr. Meanwhile explains, as part of a progressive municipal program that grants the homeless social benefit money for looking after animals. Providing companionship, the dogs also act as barking icebreakers for meeting other punks.
We move on. A small crowd of Germans surrounds a bespectacled fellow in a felt hat. "This man, meanwhile," says our guide, "is a local treasure." A German journalist turned 21st century bard, the man in question travels the streets reciting the daily news in poetic form.
Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome
"I assume, meanwhile, that you must be here for the Berlin Film Festival," says our tour guide, and he is correct. It is the last weekend of the 58th Berlinale and my friend Gienni has invited a group of us here to celebrate her 21st birthday. All together, we make seven. Lorenzo has just flown in from Rome. Adrien arrived last night from Madrid. Ariel has taken the train from Paris. Cami and Agus are at their final European backpack stop before returning to Argentina. And I am fresh off the plane from Providence, Rhode Island.
A motley grouping, we have in common just two things: our friendship with the beautiful Gienni and an invitation to spend 72 hours in Berlin. Karim Chrobog, the half-Egyptian, half-German filmmaker friend of Gienni's, will be screening his documentary War Child on Sunday.
A tiger is a tiger, not a lamb
I find myself immersed in two cultural realms simultaneously. Strolling through Alexanderplatz, I am surrounded by German-speaking youths and neon restaurant slogans advertising currywurst sausages and a Schultheiss beer for four euros apiece. At the same time, my Spanish and Italian traveling companions roll their R's, debate over Argentina's and Madrid's different interpretations of the word apoyarse and sing drunken lyrics to "Vivo per Lei." Blue jeaned and English-speaking, I am feeling somewhat pale in comparison.
Breakfast ends at 11 AM, dinner starts at 11 PM. Lunch is skipped in favor of five o'clock coffee. For my newfound European buddies, sightseeing is secondary to the leisurely enjoyment of meals and each other's company. Yet no sight is left unseen. At Checkpoint Charlie, I hug a model-sized version of the world. In front of the Brandenburg Gate, Gienni passes a local her camera only to receive a zoomed-in image of the photographer's puzzled face. In Peter Eisenman's sobering Jewish Memorial, the Field of Stelae, I walk on unevenly sloped ground amidst variously-sized slabs of concrete. At the entrance to St. Hedwig's Cathedral, Adri√°n and Ariel are in a heated debate over the role of the Church. Cami mocks the boys, accusing them of "thinking less than pillows." Later on, as if to disprove her, they debate again about the origins of evil.
Lost in the subway, we try to make sense of the German street signs. Lorenzo passes me his Lonely Planet guide, but it is written in Italian. Gienni, not knowing any German, shouts "Commen Backen!" to a Mercedes taxi that zooms by. In need of a rest and a boost, we check out a Berlin Starbucks, where I am the unfortunate recipient of a hairy chocolate-chip cookie.
You'll never turn the vinegar to jam
We visit the Museum Berggruen to see a collection of Picasso pieces in shades of pink and blue. One of his drawings, Portrait of Francoise, resides elegantly in the corner. A beautiful woman, big-eyed and wild-haired, rests her chin on a solitary hand. There are works by Paul Klee and Henri Matisse hanging in the cream-walled enclaves of the three-story building. With no more than 10 paintings displayed in each room, a Thomas Crown Affair would prove challenging. I take off my cumbersome winter coat, only to be asked by a gray-bearded curator to please put it back on. The top floor is said to have been the residence of Heinz Berggruen, the German-born Jewish art collector whose 1990s gallery exhibition in Berlin was a noble gesture of reconciliation.
There are base pleasures to be found in Berlin alongside the loftier ones. Underground clubs, hidden behind bunker-like steel fortifications, offer techno beats, tight-fitting oxford shirts, and flashing lights. Entering the club Felix is like walking into a marble mansion turned run-down artist's studio. Upstairs is a quiet space designated for those keener on chatting than twirling. Downstairs, dudes and dudettes showcase acrobatic dance moves. I, I can remember, standing by the wall, and the guards shout above our heads, and we kissed as though nothing could fall, and the shame was on the other side. David Bowie's 1970s "Heroes" lyrics memorialize the zeitgeist of the Cold War era. Tonight, a younger generation pays homage to the rock-star-representatives of the "original cool"--Bowie, Nina Hagen, Iggy Pop. Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever, then we can be heroes just for one day.
This weekend in particular, night-owl journalists and photographers are in pursuit of scandal and spectacle. With its maelstrom of movie hype and street-side glitterati, the annual Berlin Film Festival is making a dramatic impact on the city. The Sunday morning cover page of the Berliner Kurier displays Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman at the premiere of The Other Boleyn Girl. Newspaper reporters, festival sponsors, television cameramen and international media companies have come out in full force. In conversation with Gienni's friend Karim, I am given a glimpse into the workings of the Berlinale.
Towering alongside the Cannes, Venice and Sundance festivals, the Berlinale is known for both its edgy independents and Hollywood blockbuster hits. Entry for film screening is eerily reminiscent of the college application process: a submission fee is required along with a director bio, a synopsis and a preview. A highly trained festival staff watches the films and then selects less than 10 percent of all submissions, which amounts to about 500 films.
Acceptance into the festival program does not translate into immediate profit and fame; instead, it is an opportunity for exposure amid fierce competition and bubbling talent. Golden and silver bears, the most prestigious prizes, are granted by the International Jury to movies in the competition. Independent films are honored with the Teddy Award.
The continent of Europe is so wide
In the theatre lobby, I am momentarily submerged in a crowd of gray-coated, black-gloved moviegoers. Feeling sneaky alongside pillars draped in red velvet, I take advantage of my anonymity and peel off a Berlinale wall poster as a future dorm room souvenir. Before the screening, Karim walks on stage in jeans and a navy blazer and welcomes his audience. Gienni has been present throughout the creation process of War Child and is thrilled to celebrate her friend's success. In a room, free of popcorn crunchers, lights are dimmed and curtains unveiled. The harrowing documentary tells the life story of Emmanuel Jal--a Sudanese child soldier turned London rap icon.
By Sunday evening, my orange wheelie, filled with collected goodies, has stubbornly refused to shut. At once exhausted and energized, Gienni and I begin the homeward journey back across the pond. Saying goodbye, Adri√°n asks when we shall all meet again. I, South African by birth, suggest the World Cup in 2010. Berlin-Frankfurt-Washington-Providence. From the back seat of a Big Daddy's taxi, a night-lit Thayer Street comes into view. My weekend of movies, monuments and international traveling companions has come and gone, and its about time I got back to the books.
After the eternal verities comes the pasta. It's life, JADE NOIK B'10, what can you do?