I love the travel moments when I move from tourist to explorer; when I start getting to the heart of what a location is rather than what’s been laid out to see. In some places, that moment comes not long after I step off the plane, but other cities take more time or effort. I’d gotten glimpses of modern Berlin here and there in cafes and parks, but I truly felt the city opening up to me the day I arrived in Neukölln.
Neukölln is a borough located in the former West Berlin. As I read about Berlin before I arrived, I often saw Neukölln paired along with the big G word of the hipster era: gentrification. The way the neighborhood was described, the current situation there seemed akin to the hipster infiltration of Mission District of San Francisco, except in Neukölln there were Turkish and Middle Eastern immigrants rather than Mexican and Central American immigrants.
I ended up in Neukölln because a German traveler I’d befriended in Oaxaca the previous summer was renting a room there for a month while doing research in Berlin. The roommates kindly agreed to let me crash at their place. So with a little under a week left in Berlin, I packed up my stuff and left Mitte and the hostelling world behind and became a guest in a charming apartment on a quiet street in Neukölln.
The apartment was on the top level of an old building with a set of creaky but sturdy old stairs to winding up the center. There were four bedrooms and it was shared by grad students and young professionals, each paying around $250 a month. I felt like I was entering the articles I’d read that told tales of cool and scholarly 20-somethings finding apartments in Neukölln because of the cheap rents.
Similar to many people’s shared living situations in San Francisco, one of the bedrooms was technically a living room with a door. But unlike typical living situations in San Francisco, the price was a fraction of the cost and the rooms were huge — large enough to create a mini living room inside each one. There were two bathrooms and cozy eat in kitchen. One of the roommates was out of town but his room was being occupied by his
pets, two hamsters and a rabbit.
Conveniently, there was a cafe right across the street from the building. Sitting at a sidewalk table taking in the sun with a cappuccino and a sandwich became my morning routine while I was in Neukölln. I was pleased to find that from the first day on, I could strike up conversations with the amicable regulars who were curious about the newcomer at their neighborhood cafe. One of them told me about his travels in the US, and how surprised he’d been by the openness. He said he’d come back wishing his home was more welcoming. I had to agree that Berlin often seemed closed off, but it felt much looser in Neukölln.
After hearing Neukölln being described as a somewhat rough neighborhood, I was a little taken aback when I walked around and found that parts of it were almost provincial feeling. Neukölln was once a town separate from Berlin, and in 1920, along with some other adjacent towns, it was acquired by the city. In particular, the Rixdorf neighborhood retains a country-esque air that belies its location in a large city.
Walking down Karl-Marx-Strasse and some of the other main roads in the neighborhood, there was a different atmosphere. The streets were lined with discount stores, chain clothing stores, internet cafes, and Turkish cafes and eateries. I’d often seen men gathering to socialize and drink tea. Muslim women would walk by with the most ornate scarves I’ve scene. One might don a sparkly headscarf paired with the last H&M fashions and another would wear her creatively tied turquoise headscarf with a matching Adidas track suit and fashion sneakers.
As I walked down the streets, every so often I’d hear African languages. I’d see punk rock adults pushing around babies in strollers. I’d come across older generations of Turkish immigrants trying to maintain their culture away from their culture and young generations figuring out how to take on some of that while creating their own unique identities in Berlin.
Maybe it was because I wasn’t close enough to the visibly gentrified Kreuzberg neighborhood or maybe it was because I was viewing things through my San Francisco perspective, but during the day, I very rarely saw the hipsters I was expecting to see. Neukölln was certainly a cultural soup bowl, but there were only a few hints of the often discussed influx of students and young artists.
At night, I’d sometimes see glimmers of the emerging hipster scene. When I came home from museums or parks or aimless roaming, we’d take in some of the local nightlife. One night we happened upon the most sceney bar I’ve ever seen. Inside was a live performance of horrid experimental music. It was entertaining to observe the smug über-hipsteryness of it all, but the noise was unbearable after about 10 minutes. We walked further and had a beer at tiny bar with a motley assortment of flea market furniture that was still kind of hipster, but not trying so hard.
Another night, I went out with one of the roommates to celebrate her friend’s birthday at a bar across the street from the apartment. The place had intrigued me since the previous night when I saw a spontaneous bluegrass jam session take place in front of it. Inside, it was a no frills dive bar with a lot of seating and a lot of character, exactly the kind of place I’d like to go for conversation and a drink with good friends if I was at home.
I loved the casualness of that night and my whole Neukölln experience. Time and time again, I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon — the more at home I start to feel in a new location, the more I feel like I am traveling.
During those days in Neukölln I found my traveler happy place, the space where nothing much means the most.