Alex was grinning. “Yes, sometimes the punks are throwing bottles at the police!”
Alex, a tall young man with a ponytail who probably should have been named Fabio, was renting us bikes and marking up a map with suggestions.
“This is Mauerpark.” Circled emphatically in blue pen. “And tonight is Walpurgis Night! In pagan times the witches came out that night. People light bonfires all over, including in these parks. It will be fun - you have to go! The punks aren't interested in you. You just find a corner or something and watch.”
We nodded, rendered somewhat mute by the jet-lag haze as we had only just landed in Berlin that morning.
“And tomorrow is May Day! You have to go to Kreuzberg!” Another bold blue circle. “There will be a big street party in the whole area with lots of music and food and then at night the demos start again. Maybe some cars get set on fire! Just watch, it's interesting!”
The word “interesting” covers a whole range of experiences, so we couldn't really argue with that. Thanking Alex we rode off, first to find beer and then to find punks. Armed with “Around Berlin in 80 Beers” and Alex's map we felt ready. More or less. Arrival day after a trans-Atlantic flight is always somewhat surreal regardless of where you end up, but Berlin amplifies this a hundred-fold as it is an inherently surreal city. Take Prussians, cabaret singers, Nazis, Soviets, spies, refugees, American G.I.s, misfits, East German communists, anarchists, Turks, student rebels, artists, secret police, filmmakers and currywurst kiosk operators, toss them in a blender with their buildings and their art and their music and then spit the result out across the urban canvas, sprinkled with more than a few weedy empty lots and some truly spectacular large parks. The result is an acid trip kaleidoscope of a city – not exactly “beautiful” in the sense of the giant open air museum effect of Paris, but thrumming with energy and life and promise. And deeply deeply surreal.
But punks, you want to hear about punks. Properly fortified with Berliner Weisse (google this if you are a beer person) and Berliner Pilsner we rode up towards Mauerpark. It was dark by then. We locked up the bikes beside a nearby square, under the elevated S-Bahn commuter train line, scarfed down a currywurst (sausage chunks smothered in curried ketchup – this is far better than it sounds) and walked to Mauerpark. The street leading up to the park was quiet, but ominously lined with paddy wagons. The police themselves were arrayed at the edge of the park in nervous phalanxes. Oddly, they were facing down the surrounding streets rather than into the park. A young and, it must be said, very pretty officer standing at the entrance asked us whether we had any glass bottles in our packs. "Nein", we said, and she waved us in. Perhaps we would have been searched had we been wearing balaclavas, but as it was, security seemed to function on a curious honour system. We walked with ever larger groups of people towards the centre of the park where indeed there was an enormous bonfire. But no punks. Just young hipster families, fire jugglers and a duo playing what can honestly only be described as an homage to Kenny G. It was now clear why there were no punks and why the police were facing away from the park. Perhaps it was too early in the evening?
We tired of the crowd sporting man-buns and top-knots (if you are a samurai warrior, fine, but otherwise this is 2015's version of the 1975 porn-stache: a style that went from cool to ridiculous before you even realized it was a style) and the polyester neo-pagan vibe and left the park. Across from the entrance on a street at right angles to the one we had come down there appeared to be a commotion. There was loud chanting and shouts. The phalanxes of police were looking even more nervous, fiddling with their shields and putting on their riot helmets.
We were curious, but not that curious, so we headed back up toward where we had parked our bikes. Had we been more on the ball and worked out the geography we would have realized that the chanting was coming from a parallel street and was moving towards the square. Before we could sort this out we found ourselves facing the demonstrators, an enormous crowd of rhythmically shouting people waving all manner of mostly red and black flags. We were about to back up to get out of their way when scores of riot police formed up directly behind us. Demonstrators in front. Riot police behind. Lots of both. In the dark. In a strange city. Sleep deprived, jet-lagged and full of beer we stood there slack-jawed and indecisive. In another time in another place we might have paid a serious price for our sluggish brains and reflexes, but this was 2015 and this was Germany. We stepped aside into an entryway to allow the mob to surge by. At first the police walked backwards in front of them and then formed marching lines on either side to funnel them into the square. Nobody so much as glanced at us.
And what were they demonstrating about? These were Marxist, anarchist, trade unionist and feminist groups demonstrating in favour of refugee claimants. The chants more or less ran, “refugees stay, Nazis go away”. No bottles were thrown, no cars set alight. The same thing the next day in Kreuzberg, where the largest street party I have ever seen unfolded on block after block festooned with anti-fascist graffiti, punctuated by stages pounding out death metal, reggae, techno and rap (yes, German rap – it's ok to shudder). The police – and again there were hundreds of them in full riot regalia – stood by unobtrusively at the edges, swooping in only once to scoop up a belligerent drunk. So much activity, so much diversity, so much to hear and see, so much food, so much beer, so many people, so many people drinking so much beer and – here is a troubling fact – absolutely nowhere to pee. Hectolitres in and... How this all turned out we don't know as we were tired and we knew with certainty that there was a bathroom back at the apartment.