I came to Berlin for the first time three different times. Granted, it was a different city two of those times, but I still came to Berlin for the first time three different times.
The first time I came to Berlin for the first time was in 1987. Back then, I wanted to be a professional bike racer when I grew up and the Tour de France was starting in Berlin to celebrate the city’s 750th anniversary. In a bit of poor teenage planning, the friend of a friend where I was supposed to crash never showed up and so me and the American friend I was traveling with had to use all of our money to get a hotel for the first two nights we were there.
Luckily, the Tour de France had a massive marketing parade a half an hour before the race every day. They handed out crates of Sprite and boxes of pumpernickel bread like the Shriners tossing Toostie Pops at a July 4 parade. The Sprite and pumpernickel was our only sustenance for those first two days until I bumped into yet another friend who loaned us some cash.
We bought döner kebabs and hostel beds with the money and hung out with Allan Peiper, a professional from the Panasonic team, in between races. He was super-nice. Later, as I watched a recap of the race on TV, I even saw us watching from a grassy median somewhere in West Berlin. Over the past few days I’ve been watching scratchy YouTube vids of the Berlin stages trying to find my younger self. I’ll let you know if he shows up.
The thing I remember most from that trip is discovering that the cycling giants – the men who were my heroes – were very short. Like just as tall as I am. Bob Roll. Phil Anderson. And Stephen Roche. The great Greg Lemond was a giant of the time too but he wasn’t there because he’d just had a hunting accident, but I would later see him at other races and discover, yes, he’s short too. I also remember the East German border guards stamping my passport and using mirrors to look for stowaways under the train. We also took time to look at THE WALL.
Berlin, a second time
The second time I came to Berlin for the first time was in 1995 as I was mourning my mother’s premature death by backpacking through Europe. I stayed in a hostel on what I now know is Chausseestrasse in eastern Berlin and walked 45 minutes with an Aussie backpacker through Mitte and Hackesche Markt to a club she knew called Delicious Donuts, which I would get to know better when I moved here. She danced and danced and danced as I alternately slept and thought about what I wanted to do with my life. I had no idea about ecstasy at the time and just marveled at her ability to keep grooving for hours. We hiked back to the hostel as the sun came up and I remember thinking some of the shops and galleries on Oranienburgerstrasse seemed interesting but mostly everything looked rundown and maybe scary. Plus the ever-present Fernsehturm looming over everything. It felt like the Stasi still had its eye on me.
The first time for the last time
The last time I came to Berlin for the first time was in 1998 after I’d moved to Frankfurt to work for Bloomberg News. Nobody in our office wanted to go to Berlin (imagine!) to cover anything so they started sending me whenever something went down in Berlin, which was about 1/10th as often as these days (the government was still in Bonn). I asked my co-workers what to do in Berlin and they suggested Oranienburgerstrasse in the former east.
I was dating an American woman and she went with me on that first trip. After I was done for the day we got in a cab. “Oranienburgerstrasse!” we announced. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea it was the same street I’d walked down three years prior. Even more embarrassing, my hotel was at the Friedrichstrasse station just a few short blocks away. We could have – and should have – walked. But hey: Expense account.
Oranienburger strasse was very Mad Max. Many of the buildings were gray, decrepit and vacant and empty lots were overgrown and surrounded by mangled, rusty fencing. People seemed to seep in and out of every door, window and dirt path. A massive, bombed out department store set the dystopian tone for the entire street. Behind its grand, crumbling façade was a multi-story artist squat known as Tacheles with bars, studios and a movie theater. A ground floor resident welded huge steel beasts while listening to techno every night. The street itself was lined with bars, prostitutes and dealers.
It was fantastic. Oddly, lots of places in Eastern Europe still look this way and I wouldn’t call them fantastic. I’d call them scary.
When I got out of the cab, I looked around and felt inspired. When my girlfriend got out, she grabbed my arm. “Are you sure this is OK?” she asked. “Maybe we should go back to the hotel.” The cab pulled away, leaving us little choice. We went across the street to a bar whose entire interior was painted red (or was it orange?). Even though I went several times over the next couple of years, I could never remember its name. My girlfriend never quite felt safe that night but I somehow knew this was the the last time I would be going to Berlin for the first time.