Leisure System

September 18, 2011

I just got back last night from a trip to Berlin for a few days. A friend of mine from back in Seattle recently moved to Berlin (for the second time), the third anniversary of an electronic music monthly known as Leisure System was also happening on the 16th at the famed Berghain night club. Those two components created a pretty compelling reason for me to go to Berlin one last time.

I showed up pretty late on Wednesday night and made my way into town to the neighborhood where Tess lives. She met up with me at the S-Bahn station with another friend of hers who’s staying with her (also just moved to Berlin, but didn’t have an apartment yet).

Last time I was in Berlin was over Christmas, and the time before that was about 15 years ago. This visit was great because it allowed me to get a bit more in touch with the city itself. I know it’s a fairly common reaction to rave about how cool the city is, but it really is! I sort of equate it to creating an entire city of 3.5 million people based on Capitol Hill in Seattle (or really any other hip neighborhood of any city). Everybody is just so damned hip! The tattooed- and pierced-up parents pushing baby carriages around, the artists hanging out in hidden cafes tucked away in graffiti-covered alleys, the bike messengers zig-zagging through traffic on their fixed-gears; everywhere you look there is something cool going on in that city.

The first few days were spent hanging out with Tess and Sonya, and helping them move a bit. I got a chance to check out more of the city and generally avoided the whole Alexanderplatz paradigm which I was so entangled in last time. Of course, we got the chance to hit up a couple great restaurants. The first of which is owned by a couple Americans, called Little Otik, and had a fantastic menu that changed daily. They also had great cocktails which we dabbled in heavily. The next night we decided to check out a new Mexican restaurant in town called Maria Bonita. I was thoroughly prepared to be disappointed, as I usually am with Mexican choices anywhere in Europe, but I must say, this is the only good Mexican restaurant I have been to anywhere outside of North America. I got the carnitas tacos (a good standby to test out any Mexican restaurant) with which I was very happy. The others weren’t quite as blown away, and rightly so, their dishes paled in comparison to the carnitas, but they were still pretty damned good. All in all, I commend you, Maria Bonita, for creating desirable Mexican food in an already kick ass city in Europe.

That night was Leisure System as well. We all decided to go out to a bar that Sonya was fond of for a bit of pre-game before Leisure System, except I was the only one planning on actually going to Leisure System. The bar was cool, the DJ was playing some interesting takes on disco and funk waiting for the dancefloor to get crackin’, as it invariably did with a bit more time. There was much drinking and dancing, and heading home at 2am, but not for me, as I had bigger and better things planned for the evening. Tess gave me vague directions to Berghain before they headed home for the evening. I walked in that direction and asked a few other folks how to get to the legendary club, everybody knew.

I was able to identify it as the giant abandoned-looking building with flashing colorful lights in most of the windows, thumping bass radiating from every corner, and a 250 meter line stretching down the block. I proceeded to the back of the line and began waiting. There was an excited atmosphere in the line that was quickly identifiable as nervousness. The bouncers at this club are notorious for their selection techniques: If you look like you don’t belong, you get the boot before even entering the place. After a good 45 minutes of waiting, I was nearing the entrance. The bouncers looked like an incredibly intimidating take on some unknown psychobilly band, complete with tight denim, big black boots, greased back hair, and tattoos and piercings everywhere. Their techniques were indeed wicked, the entrance was designed especially for their selection method: There was a tee in the gate, one way led back out, the other inside. If you did anything to even slightly annoy these guys they’d simply point to the exit, you knew what to do. At this point I began doubting my own street cred, wondering if I was going to make the cut, they seemed to have a habit of booting solo partygoers as well. Fortunately for me, I was standing next to another loner and behind a group of annoying Swedes. The Swedes were directed toward the exit after an hour of waiting in line with not even a word, they made a big scene about it, but the bouncers, stoic and stone-cold were unyielding. After a minute or two of being at the head of the line, one looked at me and held up two fingers, I knew what he meant. I motioned to the dude next to me as if he were my friend, we headed in together. Once inside, there was a room dedicated to the very efficient handling of incoming partygoers. There was a cadre of slightly less intimidating doorpeople frisking each incoming guest, cameras were quickly confiscated, marked with a special label behind the counter, the corresponding piece of the label given to the owner for later pickup.

Once out of the sorting room, one is presented with a vast, high-ceilinged main room in which there is a flight of stairs leading to the middle level where the main stage is, a good five stories above the ground; above that, another thirty meters or so of empty air. The huge room resembles the interior of an abandoned factory with massive columns lining the walls and a mess of unidentifiable pipes running the walls and ceilings. There is another small staircase in one corner of the main room leading up to a considerably smaller (in comparison, still sizable when put up against most clubs) secondary room, the Panorama Bar, where another stage was set up. There are a number of smaller, darker rooms scattered around the club dedicated to chilling out a bit; and rumor has it that one is pitch black, filled with duct tape-covered mattresses and used by those too eager to consummate their new relationship (whatever that may be) to wait until they get home.

The line outside was longer than I expected, so I missed Lando Kal, half of the venerable glitch hop duo Lazersword who recently relocated to Berlin. His sound has recently began picking up some very techy vibes, incorporating the usual juke and future garage feels, I was excited to check his live set, but alas. I showed up just when Africa Hitech was getting up on the decks, essentially the act I was there to see. The set was epic, ranging from classic dubstep, bass-heavy hip hop, a good selection of juke/footwork, and finishing up with a couple drum and bass tunes from days of old. Oh, and he also dropped Hover Traps, I was definitely wishing I had my camera. There was even a girl in the crowd who was doing some serious footwork during the juke interlude, that was great to watch. All in all, the party was fantastic. As draconian as the bouncers are, their work promotes a pretty cool vibe inside. The overall level of douchebaggery is much lower than most clubs, and pretty much everyone there is really enjoying themselves and having a good time.

I got back home in time to get a few hours of sleep before the sun was blinding and the sounds outside were loud enough to keep me awake. At that point, I packed up my stuff and Sonya and I headed out to get some spätzle to nurse our hangovers. The rest of the day was dedicated to killing time before my flight home.

As much as I am looking forward to heading home, and as sick as I might be of Belgrade, and the Balkans in general, there was something comforting about waiting at gate B30 at Frankfurt am Main (the usual departure gate for the daily flight to Belgrade), falling easily back into the flood of Serbian sounds; passively listening in on conversations all around me, hearing of the day’s events, reassuring phone conversations with loved ones about arrival times, whose children are doing what. It was even comforting arriving in Belgrade and fending off the onslaught of taxi drivers peddling their wares, even the warbling pop-infused, love-saturated accordion music blaring from the cab of the bus, even the chain-smoking bus driver leisurely smoking his last cigarette when we’re already 10 minutes late for leaving. I’ve invested a sizable chunk of my life to this place, and I knew I was back.

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