Family Travel: Berlin counter culture Germany housing projects Speyer squat
My aunt lives in the center of Speyer, a small town next to Heidelberg, Germany. Her neighbors are artists, who sit around in the evenings, drinking red wine and discussing the latest in contemporary art. Her house, and the houses lining the cobblestone streets of Speyer, looks like a doll house — it’s yellow with a sort of mismatch of green shutters.
We were never really close. She knew very little about me, and I knew little about her. All I knew was that she was my dad’s younger sister, and she was a sort of a celebrity in Taiwan. She had appeared on TV, been on talk shows, and maybe even featured in tabloids. She was a singer and a songwriter in the last generation of music. And now she writes books, which one of my mom’s journalist friends described to me, as lovingly as possible, “housewife books.” My uncle described it as books about her own life (which I noted in my head that it was not so different from what I did in blogs, and I wondered if she ever cared to know that). When I told my travel group about this on the train, they were all enamoured — they were meeting a Taiwanese celebrity. But to me, she was just my aunt, who for one reason or another, I was not that close with.
When we arrived at the Speyer train station, after changing what seemed like hundreds of train legs, we were greeted by my stone-faced aunt and my smiling German uncle. I note that he is, in fact, German and not Chinese or Taiwanese because it was a big controversy in the family when they became engaged. At the time, my grandfather did not approve of their marriage, simply because he was not Chinese. In his anger, he didn’t even attend the wedding. But with persistence and a couple of games of Mah Jong, my uncle eventually won over my grandfather’s adamant approval. That was another story that my travel group could not get over — we were visiting celebrities, who also had a romantic story. It could have only been possible in novels or indie-films.
We were all tired from carrying our backpacks, and we all hadn’t showered in days. My hair, although short, was a tangled and sappy mess. My aunt had prepared our first homecook meal in months, and we were all happy to be there. After staying on strangers’ couches, dirty hostels, and isolated hotels, my aunt’s home felt like a small bit of heaven. It was comfortable and warm, everything we needed after running into the police, walking on the highway for miles, and not showering for days.
“In Sandie’s email, she told me there were four or five of you coming,” she said, as she took a small sip of her wine. “And my husband asked if I should have confirmed the number, but I know, based on my experience backpacking in Europe, that someone always leaves out of anger. Did that happen with you guys?”
We all exchanged sheepish looks. As much as we enjoyed the time seeing all the beautiful and wonderful sights in Europe, there had been tensions among the group. My patience, by the time we reached Speyer, was already worn to the very last thread.
“No,” we lied. “We’ve been fine.”
After dinner, she took us to a nearby beer garden and talked about her experiences in Berlin. We were only staying in Speyer for one night, and we were going to make our way to Berlin. When we went back to her house, my uncle and one of the members of our travel group watched a game of soccer. Exhausted, I had made my way to the guest room, which was conveniently located on the fourth floor. There, I saw certificates for all the writing awards she had won in both Europe and Taiwan. Before I fell asleep, I wondered where all the time had gone between us.
The next morning, my aunt prepared a large continental breakfast for us and to my delight, Oolong tea. Classical music played in the background of our breakfast, and I felt like someone was writing us into a script of a movie. I sometimes wondered if that’s how my aunt — author, musician, artist — saw her own life.
Before taking us to the train station, she showed us the Speyer Cathedral, where her wedding took place. It was also a cathedral preserved by UNESCO, something I wasn’t aware of until she told me. As she was telling us the history of Speyer, a part of me wished I wasn’t leaving so soon, and I wished I could have made up for lost time. This was a theme that I found myself bumping into, as time in Europe started slipping away.
Everything Speyer was, Berlin was the extreme opposite. When our train arrived in Berlin, we quickly tried to find the address that guy we met in Figueres provided for us. To our surprise, we actually found what he had described. There was, indeed, boots hanging from the front window of this peculiar building. So, he wasn’t lying to us, after all. I found the picture I took of him on my camera, ready to present it to the friend, Mogli, we were supposed to ask for.
The people standing around the building looked at us suspiciously. For their standards, we were overdressed. Most of them had tattoos and piercings all over the place and looked like they hadn’t showered in weeks. I took a deep breath and approached one of the groups, who were glowering at us.
“We’re looking for a Mogli,” I started uncertainly. “Do you guys happen to know where he is?”
After a pause, they looked up at the building and called his name. A man with the same neon green hair as Alex’s peeked out of one of the windows. German was exchanged, and Mogli appeared in front of us in a couple of minutes.
“Yes?” he asked, eyeing us with suspicion, as if we were part of the police.
I handed him my camera with Alex’s picture on it.
“We met your friend in Figueres, and he said to ask for you…” I said, trying to keep my eyes off the bottle cap that was attached to his hair. “He said we could stay here, if we asked for you…”
A few people next to us hissed that they didn’t have room. And Mogli, in his failed attempt to be nice said, “Well, we’re having a party here tonight with a band, so…we don’t have room.”
He directed us to another, we later learned, squathouse. Apparently, Berlin, bursting with counter culture and rebellion, was filled with these squathouses. I described it to my friends back in Denmark as “a Christiania in the form of apartment buildings.” He told us to ask for a man named “Z-Mona.”
One of my friends started calling his name in the small courtyard. A few people walked past us, as if we were invisible. They either couldn’t speak English or didn’t care enough to help us find Z Mona, if he was even a real person. Frustrated, we went back to Mogli and asked for a nearby cafe with WiFi. It was the Easter holidays, and we were out of luck finding a hostel, let alone a last-minute CouchSurfer.
As much as I loved CouchSurfing, it did frustrate me to no end when CouchSurfers did not respond to Couch Requests. We each sent out at least ten messages in one city, and no one would respond. And here we were, in the middle of Berlin, with nowhere to stay and the sun quickly setting behind us. We eventually found a hostel on the outskirts of Berlin, where we decided was the “red light district” of Berlin.
What followed was perhaps the worst hostel I’ve stayed at in my entire life. I forgive hostels for being dirty and not up to par, but this was crossing the line. The A&O Hostel in Berlin was, by far, the most disgusting place I’ve stayed in. The service was awful, everything was dirty, and the pillows … were just sheets filled with cotton balls. In fact, pillows that are filled with cotton balls are probably more comfortable than the pillows they offered at the A&O. The beds were dirty and stained with what looked like a mix between blood and urine.
Just a few hours ago, we were sitting in beautiful, comfortable sun-lit room, listening to classical music and eating fresh bread with honey. And now, night had fallen upon us, and we were wandering around Berlin — hoping to find some semblance of night life.
“Mogli didn’t even invite us to their party,” one of my friends grumbled, still bitter about being turned down for a free place to stay. I was also pretty annoyed that we were staying at such an expensive, yet dirty and disgusting hostel.
We ended up finding an “uppity” night club that was featuring a “Russian Party”. And lo behold, we saw the advertisement for their next themed party, too: