The dirty thirty. It is in many ways a telling number since this whole project of drunken hubris is probably just a consequence of my own shortcomings in battling the crisis of changing diapers, local excess fat and dreadful couple dinners.
Still a beautiful thing, this project of mine. I love to see it grow and I am very excited to see where it will be heading in the future. Each day working with this blog is an adventure on its own and by every place that I visit and write about, new aspects of this world of fascinating bars are enchanting my mind. Actually, there is a lot to be said just about this process alone and how it is being carried out. It is a procedure full of surprises, obstacles and valuable insights. Each visited bar leads to a new way of looking at this mission and how to tackle it in thought and practice. Therefore, I have decided that every tenth article to be written should further reflect these experiences of mine, exploring what it means to be actually running this thing. This is the abstract meta-version of A man walked into a bar.
Without awareness, this theme was actually implemented ten bars ago. Bar number twenty - the retro-mad Casette Bar in Barcelona - did deal with the constantly present dilemma of me trying to motivate the contemporary bar scene as valuable and relevant as the historical and traditional one. In this article, I will instead focus on a more concrete aspect of what I call doing "drunken fieldwork", in other words my own quasi-ethnographic efforts while slowly getting hammered. It is about taking shots. And I am not talking about any flaming buca-shots stupidly ordered five minutes before closing time. What I refer to is taking actual photography of the bars that I visit and which I later write about. An activity I have deep anxiety towards but still am very dependent on in order to communicate this blog to the public that is by any unexplainable reason finding their way to this site.
Because I am a true aficionado. I live and breathe for bars. From the time that I wake up until I drag my tired body to bed, I got my bars on my mind and my mind on my bars. You could politely call me an enthusiast but you would probably be more close to the truth by classing me to the extreme; an irrational fanatic who has lost all conception of reality. For me it is not only a thing of passion, it has become a substantial part of subjective reason. And nowhere is this more strongly experienced than in the bar. This is the arena, this is where I am in my element.
And all of this kind of makes me to a fascist. I am aware of this. I have many ideas and thoughts on how it ought to be, on how the bar is supposed to be lived. I choose them with care and I try to treat them like that. For the dedicated man there is a serious ethos to follow. Being so, it is the most deplorable paradox that I - who just want drink in tribute and honour - am forced to forsake my pride and joy of the moment running around taking pictures as if I were an opportunistic blogger of some sort. Oh irony, dear irony.
It is seriously damaging my presumptuous self-image as well. Also, it is complicating networking and the building of trust towards the many people I encounter during this voyage. People I am dependent on and who I have the deepest respect for. I have experienced situations where a reluctance towards me documenting has been clearly manifested and not considered as appropriate (for more on this, see e.g. the article on The Canny Man's, Edinburgh). This is a position that I find fully reasonable and it is actually something that I appreciate and value as a sane and desirable bar culture. Just because the bar is a space of social dimensions, it does not mean it is a sanctuary of immoderate limitations between what's private and public. Neither is it detached from all moral renunciations of cultural exploitation. Many people seem to believe this.
Of the many places I have conducted this dirty fieldwork, Berlin is the city where this problematics has haunted me the most. It is the city of anti-everything, the city of no transparence. It is a place that has built up much of its reputation and attraction on a promise of concealing the clandestine and treasuring what's decadent. In many ways this has also become Berlin's cross to bear in order to preserve its own identity, especially today as it considers itself as besieged by an intrusive and foreign creative class which not fully understands the uncompromising ideals of this city. It is the ironic but most natural backlash of the post-wall Berlin renaissance. The global limelight that has been attained through the city's mythical status is the same force that is threatening its existence, something that is of course being frantically opposed by the Berlin avant-garde. They try to make life hard as possible for all the hipster tourists that are impatiently flocking this city in order to live out their most depraved fantasies while being safely aware that they will soon again seek refuge in their normal existence of insipid bourgeoise. These "counterfeit hedonists" need to be stopped and decimated, with pleasure ridiculed on their way out.
With this in mind it may not come as a surprise that taking photos at bars and clubs in Berlin can be something of a hazard. It is the act of the outsider, the one who doesn't' belong. It is also a reproductive malady as the spread of photos in social media may attract more of the sort which in the end is hurting the hype and quality of clientele. In many ways only pure logics but in my perspective still disastrous. Many of the places worth writing about is off-limits for documentation and honestly; the likes of me are very much persona non grata in here. We are the virus. However, I am still charmed by this counteractive hostility. I actually think it is quite wonderful that everything doesn't have to be up for display, that it does not need to be accessible for all. In fact, how eccentric and brusque the Berlin spirit may seem from time to time, it is in the end something very political and true to itself. It is about guarding an identity and way of life that is constantly in danger of being subdued by external threats.
This struggle towards gentrification, urban change and the influx of new, wealthy residents can however reach comical heights sometimes and the prohibition of taking photos is only a small part of this. Take Matthias Merkle as an example, filmmaker and the former owner of a Neukölln bar who a couple of years ago brought on his own personal war against the hipsters moving in to his neighbourhood. Merkle's disgust with the army of gentrifiers became viral in 2011 when he released a humiliating Youtube-video in which he tracked hipsters on bicycles and insulted all the "tourists" who had "destroyed" his neighbourhood. A humorous social critique maybe, still nothing but ironic when considering that he himself is originally an outsider coming from the city of Freiburg in south Germany and that his own bar Freies was a pioneer in the transformation of Weserstraße - the most hipster-infected street in Berlin of today.
I couldn't help smiling a bit - thinking of Merkle - when visiting another Neukölln radical this summer. The bartenders of Alter Rote Löwe Rein - were the true definitions of how the Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen once has metaphorically described the making of group identity as a reversed fridge which is hot inside and cold on the outside. To clarify; I knew exactly where and not I belonged after leaving this bar. I was definitely not from Neukölln. A correct but unpleasant feeling one might think but in my world an interesting glimpse in the state and spirit of this part of Berlin. Behind the bar, my two cicerones of presumption felt like the personification of this neighbourhood; they were radical, eccentric and probably quite naive.
Radical in the sense of being just young and with a total awareness of where the progressive scene is to be found at this exact moment and how to be a part of all that. But also in the cheap red wine they were carelessly sipping in front of their customers and in the nihilist remark that one of them made about "there is no such thing as nice people and you are a cute bullshitter to pretend you believe in the good of them". So Neukölln, this upfront cynicism towards the human condition. Of course radical but also the words of a true eccentric that after this sat down by an old piano, beautifully playing a sort of "Baroque-goes-experimental-improv" just as the misunderstood genius he probably was and most definitely believed he should be acknowledged as. Meanwhile, his colleague in the bar, who I later found out was Scottish, was entertaining the crowd of creative expats with tales of the city - that alone a telling scene of how this neighbourhood is changing.
And I don't mean to ridicule or mock, in fact I can't stop romanticising the lives of these gents and their vanguard ways. And how could I not, considering the scene of their existence? This bar, which was formerly a British pub called the Old Red Lion Inn (a name they have saved in a translated German form), is like an astonishing hipster testimonial to the mystic ideals of 19th century Romanticism. Located in one of the poorly lit streets of sub-district Rixdorf, Alte Roter Löwe Rein welcomes its patrons into a dark and murky world of nostalgia for the past, where emotion and imagination is superior to logic and facts. If part of the molly-popping Drei Tage Wach-generation of today - they would all have fit in at this bar. Beethoven at the piano, Chopin snorting speed on the can and a moping Schopenhauer alone in the backroom. The brothers Grimm would probably have taken place at the bar, admiring the gigantic Narnia-like wardrobe that has been placed behind the counter. It is undeniably the crown jewel of this bar, almost a bit eerie and frightening as the great monument of time it is. Speaking of which, time really seems insignificant as one takes a seat in the spacious room to the right. In a weird blend of a Bismarckian banquet hall and a lonesome saloon at the American Frontier, a melancholic immutability takes hold of the moment. A murmur of serenity makes me dream away and it is almost as if I can hear an old wooden clock ticking. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. And I wish there was no striking bell to wake me up in 2017. The year of the rooster according to the Chinese. The year of the hipster as they would put it here in Neukölln. For better and worse. Right now, more for the better.
Drinks? Augustiner on tap.
Munch? I don't see it happening, not here.
Where? Richardstraße 31-32, 12043 Berlin, Germany.
I'm always on the lookout for for more bars to enjoy and write about. Do you know about an interesting place in your city or elsewhere, let me know and maybe I'll stop by!