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In Search of Europe’s Nightlife

If you want to avoid this troubling history, take a stroll on Friedrichstrasse.  Its a famous shopping street, but I was attracted by something I clearly wasn’t going to shop– cars! There are showrooms lined with trendiest, jazziest, and the newest of them – I just wasn’t sure if I would be allowed to gawk through them; in my battered clothes and my unshaven look, by no means I looked like a potential customer. I shouldn’t have worried – when I walked in, though the sales agents didn’t seem interested in helping me, they weren’t bothered by my presence enough to throw me out! Plus, the Volkswagen showroom has free toilets on the 2nd floor 🙂

Walking along further, I came across a “kabaret” sign. I had heard the street to be famous pre-war for its cabarets. I hadn’t seen one and was interested. I recalled the not-so-fond memory of having to strip down to an underwear, wear a towel over, and perform what seemed like a cabaret in my 11th grade as part of ritualistic “ragging”. If there was anyway to kill the ghost of that memory, it would be by actually watching one, I told myself. I walked in.

The show was to start in a few minutes. The ticket woman barely spoke English but managed to convey that the kabaret was in German. No problem, I thought; I was there to see more than understand.  I bought the ticket. I was surprised to see many old German couples in the performance seating area – cabaret hardly seemed like of interest to couples, much less older ones – I was expecting to see more young guys. But hey, this is Germany, maybe things are different here.

My seat was on a front row table, with a fairly attractive 30-ish young woman as my table mate. We started a conversation in English.
“I from a radio station”, she said, taking out a mike and a voice recorder, “and I am recording the show”.
“I am a tourist, and I don’t speak German”, I replied.
“You don’t speak German, and are watching a kabaret”, she seemed surprised.
“Ummm… yeah, should be interesting to see how much I can make out without the language”, I said trying to look confident, while still surprised by her surprise. Maybe she doesn’t know what guys look for, I told myself.

The lights went dim, and on-stage walked two male artists acting. More surprise for me, but maybe it was just an appetizer before the real show. Scene two, still similar: my hopes were failing me. Scene three, and I had given up. I wanted to leave, but couldn’t – I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my table mate overly my stupidity after acting so much in control earlier. Plus, what if the performers picked on me leaving – I won’t even be in the position to respond!

Next scene was particularly testing. One of the actors was dressed like a beggar, with a bowl in his hand, and somewhere in the middle of the scene, started bowing before some visitors, rattling the coins in the bowl as if asking for money. On no response, he persisted, even haggled, till he got his coin. I was scared – what if he came to me? I didn’t have to wait long – he did, and did the same gesture. I was reluctant to part with any useful money, and didn’t want to throw in a small denomination in case he reacted adversely to it. I quietly took out my wallet, and as a gamble, took out a quarter (most currency exchanges don’t exchange coins), and tossed it in. Whether he picked me up because I looked least German and so he could have fun easiest at my expense, or whether it was just coincidence, I do not know. All I know is that I was very relieved when he walked back. I exchanged a few glances with my table mate immediately after, and she smiled at me, as to say “Good job!” Inspire of the encouragement, I left at the interval.

“cabaret (show); (satirical) show” is what an the German-English dictionary had for “kabaret”, confirming what I had taken more than an hour to learn that evening while still giving me the comfort that my common sense wasn’t totally off!

Let this fiasco have no one believe that there is no real young nightlife in Berlin. On the contrary, a big chunk of Berlin’s population is young, and the clubs here have far more impressive designs than anything I have seen in Boston – the kind that will put our Avalons and Axises to shame. Honestly! And then, all the new stylish construction happening – take a walk around Potsdamer platz, where Berlin wall run through not very long ago, and you will see what I mean!

As an Indian, I always took pride in development in India since Independence in 1947. While still wishing for fast development, I believed what I actually happened to be the theoretical limit in the constraints of democracy. Now, after visiting Berlin, there is no doubt in my mind that we could have done much better. As to how, ask the beer guzzling Germans!


Cologne too, like Paris and Vienna, has a Gothic cathedral in the town center. Its a beautiful soothing small place, but very historical – there are remains of Roman walls and gates still in Cologne. Neo-Roman style churches abound now. Rhine river adds to the charm. Walking in the historical town center or along the river, or taking a boat cruise on Danube is probably the best way to spend your day here.
However, I was not so lucky to spend most of my day time this way. It was more financial confusion – I tried to deal with the bank-teller here to solve my problem. The bank-teller hardly new her stuff. That is when I could appreciate once more the wonderful thing about MIT – its not just a technical educational institution, it has amazingly knowledgeable, helpful and supportive staff and associated departments – in a way that can be pampering. I gave up on the bank there, called up MIT FCU, and immediately got the job done.

I stayed in a youth hostel in Cologne, and there met a Californian and an Argentinian guy, both towards the end of their n-month long travels. Both seemed very experienced in chasing girls, and were drunk enough to be eager to share their experiences. What followed was a wild night of drinking, partying, and clubbing, with me a silent passive student, watching the action, and participating as much as I need to survive.

We went to a hostel bar for the free drink for the residents. Even as we stayed on for a few drinks, there were no girls – me being guilty of scaring at least two of the few there away by trying to talk to them (not that I said anything unpleasant!) They left, I left along, the Argentinian guy went to bed because he had an interview next day, and the Californian joined me in pursuit of some nightlife, me directly, he after having some hot dogs.

After much rambling, and no success finding hot dogs or clubs, we ran into (almost literally, in my friend’s drunkenness!) upon four folks (two guys, two girls) wandering about looking for nightlife as well. For those who don’t already know, whenever you need a help from strangers, have a girl member in your group (if any) ask for that help. People, specially the all X-chromosome ones, are certainly more responsive to those with Y.

The club was fun, nothing architecturally amazing or gorgeous, but there were lots of people. And then, you go to clubs for people; monuments are the place to go to see architecture. People or no-people, I am, as you may have figured out so far, susceptible to losing some money and self-respect in clubs. This time, it was a bit different – I lost both not on girls but guys. No, no – I didn’t make any new discovery about my sexuality here. Instead, it was me after 2 consecutive nights of barely sleeping when asked by the folks who led us to the club for drinks – I was too tired or fatigued to smart my way out.

As I walked back to my hostel, I realized the purpose of the central cathedral in many European cities – to act as a beacon for tired travelers or drunk lubbers too jaded to look at maps on their way back home.

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