‘Berlin, you beautiful beast,’ uttered Marriette as I stood with her and Wolf on the rooftop of one of the city’s quickly fading abandoned buildings that still litter the edge of the Spree. It was December 26th, 2012. Boxing Day. It was a predictably cold afternoon under the heavy uniform grey sky that hung over the city like a heavy pillow pressing down upon us, and the wind blew from the East in all directions. As we surveyed the landscape we noticed that a community of roughly fifteen people had set up camp between the mouldy brick of the old ice factory, on top of which we stood, and the river. Beneath the sagging rooftop a man, who upon first glance appeared to be a mix of Mad-Max and Oliver Twist, scavenged the remains in search of some industrial treasure of a time past. We noticed him on the way up. He was keeping himself company with his words and searching. ‘Berlin, you beautiful beast.’ These words speak truth.
I first visited Berlin in the late summer of 2004. I had caught a ride up from Dresden and was dropped off on the side of the road near Ostbahnhof, the main train station located in the east of the city. As I made my way toward the hostel, I crossed over the Warschauer Bridge as the sun was hanging low in the sky behind the TV Tower at Alexanderplatz and a seemingly bleak industrial foreground, littered with Soviet-era apartment blocks. I noticed that three people, roughly my age, had pulled a couch which had seen better days to the middle of the bridge to watch the sunset. Up ahead a small gathering of punks busked for change, likely to purchase their next round of drinks.
Over the coming days I explored the city and was captivated. It was a place filled with history, young people, musicians, artists and freaks. I loved it. Aesthetically, it lacked the beauty of many of Europe’s teeming tourist meccas, but it had a grittiness that other cities lacked. It was a mishmash of old meets new meets architectural nightmare, and considering the city’s colourful past, it all made perfect sense. One of the most outstanding memories of my first visit was paddling an inflatable boat through the Palast der Republik, the former East German parliament building, which had been temporarily flooded for an exhibition titled Volkspalast (People’s Palace). The eccentricity of the city was indeed very seductive. However, as I had absolutely no intention that I would want to stay before I arrived, I realized that I would need to find work if I wanted to make remaining a potential option. And, considering that the unemployment rate in the city was 18% at the time, finding work didn’t appear to be an easy task. As luck would have it I met somebody at the hostel who recommended that I take a bike tour in order to see more of the city and find out more about its rich past. So, the next day I joined a Fat Tire tour led by Wolf and realized that I had found myself the perfect employment opportunity.
When I returned to Berlin in February of 2005, after having completed a few more months of travel, I met Wolf at the bike shop. The windows were covered with paper, as at that time the shop closed during the frosty winter months. Within the span of a few weeks I had settled into life in Berlin, trained with Wolf and Nicole, and began leading tours. The business was still in its infancy and some days, especially when the weather was soggy, not a single person would show up for a tour. In fact, even when the sun was beating down in the height of the summer, there were days when only enough people would show up to justify the use of one guide on a tour. When I wasn’t working I was never for want of something to do as there was always something fascinating going on. At that time the team was made up of Wolf, Nicole, Ben, James and I, and we were fortunate to have the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time together outside of work. Colleagues quickly became close friends. Consequently, Fat Tire became an integral part of both my work and social life. Near the end of the tour season most people decided to head off in different directions for the winter. I distinctly recall that as December neared there were days when I would open the shop, deal with rentals, conduct the tour and close up the shop in the evening. Oh, how times have changed!
My first season at Fat Tire was such a wonderful experience that I decided to return to work a number of times in the years that followed. Every time I returned I met wonderful people with big personalities and interesting histories. Many of the friendships that I forged while working in Berlin are among the strongest that I still maintain. Former work colleagues have become revered travel companions and key members of my adopted family abroad. And although Fat Tire Berlin is a much bigger operation today than it was when I began, it has still managed to maintain a certain charm that draws so many people back year after year. It is a great place to work and the people undoubtedly make it what it is. It is filled with creative, open-minded and caring individuals who are always up for a new adventure.
After leaving Berlin I spent some time studying and working back on the west coast of Canada, which is were I grew up. However, in 2011 I decided to return to Europe, where I currently teach history at a high school in Munich. Fortunately I’m not too far from Berlin, which affords me plenty of opportunity to visit with friends and enjoy the city in all of its beautiful madness. I can honestly say that it is one of the few places that I get excited about visiting every time I plan to make a return. On the surface it may not be the prettiest swan in the pond, but it makes up for its aesthetic blunders in the tangible feeling that it emits. It is the city that is always becoming and it will thrill those who allows themselves to be seduced by its unique charm. Austrian composer Franz von Suppé likely said it best with the words, “Du bist verrückt mein Kind, du mußt nach Berlin!” (“You are crazy, my child. You must go to Berlin!”). Enjoy the beautiful beast. It is not to be missed.