Every spring a powerful impulse takes possession of Berliners. As the sun warms the city, and trees burst into leaf, every man and woman deserts their state-of-the-art kitchen and heads to the park to grill meat.
Take last Saturday evening for example. Mrs. Cat and I marinated some chicken, tossed together a Greek salad and pulled out of the fridge a few bottles of Paulaner Hefeweizen. We packed them into a picnic basket and – with our eight-year-old son Maus in tow -- set off for our local park.
We’ve been to the park hundreds of times of course: to go sledging in winter, to launch fireworks at Silvester, to collect elderflower blossoms for cordial in May. I walk the dog there almost every lunchtime. Plus whenever I complete a chapter of my Berlin travel book I reward myself with twenty minutes sitting on the grass in the sun.
Last Saturday evening the park was packed, as usual: lovers wrapped in blankets, families playing badminton, boys kicking footballs, dotty grannies trying to find their way back to the nearby retirement home, drunks shouting directions from the periphery. Our park is especially popular with Berlin’s Thai community who descend in their hundreds to gossip, gamble and cook up great vats of green and red curry. Atop cooler boxes they set up makeshift stalls to sell crunchy prawn cakes, spicy pork skewers and delicious papaya salads.
But this time there was a difference. Beyond the ranks of smoking grills, a group of twentysomethings had hauled stacks of column speakers, a mixing deck and a portable generator into the park. As we spread out our blanket and lit the BBQ, the kids cranked up the volume and started to dance. The music electrified the evening, turning it into a festival. Toddlers, middle-aged mothers and those disorientated, grinning grannies soon started to shimmy and shake. Lovers moved with the beat. Even the footballers and drunks were energised, launching balls and slurred lyrics over the dancers’ heads.
Our neighbourhood park isn’t unique in Berlin. In the warm weather every green space in the city becomes an excuse to celebrate life. Great clouds of aromatic smoke rise from grilling lamb chops and köfte meatballs in Schloßpark Bellevue. On Sunday mornings Friedrichshain’s Volkspark is invaded by young and ravenous boppers, many of whom haven’t yet made it home after a night at the clubs. Tempelhof may be closed to air traffic but it’s open to the general public who stroll, cycle and fly kites along the old runways.
At the Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg, Sunday means karaoke. Two years ago Irish expat Joe Hatchiban set up a beach chair, umbrella and speakers then plugged in his karaoke set. In time his small, local gathering has morphed into a major outdoor event with up to 2,000 people gathering around the Bear Pit and belting out their favourite hits. Three Sundays ago one young man actually dropped to his knee and – to the gentle melody of Lady GaGa’s Bad Romance -- proposed to his partner.
Every city has its parks, picnics and public events, of course, so what is it that makes Berlin special? To me it’s the absence of competitiveness or social exclusion. In these public places people don’t crank up their radios to drown out their neighbours’ CD players, or try to out do each other with Duchy organic sausages or posh champagne. In a way – and the old devils of the SED will be pleased to hear this confession – there’s a healthy sense of proletarian equality among Berliners. For the most part Wilmersdorf’s widows, Berghain’s dancers, Schöneberg’s Shar Pei owners, Kreuzberg’s köfte grillers, Herta’s footballers, even the capital’s drunks are happy to let each other be themselves, to let them indulge their private passions.
Last weekend in our local park there were no public proposals of marriage to a techno beat but, knowing Berlin, it will only be a matter of time – and the dotty grannies will be delighted.