A vacation from your usual self
BERLIN — It’s the middle of the night in the city’s Kreuzberg district and partiers swig beer from tall glass bottles in the streets, where they also loudly dance and sing.
Around them stretch long lines for entry to old warehouses, power stations, even the catacombs beneath a rail station, transformed into clubs from which reverberates the relentless electric pulse of techno music.
Inside, visitors join locals in shedding their daytime façades and, in some cases, their clothes. Berlin nightlife has become among the world’s most hedonistic, an echo of the 24-hour, anything-goes culture of the Weimar Republic era.
One particularly uninhibited nightspot in Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood, opened by an Austrian pornographer, is even named the KitKatKlub, an homage to the setting of the musical Cabaret, about the between-the-wars decadence that flourished here, and tourists plead to be let in.
That makes this city among the places in the world where travel doesn’t only mean a change of scenery, but an escape from the comparative conformity of work and family lives. Tourists in these places can adopt their real personalities — or at least for a little while act in ways they wouldn’t back home, whether that means dressing up in leather to go clubbing in Berlin at 4 a.m. or spraying on the sunscreen and visiting a nude beach on a tropical island.
“We know we’re far away from home. We’re not going to bump into a neighbor or a colleague. And it may allow someone to connect with a part of themselves they can’t in Boston,” said Jonathan Alpert, a psychotherapist and author of the book “Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days.”
Forty-one percent of travelers from the United States, UK, Germany, China, and Japan surveyed in January by Edelman Berland for the Hilton Hotel chain said they travel to discover new things about themselves. Nearly 60 percent said they feel most like themselves while on vacation.
“Taking an exotic vacation is such a deviation from most peoples’ norms, it allows them to create an alternative universe temporarily,” said Alpert. “Maybe it’s just a different aspect of ourselves that we don’t visit too often because societal rules or our jobs or the way our lives are set up don’t allow it.”
One destination, of course, has built a sales strategy, and a catchy slogan, around this: Las Vegas. If it happens there, as the world now knows, it will stay your little secret.
“It’s in the casino operators’ interest to create an anything-goes environment,” said David Schwarz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. That’s because, he said, “If anything goes, then it’s not such a big deal if you’re losing.”
But Schwarz, who once worked in the surveillance department of an Atlantic City casino, also said the impulse into which that famous motto taps is very real.
“There’s a genuine need for people to have some kind of disorder in their lives,” he said — “a chance to get loose of the usual moral strictures.”
That may be truer now than ever, he said, in a world of ever-growing uniformity.
Schwarz turns to the lyrics of the Rush song “Subdivisions” to explain his point, checking his memory of them online. (“Man, this is really profound stuff,” Schwarz said, warming to the topic.)
“In the mass production zone, nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone,” the song goes. “Drawn like moths we drift into the city, the timeless old attraction, cruising for the action. Lit up like a firefly, just to feel the living night.”
That’s a pretty good description of what happens in Berlin, whose long-abandoned onetime no-man’s zones are being filled in by largely undistinguished flats and office buildings. But in Kreuzberg and some other districts, which have made much more creative uses of such spaces, visitors and locals act out after dark.
Some 10,000 visitors arrive in Berlin every weekend, and more than a third say they come for the nightlife, the tourism authority says.
“I saw these young adults going to Berlin for the weekend and not even getting a place to stay,” said Cory Lamz, a graduate student studying law and music industry leadership at Northeastern University who spent the summer there as part of a research project. “They would go and club all night long and sleep during the day in a park, to the point where they were just in this endless cycle of clubbing.”
But it isn’t only young adults who seemed drawn to this, Lamz said. “It attracted a wide variety of people from different countries, different walks of life, and different ages, not just one specific archetype.”
DJs set up in the streets and vendors sell cheap beer from kiosks. People also fuel up on Turkish pizza or Vietnamese food at 5 a.m. In some places, the parties run continuously from Friday to Monday, uninterrupted.
“You really have the freedom of what you’re going to do, and nobody will judge you,” said Lutz Leichsenring, a former promoter now known as the “night mayor of Berlin” in his role as the face of Berlin’s Clubcommission industry association.
That includes in more than 200 clubs citywide. There’s Insomnia, for instance, which celebrates various sexual fetishes. Absinth Depot serves up only highly alcoholic anise-flavored absinthe banned until 2007 in the United States. There are also open-air and pop-up clubs.
Berghain, a massive former industrial space, has 60-foot ceilings and room for 1,500; those in the know don’t even bother to show up there until nearly dawn, and while photography and even mirrors are banned, almost anything else goes.
Clubs in Berlin can stay open around the clock, and have been allowed to since 1949.
“I know a lawyer who leaves his family at 4 to 5 in the morning, goes to Berghain, listens to the DJs, goes to get some breakfast, and then goes back to his family,” Leichsenring said.
“Berlin is very experienced in how to use the night,” he said. In other cities, by comparison, “it’s everywhere the same: You go out, have dinner or go into the bar and you are done around 1 or 2 in the morning. By then you have to be drunk, you have to find your girl, and you have to experience all you can experience, because you have to go home.”
Some of Berlin’s independent and subversive nighttime culture is being threatened, ironically, by corporate takeovers.
For now, however, “It doesn’t really matter how old you are, what you look like, whether you have money or not,” Leichsenring said. “If you’re into a certain niche music or have a certain fetish or you’re in love with a certain artist, you will meet people in Berlin who have the same attitude.”
Visitors here, he said, “can express themselves. They can be themselves.”