Laying Down My Bullshit and Dancing at Dawn

feature image via shutterstock

We’ve been out all night, chain smoking cigarettes to stay awake, swigging from beers and tiny shooters of vodka. Alcohol is cheap in Berlin, and you can drink it wherever you want, like outside where the long line to get into the club snakes down the sidewalk, where we wait, dodging out to squat between parked cars when we have to pee.

Inside, the DJ is playing in the deep end of a drained-out pool and we have to bend our knees and balance on the gentle slope of the pool floor, like trying to dance while going down a hill. I lose track of my friends in the crowd, catching glances of them when the lights strobe over us, like there’s a lighthouse somewhere in the distance beyond the music.

And then the set is over and and we find each other and it’s 6:00AM but it doesn’t feel like the end, everything feels fresh, as if we’ve come out on the other side of the night. And as we’re making our way to the coat check, L looks around at me and J and says, “Berghain?” but it’s not really a question: L is leaving the city in a matter of weeks. This is one of the last nights out we have together.

So it sweeps over and around us, connecting us, pulling us forward. Berghain. Into a cab. “Berghain.” We ride from one end of the city to the other through the tender pre-dawn light, past shuttered doors packed with graffiti and fluorescent-lit kebab shops and the black shapes of the other all-night partiers, walking forward, going everywhere and nowhere. We pull up in front of a massive concrete building lined with brutally straight rows of windows. Berghain.

The first rule of Berghain is you always talk about getting into Berghain. Its reputation looms mythic: it’s a techno club in an enormous, defunct power plant; it stays open from Friday night until Monday morning; there are separate areas called dark rooms where you can go to perform anonymous sex acts; there’s no rhyme or reason to who gets in and who doesn’t; there are no rules once you’re inside, except no fucking photos.

Sprung from a convergence of underground music and gay subculture (it was the second iteration of a gay fetish club called Ostgut), it’s the modern poster child for all the gritty, grungy, sexually-explicit decadence Berlin is known for. The word most often used to describe it is “hedonistic.”

In Berlin people talk about it, expats especially, in hushed, reverent tones. The sound system, which is supposed to be one of the best in the world. The DJ acts you’ve never heard of with names like Fuck Buttons. And that magical moment in the morning when the blinds at Panorama Bar are yanked open and the suddenly-illuminated, all-night revelers start to cheer.

To the outside observer, it sounds like the church of a religion no organized religion would ever want to associate with. A place where you can go and hear crazy sounds and dance like mad and forget whatever it is you don’t want to remember.

And I didn’t believe any of it. Until I did.

We get out and stand in front of it, this heavyweight wrestler of a building, so solid it seems to have risen straight out of the ground. The sunrise is yellow-gold behind it and we allow ourselves one picture, just one, to mark the occasion.

There is no one else outside as we approach, only two cold-looking bouncers in beanies and long black coats standing near the door on the other side of the winding metal barricades like the kind you would see at Disneyland. We are quiet as we walk towards them, solemn, trying not to betray our excitement, palpable between us, electric.

L stands in front of the bouncers and smiles. One asks her, in English, how old she is, and she says, “Twenty-seven,” even though she’s twenty eight for no reason except nerves and we all answer just in numbers, “Twenty-eight,” “Twenty-six.” My heart pounds but almost immediately the bouncers step aside and open the door and we walk in, the heaviness of the building above and all around us, taking us in, holding us.

When Berliners talk about the Berlin of 1990s, which was post-Wall but pre-cultural tourism boom, they talk mostly about how cheap everything was. Cigarettes were less than five Deutsche mark, somewhere around two dollars. Beer was less. “We’d just leave our bags wherever at a bar or club,” my girlfriend told me once. “No one had anything, so there was nothing to steal.”

When the Wall fell and Germany reunited, Berlin was broke and mostly in shambles. Residential and industrial buildings that had been owned and run by the East German government stood empty and abandoned. Since they technically belonged to no one, people started to claim them. Artists and punks moved in, turned them into living spaces and music venues and studios.

And in factories and warehouses and bunkers, the underground club scene flourished. There were no noise ordinances, no fire codes. What was happening was already illegal, so no one was regulating it. Employment was abysmally low: free time and creativity were not. People, mostly young people, did pretty much whatever they wanted. And for half the city, this was the first time they weren’t living under a restrictive system that attempted to regulate every aspect of public life.

So they danced in the ruins of that system. They built something new with what was left.

Berghain didn’t open until 2004, but it’s impossible to separate its origins from this history, this need: it is a place anyone can go, where anything goes.

The sound that surrounds us is big and clear, like it’s spun out of crystal. It moves through the huge room in waves, something you can almost reach out for and grasp onto. We dive in.

We buy drugs from a lithe, shirtless man in a bathroom stall, the watery light glinting off the stainless steel, making everything feel set adrift on a shallow tide. I feel giddy, a small child up past her bedtime lingering amongst the adults at a party. The man hands us two pills and tells us they’re strong and not to take more than a fourth and we nod and smile and press cash into his hand and then rush to find J.

We divide the pills, swallow them dry, and I keep gulping at the acrid taste in the back of my throat. We buy a beer with our last three euros and sit on low couches in the back lounge, passing it back and forth, smoking, waiting, the dyed glass windows spilling yellow and red and blue all over us, cathedral-like.

There is something in the air I can’t place. Like we’re all floating around, swimming in this space together, enraptured with it. Calm. Everyone seems to be smiling. And when I come back from the bathroom and walk down an unfamiliar hallway and am greeted by a man with an angular face who smiles at me and asks, “Do you want to come in?” and I can only stare at him, he laughs and says, “Come on honey, let’s find the dance floor,” and gently leads me away. When I find L and J it’s all I can do but shout, “I almost walked into a DARK ROOM,” and we laugh so hard we double over.

Then L says, “Let’s dance,” and we go to the dance floor in the center of the tide where giant concrete columns rise up to hold the vaulted ceiling easily over our heads and the lights glow pink and white in the smoke that’s filling the air, moving above us. We sway our shoulders to the pulsing beat, tentative at first, then bigger, we start stepping with our feet towards each other and back, quicker and quicker until that thin membrane separating me from everything else peels back and I’m standing at the center of the moment, occupying it, the whole of it rushing up and through me like champagne fizzing over.

I can’t stop smiling and I look at L and J and they’re grinning like idiots too and we put our arms around each other and the music builds up and crashes over us like a wave and everyone is swept up and cheering, throwing our hands up like it’s a cause for celebration. I can feel the music in the air against my skin when I move my body through it, all my pores open and worshipful and I can only think, This must be it. When they talk about heaven, when they imagine it. It must feel like this.

I never dreamed of Berlin the way I dreamed of places like New York City, or Paris. It was always a backdrop to me, the location where various pieces of pop culture I loved dearly were set: Cabaret, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. When my high school history teacher showed us a piece of the Wall sealed in glass, I imagined briefly the world it must have come from and it seemed both so recent and so far away.

There are the things you can’t in million years predict will happen, that seem as inevitable as gravity when they do. I moved to Berlin by accident. A startup I worked for offered me the opportunity to transfer and I took it, despite the fact that I had never visited, not even once.

After four exhilarating and exhausting years in New York, this new city was like a long drink of clear, cold water. I fell into it head first. I loved the smokey, candlelit bars filled with shabby furniture and fresh flowers. My apartment had original wood floors and elegant gold door handles. I found myself in the kinds of dark basement clubs my pre-teen self imagined vampires would hang out. No one seemed to care what I did for a living or who I kissed or where I came from. I bought a bike and Carhartt jacket and fancy sweatpants. I started smoking, but I finally felt like I could breathe.

I don’t leave Berghain until the dead of the afternoon, alone, the early-spring light outside so bright it seems to solidify when it hits my pupils. The people flocking toward the building look clean and fresh and like they’ve all had a healthy breakfast. I walk past them, reeking of smoke, feeling exposed, sweating inside my wool coat that’s too hot for this day. I try to make my way to the train but end up in the empty parking lot of some large store called a Hellweg, this big red sign above me, and all I can see is the word Hell. I double back. Every time I look over my shoulder I see Berghain, like it’s saying goodbye over the wide, flat rooftops, like it’s saying don’t go. I decide to walk home.

I end up at the East Side Gallery, the almost mile-long section of the Berlin Wall that’s been left standing as a reminder of what stands to be lost and, I suppose, what has been gained. Hordes of tourists throng along it, too close to me, busy taking pictures of themselves and each other in front of it. I defiantly walk in front of a few cameras, hoping to end up a black blur, a shadow at the edges of a bright vacation picture.

I reach the end of the Wall where it meets the Oberbaumbrücke, a bridge that stretches across the Spree River into what used to be the West. It was once a major border crossing; now it’s just my way home. The water in the river below gleams and winks and I feel acutely the weight of history, its inescapable trajectory, coalescing over and under and around me. I have the urge to turn around and go back, show my stamp to the bouncers at the door, fall back into the crowd and the music and be subsumed, re-baptized. It’s like I have a reason now, a living breathing, sweating embodiment of the why — why this, why here, why Berlin — and I want to hold it close to me for as long as I can.

That even I, a foreigner, an accidental denizen with the briefest knowledge of what came before, can feel like I belong here. Can take off my coat and lay down my bullshit and dance, ecstatic, at dawn.

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Maree lives in Berlin and is usually carrying some sort of Tupperware product on her person. She's written for Marie Claire, The Rumpus, and Teen Vogue, but still has not fulfilled her lifelong dream of seeing a real blue-footed booby. You can find her on Instagram, Twitter and probably the dance floor.

Maree has written 24 articles for us.


  1. This was beautiful. I don’t usually comment on articles and I don’t usually read articles about clubs, but this was absolutely gorgeously written.
    I’m from Germany and I’ve been to Berlin, but I’ve only heard of Berghain, neither me nor any of my closest friends being into the club scene at all. Still, this was an amazing read and I enjoyed every minute of it. Thank you so much for writing this.

    • Danke für lesen! You know, I was never much into the club scene before moving here. It’s a special place, that’s for sure.

  2. Beautiful. I also moved to (some vague part of) Europe in my mid-twenties and did drugs in a bathroom, but my essay would read like the unintelligible baby of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and a mid-80s Bonnie Tyler video.

  3. This is so beautifully written, I just want to go back and read it and be enveloped by your words again. Please write more!! <3

  4. I’m from Berlin and I am very, very sorry, but this, to me, is an account of an acutely prominent subculture of mostly American and Australian expatriates, which has brought the excessive dealing of hard drugs and severe gentrification to a town that used to be open and free and is now progressively riddled with violence and poverty.
    Rents have been rising ten percent every single year, largely due to those expatriates.
    Wages have not, unemployment, while better, is still very high (among the German university students as well), and pretty much all families and poorer folks are being pushed to the outskirts of town by those wishing to live their American dream of freedom and doing art.
    There is a huge, huge demand for inner city living space, so green spaces are being closed up, trees are felled, and rents rise higher and higher.
    People get kicked out of their apartments all the time, even.
    There are a lot of places in town where you can only order in English, cause the barista didn’t bother to learn German.
    There are streets and a central park you cannot walk anymore because drug dealers are harassing you so hard to buy from them.
    We didn’t have a culture of anything harder than a liberal use of Marihuana before, a lot of people can’t even deal with whatever they’re being sold and you will often find someone struggling near the sink in the bathroom at some point in the wee hours of the morning.
    I am truly and very sorry for being so negative, but I grew up in the clubs and gay clubs of this town, in old, spacious apartments drinking tea with friends.
    In raggedy old bars.
    I was living that “free life” where your bartender would be a former art professor from Mexico city in a midlife crisis and you’d talk all night about the meaning of life.
    Where the drunks would discuss politics over their one sobering coffee at the bakeries at noon and a stripper would loudly discuss her work garb over the phone on the subway.
    Where you’d go to dance by the river at Bar 24 for a couple of hours after your nightshift.
    But all of that has been chased away.
    All of my places have closed and the people been pushed out.
    Even I got kicked out of my Kreuzberg apartment eventually.
    And a lot of that is because people are drawn here in droves by tales of a mythical monolith named “Berghain, because of a very romanticised and uncritical use of drugs and the legend of a city where rent is cheap and everything is possible.
    If you want to belong to Berlin,you leave your refundable bottles next to the trashcans so the collectors don’t have to reach in, you help at a refugee shelter in some capacity and you sing along to Peter Fox’s “Schwarz zu Blau”, if you must.
    And you complain.
    You complain about the weather, your rent, your work, your lack of work, your food, about how horrible everything is, and about articles on autostraddle.
    I’m kidding a little bit, and please don’t take this too badly or personally,and please, DO feel welcome in this town, but please,also be a little more critical.
    Can I say I’m sorry,again?

    • I totally hear you @amidola — I’m dating a woman who was born and raised in Berlin, and the majority of my friends are either native Berliners or German. I also live next to Gorlitzer Park, and while I would tend to disagree that drugs and expats are the main reasons rents are going up in the city, but I also know that it is a complex issue with many factors involved. In any case, this essay represents a very small slice of the life I lead here, which does include being critical, and leaving my pfand bottles next to the trash cans, and paying taxes, and learning German, I promise.

      • But then, why did you write such a clichéd “been to Berghain, look at me, done drugs, yay!” account?
        You can clearly do better!
        And if you meant to write about clubs and the Music culture, what about Tresor, what about the Love Parade, what about Schwuz and the kit kalt club,even?
        And why not write about Dönerdifferentialities, or Tempelhofer Feld, instead?
        Or be ironic and write about the Bizim Kiez controversy, if you must.
        Berlin is such a complex and great city and people extolling Berghain and it’s cheap,sexy tricks really, really does not do it justice.
        It’s like complimenting a women on her make up, not her eyes.

    • well i am from berlin too and i agree.
      also, this feels like another one of these “american explores some exotic foreign culture” articles. especially – berlin and the berghain? that’s been done so often, i’ve read SO MANY english-language pieces about exactly this.
      berlin is so much more and so much more complex, and this text, while beautifully written, reads like a collection of outdated clichés.
      so while i like the writing style a lot, the content is pretty “meh”.

      also – “squat between cars to pee”, yea, entitled drunk party-going tourists do that in my neighborhood in broad daylight, next to an elementary school etc. lovely.

      also – the term “expat” is a bit problematic in itself, it draws a distinction between affluent migrants and those who are (especially currently) subject to a lot of institutionalized racism and class-based discrimination. so the particular berlin-as-a-foreigner experience described here is only attainable with a lot of privilege…

      • Hey El, yes, totally, there are a lot of privileges at work in the fact that I am a white, American foreigner who has access to a lot of things that immigrants, migrants, and refugees in other situations do not, and as is exemplified by the problematic term expat. And I also understand your fatigue with content around Berghain and that experience. The thing I’m trying to explore here attempts to go beyond that, in talking about how the history of Berlin is so intricately tied to its present, and where that culture came from, and how hard-won it is. That to me was actually incredibly humbling, and made me even more aware of my position and presence here, and how I want to always be respectful of this place in which I am very lucky to live. I appreciate you letting me know that that aspect perhaps did not come through the way I wanted it to.

  5. I was skeptical, I admit. Berlin, the Berghain … makes me (German, living in Hamburg) always a bit weary. But I loved it. The writing style and the feeling of … belongness (?) to a city you came to as a stranger. I lived in London some years ago and, oh, those nights. Less drugs, more booze, but a city and a river and dancing and feelings … it was not the London of the Londoners, of course. But it was mine, too, for a while.

  6. Another European with some misgivings about this article. On the one hand, it’s well written. On the other hand, I think within North America, Autostraddle is hugely sensitive about having different cultures representing themselves, rather than publishing a white person’s journey of discovery. I think they need to apply that sensitivty, which I hugely appreciate, to other cultures. I mean, Germans are pretty priviliged and I don’t think a lot of sensitivity is needed, but coming so soon after that list of German words for lesbian that were all wrong, it makes me feel less welcome here. ‘Expats’ (agree totally with the commenter who criticized the term) might not be the best authors for this kind of thing.

    • I’ve read a few posts recently (mostly the ‘first person’ genre) that flag up concerns about what Autostraddle should or should not endorse as their content.

      Just gonna quote for y’all part of their ‘values’statement:
      “Although we do our absolute best to make this a safe space, we cannot ever promise anybody that this will be a ‘comfortable’ space. You won’t agree with every idea published here and that’s fine — neither do we!”

      Writing is about recognition. Of self, but also of other people. If you see yourself misrepresented, that is the crux of the issue with first person narratives that do not include a wide range of critical engagements. Necessarily they tell one story, and unless they’re explicitly on some kind of New Journalism social justice question, I honestly I think it’s okay to see one story. I see a bit of me. I see a bit of her. Being uncomfortable is also actually okay – it makes for a better critical discussion (which we’re having!) and I don’t think in any way it means Autostraddle is being somehow irresponsible with content or exposure.

  7. Very beautifully written. Its been a while since i was in this scene, but this brings back memories of how i felt about the place i used to go. So much love in a single place, love of music, of the people, of the space. @amidola your description of the “free life” also sounds so beautiful. What i wouldnt give to live in a time or place where the trees arent falling and the crowds arent taking over and you can just be discussing the meaning of life surrounded by the outcasts. My utopia <3

  8. I left for Europe from my home in Toronto to escape a shitty relationship and a drug habit. To anybody I talked about it to, they seemed floored by the idea of spending nights in the likes of Berghain which I went to on a Friday night and left on a Saturday afternoon to “escape drugs.” And while they were in abundance and I barely would have needed to open my mouth for somebody to slip a pill inside or I would have just needed to knock on a bathroom stall door to partake in my ritualistic line engineering, I didn’t need them away from the people and the places that triggered The Craving in the first place. Berghain was enough of a trip to Planet Zorg on its own

  9. Thanks, Maree, for writing such a beautiful story of your experience in Berlin. I was hit by so, so, so much nostalgia for the short time I spent living there. I didn’t even go to any dance clubs while I was there, though my American friends did. But I went to a lesbian bar, and a sex club once (another story) and lots and lots of cafe bars and currywurst stands and the community center where I volunteered and all the trains and neighborhoods and art studios. And it all felt, to me, like what you described. The whole time I felt myself dripping in the unknown history, too, the one that didn’t belong to me, and I think you captured that so well. That feeling that even if a city or a place is not yours, you can belong to it, and in it, and you really can learn totally new things about yourself there.

    To the detractors: I hear you. Please also write about Berlin and submit it to Autostraddle. I would seriously love to read your experiences as well.

  10. I’m on the final day of my first visit to Berlin and very much appreciate all the commentary here. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to write their experiences and critical perspective. Many things to think about while traveling, moving homes, and moving through space.

  11. for me it’s not about shutting down these first-person narratives, or criticizing autostraddle for putting them up. i enjoy a diversity of perspectives – but that’s exactly the crux, that this article seems to be a bit one-sided and repeats some stereotypes, which results in an oversimplistic representation. as was mentioned, berliners per se are not a particularly underprivileged group – but still, there are so so so many more stories to tell about this city than drugs at the berghain, especially stories from “newcomers”.

    of course i’m excited that people from everywhere are moving here and finding freedom – in fact my girlfriend is from a country where her rights as a gay person are taken away, so i am deeply grateful for the open and tolerant atmosphere here.

    and of course moving to a new place, digging deep into its history, trying to make a home there while acknowledging that the place is yours in a way but not just there for you, make for some profound reflection and struggle.

    i guess my issue is that so many self-proclaimed “expats” here treat berlin like their own disneyland, with no respect for grown structures and communities, or challenges and changes the city faces right now (for example, the situation of refugees here is HORRIFYING). a place is so much more than the superficial hedonism it has to offer, and some superficial historical “facts”.

    so i really don’t want to be offensive (not very berlin of me…), i love the writing and i’m glad the author loves berlin so much. i’d like to just maybe nudge her towards a bit more reflection and struggle, and autostraddle towards a bit more diversity of perspectives when it comes to international content / stories covering non-american cultures.

    you guys are all lovely though. <3

  12. This was beautiful. This was also ignorant. Pretty things can spring out of horrible ones, but you can’t ignore the shadows when painting a picture.

    And pissing in the streets? Really?

  13. On one hand I understand where the criticism is coming from (this seems like a very shallow vision of Berlin) but on the other hand I have yet to understand Europeans who come to American-owned and sometimes -operated sites and demand content that prioritizes their experiences. Autostraddle does a good job interpreting contemporary queer experiences through an intersectional American lens. I’m* not sure why it needs to do more than that.

    * not speaking for Autostraddle or its editors in any way.

    For the record, there are plenty of Europeans who come to the U.S. to study and come away from the experience with 1-4 years of partying under their belt and next to no enhanced cultural understanding to show for it.

    • fair enough, europeans are not perfect global citizens. of course the same holds for them, i don’t have too many sympathies for “party tourists” wherever they are.

      i’m not sure where you are getting at, though – are european readers (of which there are quite a lot, i think) supposed to stay away? be only passive readers? not give feedback when they feel their culture is misrepresented?
      i’m not demanding my experience to be prioritized by any means!!! but when there are articles on other cultures, isn’t it also in the interest of american readers to get some appropriate insight into those cultures? and not present mere caricatures of them (as was the case with the multilingual “lesbian slang terms” from a few weeks ago).

      i see autostraddle as putting a lot of effort into making all kinds of voices heard, providing all kinds of interesting information from unexpected perspectives.

      if “american-owned” means having no interest in positions and experiences of non-americans, if non-american responses are not welcome, then sure, we can just shut up…

  14. General thoughts on some of this —

    1. I think it’s amazing that Autostraddle is important to so many people in so many countries. Like truly, how powerful is our community when we’re able to come together like this? Of course everyone should feel at home here, wherever they live. That is part of the magic.

    2. I really feel for the writers, especially on the personal essays. They have so many people with so many different perspectives reading and commenting, it’s almost like the writer’s workshops I used to take part in when I was doing my undergrad degree in creative writing, only the “classmates” critiquing your piece are all over the world, and they bring all different experiences of the world to that critique. How amazingly tough would that be, especially if you’re just trying to talk about your own experience?

    3. At the same time, we who read Autostraddle keep commenting and stay invested and do sometimes ask for more or different content because we know that media representation matters, we know what good representation looks like because it speaks to our hearts, we see articles that do that all the time here — and we know what inaccurate or uninformed representation looks and feels like too. And we expect more from Autostraddle, because it is a magical place with magical people and that magic is fucking REAL.

    I can’t really tie this comment up neatly, but those are some of the thoughts knocking around in my head.

  15. well this was beautifully written and i loved reading a tiny slice of your experiences in the world, maree. i don’t usually connect with stories that include dance clubs and drugs, but i really relate to what you’re saying here about that feeling of belonging and breathing and laying down your armor even for a minute.

    i’m excited for some european writers [and writers everywhere, really!] to submit their own works so we can see even more tiny slices of queer existence. personal essays are only obligated to tell a single small story and tell it well, so please don’t be worried that your story is too small or too one-sided to be considered here, or to be interesting. with the exception of colonialist / white savior narratives or otherwise exploitative eat-pray-love style shit, we welcome your stories about your own wondrous fuckery on this planet.

  16. I visited Berlin for the first time over a year ago and fell in love with it. I didn’t go clubbing while I was there, but I do regret not experiencing that side of Berlin, especially Berghain. I’m not into drugs – I’m sober – so I couldn’t really relate to that part of it, and I share the misgivings of some of the other folks who commented here, but I also really appreciate this piece for what it makes me remember and what it captures- that acute sense of history, how electric and alive the city feels, how fascinating it is. It’s my second favorite city after the one I was born in and call home (Seattle); being there made me fall in love with German and start teaching myself the language; and I definitely want to go back and even live there for awhile. But I hope to not contribute to some of the issues cited by other commenters, and be a positive part of the city instead.

  17. I loved loved loved this article and encourage you to keep writing more. I like all the feelings I had reading about your night with your friends and this feeling you had of Berlin feeling like home. Also I have liked how you have responded to the criticism that has been voiced, which has been very insightful and respectful

  18. Everyone who has been to Berlin basically says the same. I’ve been living here for 8 years now and – no shit: every morning I wake up I am gratful for getting the chance of being here. It doesn’t get boring. Ever. Stattbad – the club you describe in the beginning, unfortunately had to close last year. But as long as there’s Berghain, people get over clubs disappearing (that happens quite often due to legal issues). You know, it may be hard to get in – but you surely never get out. ;)

  19. Had a blast reading the published version of yesterday’s oh so funny story telling of that night, keep on Maree

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