— Nina Mehta

Archive
Berlin

I came to Berlin with 4 things on my mind and now with some resolution.

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Do I want my next job to be running a design team?
The answer for me is no. Well. Not yet.

Hiring, shaping, and leading the Pivotal Labs Berlin design team is one of my brightest professional accomplishments. I wanted a highly talented team with diverse skills that compliment each other. I fantasized about a collaborative, caring, and resilient team that has fun doing great work far beyond my time. I loved unblocking my people and nurturing their strengths to become their best design self and started a related writing collection called The Ligature. When I look to my design mentors, I know the next step for me is to return making, designing, and doing great work.

 

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What can I discover about myself as an artist?
The darkness of winter makes Berlin such a wonderful canvas for light artists. It’s the perfect landscape for the kinds of galleries, installations, and types of spaces I love. I visited old power plants, dilapidated breweries, and other vacant spaces. Spending more time with these kinds of installations and and artists helped me give new shape to my perspective as a participant and creator.

Living somewhere new also gave me so much to write about. For nine months, every Saturday I wrote and posted something here. Though, the readership was sometimes an audience of one, I have a more intimate connection with my internal and written voice.

And finally living alone deeply changed my morning and evening rituals. Unexpectedly, my yoga and painting practice became intertwined. I deep dived into the original texts from the Bauhaus School teachers and specific yoga practices and started my Bauhaus Yoga collection a medium. Nurturing these two practices together brought me a intimate connection to my mind and body as they relate to my creative and sensual self.

 

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What can I learn from the minimalists?
This one is quite simple. I wanted to live, breath, and immerse in the home of minimalist architecture and design I wanted to see it show up in my design work, home, mindset, and way of solving problems. I sold nearly everything I owned when I came to Berlin and I’m going home with half that. I want even more of less.

Where is home?
My stylist told me it takes a year, a bike, and a breakup before you’re ready to really live in Berlin. He’s right. I surprised even myself when I felt called back to San Francisco: to my family, a place I understand, and where I can have an impact. But, I’m leaving a suitcase here.

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Summer has passed which means at least a third of San Francisco’s nomads have wandered though Berlin. The two cities are obvious matches for one another: both with their own versions of alternative lifestyles, young spirits, immigrants, and deeply complex socio-political issues.
Bay Area techies and house heads love coming to this cheap, spacious, creative, more underground, concrete version of San Francisco. Berliners regularly seem charmed by the optimistic dreamers and coastal views.

“When the wall came down, everything became possible.” That’s what native Berliners tell me about the magic of the German capital.

And it’s that very ideal seems to draw Gold Rushers to Berlin: possibility. I’m curious how many will stay. San Francisco used to offer creative, expressive, grand possibilities. Almost anyone could try on a new religion, new style, new sexuality, new job, new politic, new beliefs. The city would celebrate whoever you want to be this year, this day, this hour, and it didn’t matter how much money you had.

Silicon Valley looms over San Francisco like the evening fog. If you’re unprepared, you’ll be left shivering in Dolores Park. Even if you can pull off living in SF economically (hello rent control!) and will put up with smelly streets and sloppy public transit, the new rich culture makes many other city charms, that possibility thing I was talking about, much more difficult.

Which brings us back to Berlin. It’s an incredible place for San Franciscans to take a holiday. But living here is not so easy. We are not so patient with inconveniences. Rules, paperwork, structure, and formalities. Learning German is difficult but I believe is necessarily if you will actually LIVE here. If you’re not white, some things just won’t come easy. Most of you probably read my racism post and a lot of you disagreed so let’s not get too deep into that here.

Several of my German friends have sadly left this city because they couldn’t find a work. People in my demographic want to live here but the money and jobs are in Munich and Frankfurt. Good work seems to be hard to find in Berlin.

There is a tech scene here but VCs seem hesitant to take leaps on innovative concepts and practitioners are only now starting to get permission to do user research. And I hear my German startup friends complaining about legal barriers. It’s hard to launch in Germany! Techies need to ship. Things get pretty rough if you can’t move fast and break things.

I love Berlin. I love it so much. I think I’ll live here again someday. But despite all the problems in San Francisco, I haven’t found another city that has both a fetish for fetishes and Redwood trees on demand

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Most feedback I get about Burning Man in Berlin is:

  • We have a lot of events and places to go inspired/similar to Burning Man
  • I’d really like to go but it’s very far and expensive
  • I go to the regional burns
  • I’ve never heard of it

I was dancing at Berghain the day the man burned and saw a nice young man with playa goggles on his head. As a Bay Area American I really try not to talk about Burning Man especially at festivals and clubs. I’ve found some friends to (rightfully) get defensive about their events because Americans celebrate the desert festival so hard not making much room for other conversations. But in this case, I couldn’t not ask the goggled man if he too was having a little playa moment.

Unfortunately he had no idea what I was talking about. I’m more surprised how far of the the desert art festival has spread in such subtle ways and yet still barely exists.

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I put in a lot of effort in several forums and groups to get a group of Burners together, but no bite. People who had been to the original playa in Nevada.

In the end I had three friends over from very different worlds. We wrote down our new year’s goals, desires, and things to burn away and kept them in our pockets. The wood temple we intended to Burn wasn’t possible so we built our own man from my art supply paper and took it behind the RAW warehouses. In front of a rock statue on a bed of wet sand I lit two incense sticks, dropped in our wishes, drank some red wine from the bottle, and sent up some flames. It was sweet, primal, and intimate.

When Burning Man does come up in Berlin conversations, and sometimes it does, I appreciate the criticism. “Isn’t San Francisco trying to shape the future? How can all those people spend all that money and ignore the homeless? Isn’t it horrible for the environment? Why does it cost so much? Is it a techie networking event? ” The list goes on.

None of these criticisms are new. But in Berlin the criticism stand on their own compared to at home when someone will quickly reaffirm that we should go anyway because it’s; fun. I’m not feeling drawn to return after two years of horrible weather. But this year looked so good. And one week my friends decide to take a vacation at the same time with only the right distractions is temping.

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Escape from the concrete jungle during hot summer days seems to define the season. All winter and spring I heard the long fantasies for long days of light bathing in cool pools. On the hottest days the city empties and you know exactly where everyone has gone.

There are a few small lakes near Berlin but I’m told they’re accessible but dirty.

 

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Caputh Lake Potsdam (West)

This is my favorite lake near Berlin so far. I’m not poster child for hiking and camping so I appreciate when a few services are available on hand. With a 9 Euro entrance fee you can get a beach bed, access to an excellent cocktail bar, a shower, little changing area, and slightly maintained swimming area. There was a bit more a family crowd here but the sand (in and out of the water) was very soft and the children well behaved. There are two routes below but honestly they both felt like a zip because the whole ride is through the trees. There’s one especially good spot to eat nearby, I don’t know the name off the top of my head but I can get it for you. Foursquare kept yelling to me not to eat in the restaurant. I liked the lake because it felt slightly more private, cleaner, and had a little extra care. The mojiots were a dream come true and without planning all the logistics you’ll have time to make a bomb picnic.

 

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for a more local feel..

 

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1:24hr and 34km ride

40min and 12km ride to from Potsdam to Caputh

1:24 hours and a 35km ride

1:24 hours and a 35km ride to Caputh from Potsdam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liebnitzsee Lake (North)

This spot north of the city is a favorite to Berliners. It has calm, beautiful trails around, an island for camping, and an overall joyful vibe. A lot of swimmers bring rafts so they can swim from the main lake over to the island that has campers. The island has a tarzan style rope where you can swing off and land into the lake. Too fun. From the nearest train station it’s a 12km bike ride partially on the road and partially among the trees.

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40min and 12km ride to Liptzensee

 

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Flos und Los Boat

Of course some days are not for swimming in which case hopefully you bet on the weather, planned far in advance and rented a boat. Flos Un Los 10er Cabrio + Grill is our favorite ride. Good price, two floors, plenty of room for a sound system, a toilet, covered area, and doesn’t require a driver. It’s a little annoying to get here but that seemed to be the case with all the boat companies near Berlin. From their pickup you can take a very route through the greens or industrial former East Berlin.

And now onto something so obvious you might forget…

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Spreefahrt Tour

The “tour of Berlin” boat tour is an obvious move for parents, but actually I too had a great time. The BWSG Spreefahrt Tour was in English and German which is the first plus. They have drinks and food service and different length tours. The one-hour tour was a bit short for European style relaxing but still good. The pickup is centrally located near Hackershermarkt so you can fit into any kind of tourism you probably have that day. The best part? The tour guide didn’t talk the entire time. There was ample quiet time to enjoy the beautiful scenes of Berlin actually chat with the people you’re with.

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And if you can’t make it on a boat, there’s one more option:

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Badeschiff

Leave it to Berlin to drop a pool in the middle of the Spree. Amongst the waterfront clubs like Club der Visionare, Ipse, and Watergate is this swimming spot. It’s open all day, serves food, drinks, has a beach, and most importantly a pool (overlooking my office). If you can’t or don’t want to do all the planning that comes with a boat, swim in the pool and watch them and the kayakers float by.

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Every election liberal Americans threaten to move to Europe or Canada if {insert tyrant} becomes president. Of course they never do change cities, but the comment illustrates a point. I’m furious about {insert tyrant}. I’m hearing the opposite from expats in Berlin. “Maybe it’s time to return home and work on something that needs me.”

Returning Home

I woke up in tears reading about the police officers in Dallas. It’s not that these particular lives lost moved me more than the other countless mass shootings in America this year. Each time we lose more lives to intolerance I hope this is the tipping point. I’m in pain because I’m afraid these murders will continue. The tipping point for me means we won’t rest until there is cultural and legal change to stop mass shootings. It’s an unbelievable horrible nightmare that makes me want to come home and do something with impact. I can’t sit in or speak up from so far away.

Last weekend I was chatting with a British party friend about all kinds of mindless things until Brexit came up. This friend enjoys his life in Berlin, good friends, good music, good home, making a living; no huge motive to change course. But amidst the decision, he did feel a call to return home. Whether or not he or I can make a meaningful difference at home is another question, but this attitude does show me a positive turn of perspective on my escapist generation. Instead of running away to a “better” life, thirty somethings are feeling called back home to do something that serves outside themselves.

Staying Home

I watched the Vice City Street tour of Halsted St in Chicago which reminded me of people who live their entire lives in one city. They make an impact on the city simply by creating a life and staying there, becoming an essential thread in the cities Fabric. If they went elsewhere part of Chicagos’ fabric would snag and unravel. The community barber shop would close, a gay bar in boystown would no longer be a safe haven, or a family run hot dog stand would end a staple of the city. Some cities like Berlin and San Francisco unravel and resew their cities every day and some like Chicago or Detroit stay strongly woven. The impact their locals have is slow but stays.

Making in Berlin

Foreigners in Berlin appear woven into the city’s fabric but I’m wondering how integrated we are, if at all. My conscious effort to make German friends, practice the language, and attempt to localize was huge for me but also quite small. I am learning Berlin gets used as a spacious, inexpensive canvas for many expats who will pay the cultural cost of moving somewhere new. We will spend in cash, learn enough language around, and fill out just enough paper work to stay here and make art. It’s changing Berlin into a transient place where so much of what’s exciting to outsiders is not coming from locals.

What gets missed in all the hype is what’s actually wonderful about the real fabric of Berlin’s city. The pace, the perspective, the beliefs. I want to further understand how (or if at all) active change in Berlin is possible with so many people coming and going who are invested in Berlin, but only just enough.

 

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Yoga in Berlin is like so many other German things: deliberate, patient, spacious, and precise. I’m not only comparing the local practice to the west coast but also what I’ve practiced in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Goa, Chicago, Boulder, and so on. The practices here lead to the deepest awareness of the body I’ve found. Teachers I’ve attended bring extra attention to vipassana style body-scanning and deeper holds in chaturanga, utkatasana, malasana, and even in child’s pose. However, I’ve found Vinyasa and Hatha in Berlin to have the least organic feeling flow and connection to nature.

936623_10106593635827809_4649201454531146905_nBefore coming to Berlin I spent December in hot, colorful, spicy, pollution-filled India. I washed it all away in Goa with the one and only Janet Stone (above). In San Francisco, I regularly spent two hours of my Saturday mornings with her and a room full of other hippie-techies. It was nice to get one last slice of home before landing into winter.

Upon arrival, I spent months trying to learn enough German to do everything possible localized, including yoga. I thought knowing the asanas in Sanskirt would diffuse the language problem. I was wrong. Not understanding the instructor, cadence, and details really kept me focused on the logistics rather than a connecting to myself.

Foreign language is not always a yogic barrier. I feel close to fluent in Spanish after a few weeks of immersion. In Argentina, I took classes in Spanish with Agustina Villar. It was inspiring and recharging and a bit silly every time we went for perro abajo. In that context, foreign language yoga was fun and inspiring. It lit up different parts of my brain which brought me a closer connection to my mind, body, and emotions.

During this time the weather got warmer and I got a bike which made it possible to attend English classes in Kreuzberg. Berlin has so much physical space that it’s even possible to do yoga in huge art galleries (see instagram photo at top). I only felt the stark contrast between Berlin and West Coast style yoga when I started doing at-home videos from LA-based Shiva Rea.

I sometimes wonder if the relaxed work-life balance, quiet Sundays, and all the physical space is what makes the yoga practice in Berlin so deliberate, spaciuous and patient. It’s sometimes a bit mechanical or overly precise (e.g “now we’re going to have an 8 minute shavasana. Just relax.”), but always thoughtful, intentional, and rightfully slowing.

The legendary Ana Forrest is coming to Berlin in a few weeks for a weekend of workshops. I’m excited to see how her modern approach to yoga goes in city so experienced at relaxing.

Oh and if you are looking for a deep english-speaking practice Yellow Yoga has locations in Kreuzberg and Neukölln with fair prices, good ethos, quality teachers and a range of levels. Enjoy!

 

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Only in Berlin could  you find so many shirts, shoes, trousers, and black hats. Alles schwarz. The first time my wardrobe went all black was ten years ago when I lived in London. The second time was during my projection art days in San Francisco. And from there it stuck until I moved to Berlin where each article has one specific cut, zipper, or pocket that gives it a special personality.

Have a careful look in the photo above. There are only a handful of people in this massive crowd wearing color. And this is the case when you look around on the streets. I guess the look is inspired by the industrial nature, the creative community, or the simplicity of a casual but effortless chic expression.

So I started playing a game with visitors to Berlin called: find someone wearing a color. If it was a drinking game, we would be sober.

A few weeks ago I made a new friend who read me this quote:

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Many would probably find this quote annoying or wrong. But ‘I don’t bother you – you don’t bother me’ fits Berlin quite well.

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First a WW2 Bunker 2, then a pre-Berghain club, now an art gallery

 

The hungry tech scene in Germany’s hipster capital is at odds with a data-mining culture.  In a predominately cash-based, privacy conscious, offline society: is there room for technology to thrive? It’s understandable for Germany to be sensitive to controlling surveillance systems.

“German concern for privacy rights, a powerful force in a country where folk memories of the Gestapo and Stasi are still strong, against the onward march of modern technology. ” No pixels, please, we’re German, The Economist

In my day-to-day activities I find my peers avoiding tech services that to me seem like the basics: paypal, online shopping, sharing your given name on Facebook. But many of the big Berlin startups seem like copies of existing American companies:

  • MyTaxi like Uber
  • Zalando like Amazon
  • Foodora like Postmates
  • Dawanda like Etsy
  • EyeEm like 500px

I can’t make much sense of making local copies of companies going global. I’m a bit confused how these digital services are will thrive and see great adoption with what seems like the current generations aversion to technology. Programmer turned fashion designed and cofounder of ElektroCouture, Lisa Lang, inspired me to think beyond digital services. She showed me one of her projects that included reprogramming old sewing machines with software, to produce remarkable new materials.

Of course then I realized, the answer isn’t software, it’s machines! I would love to see more innovators building software and digital systems into where Germans already excel: mechanical hardware. All the machines and old tools are not obsolete, they’re available for what Berlin has done better than anyone: renovation.

The 90s brought Berliners the belief of possibility. The wall came down and I hear again and again, “everything was possible then”. Before this whole spirit gets lost, instead of copying something American, Berlin should be Berlin. Then it was repurposing empty warehouses and vacant parking garages. Today it’s making something new with vacant machines. They can make something new, relevant, meaningful, and most importantly their own.

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  • wide leg trousers
  • high-waisted denim
  • choker necklaces
  • sweatshirts tied around your waist
  • denim overalls
  • berry colored lipstick
  • platform sneakers
  • fanny packs
  • doc martins
  • flannel
  • 1-piece unitard anything
  • bald women
  • bangs
  • septum piercing
  • toe rings
  • half pony tail
  • leather jacket
  • ripped 20-denier tights
  • keith haring
  • wide brim hats
  • side boob muscle tanks
  • torn jeans
  • anklets
  • xxxxxxl  bomber jackets
  • women baseball hats
  • beanies
  • mini backpacks
  • halter crop top
  • using the term “lipstick lesbian”
  • bodycon everything

still waiting on

  • hair crimping
  • scrunchies
  • acid washed jeans
  • clogs
  • cargo pants
  • drawstring maxi skirts (update: found!)
  • babydoll dresses
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This is hard to talk about, but I expected Berlin to be more progressive and less racist.

Before I came here, I was told things have come a long way since World War II. And they probably have, but I expected more. I find daily subtle insensitivity  towards East Berliners, West Berliners, Eastern Europeans, Spanish, Mexicans, Blacks and Chinese** people. This kind of thing is hard to pick up if you’re on a short holiday or mostly interacting with expats.

In discussions with friends, when I hear culturally insensitive language I try to pause the conversation to discuss. In many of these experiences I find people laugh it off or suggest it’s not a serious problem. This is most concerning issue for me. And it’s true that Americans are hyper-sensitive about these (and many) kinds of things, so there’s room to meet in the middle.

We too from the United States too have a dark history of genocide, slavery, and ongoing racism against newcomers. However, as a nation of immigrants we are getting better at accepting different perspectives and sensitivity around language, especially people in cities. The difference is that in North American cities, when someone acknowledges there’s insensitive language in the room the offender usually acknowledges, apologizes and works not to make the mistake again. Whereas here, I find the issue is often ignored, diminished, or dismissed completely.

Ghosting from a party is only hurtful to ghosts

In Berlin it’s fairly rude when I don’t greet and bid farewell to every individual in the group. Apologies for everyone I didn’t greet with a hug upon arrival and for all the times I left without discussion. I’m really working on it, but it takes time to change behavior.

What I’ve learned so far is that around the world, sometimes people leave parties without saying goodbye and it’s understood to be rude. But when you quietly slip away from a party, what is that called?

I’ve had what feels like hundreds of conversations about this topic. Except for ghosting, some person from one group is implying something derogatory and untrue about another group. But nearly every time I suggest this is hurtful language for Irish, Polish, English, Swedish, or Chinese people I usually don’t see the “am I bring racist?” light turn on. This is really difficult for me as a non-white minority in a place with a recent history of genocide against people who are different.

Traveling in Europe

The ghosting story is to only illustrate the subtleties of the greater issue. It’s not true about all people in Germany and not even most of my friends. But it’s true about enough people I’ve talked to that I need to say something. My friends and colleagues still recommend I be careful about which neighborhoods I visit in Berlin and to consider traveling to Eastern Europe with someone white.  I’m sure many of you will tell me I would be fine on my own, and I’m sure I would. But we’re still living in a world where it’s something I have to consider, and thankfully friends here are helping me understand.

I lived this experience for living nearly a decade of my life. I lived thirty minutes Martinsville, Indiana: a major hub for Ku Klux Klan white supremacy terrorist group. You just learn where to stop, when to keep driving, and how to tell if someone is not comfortable with who you are. It’s not ok, but it’s the precautions you take in small-town America.

I didn’t expect to have these kinds of feelings and conversations in a rich, diverse, contemporary, supposedly open-minded city like Berlin. I thought a continent with so many countries, borders, thriving cities, and rich education would help further open my mind,  not the opposite.

I’m disappointed in my Berlin experiences so far. I have a diversity of friends and colleagues with different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences, so let’s consider this a halfway point, not a synthesis of my understanding. I want to keep this conversation going and hope my opinion about racism in Berlin changes over time.

*I struggle to write the term American Indian as the people living there first were neither American, nor Indian, and I identify with being both. But several source say this is the right term to use. 

** I think Chinese might be a catch all term for anyone from East or South East Asia.

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