When I travel in big cities, I love to gain insight into the city’s culture by seeing what’s for sale at local flea markets. In Berlin, I visited one small and one large flea market event on consecutive Sundays. But if you’re not tired out from the first, you could easily visit both in one day!
Market #1: At Boxhanger Platz
Sundays in the south of the Friedrichshain District, there is a small flea market surounding a “box” or block. Make it your first stop, but give yourself enough time! I told my buddy Frank to meet me in half an hour so I’d have time to make my way around. By about half way through, I had to quicken my pace and skip over a lot in order to meet him on time. There was just so much to see!
There was a lot of new stuff much like what you would expect to find at any city flea market: stitched bags, leather wallets, jewelry, handmade soaps, records, and artwork, just to name some of it.
But then there was a whole lot that deviated from the norm: used chinaware, classic video games, landline telephones, binoculars and camera parts, a bunch of wooden chairs (anyone? anyone?), and a whole lot more random second-hand stuff. Need a lamp for the nightstand in your new apartment? Grandma’s musty old reading light will do. Want to make a collage of old black and white photographs and postcards to fill a wall in your bathroom? There’s a whole box of ‘em (with messages and notes written on the back!).
Watching local Berliners pick through other local Berliner’s carefully laid out piles solidified my perspective on the culture of Berlin. The people are artsy, fashionable, and unique in exactly this second-hand sort of way. Recycling and reusing things to create or decorate home, body, or landscape is what people do for fun. It reminded me a bit of Williamsburg in Brooklyn but somehow less cookie cutter and more the crumbs left over in the bottom of the tray. In the most laid-back, nonchalant way possible people scape together what they can to feel good and “be seen” as who they are and that’s just Tuesday (or Sunday, in this case). This was clear to Frank and I when even on a random weeknight in Kreuzberg on a bridge over the canal, we found people chilling out, playing music, and drinking beers as if work tomorrow was more like, “What work tomorrow?”
Along with this type of culture (like with Williamsburg) comes an artistic, apolitical, youthful crowd: hipsters, artists, hippies, freaks, nerds, outcasts, anarchists, feminists and queers galore! This was the perfect flea market to find some fun gender justice type items. One of the first stalls I saw had an appropriately pocket-size book (or “graphic survey”) for sale by Yori Gagarim called Let them talk!: What genitals have to say about gender. The book personifies genitals and gives them individual voices of their own. It’s a humorous, and rather clever, way of pointing out how people judge other people’s genitals before allowing the people with those genitals the chance to determine what their genitals mean for themselves. On display along with the booklet were patches, pins, and other items displaying various gender justice messages. I was elated to find this at the market because many of the messages resonated with my dissertation topic, cisgenderism. I couldn’t resist! I chatted with the sellers and then purchased a few patches and two booklets to give Yori my support.
Market #2: At Mauerpark
After visiting Boxhanger, it’s worth a quick subway ride to the Prenzlauer Berg District to check out Mauerpark. There’s a huge flea and food market there which will take you at least an hour or two to see all of thoroughly. Again, there was a great mix of new items and artwork as well as second-hand items and quirky stuff thrown in!
I met some very friendly locals with awesome collections of items. For example, this woman (who when I asked to take her photo said okay to one without her face) and her husband collect unique pieces of jewelry from their travels all around the world. She had a great collection presented in this stylish collapsible box.
Unique to this flea market were people selling items to support certain causes. A small group had a stand selling mostly second-hand items. I found a tank top here I could buy for only .50 euro! When I learned the profits from their sales were going to provide bicycles to children in Cambodia I gave them a few euros extra. Cheers to consumerism you can feel good about!
As for food, there were your typical German beer gardens, Berlin currywurst, and other Western food options. But there were also food stands selling cuisine from around the world. I opted for some Ghanaian fried chicken and rice mixed with vegetables and beans, topped with fried plantains. A large group of sub-Saharan Africans, many seeking asylum from Ghana and Nigeria, have migrated to Germany especially in the last 40 years. The largest number have moved to Berlin and nearby Hamburg. Some now make a living serving their native country's food to Berliners and tourists. Thanks to these women and men, I got a delicious break from all the German food I had been eating for weeks. Yum!
The Mauerpark market on Sundays is not only an enormous flea and food market, it’s also where Berliners and tourists alike go to chill out, listen to live music, watch street artists paint up a storm, and sing some karaoke.
Yes, I said karaoke. Make it to the park by 1 or 2 in the afternoon and squeeze yourself into a seat in the amphitheater overlooking the circular cement stage referred to as “the bear pit.” Watch a myriad of other performances as you wait for Bearpit Karaoke to start at 3pm. Lots of people volunteer to go up and sing a song while the crowd cheers them on. It’s okay if you are not a good singer. In fact, those were some of the best performances! The crowd cheers you on regardless and delights in the bad singers who put in the most effort (picture silly dancing to go along with a cracking voice). I wanted to do a song but there was a huge number of volunteers by only a half hour into the show. If you get there at the start you’ll have a better chance of singing right away since people are notoriously hesitant to volunteer first for something like this.
I had a great time at Mauerpark. And even though Mauerpark is a very big event with lots of people in attendance, it’s not impossible to bump into someone you know. I was walking with Maurice, a friend I met at the free walking tour the day before, when I suddenly heard my name. Amid the crowd emerged Dan and Yimu—new friends from the Festival of Lights! It’s wonderful meeting new people and then bumping into them at random in a big city like Berlin. It seems Berlin is much smaller than one would think!