Horrifying Social Interactions: Haus Schwarzenberg Edition

I’ve been quite successful in my endeavour to avoid hipsters (and people, in general) while in Berlin. If you are familiar with the city, you’ll understand that avoiding members of this subculture is a strenuous, full-time operation; something I valiantly took in my stride (by choosing to live in the quiet suburbs, the inhabitants of which do not seem to harbour particularly strong resentment against the Establishment, and by spending most of my time under the covers binge-watching everything).

So imagine my horror when my German course teacher announced our next assignment- we were to visit typically Berlin locations in groups of three to interview minimum three random bystanders in German. My first thought was, “What am I doing in this class? Shouldn’t I be using this time to learn programming?”. My second thought was, “I wonder if they’re still serving fries at the cafeteria”. And then I went on to be annoyed that none of the other students in the class seemed sufficiently horrified by this project- look at them, look at these bright, young Erasmus students, look at them being all laid-back and open to new experiences and not crippled by social anxiety; meanwhile, I’m… I’m just so tired all the time.

Through a comedy of errors- the details of which are too silly and awkward for anyone to listen to me recount- my name ended up being listed next to what seemed like the most hipster option on the list: Lonely Planet describes Haus Schwarzenberg as “the last holdout in the heavily gentrified area around the Hackescher Markt” and “… an unpretentious space where art and creativity are allowed to flourish beyond the mainstream and commerce.” So many red flags in two little sentences. “Heavily gentrified”… Their need to emphasize the “unpretentiousness” of the place was suspicious. But it was the “beyond the mainstream” that caused a sense of impending doom to descend upon me- I was going to have to visit some sort of hipster haven. To interview hipsters. In German.

I know there is nothing novel or interesting about disliking hipsters and I’m not claiming to be terribly socially-awkward or introverted (like every pretty young thing/social butterfly claims to be on the Internet). But the idea of approaching young strangers in a hip neighbourhood for small talk in a language I’m not comfortable with is the stuff of nightmares.

For the next few days, I dealt with my fears like an adult by whining about the project to everyone I came across. Some tried to be supportive by saying they had to do similiar stuff while learning a new language in school, which only served to fuel my anxiety – yeah, it’s cute when giggly schoolkids shyly try to engage strangers in conversation. But there is nothing endearing about three adults who’ve never spoken to each other being forced to band together to accost passersby and subject them to pathetic German, all while looking terribly unhappy about the whole thing. It crossed my mind that people could respond to my halting “Hi, do you have a minute?” with “No sorry, I don’t have any money” and then I had to devote extra effort to not looking as shabby/homeless as usual.

Here is a list of preconceived notions that I’d built up in my head prior to the visit:

  1. I would be treated to plenty of confusing avant garde art
  2. I would be saying “I don’t get it” a lot and would struggle not to mock everything in sight
  3. The place would be teeming with unsmiling hipsters, who’d make me feel completely out-of-place with their all-black attire and looks of perpetual ennui
  4. There would be some artsy reference to 2 or more of the following: marijuana leaves, Pink Floyd/Rolling Stones album art, vaginas and/nipples, Eastern religious symbols, variations of the ‘meat is murder’ slogan .

At the entrance, I was immediately shamed for my prejudiced judgy jugdmentalness by this plaque:

(TRIGGER WARNING FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN’T STAND TERRIBLE PHOTOGRAPHY)

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Haus Schwarzenberg is way more than what I thought it was. Among other things, it lodged Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind, a brush and broom factory which employed blind, deaf, and Jewish workers, whom were prime targets during the Nazi era. Otto Weidt spent his life fighting to protect his employees from the Nazis, by forging their documents or hiding them in a tiny, windowless backroom.

The factory is now converted into a little museum dedicated to his efforts, the caretaker of which turned out to be our Interview Subject #1. I’m not sure what exactly his job entailed, apart from sporting an impressive beard and moustache (quite similiar to that of Indian policemen) and gruffly instructing people to remove their coats and bags before entering. We hovered by his desk, loudly whispering about what we should ask him, and how we should go about this; in retrospect, he probably found us extremely suspicious and was ready to trigger a silent alarm. We awkwardly approached him and found that, behind the tough exterior, he was just a sweet grandpa person who was happy to talk to us.

For  Interview Subject #2, I turned to the friend I’d dragged along for moral support and asked her a few questions. Yes, it’s cheating, but we spoke in German so it’s only slightly cheating.

As we stood scouring the area for Interview Subject #3, a scruffy guy walked up to us to tell us his entire life story (as hippies/ Americans are wont to). He is walking through Europe. His next stop is Munich, which he plans to reach in 32 days. He’s writing a book. It’s his mother’s birthday soon and he wants to send something home to California. Hey, could we sign her birthday card in our native languages? He was collecting birthday wishes and he didn’t have an Indian one yet! His was not the first look of disappointment I’ve generated by saying I don’t know how to write in my regional language. Considering how ridiculous the situation already was, it felt fitting to dig up my phone and seek the help of Google Translate to write “happy birthday” in Tamil. I am not proud of the fact that I might have spontaneously designed a new curly Tamil-looking letter, but I’m confident that the odds of me being outed are in my favour. And just like that, we crossed Interview Subject#3 off the list, without him even having to know about it.

So, Haus Schwarzenberg turned out to be way more interesting and substantial than I expected it to be. Still, just because I have to get all this pent up snark out of my system, I’ve documented some of the things that made me go “I don’t get it”.

This assortment of confusing stickers:

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Is that a Pac-Man ghost? What is that crying cocoon thing? What is with the duck? Are these code for something? Drugs? Underground parties? Advertisement for raves? Anarchy?

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Seriously, what is with the Pac-Man ghosts? Why is Sean Connery there? Why is there a scribbled sketch of a burger? I don’t get the Minion either; aren’t Minions the exact definition of mainstream? Is this Minion supposed to be ironic? Is that little girl on the right Banksy-inspired? Is it actually by Banksy? Does Banksy do everything on his own or does he have little helpers?

This piece of social commentary on post-modernism and/or Internet memes:

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I haven’t I-don’t-get-it’ed for anything here as much as I did for this. What does this symbolize? Are they genuinely paying tribute to the Harambe tragedy? Is it supposed to be ironic? Is it a criticism of the barrage of Internet reactions and subsequent memes the incident sparked? Are they mocking Harambe? SO CONFUSED. “WE HOPE 4 REVENGE” IS REALLY CRACKING ME UP.

Person #4/ Pink phonebooth person:

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I can’t recognise her. I first I thought it was Kate Moss, then Twiggy, then settled on Pattie Boyd. But why would any of them be considered worthy of being placed next to the other three icons? WHO IS THIS WOMAN? Anyone? Also, why are they in phonebooths.

This quote:

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I don’t want to read much into this quote because then I might start liking it or something. (Unrelated: That leopard on the right looks like the ones people wear as masks while dancing in street festivals in Chennai :3)

Look! An anti-establishment band reference! 

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How novel! Did not expect to see anything Ramones-related here! #punkisnotdead

I did not come across anything dedicated to Roger Waters, which is surprising, considering how he single-handedly brought down the Berlin Wall.

Finally, here is a piece of street art that I get, that summarizes my whole experience, my whole life even:

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I can relate to this grumpy tiger/old man yelling at the emu/playful kid to get off his lawn.

Things that I already knew about myself that this expedition highlighted:

  1. I need to stop overthinking minor situations
  2. I am really bad at taking photos
  3. I really need to work on my German skills
  4. I am a really judgmental, really difficult person

Things that I did not expect this whole thing to be:

  1. Fun
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