Life in Berlin: meet the people making the city their home

German singer Jennifer Weist and Barry Burns of multi-instrumentalist of Scottish band Mogwai talk about their Berlin.

By Jamie Lafferty
Published 28 Sept 2019, 06:00 BST
Barry Burns and Jennifer Weist
Barry Burns and Jennifer Weist
Photograph by Celia Topping

The road to Berlin

For Barry Burns, multi-instrumentalist of Scottish band Mogwai, a temporary change of scene led to a second career as co-owner of Berlin bar Das Gift

How did you end up in Berlin?
My wife and I decided that we’d like to get out of Scotland for a while — and we ended up staying for the long-haul. To be honest, Berlin was the first place we thought of trying out and I don’t remember why we were so single-minded about it. It’s been good to us, but it has also made us appreciate Glasgow, too. I think we were taking the old city for granted, but both are brilliant places.

What are your earliest memories of the city?
I remember walking down the street we were temporarily living in and it was quite a trippy experience. Now I have nothing but respect for people who have been brave enough to just pack a van or a bag and move somewhere they have no prior connection with. It takes a long time to get used to new surroundings.

What’s your favourite thing about Berlin?
The complete lack of anyone caring what you look like or what you’re doing — unless it’s crossing the street on a red light or similarly unthinkable behaviours.

How did the bar come about?
By accident, really. My wife was looking for an art studio and the rental agent asked if she wanted to have a look at a bar that was up for rent. A month later and we had asked our pal, artist Phil Collins, and his boyfriend if they wanted to open a bar. Just like the move to Berlin, it was done on a whim and quickly became a part of our story.

How did you choose the area for Das Gift?
We didn’t really. We just liked the look of it. It was already a sort of old man’s pub, and we didn’t change too much visually. We now live in that area (Neukölln). The bar isn’t themed at all, and other than the sporadic haggis event, you might not know it’s owned by Scots.

What’s your favourite music venue in the city?
I’ve only been once but I love the new Festsaal Kreuzberg. I saw Low [an American indie rock group] performing there fairly recently. For playing, I like Huxleys Neue Welt, because it’s grimy, and also the nicer Admiralspalast, where we did the live soundtrack to a screening of Mark Cousins’ film Atomic, Living in Dread and Promise. 

Centre stage

German singer Jennifer Weist, of Berlin-based band Jennifer Rostock, explains how she made the once-daunting city feel like home

“I remember the feeling when I first arrived in Berlin and it was, ‘I don’t want to live here’,” says Jennifer Weist. “It was so big and so noisy. It’s dirty, too. My first impression was that it was cool to be here for a weekend, but then I wanted to go back home.”

“It’s totally different these days, of course,” she continues. The intervening years have done much to change her mind, and the city now feels like home. “My friends are here and they’re my family. I love all the opportunities — if you want to party at 5am, you can; if you want pizza, it’s right there; if all you want to do is chill in the park, you can do that, too.”

Sitting on a riverside bench in a quiet, leafy part of east Berlin, Jennifer explains how she now finds the capital much less daunting. She’s created her own “little town”, as she calls it, within the wider city limits; she gets on with her neighbours, loves her dog and is happy to spend the weekends relaxing.

If this seems remarkable, it’s because Jennifer embodies the vision of a devil-may-care rock star. Her tattoos start at her neck and cover most of her body. “This is Berlin,” she says. “Everyone has tattoos and piercings. The city is very open-minded, so it’s not a big deal.”

After a decade together, Jennifer Rostock is on hiatus, but Weist hasn’t been tempted to move elsewhere — partly because of the roots she’s forged here, but also because of Berlin’s relaxed vibes. “I lived in New York for three months,” she explains. “And I couldn’t believe all the rules: you can drink outside, but not smoke; you can smoke outside, but not drink. I was like, ‘F*** this — what’s going on here?’”

So Berlin is cool, right? “Well yeah, but you need to go out and make it that way,” Jennifer says. “If you just sit around expecting things to happen here, the city can kill you. But it’s so creative, with so many amazing people. And that’s really cool.”

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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