Dialogue

Chance encounters and street photography in Berlin

We turn around the corner from where we've been eating and gradually make our way back to the Airbnb. Then, the biggest coincidence I've experienced this year happened.

Mitchel Lensink
Jun 1, 2022
9 min read
man crossing the street in Berlin, Germany

Hi there, talkers and listeners,

My name is Mitch and you are reading Dialogue, a monthly newsletter about photography, walking and, this time, also travel. If that doesn't match your interests, unsubscribing is at the bottom of this email. Though I suggest you read through the story first to get there and then see if you still feel like doing that. Let's get started.

Packing for days

I’m watching the cat drink from the cup I just used to water my plants while the sun is slowly sinking beneath the horizon. There’s a lot of cloud coverage but not too much to fully block the warming rays. For a day in May, it’s still unusually chilly though. Despite that, I am perched up bravely on my balcony with just a T-shirt, fighting off the shivers for as long as I can. Being outdoors might not be super pleasant without proper clothing yet, but it’s still outdoors. The fresh breeze and fading light does wonders when unwinding after a busy day.

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The tranquility is abruptly disturbed by an alert from my calendar app. ‘Pack bags for Berlin’, it reads. I click on the link I’ve embedded into the reminder, which takes me to the surprisingly short packing list. A camera, another camera, SD cards, a bunch of cables to charge everything, one USB-C charging brick, a toothbrush and, oh yeah, some clothes. How much do you really need on a four-day trip, right? It all fits neatly into my GoRuck GR1 backpack with room to spare for spontaneous shopping sprees. Berlin is a well-known hub for vintage clothing shops and at least one of my travel companions is especially excited to visit them (looking at you, Charlotte).

The actual travel part of traveling is least fun

Berlin has been my destination three times before and all of those times, I travelled there by bus. It’s a monotonous 7-hour drive through the most unexciting landscapes both the Netherlands and Germany have to offer and this time I get to experience it all again. The car is the transportation method of choice, which is only a slight improvement over the bus. At least we have more control over bathroom breaks but it’s still a long sit in a tight space. I’m not complaining though, as I am not the one driving and at least can dream off with some music in my ears with the landscape rhythmically passing by outside my window. My day turns lucky about halfway through, as I get to experience going through the car wash for the first time ever. That's perhaps a weird thing to be excited about but hey man, that's what firsts are for!

The sun has started its decent towards the horizon as we cross the city borders. In the meantime, the mood inside the car has gone from cheery to weary. Traffic did not go easy on us and added almost two hours to the journey. We park the car on the side of the road, right in front of the Airbnb, and leave the vehicle feeling slightly disoriented and with a strange longing to sit down somewhere. As if that isn't exactly what we've been doing all day so far. Berlin’s vibes are undefeated though, and soon reignite our wanderlust once more. After a quick peek inside the Airbnb to check its condition (tackily decorated, but clean and functional), we drop off our bags and immediately head back out to explore.

a motocycle is parked at a gas station on the way to Berlin, Germany

Underwhelming experiences are still experiences

A huge benefit of being familiar in a city is knowing where to get good food, so we pinpoint the location on the map and set direct course to our favorite Vietnam-Thai restaurant. Our hope was to sit outside like we did last time but upon our arrival, we find the entire building covered in scaffolding for maintenance. A bummer, but the food should taste the same inside. 'Three Massaman Curries, One Spice Red Curry and four Berliner Pilsener', we tell the friendly lady inside. The drinks couldn't arrive soon enough and we are ready for another round of beers by the time the food arrives too. The anticipation of visiting this restaurant after our excellent experience three years ago has raised our expectations to the maximum, so we savagely dive into our curry-filled bowls to quiet down our rumbling stomachs.

Scaffolding in front of a building

The reality of those high expectations becomes abundantly clear after the first couple of bites. The taste is nice but unvaried and in fact quite boring. It's too sweet, too creamy and too... samey? Judging a restaurant on its quality after a long day of walking is always a challenge but perhaps we've underestimated our level of hunger three years ago and have since romanticized the experience in our minds. Despite the underwhelming experience, a full belly is a full belly so we leave the restaurant satisfied and with a slight buzz from the abnormally large beers they serve in Germany.

The odds are sometimes in your favor

We turn around the corner from where we've been eating and gradually make our way back to the Airbnb. Then, the biggest coincidence I've experienced this year happened. Berlin is a city with a population of 3.6 million. It's spread out over multiple neighborhoods that each sport their own miniature city center and all of them are home to different atmospheres that everybody in our age bracket sort of hops between. Sometimes you're hanging out in Prenzlauer Berg for a day, sometimes in Kreuzberg, today it was Friedrichshain for us. The same happened to be the case for one of our buddies, who's exchanged our hometown for Berlin about a year ago. I was going to send them a message to see if they wanted to meet up but I figured tomorrow would be a more suitable day for that. We'd be more rested and have more time to burn. You also don't want to command somebody’s time just because you happened to be in the city they live in. That's just bad manners. But now, they’re just... there. Sitting a couple of meters away from us on the same street we happened to choose for the walk back home. What are the odds?

A pleasing monochrome color palette on the streets of Berlin
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We decide to not call out for them but simply walk up and tap them on the shoulder. They have no clue we're here so we imagine the response will be fun and we need to see that up close. We quietly walk over and abruptly interrupt the conversation they’re having for maximum effect. They look up surprised and I can tell they’re a little confused by what's going on. The confusion in their eyes soon makes way for even more surprise, but this time it's the happy kind. Of course it is, because we are fun people. We embrace and dance around the streets in an almost child-like manner because we all realize this has been such an amazing chance encounter. Our return to the Airbnb is promptly halted and replaced with a couple of beers we grab from the Späti (a type of convenience store that's usually open until late at night) our friend was posted at. After about an hour or reminiscing and asking about each other's lives, we continue with our plans to get some rest and by 11PM, silence controls the Airbnb.

a group of friends at a Späti in Berlin, Germany
Guess who's the friend that lives in Berlin now

Street photos from my point of view

A pigeon screams its tiny lungs out and wakes me from a light slumber. The Airbnb turns out to be on the smaller side when accommodating four sleeping people and oxygen has turned into a scarce resource. Luckily, there's a warm glow around the curtains and it turns out to be a sunny day with a temperature us Western Europeans are most comfortable with. I selfishly hop in the shower before anybody else has time to claim dibs and am dressed when my first friend rises from their mattress. Three people and one shower should equal a long time to get ready, so I grab my action camera from the dresser and head out solo, to shoot a street photography POV video.

We are located in an area I'm not familiar with and I haven't done any research, so I blindly turn left when I step out the front door. It doesn't really matter what I come across anyway, exploration is my main goal. I soon find that the neighborhood our Airbnb is located in is perhaps nice, but as a result not as interesting. I don't need much for my photographic senses to tingle though, and am soon snapping away at random street corners. Sure, if I would've lived here I wouldn't be taking these mundane photos, but being in a place for the first time allows you to see things through a different lens. Pun intended.

I also realize this might seem like it directly contradicts the point I made last month about the benefit of revisiting the same places, but I believe both things can be true at once. Looking at the world through the eyes of a tourist, grants you with the power to see things locals have become blind to. This might cause you to photograph things nobody but you really cares about, but sometimes you strike gold and come up with a unique perspective. Not being tainted by previous work you've seen from a place really helps to achieve that.

On the other hand, if you become familiar with a place and learn, what they call, the rhythm of it, you get a chance to see beyond the superficial and start paying attention to the latent structures only the initiated are able to spot. Yes, that sounds vague and abstract but I'm proud I managed to pull off that acrobatic sentence and I'm keeping it.

Shoot, rinse, repeat

The rest of our Saturday follows a similar pattern where we roam around the streets of Berlin on our quest for food and beer, while experiencing all the sights along the way. I mostly busy myself with sometimes staying behind to capture quick clips on my iPhone and sometimes running ahead to take a photo while letting the rest catch up. At the end of the day we compare stats from the Health app on our iPhones and notice that we have all walked the same distance though. I just did it less efficiently.

Thankfully, Sunday afternoon quickly comes rolling around the corner and we respawn into the Mauerpark where 'street-entrepreneurs' are selling beers on the street. It looks like you don't need a liquor license to sell alcohol in Berlin, or these guys don't care what the law says, but we are not here to question German morality. Instead, we queue up willingly and soon sit down in the grass with a large pint, soaking in the sun from the front and the moisture in the soil from the back. It appears nobody in this park can be bothered to do anything but let the day pass and even I give my camera a break for a moment.

That moment is quickly disturbed when I get tricked by my friends into walking circles on the secondhand market that's also there. This doesn't last long though and after about half an hour of buying nothing at all, we proceed to the only place left for us to visit on this trip. The bar. Being in motion again quickly sets my photo-bug in motion too and on the brief stroll to our destination, I record an abundance of memories. Of course I do, because who am I if not the guy with the camera.

We sit down at the bar we've heard was a 'must-visit' from a couple of friends back home and allow ourselves to let life become a blur. We're halfway home when I wake up from that blur again. Tired, but satisfied.

Mitch

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