Friday 28 October 2016

Katie Byrne: Crossing the threshold

How I got my groove back at the best nightclub in the world

Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne

It's very easy to get old. I'm not talking about the mechanism of physical ageing - the oxidative stress, the telomere shortening or the small matter of gravity.

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No, no, no - I'm talking about the behavioural changes that occur as we get older; the biases that chisel the character in the same way that wrinkles etch the face.

Curtailed spontaneity is the first grey hair. A night out requires considerable forward notice (even though you'll probably raincheck with a convoluted excuse about an upcoming wedding). Certain nightclubs are avoided for being "too young". French exits become the norm.

Parameters begin to close in and a need for privacy becomes paramount. Sharing with a roommate? I'll take the 1BR option, thanks. Camping at a festival? Are you out of your mind? Even group holidays begin to feel a bit overwhelming.

The wonderful thing about getting older is that we can be odd with relative impunity. And cynical. And vaguely paranoid. I have my own way of doing things, we assure our loved ones. Whatever that means…

I once read that facial ageing happens in spurts - the same thing happens with psychological ageing. One day you're in the Marks & Spencer lingerie department; the next you're recommending their wares to all your friends (seriously, though, their cotton nightwear is the best bar none).

I went through a psychological ageing spurt in December. It started when I realised that I'd amassed a collection of those kidney-bean-shaped travel pillows. The following day I ordered a Thai delivery and asked the person on the other end of the phone if they had any "fizzy orange". Then, as I wrote last week, I gained a stone in weight.

It was the distribution of the weight that disturbed me. It gathered around the middle and turned the insouciant strut of my youth into a laborious, child-herding plod. There was only one solution to this problem: I needed to go raving at once.

And so it was, on a Sunday in late December, that my friend and I boarded the 6:20am flight to Berlin, or more specially, Berghain - a place where the party runs from Saturday night to Monday morning.

For the uninitiated, Berghain has the deserved reputation of the best techno club in the world. It also has the strictest door policy. People can queue outside the former Communist power plant for hours only to be turned away with just the shake of a head. And time was of the essence: our return flight was the next day at 10:50am. There was no hotel - just a taxi straight to the club and then back to the airport.

Everyone has a theory on the mysterious door policy. Indeed, there are entire internet forums dedicated to the topic. Suggestions for getting in include saying very little in the queue and wearing all-black.

We were wearing all-black. This wasn't my ideal outfit choice. I would have preferred to wear a silk kimono and matching turban. Unfortunately my ego is too fragile to risk being turned away at the door while looking like early Diana Ross…

The bouncer looked like a Tarantino villain. "Sprechen sie Deutsch?" he asked when we arrived in front of him while doing our best to look jaded and industrial as opposed to completely petrified. "Keine bitte nein," I answered. There was a note of frustration before he asked the next question, in English: "Have you been here before?"

"Yes," I answered as an unfortunate gust of wind made my harem pants look more like incontinence trousers. "Once."

My friend just gave the double thumbs-up - which I believe is the international hand gesture for "happy gobshite".

"And why have you come back?" he asked. "Um, because I had the best night of my life?" I replied with all the cool of a 14-year-old at a One Direction concert. There was another once over before we got the nod.

My quarter-life crisis began to dissipate as soon as I arrived on the dancefloor. There's something spiritual about this place. As it happens, we were here for the Holy Klubnacht, even though I didn't know any of the DJs on the line-up (another symptom of the ageing process).

Berghain seems specifically designed to provoke an unburdening. All the elements - the Spartan architecture, the sound bath of the Funktion-One speakers and the energy of the crowd - combine to create a three-day long crescendo. It's perfect resonance, and it helps that cameras are verboten (they place a sticker over your smartphone's camera lens upon entry).

My German friend taught me the word narrenfreiheit, which is translated as 'fool's licence' or, as she describes it, "the freedom accorded to mad people". It seemed especially apt that night.

At one point I took in the queue in the bathroom, where there are no mirrors and often four or five to a cubicle. There was a man with tattoos all over his face, a topless woman and a well-known international rugby player - there are no velvet ropes here, everyone is treated the same.

"This is a live-and-let-live club," I said to my friend as we waited for a cubicle door to swing open. And when you live like that, age becomes completely irrelevant.

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