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Scene in Berlin

The secret to Berliners' individuality: flea markets

Berlin is obsessed with being unique. And while Berliners still shop at Ikea and H&M, there's no better place to find that one-of-a-kind accent than at a flea market, says DW's Anne Thomas.

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A minor miracle happens in Berlin in the spring: The sun comes out of hiding. The capital's inhabitants emerge from months of hibernation, shed their winter coats, don their shades and reacquaint themselves with the act of smiling. Ice cream sellers crop up on every street corner and sometimes you might even catch someone dancing in the street.

On the weekend, friends no longer invite you to their places for coffee and cake or to an exhibition - but to the flea market.

For me, flea markets have always conjured up images of miserable couples selling unfashionable anoraks, old LPs and telephones from a bygone age. In my mind, the smell is always musty and the air filled with dust particles. Not necessarily the place to spend a fine afternoon when you could be in the park.

But it's spring, not summer, and this is northern Germany. You can't bask for more than a minute or two if you don't want to catch a cold. So the flea market isn't such a bad choice. You can be out in the fresh air, meet friends, indulge in a waffle, burrito or a burger depending on your mood - and if you're lucky, you might even find a bargain.

Searching for the unique

Stockings at a Berlin flea market

The perfect accent to an otherwise standard wardrobe

It is a known fact that Berlin is "poor but sexy" and it goes without saying that many Berliners are too, which means they like a good deal. Their beautiful flats with original floorboards and high ceilings may be IKEA-furnished, but the extra touches that make them stand out from all the others are often found at antique shops and flea markets.

Berliners' basic clothing may hail from H&M - but their original accessories do not. So the idea is to find a unique pair of glasses, the perfect pair of earrings, the ultimate black dress or wacky tie, perhaps a creaky chest of drawers for the living room or a well-worn lampshade for the office.

Depending on your budget and what you're looking for, it's important to know where to go. I recently set out in search of a coffee table and started at the Denglish-sounding "Nowkoelln Flowmarkt" down the road from me in the notoriously trendy district of Neukölln. Fortunately, gentrification had left the flea market untouched.

As part of their annual spring clean, locals had cleared their basements and rented a stand to sell off their old pots and pans, children's books, fur coats and cheap plastic jewelry. But even though the market stretched along the canal, there was nothing that appealed to me and no coffee table in sight.

Luxury on the street

This was not the case at my next stop - Arkonaplatz in the upmarket Mitte district - where it was hard not to be tempted by the rich assortment of art deco lampshades, antique furniture, abstract artworks, Persian rugs and everything else a Berlin apartment needs to ooze uniqueness. But the prices were steep; stallholders know that the clientele here won't mind coughing up a few more euros.

This was also true of Berlin's biggest flea market, at the Mauerpark, which goes on for what seems like miles in an area formerly occupied by the Berlin Wall. There is little to remind the flea market flaneur of those sinister days. This space once meant to separate East Berliners from the evils of capitalism has been transformed into a consumer paradise attracting fashionable 30-somethings and tourists.

It is the place to be seen sipping a latte macchiato or buying another pair of sunglasses. And even if most of the items on display are prohibitively pricey, those with low budgets can still come away satisfied with small pleasures. I invested in a pot of homemade raspberry jam, a book by Herta Müller, and a Charlie Parker record.

Bicycles at a Berlin flea market

Whatever you need - or don't need, you'll find it

Back to the roots

But since I was still looking for an affordable coffee table I decided to head south to Friedrichshain where the flea market on Boxhagener Platz has remained true to the original spirit.

There were families keen to sell off the entire contents of their household, learned old men trading their book collections, young women selling knitted wares. You could also buy enough home-made carrot cake, banana bread, muffins and brownies to keep an army of dessert addicts going for weeks. But no coffee table.

Never mind, I thought, knowing I would just have to come back next weekend for a whole new selection. The sun was setting and there was a slight chill in the air. I ducked into the nearest café where, lo and behold, all the furniture seemed to have been picked up at a flea market. Come to think of it the crockery and the vases, too.

Anne Thomas enjoys Berlin's flea markets, but only when it's not quite sunny enough to lounge on her balcony.

Editor: Kate Bowen

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