(Image ©Folke Lehr)
The very first time I entered Berlin, on a backpacking trip across Europe, I remember thinking that it was fairly ugly compared to Paris and the idyllic villages of Bavaria. But seeing the remains of the Wall at The East Side Gallery and the Memorial Church left from World War II blew my mind. By the time I finished studying here, I was deeply in love. Soon I will have lived here longer than any other place. My partner calls it “the only livable German city.” Even though I am still very much American, Berlin is home to me in every sense of the word.
And seeing as I kvetch so much about the cultural and social problems of our day, I want to take a breath and gush about a place I adore. (I’m quite sure my head will explode if I see myself write the word “society” one more time without a break.) So what’s the big deal about Berlin?
For one thing, it’s a city, and having grown up at first in the suburbs of Long Island and then rural Upstate New York, I’ve found I’m happiest in the urban setting. Yes, people are less friendly and there’s more pollution. But there’s also little room for gossip or judgment or homogeneity. You can wear anything you like and no one cares, or you accidentally start a new trend. Nothing is done only for tradition’s sake. So much is done for art’s sake. You can get anywhere you need to go, including out of the country, without a car. And while it’s no social utopia, anyone who’s visibly different gets stared at less in the cities than anywhere else.
But Berlin also has lots to offer that New York and Paris and London and Hamburg and Munich do not, because, in the words of our mayor, it’s “arm aber sexy” (poor but sexy):
Decent Housing. While gentrification is naturally creeping into many of my favorite neighborhoods sections, Berlin still offers cool places at a fair price. Students and recent graduates are not economically exiled to ludicrously dirty or dangerous or diminutive areas. The less expensive districts have beautiful parks. Social workers can afford three-bedroom turn-of-the-century apartments with stucco lining the walls and balconies with French doors. Housing developers are also restricted to buying up only a few houses in a single block to prevent aesthetic monotony. I believe a society that doesn’t remind you every day of how little you earn by refusing you security, cleanliness or beauty is a free society. (The S word! Oops!)
Hip without the Hipsters. In the words of Gary Shteyngart, “Whether German or foreign, these young people genuinely care about the communities they have forged out of the rubble of the 20th century’s most problematic metropolis… It’s still okay to be excited by things in Berlin.” Take that, Williamsburg.
Das Kiezgefühl. It’s a city five times the area of Paris, yet every neighborhood has its own cozy feel to it. We know our postman by name. Our favorite bookstore owner lent us his bikes while we were on vacation in his home country. My partner buys groceries for the little old lady who lives above us. On Christmas Eve this year, I said hello to seven familiar faces in the 10 minutes it took to walk home from the U-Bahn station. In between I hummed, “Can you tell me how to get… ?”
Good Parenting in Public. Unlike in the U.S. and other nations I’ve inhabited, it’s extremely rare to ever see a German parent screaming at their child. It’s also your responsibility to call the police if they so much as slap them, which I’ve never once witnessed. With the introduction of paid paternity leave, many Berlin dads have jumped at the chance to take time off to actually get to know their children, pushing baby carriages with all the finesse of an expert.
No Urban Sprawl. Along with containing huge forests, nearly 70 lakes and more canals than Venice, Berlin ends at the countryside of Brandenburg. The budget of communism and the physical imposition of the Wall made the city stop rather abruptly, and the environment can be grateful for it.
You Can Walk Around Freely At Two in the Morning. Despite having the highest crime rate in Germany, Berlin is very laidback compared to most major cities. I also love it that local crime is rarely a topic of conversation among Berliners, unlike in the U.S.
Döner Kebab. And kettwurst and currywurst and Bionade (organic soda). And flammkuchen and excellent schnitzel. Furthermore, German breakfasts—a wide selection of good bread and soft pretzels with salami or liverwurst or mettwurst or teewurst or jam or cheese or honey or Nutella—cannot be beat. Yeah, and beer. And in the words of a recent English guest, “It’s dirt cheap!”
Streetcars! And no turnstiles, meaning no hassles with over-sized luggage or broken card readers or premature goodbyes. And the S-Bahn seats are heated in winter. And it’s one of the few cities whose airports are directly linked onto the public transportation system, so there are no exorbitant shuttle fees obstructing your way to the city center.
The Scars of Recent History. The Berlin Wall once stood at the west end of my street. On the east end, Soviet and Nazi bullet holes line the columns of the local school. Street markers signify houses where Jewish families were arrested. The city’s biggest mountain, Teufelsberg (“Devil’s Mountain”), is made out of rubble. Undetonated bombs are still discovered regularly throughout the year. The local tabloid newspaper screams hysterically when the Homosexual Memorial is vandalized. Berlin knows what happened here, and it wants you to know, too.
Anything Still Goes. Every year, the districts of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg rebel against their joint bureaucratic status by having a food fight on the Oberbaum Bridge. It’s known far and wide as the “Gemüseschlacht” (Battle of the Vegetables). Need I say more?