I must admit, I’ve been (more) distracted lately. I am still working on my Origins book project which is coming together slowly but surely. But for the most part, I’ve been living my best life outdoors! Summer has come to Berlin in full force this year! April and May felt more like July. I don’t know what that means for the actual July, if summer will stay twice as long or leave twice as early, but I don’t care! I’m going to thoroughly enjoy summer while it’s here! In honor of this wondrous time and place, I would like to share my view on the city I call home, Berlin. Wishing you all sunshine and happiness! –M.P.
Mr. K., my high school history teacher, spent nearly three months lecturing us on World War II. The invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge (the Ardennes) were particularly vivid, the windows of the classroom rattled to his enthusiastic presentations. He projected a map of Europe on the big screen and rapidly covered it with marker scribbles as he charted the movements of troops. We shivered as we imagined the bombs dropping, the planes, tanks and warships firing relentlessly and mercilessly. Massive tracts of land and entire cities were reduced to ruins, to ghosts of their former selves, which is what the survivors looked to us. The people in the old black and white photos were gaunt, their expressions seemed hollow, their eyes haunted. What they had seen, we couldn’t imagine. They had lived through the worst.
As we neared the end of the war, Mr. K. drew a small circle within red Soviet territory. “The Allied Powers withdrew and Berlin was divided. West Berlin was left within the Eastern bloc,” Mr. K. concluded. It looked to me like a fish eye, like the white dot in the dark half of the yin and yang symbol. The eye of the yin, Berlin. It was only the second time I had ever heard of the city. The first time was in 1989 when the fall of its wall was broadcast for the world to see. But before that, it was just a lonely dot behind that infamous wall, which for so long was brutally solid. It was an enclave in enemy territory. That was that. I remember a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. It didn’t seem right, an entire city surrounded, left on the lurch. But class was over and Mr. K had had it with World War II. We moved on.
I went on to college and a management career in the early 2000’s. Every now and then Berlin would pop up whenever someone talked about the club scene or techno music, usually describing raves wilder than those in Seattle. All I wanted to do was leave cold, dreary Seattle with its persistent melancholy behind. When I was living in New York, many of my friends working in art or fashion wanted to visit Berlin. They imagined it was some sort of glamorous haven for good-looking free thinkers. I couldn’t stop thinking of it as the eye of the yin. A year later, I moved to Aachen, a small, picturesque city in northwest Germany. By the time I moved to Berlin in 2012, I had already been living in Germany for four years, was fluent in the language and had been working as a German-English translator.
The first thought that came to mind when I arrived in Berlin for the first time was, Now, this is a real big city! It reminded me intensely of New York. For the first year, I couldn’t stop comparing the two, the homesick traveler that I was: The art scene is vibrant and strong. The graffiti artists work in a grand scale. It is truly “the world at your doorstep”. The city is well-connected by reliable train lines. But that is where the comparisons stop. In many ways, Berlin seems less like any other existing big city but more what a big city promises to be.
Undoubtedly, as with any place, it isn’t perfect. There are problems in Berlin too: poverty, crime, failing schools in poorer areas, homelessness. An overcomplicated and inefficient bureaucracy is a big one—something which will become glaringly apparent to you once you land in one of its two impossibly tiny, overburdened airports. But there are many wonderful things in the foreground that push these problems to the back, although they definitely need to be addressed. It came as no surprise to me that the Economist recently published a cover edition entitled “Cool Germany” about the country’s growing diversity and progressiveness. Berlin is at the forefront of this growth.
One of the most striking things about Berlin also happens to be the most unexpected for many newcomers including myself: The color green, from the darkest, deepest forest to emerald, jade, and chartreuse, it’s everywhere. The whole city and surrounding areas are covered with dense woodland, numerous parks, playgrounds, lakes and rivers. There is hardly a spot in Berlin that isn’t near a green space of some shape or form. “Of some shape or form” is also the best way to describe the wide assortment of living spaces here. There are very few places in Berlin that are solely used for business or industry. Space at a premium is used creatively and thoughtfully. Anyplace, anywhere could be someone’s home: over a casino or a grocery store, on or by the river, glassy modernist “Neubau”, massive concrete “Plattenbau” block apartments, British-style row houses, restored neoclassical buildings and much more. The only thing they have in common is they often contain hidden oases of inner gardens and courtyards, some connected by intricate passageways.
Which brings me to the main reason why I fell in love with Berlin. Berlin is full of magnificent worlds, many of them are hidden. The whole city is a massive, ever-changing assemblage of fascinating people from everywhere, evident in its many lively, sprawling streets. It has brought me to the fragrant food stalls of Thailand, the pulsing nights of Istanbul, the bustling restaurants of Saigon, the romantic fairytales of Art Nouveau, the sleek visions of futurists, the tea houses of vanished kingdoms, places near and far, of times past and future. It often feels more like a conglomeration of galaxies, spiraling, twinkling and disappearing to their own mysterious rhythms. At night, they glow even stranger and brighter.
My appraisal may seem like the overzealous reviews of a bizarre tourist booklet, but Berlin is more than just a tourist attraction. It is not a people-pleaser; it doesn’t want to be loveable. Its secrets are numerous and well-hidden. It only gives to you what you are willing to give to it. I imagine my Berlin friends will soon give me flack for writing about it, because every movement here quickly draws out a counter-movement. Gentrified quarters have surprisingly intellectual graffiti disparaging capitalism and yuppies, communists gather to protest in newly converted shopping centers, long-time residents continually march against higher rents. There is something about Berlin that actively resists all forms of commodification, at the same time that it lures new startups, international businesses and ambitious artists. It is here that many fantastic dreams begin to take root.
There are Berliner, people born and raised in Berlin, and many “Wahlberliner”, people who choose to live in Berlin, I belong to the burgeoning latter. Another Wahlberliner, M.P. Powers writes beautifully in his beguiling book Fortuna:
Germany was a magical country, but unfortunately all people thought about when they thought about it was Nazis, bratwurst and sauerkraut, Oktoberfest, fat Bavarians in lederhosen, and a language that was guttural and angry-sounding to an untrained ear (but was actually quite beautiful). They needed to know the great, unsung wonders of the Germanic culture. They needed to know what it feels like being in a 700-year-old cathedral at Christmastime and listening to the lungs of the pipe-organs pumping out the works of J.S. Bach. They needed to explore Goethe’s world in Weimar, and the Hohenzollern Castle, and Sanssouci in Potsdam, and the Rhine, and the rock of Lorelei, and the Black Forest that inspired so many fairy tales, and makes you feel like you’re in God’s Cathedral when you’re in it. (Powers p. 25, Fortuna)
Berlin is different from the rest of Germany much in the way that a large city is different from a town and in other subtler ways. Powers writes about it through one of his characters: “Well if you ask me the essence of Berlin is its eternal youthfulness. I mean, I don’t think Berlin knows how to act its age. It only seems to know how to get reborn. Berlin ist eine Stadt, verdammt dazu, ewig zu werden, niemals zu sein. That’s its essence. A city condemned always to become, never to be.” (Powers p. 19, Fortuna)
I wonder if Berlin will always remain an enclave of sorts. Now it stands out as an obstinate circle of diversity and multiculturalism in a world moving painfully, regrettably towards the tantalizing clarity of homogeneity and populism. The main reason Berlin was able to survive enormous upheaval was that each side had a political stake in keeping it alive. The Allied Powers kept it supplied with airdrops of food (the “Luftbrücke”) when the Soviets attempted to take the whole city through ground blockades. But I think the other reason Berlin endures is it doesn’t try to erase this complicated history, it builds on it. Its most prominent war relics are not smoothed or spackled over, neither are the names of those killed by the Nazis. It doesn’t impose illusions of simplicity on its people, it takes them as they are, full of contradiction, and nurtures even more. The eye of the yin, Berlin.
A big thanks to M.P. Powers for his book! Please check out more of his writing on his blog.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker © 2018.