Berlin

17 01 2008

I was recently in Berlin on a short break. Why I chose Berlin essentially boils down to “it was cheap”, so let’s not dwell on that.

It’s a curious place, and not one that I can reccommend unless you’re fond of derelict holes. Seriously.

To be fair, it’s not Berlin’s fault. Well, it is, but bear with me here. The city was bombed so much that they managed to create a hill out of all the rubble that children sled down in the winter nowadays. Then it was carved up for nearly thirty years, families put into stasis overnight. Finally, when it was allowed to re-integrate and start picking up the pieces, Berliners still had what they call Mauer im Kopf, or “The Wall in the Head” and many wish the wall were still in place.

So while the rest of Germany, particularly West Germany, is steady on its feet, Berlin is still trying to re-integrate, and not much cash goes toward that happening. It’s as though Germany is embarrassed about it’s damaged heart and would rather look elsewhere, because it’s not as though Germany’s economy is in trouble. Far from it. The strongest economy in Europe, and the close to the strongest in the world, Germany has cash to spend. On having re-absorbed East Germany, though, much of the cash is going there, desperately trying to keep it all running. And Berlin, on that border, is the beginning of the decline in German living standards.

It’s very easy to stay in the nice part, to only go shopping in the area that’s essentially a clone of any fashion-label boulevard in any major city. That’s lovely. You can pay the grossly-inflated prices (the cost of visiting a strong economy is that everything will be far more expensive than wherever you came from) for luxury items that you could get for far more reasonable cost back home, while getting coffee from Starbucks and catching a film at the Sony Center(sic). You can see the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church which the guidebooks will tell you is a haunting reminder of the legacy of World War II. Realistically, though, it’s a very pretty reminder, and just as clean and sanitised as the rest of that area. Quick. Move along. Pretend Berlin is all right.

Don’t stray too far, though. Using the U-Bahn or S-Bahn should give you a subtle clue: Every openable window is stickered with a circle, a line through it, suggesting clearly in a language we all understand that the subject in the circle is banned.

Smoking? No. Waving your arms out the window, perhaps? No.

Beer bottles.

Yes, apparently bottles being thrown from the train windows is a regular enough occurrence that it’s worth a Do Not… sticker on every window. You don’t have to travel far by foot to see that train windows aren’t the only places bottles are dropped from, either. Broken glass litters the streets. I’m not talking about one or two bottles, either. Hundreds of thousands of bottles lie strewn in large, brutal shards all over the city. Stray just a few feet from a tourist attraction and you’ll find it on the pavement, in the road, in underpasses, in the train stations.

The second most favourite pastime of Berliners, after tossing glass everywhere, appears to be grafitti. Now while there’s a long tradition of daubing slogans on the Wall, this seems to have broken out like a disease to cover… everything. If you find glass, you’ll find grafitti. Recall all those incredibly famous paintings on the Berlin Wall, along the stretch known as the East Side Gallery? Yes, they’ve been scrawled all over. Public works of art? Yep, tagged. Even a brand new plaza built by O2 as an early stage of their effort to rebuild the stadium near Ostbanhof has been dribbled on by some idiot with a spraycan. It feels as though Berliners themselves are actively resisting any attempt to drag their city into the 21st Century.

By way of example, let’s look at the Wall’s most famous painting before and after the taggers had their way with it. Quite fetching, non?

You might think that I’m deliberately choosing the worst example available, but I can assure you that I’m not. Areas of historical importance are spraypainted all over, vandalised, and generally disrespected. Perhaps the locals view them as not worthy of respect, as bringers of pain and sorrow.

And that’s the last thing about Berlin. Guide books will tell you it’s a harrowing city, a city scarred by war and politics. They will tell you it will move you (possibly to tears), that you cannot help but soak up the atmosphere and feel utterly overcome by the horror of it all. That’s marketing speak for “please appreciate something about this rathole”. Unless you have friends in the area or really fancy some, er, interesting days, just go somewhere else.

It’s not all negative, of course. There are a few things I liked:

– The transport system. It’s very civilised. You buy your ticket, validate it, and travel. No barriers, no ticket checks, they just trust you to get on with it. There’s allegedly the occasional undercover ticket inspector on the trains, but I saw no evidence of that.

– Dogs. Almost everyone has a dog. As a consequence, there is a very relaxed attitude toward the animals that is a far cry from the UK’s Daily Mail-fuelled terror of anything bearing fur and teeth. Berliners can take their dogs into shops, malls, on trains, and into parks. Of course, there’s a lot of dog poop littering the streets, but frankly it’s preferable to glass.

– The food. Although it was incredibly difficult to find genuine German food, almost everything that was on offer was of very good quality. Perversely the most readily available food was the trusty Kebab, while Germany’s own famous Wurst was hardly to be found (and when it was, it wasn’t a patch on the real stuff from the western parts of Germany). But I happened upon an excellent Chinese restaurant, had some interesting food at a local Mundial (the bar chain that seems to be taking over Europe), and all for a reasonable price.

Other than that… Let’s just say that I have no burning urge to return there any time soon.

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