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Being and Time in Berlin: Hallowed, Hip, Enigmatic Part 1

In June of 1963 President John Kennedy addressed a massive crowd – roughly half a million – gathered outside West Berlin’s City Hall. JFK’s declarative: “Ich bin ein Berliner,” or, “I am a Berliner” was draped in the lyrical idealism only he could summon. So, the story goes – though opinions vary – the audience cackled in response because Kennedy made a linguistic gaffe; he unwittingly told Berliners that he was a jelly donut (ein Berliner). The blooper notwithstanding, the President’s expression of solidarity, that Americans were residents in spirit, unified with Germans in the fight against the Soviets fortified just a few kilometers East came across anyway. Meaning sometimes transcends language.

It was a traumatic time for a world-historical-city. Berlin had just been divided and some scholars blamed America’s young, inexperienced, and likely underprepared President for allowing it to happen. In Berlin 1961 Fredrick Kempe castigates Kennedy for "inconsistency, indecision, and policy failure." In fact, while JFK was vacationing in Hyannisport East Berliners were leaping from apartments straddling the border into nets cast by West Berlin fireman as US observers watched in disbelief and inaction. In any case, Berlin split along the river Spree for the next three decades plus.

The halving was more than geographic and political, it also represented the harrowing tug of war inside the soul of Germany. WWII left psychological wounds buried deep in the recesses of the German mind and Berliners at the mercy of the high stakes great power brinkmanship pirouetting around them. It is from this point-of-view that we begin our trek through Berlin.

Fluid Polarity

Polarity – in many ways defines modern Berlin and in some sense Deutschland. It would be too simple to define these poles as East and West or old and new. In Berlin, identities, architecture, style, nightlife, and even worlds blur from one city center to another. Berlin is avant-garde like Brooklyn in NYC, its museums are Greco-Roman, and it lays flat like Tokyo. The city smacks of urbane Americana; cuisine is international as are many of its people, and antique Deutschland holds the frame together, kind of. Indeed – the Berlin flatland operates like a two-dimensional worm hole that transports you through time and space, leaving residue of your being as you pass through.

There are modern spots like Mitte and Friedrichstraße (Friedrich street), which tend to be young, trendy, international and blasé. There is the Bundestag and the Brandenburg Gate, one the symbol of a fresh, reunified, and forward-looking nation, the other a legacy of Berlin’s former glory, and Germany’s rise to power. There is the TV Tower (overrated) in Alexanderplatz and Museum Island at Lustgarten across from Berlin National Cathedral where you can visit the Alte Nationalgalerie (“Old National Gallery”). There you can experience German titans like Max Lieberman, Adolph Menzel, and Wilhelm Gentz.

I have never experienced a city quite like Berlin. It is the most international metropolis in Central Europe and makes my list for one of the most transient and transnational in the world as evidenced by the multitudes of expats, Laissez-faire culture, and unpredictable look and feel. Friedrichshain for example, one of the spots where I stayed, is described as having “a punky, alternative vibe.” I concur. Baristas in this part of Berlin are just as likely to be Australian or English or Turkish as they are German. One will meet folks from Pakistan, India, Turkey, Vietnam, America, Britain, Scandinavia, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and plenty after that. While German is widely spoken in these parts, English is so common you sometimes forget.

The cuisine is as eclectic as its city-dwellers. I had the best Thai food I have had since leaving Bangkok a few years back. Then there is the famous Döner Kabob, grilled meat in pita bread, a delicacy that does not originate in Berlin despite the namesake. It is so delicious the delectable street food champion has gone viral in Berlin. Restaurants are of surprising variety: there are Italian, Cuban, Indian and Asian fusion places, plentiful food markets, Christmas markets; basically, anything you can think of is here. If you like German food, it’s here too, often hidden within the diverse aromas around it.

Places to See, Things to Do

Berlin is not a walkable city because of its immensity. It is nine times bigger than Paris and roughly the same size as Bangkok. Looping around is easy enough if you can negotiate the confusing metro – the U-Bahn (subway) and S-Bahn (railway). Germans execute collective activities with unequaled efficiency and one of them is public transportation, though they are less savvy on manuals and metro-maps. Much like Tokyo, Berlin’s subways can be overwhelming, so it takes practice; just plan ahead and you will fair better. Once you have mastered transport it’s time to go.

Here are some starting points. As mentioned, a trip to the Bundestag should be on the itinerary. Formerly the Reichstag, the new Parliament is the second largest in the world behind China. More than 800 members pace the hallways of the layered Rubik’s-cube construction fully equipped with robust security, interconnecting skyways, tunnels, and multiple escape plans – the best of German ingenuity put to work. There is also an odd-looking glass dome at the top of the structure designed by Norman Foster. The Germans who kindly escorted me quipped that it should be redone by a German engineer, and I whole-heartedly agreed.

A few blocks away is the Brandenburg Gate. There are similar gates across Europe, but to my mind the Brandenburg Gate brings more ferocity. It was completed in 1795 and once greeted visitors arriving to the Emperor’s city palace. Public events are often held here, and you can understand why. (See parade below) The Chariot above the crisp white pylons is piloted by the Goddess of Peace. Upon seeing it up close, the Quadriga strikes like a thunderclap, as if the Germanic Gods themselves might make an appearance from the other side.

Feelings of Sturm und Drang only build as you walk through the Tiergarten (Central Park) whose centerfold is the Victory Column. For my money, this section of Berlin is the most impressive. The statues of Otto von Bismark, Willhelm von Moltke, Albrecht von Roon – the men responsible for Germany’s unification – are bold, resolute, and stalwart, the best of German character brought to life in artistic form. If you stroll through the park’s expansive walkways there are hidden gems around every corner. A few stood out to me: a golden-capped memorial to Beethoven-Hayden-Mozart, a hunter lancing a boar clawing back at dogs, and an Amazon warrior sitting atop a horse.

A short walk from Brandenburg is the Berlin Wall. Actually speaking there were two major walls that separated East and West. Fortunately, quite a bit of the walls remain, and are now decorated with all-manner-of political, artistic, and abstract graffiti and street art. (See some highlights below.) Checkpoint Charlie where one crossed the chasm between East and West is also a big tourist attraction. You can feel the conductivity in these hallowed spots where past moments still flicker around you like dancing particles in an electrical storm. In the world’s greatest cities there are often tectonic plates shifting beneath your feet, and with proper focus, you can feel them. Berlin is one of those cities.

Frumpy, Fantasy and Fun

Unlike other parts of Europe Berlin is noticeably dressed down, I dare say frumpy. At times it is grotesquely sloppy and reeks of Derek Zoolander’s Derelicte. Sometimes it is creative and casual. Certainly, there are more formal areas closer to the Bundestag – but overall style is predictably weird. Depending on where you go, clothing is optional like the infamous Kit-Kat-Club, one of Berlin’s prurient sex clubs where anything goes, supposedly. We cannot be sure because no cell phones are allowed inside. A character in the film Berlin, I Love You says, “Nothings typical in Berlin,” and that rings true from what I can tell.

If you are looking for a more progressive, live-and-let-live Libertine lifestyle Berlin is the place to go. Nightlife vibes mesmerize in bouncing techno-dance clubs, hipster cafés, and cyber-punk themed city centers. Berlin nightlife fades into the cityscape, especially in some dusky speakeasys. For cafés, I enjoyed Silo Coffee in Friedrichshain, for speakeasy’s Bar Tausend hits the spot; its shadowy, retro, serves interesting cocktails and the international staff (French, Polish, Dominican) is extra hospitable.

Folkish Kultura

Some visitors give Germans a bad rap for "Berliner Schnauze." Accordingly, Schnauze refers to the nose of a dog and means rudeness or impatient brusqueness with tourists. There are more than a few stereotypes about Germans, some of which are found here. I have to say that my experience in Germany has always been extremely positive, one of admiration and mutual respect. Perhaps that is because I mirror German directness and impatience at times?

From an American perspective, Germans are the middle-Americans of Europe. Like mid-westerners they will help you if needed, they prefer comfort over style and favor a more risk-averse and conservative mode of life. Germans are also folksy, down-to-earth, straight shooters, unflappable unlike Italians, stoic rather than brooding like the French. They relish in the basics of life: good food, pleasant scenery and reliable friends, which the Germans are. Again, like Americans from the mid-west (many of whom are also ethnically German) just not quite as jovial, at first.

Gemeinschaft contra Gesellschaft

Another polarity at play in Berlin is the spirit of Gemeinschaft – bonds of community versus Gesellschaft – bonds of association. The contrast between the two is often characterized as the gap between city and countryside. However, among Germans, my sense is that Gemeinschaft remains the default operating system irrespective of scenery. Germans are a tighter in-group than many others in Europe. The walls of the German membrane are less permeable, displayed concretely without the unspoken subtlety of Parisian inscrutability for example. You always know where you stand with them so do keep your word and arrive on time. Should this not be a universal imperative?

Berlin was devastated beyond recognition at the end of WWII and ripped apart during the Cold War so you can understand the blank slate temperament many Berliners adopt.

Berlin – unlike the rest of Germany – channels Gesellschaft. Berlin was devastated beyond recognition at the end of WWII and ripped apart during the Cold War so you can understand the blank slate temperament many Berliners adopt. This could explain why American influence in Deutschland reaches its azimuth here. The urbane American ethos condemns or ignores the past, escapes into the solipsistic present, and pines for the elusive paradise of some ill-defined utopian-future. My sense is that this ethos will pass, like a bad hangover, and the muscle memory of Gemeinschaft like the Nietzschean “cycle of recurrence” will come back, again. Who knows when, but I say soon.

Exit Tracks in German Tones

I often see cities in monochromatic tints, and Berlin is dark grey to my eyes, matching its nickname. I also often associate musical motifs with cities. For example, Prague’s river walk along the Vltava’s gently hums to Smetana’s Moldau, it is sonorous, peripatetic, and pleasant. Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate is Wagnerian, sounds crackle around it in a deafening, powerful and mythical explosion. However, Berlin’s soundtrack is also a bizarre mashup of electro-dance, operatic, and punk-rock. Its culture no doubt modifies tempo as appropriate, or inappropriate.

It has now been decades since another US President pronounced an end to a divided Germany and the beginning of reunification. When Ronald Reagan famously said, “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall!” a new chapter for Berliners began. Reagan, like Kennedy before him, spoke on behalf of Berliners. The next chapter in this great city will be uttered in German not English, and declared by a German, not an American. What they will say is hard to predict, but it will shake the world as Berlin has done from inception.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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