[NOTE: For those of you who know us well, you’ll realize that this blog post is a bit out of date. I began it in Berlin a couple of months back but never got around to publishing it. Oh well, better late than never!…]
Berlin was a really fun place to hang out in for a month. While it has many of the familiarities of a typical modern western city, it also has its quirks that make it like no other. Here’s a list of some of the more different and defining aspects of the Berlin and Berliners:
1. Poor, but sexy
There’s a famous quote from a former Berlin mayor, saying that “Berlin is poor, but sexy”. I think this sums up the place well.
On the “poor” side of things, I must admit that this came as a bit of a shock to me. Given the relative strength of the German economy, I was surprised to find that the economy of the capital city isn’t so strong. From what I learned, the period of East German communism (1949 – 1990) led to almost all major German corporations moving out of Berlin and setting up shop in the major West German cities. As a result, there is a dearth of industry to power the economy here. A positive bi-product for day-to-day living is that Berlin is really cheap for a major European city. Rent is cheap. Food is cheap. Beer is cheap (often cheaper than bottled water).
As for the “sexy” side of things, Berlin has this in spades. Nightlife is big with a world renowned electronic music scene. And what it lacks in investment bankers and suited corporate types, it makes up in creative types like artists, musicians and start-up tech workers. The style in Berlin is retro, hipster and grungy. Think: fitted plaid shirts; beanies in summer; coloured hair, tats and piercings.
But I’d say that Berlin is more than just sexy. It’s also very liveable. There are parks everywhere. Great cafes, restaurants and bars at every block corner. And a highly efficient and effective public transport system that one would expect of a major German city.
It felt like we would see people carrying an open beer with them everywhere we went. And I mean everywhere! Guy riding his bike down the road: drinking a beer. Couple of young women heading to the train station: drinking beers. Couple of guys chilling outside of a convenience store: drinking beers.
3. You can mention the war
One of my favourite shows growing up was Fawlty Towers, and one of the all time great lines was when Basel Fawlty (played by John Cleese) would tell his staff “don’t mention the war” in reference to the German guests staying with them. However, in reality, the idea that Germans are touchy or hush-hush about Germany’s role in WW2 couldn’t be further from the truth. Berlin is full of museums and monuments that lay out in great detail the many atrocities committed by the Nazis, without sugar coating. Interestingly, this is pretty different to our observations in our recent travels in Japan.
4. May Day chaos
In our month in Berlin we were witness to more demonstrations and strikes than we had experienced in our entire lives. It seems Berlin is a bit of hub for this. This is most evident on May 1st, where leftists and anarchists from around Europe descend on Berlin to participate in demonstrations that can border on riots. Kind of a strange tradition, but fortunately the more mainstream thing to do on May Day is to party on the streets (which is what we did!).
5. Graffiti and street art
Berlin is also a city of graffiti. It’s everywhere. Just to give you one example, we stayed in a relatively nice apartment in the very family friendly neighborhood of Prenzlauerberg, and yet the doors and hallways were covered in graffiti. On the positive side, not all the graffiti is just lame tags. A lot of it is truly a work of street art.
6. Photo booths
Fitting in with the retro vibe, there are old school photo booth machines all around the place. In an era of ubiquitous camera phones, it’s cool to see that these machines have survived and remain surprisingly popular in Berlin.
7. Open Air Karaoke in Mauer Park
Now this is really cool. Every weekend a guy comes along with a microphone, loudspeaker and a computer full of back up sound tracks, and invites people to sing karaoke to the hundreds of onlookers in the park. Super fun atmosphere with the occasional brilliant singer up there among the many not so brilliant.
* * * * *
To sum it up, as noted by many other Berliners and visitors of Berlin before us, Berlin is the least German city in all of Germany. Christine and I had a brilliant month living here and look forward to returning again soon.
Finally, we’d like to give a big shout out to Werner Zedler, our friend and Berliner, who took us under his wing and showed us the very best parts of Berlin and its surroundings during our month here. Werner, we are forever in your debt!