Saturday, December 27th: Letter from the Countess von Moltke and read fairy tales to the King of Prussia, a sad and tedious affair. In the paper it says I belong more to Germany than Denmark. Spent the evening with brothers Grimm.
–Hans Christian Andersen, diary entry from a visit to Berlin
Misprejudices self-correct automatically. The first thing one notices is the thing one hasn’t been told in advance. For example, how thin and tattered Berlin’s urban fabric is. This is a rare European city that is yet to be stitched back together after the World War II. While most cities have grown over their war holes and gaps, reconnected historical street patterns and traditional pedestrian flows, Berlin is still in bits and bobs. It is not normal. A normal European city layers competing kinds of order, overlapping intentions: a majestic vista here transects a medieval neighbourhood there; an excellent metro cuts through a tight, walkable centre. It features a semiotic excess: regal triumph over the colonies specked with modernist rationality bordering 21st-century cool blending into the preserved history for we were all working class once. Berlin, on the contrary, is an urbanistic hodge-podge, a compendium of planning errors, everything we know it’s bad, not dissimilar to an Australian city. Berlin is competing centres separated by kilometres of thin urban fabric, light industry in the most central places, vacant sites not even broadly landscaped into parks, multiple airports, enormous warehouses separated by large empty spaces. There are large parts of Berlin, including the most central, like Alexanderplatz, that have no urbanistic idea worth keeping, that appear to have been built as a failed compromise between budgeting, marketing, transport and political constraints, not a single one actually satisfied.
This should result in a textbook fiasco. Instead, a kind of exhilarating chaos emerges, unlike any European city could possibly generate, with its main pedestrian shopping strips crowned by a cathedral, its waterfront promenades and Jugendstil cafes. These cities are built in the image of a society in which everything has its place. Berlin, very clearly, has no society. Just little clusters of like-minded people here and there, grouped around a couple of fast-food joints and a U-Bahn station. Going out is like going out in Melbourne, or even Perth. One walks the same street, and goes in and out of vibrancy, commerce, hipness. Unter den Linden is a historical monument, not a promenade, and it leads precisely nowhere. Friedrichstrasse is too cramped and short and trafficky to be anything more than a passage, despite Zara and Dussmann trying to make it look like just any place for office workers to shop afterhours. Multiple competing boulevards are flanked by kebab stalls and ruined by the Underground growing overground. I can list you the reasons, just in case you wondered: the Wall going through the Mitte/Kreuzberg, paralysing the former heart and resulting in double everything: train stations, airports; Cold War rewiring of traffic on both sides in order to make roundabout sense; the poverty of the former capital preventing swift reconstruction. But this list is deceiving, because it immediately points to a kind of historical wreckage that you will think you understand, and imagine an image from the collective imagery which will be beautiful, but incorrect. You will arrive, like me, and find a city which is neither grand nor historical: the history it abounds with is recent; fifty years; eighty years. And the grandness is amusing and macabre together, like a very bad joke. Berlin has grand patches (Brandenburg or the ˙Vőlksbűhne), but the overall effect is sort of homely, like Canberra. When it is a stage, it is without an audience. Again, historical reasons may explain why the city is happy to remain in theatrical tatters.
4. Whichever way, in the absence of society the city is bustling. And here the other fallacy: that Berlin is a vibrant, happening city. Whatever makes Berlin interesting comes from the fact that precisely the opposite is the truth: Berlin seems to be constantly failing to happen. I notice, again, because I was told otherwise. Where I imagined a sort of European Beijing, a construction site peppered with designer stores and people in overtight jeans wearing wanker hats, it is more of an empty lot awaiting brownfield revitalization. Its main attributes, twenty years later, still being a vast oversupply of land to population and very low rents, it attracts not entrepreneurs but people who like not having to work too much. And this is the crucial difference between Berlin and a magnet for hipster-wannabes such as Melbourne (geographical similarity breeds easy comparisons). Melbourne is a typical product of boosterism, a collectively sustained state of belief in its own grandeur. The city government, the restaurant critics, the emerging jewellery makers and those who move down in droves to read Three Thousand a bit closer to the source, all wish Melbourne’s status as a cool city – otherwise, what would remain of their lives in overly expensive Brunswick shacks or overheated Fitzroy apartments? In Berlin, instead, only Kreuzberg seems to have achieved a mythical status. For however many starstruck art posers like me try to elbow their way into the city, they seem to be forever outnumbered by Turkish immigrants, old people enjoying the benefits of rent control, and the drug-fried who are here for the three-day techno parties. The highest percent of unemployed among German cities. Insalubrious and unwholesome and uncool, much of it. Berlin wears its dagginess with a shrug. It’s the cheap rents that seem to matter more.
As much as I doubted that the city of Berlin was as terminally bankrupt as is often said, it has been hard to remain sceptical when the snow freezes over uncleaned footpaths, resulting not just in the city-wide state of dangerous (that term so loved by Australians, who live in a permanent search for catastrophic perils to nip in the bud), but in constant obstacle to movement. People slide over metres of ice, occasionally falling, perpetually stumbling. And here another sweet side of Germany emerges: as much as they constantly apologise for their own, well-documented love of rules and regulations, they are certainly a couple of notches more unruly than the larrikin and anti-authoritarian Australians. When I ask about the elderly handling the icy footpaths, Ingo asks: “What, you think old people aren’t able do walk in winter?” When the ticket inspectors raid the undeground train, half of my carriage is unscrupulously ticketless. Squats still everywhere, smoking indoors, and memories of a Wall coming down. On the other hand, only Turks and I cross on the red light.
The combination of relaxed slowness and elephantine change, of poverty and big projects – my friends here showed me a book on No Wave, and that’s what Berlin now looks like, like New York circa 1974 – means that everything that is imaginable may be possible. Not always in the perfect way (which is what makes Andersen’s diary entry so apt), the cleanest and neatest, but it may be there, just inside a courtyard or underground or some distant U-Bahn stops away. Berlin is a New World, right in the centre of the Old.
5.The final thing nobody tells you is how happy one is in Berlin. It is a delirium of sorts, brought upon by the sights, the history, the people, the softly dry German humour, the abundance of good theatre and the constant invitations to go see things and do things, but primarily by the ridiculous, disorienting cold, in which a day counts as warm if gloves are not strictly necessary for outdoor survival. Getting indoors after an hour in this cold makes one’s nose run, blood rush headwards, and fills you with the adrenaline of survival, of achievement. Not dying on the ice is a feat which brings on constant self-congratulation. And I have never been as hungry as I am in Berlin. Every few hours, regardless of how many cooked meals I’ve had that day, I need to refuel on fast food, and no crap cuisine has ever tasted so unarguably good as the wűrste I find on these expeditions, including the ubiqitous Currywurst (‘curry’ in this case the honorific bestowed upon ketchup sprinkled with curry powder), the sort of item I would avoid in a wide circle anywhere else. I have even found myself (incredulous) at a Burger King one night at 4am, eating ‘chilly cheese nuggets’ (certainly the worst idea in all of culinary history). I keep chocolate on me at all times, to get me through particularly long Alleen. When Rene spoke of the Canadian camaraderie, I couldn’t muster any feeling more positive than Schadenfreude, but now I understand. This weather is an opiate.
6. It is tempting to imagine that this state of suspension will last, that Berlin will remain the only hobo capital in Europe. Common sense suggests otherwise, but the sheer size of its voids makes you wonder. And then, its own history is one of fits and starts, not of accumulating riches. Of all the European cities, this is the only one in which so many things feel acceptable, from shabby clothes to indulging one’s sexual fetishes in public. Berlin smiles at you, sort of, and invites you in because there is no competition, the stakes are too low. It is likeable city, but cool. A rare thing, that one.