Europe '96: Berlin

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["The Girl in the Door": photo of a carved figure of a girl
as part
of a Berlin doorway]

Then there is Berlin. Or perhaps there is only coming to be Berlin. Or there have been, are, and will be many Berlins. Even the natives are confused, like my friend Flora (who generously put me up and was plain wonderful to stay with) who while she certainly doesn't want the Wall back, is not at all pleased to see it superseded by German nationalism. "I don't really think of myself as a German. I'm a Berliner. But West Berlin, with the Wall." At times she hardly recognizes her own city.

We went out to hear Brazilian music (Tania Maria) at the Tränenpalast, "Palace of Tears", now a beer garden and music venue, but for over a quarter of a century the place where West Berliners would take leave of their East German friends and relatives and navigate through hours of bureaucratic red tape before returning home. Much of the old signage has been kept intact as part of the decor of the bar. It must be particularly surreal when waiting in line to get in, right where people used to queue to go back to the West (we came late, and there was no queue, so I missed that particular experience).

All Central European cities have a tendency to camp among the ruins of their previous incarnations, and to repeatedly face the issue of whether to preserve, restore, revamp, or replace. Post Cold War Berlin now faces this with a vengeance. Post WWII Berlin was already an improvisation, or more properly two improvisations, and now they are trying simultaneously to reconcile dual institutions (two city halls, two water systems, you name it), to fill in the center (the Potsdamer Platz is now the world's largest construction site), and to become the Federal Capital. They seem to have sorted out the transporation system, but much else still feels very tentative. Berlin will clearly change as much in the next five years as in the last five.

["Young Turks": photo of two Turkish girls in Kreuzberg] This is all mitigated -- or compounded -- by the fact that Berlin is very much a city of neighborhooods. Almost no one seems to know what is really happening in all -- or even most -- of Berlin. They know their own neighborhood (their kiez or "turf"), perhaps two other neighborhoods where they have family or friends, all the Westerners know the Ku'damm, all the Easterners know Unter den Linden, more and more this crosses over, and if they are curious people they actually have a clue about a few more places in the city but wouldn't be surprised if they went there tomorrow and found the streets rerouted or renamed. (Actually, there's been much less wholesale renaming in Berlin than in Prague or Budapest. There is still a Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz abd a Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse, and streets named after Karl Marx in both cold-war-era Berlins.)

There is actually a lot of green in Berlin, but it is not deployed for visual effect. Almost every home in Berlin is within a few minutes walk of some sort of tree-filled area, but often that area has more the character of a slightly maintained vacant lot or a tree-lined alley than of a typical European park. This actually works very well at the neighborhood level, but does nothing to relieve the generally chaotic aspect of the city.

[Sketch of Kulturbrauerei] It's a big, confusing city, where you always sense that a lot is going on somewhere else, maybe even nearby, if only you could find it. Not that you don't find plenty. In just a few days, with varying degrees of guidance, I found lots of good food (some of it reasonably priced, some of it definitely not), the Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum (very good, though the permanent exhibition is perhaps a little fixated on the most political/social of her work, nothing but a few self-portraits to show what a light touch she could also have), a really silly cybercafe on the Adenauer Platz that was almost all virtual reality games, but which did have two computers with (underpowered) internet connections, the Kulturbrauerei (an ex-brewery in Prenzlauerberg -- which I gather it is hip/compulsory to call merely "Prenzlberg"-- the Kulturbrauerei now constitutes now several museums, music venues, and the like, probably the most important alternative/autonomous cultural institution in the former East), and the Christopher Street Day Parade, really not so much a parade as a mobile party headed from one quasi-center of town to the other, from Ku'damm to Unter den Linden.

With reference to the CSD parade, Flora and I watched a lot of it go by, joined in for a while, then broke for home after getting drenched by a sudden downpour in the Potsdamer Platz (which is to say in a place with absolutely no shelter, an improvised street through a massive construction site where the Wall used to be). Later that night we went to the official CSD party (at the Kulturbrauerei), big party, definitely the place to be that night in Berlin, lots going on, although there was some of it we didn't check out (like, you know, I'm a breeder boy, and that darkened room with nothing but men in it just wasn't tempting). Dancing, cabaret ranging from a man who sang rather like Edith Piaf to 4 very fat semi-nude Englishmen doing music hall to a rather good gender-bending male belly dancer.

And then there is my one negative Berlin story (although we New Yorkers, like Berliners, like to complain, so "at least it's something I can write about" as the Posies' song 🔗 says). I was eating in an Imbiss (fast food place) and a woman asked if the other seat at my table was free. I said yes. She sat down and immediately pulled out a pack of cigarettes. I added, "Aber, bitte, ich bin nicht raucher und ich esse jetzt" ("but please, I'm not a smoker and I'm eating right now"). She lit up, said "Dann muss dich raus" ("then you'd better get out of here") lit up and blew smoke right in my face. I left. I didn't hit her, but the thought crossed my mind. As did pouring the rest of my Coke over her head.

On the whole, there seem to be 3 possible reactions to Berlin: love, hate, or bewilderment. I have mostly a mix of the first and the last. As a New Yorker, Berlin gives me more of a "these are my people" feeling than anywhere else I've been in Europe, but Berlin right now is more as if you let a few million New Yorkers loose in L.A. or Dallas, let them bring a few dozen buildings with them, and told them to start trying to rework the damn place till they could make a real city out of it, and they were only a couple of years into the project.

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Originally written: 1996

Last modified: 26 February 2021

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