Berlin. I was last here 10 years ago:
And now I’m back:
Wen and I have been living here for a month now and we’re absolutely loving it. I thought I’d try and explain why, so here – in no particular order – are some of the reason why this is such an incredible city.
1. The Entire City is a Canvas
I’ve never been to a city with as much street art as Berlin. There are a lot of crummy tags and the like, but there are also untold works of art hidden across the city.
Sometimes the scale is tiny; a painting hidden at the margin of your field of view:
Other times it’s a massive blow-up that can practically be seen from space:
If you take the U1 between Kottbusser Tor and Goerlitzer Bahnhof, this spaceman appears to float on the wall to your north:
In between are countless images waiting to be found:
One of my personal favourites is this samurai warrior who protects the park near our apartment:
The pure essence of this spirit probably best caught in the Kunsthaus Tacheles, a former department store in East Germany that was squatted in by artists in 1990 who have turned it into a series of spray-painted galleries. Walking around it is a celebration of the countercultural energy that built this city (since it was run by the Allies, not the German government, anyone who didn’t want to serve in the German army fled to Berlin where they could keep citizenship but not be forced to do armed service):
But it’s not just illegal art and grafitti. There are plenty of legitimate random works of art around the town too.
Here Wendy and Aine show off just how big Germans are:
I was in the subway and walked up to this kiosk to buy a magazine:
Then I realized that it’s actually a photo of the other side of the kiosk, where the actual shop is:
There is a joy in finding unexpected art around your town.
2. People are Taking Small Steps to Save the Environment
It’s almost a cliche how North Americans are told “if we all just did a couple of small things we could make amazing changes to the environment”. But here in Berlin (and, really, all of Germany), people have actually done it.
People separate their garbage into wet, dry, paper, three different types of glass, metal containers and packaging. There are EUR 0.25 deposits on almost every bottle – and they can be returned everywhere. People bike everywhere – which is easy as there are bike lanes all over the place and posted bike routes. When you go in the hallway outside your apartment it’s unheated and the light is off by default. The street lighting is also running at half power – but the place is so safe that you don’t feel awkward about it.
There are also a couple of bigger things that are being tried. For instance, you can get hydrogen (Wasserstoff) at some of the gas stations:
3. This is a City Aware of, but not Incapacitated, by its History
The 20th century was incredibly destructive for Berlin. The insane, racist, total war of the Nazis meant that it was leveled. This was followed by fifty years of partition at the hands of the Soviets. The full insanity of this is on display at the Topography of Terror where the Wall happened to run through the old headquarters of the SS:
Some cities get stuck on their past and can’t move on (Rome – I’m looking at you). Some try to build for the future but don’t really mean it (Paris, where anything modern has been relegated to La Defense or outside the downtown). It’s rare to find a city that can acknowledge it’s past but build for the present and the future. London does it well and New York isn’t too far behind.
Berlin has done a great job of it – and it’s even more impressive because the history here is frankly so awful. All around town are tasteful reminders of the past:
Any building from the WW II era is a patchwork of replacement stones to cover up wartime damage:
Similarly, the Soviets dotted the city with war memorials to their fallen:
Berliners could have been forgiven for turning their city into a mausoleum for the 20th century, but instead they’ve simply created a new architectural style that builds off the positive aspects of what they had to offer. Incredible modern architecture abounds and is juxtaposed against older buildings:
Interestingly, many of these buildings are schools. The ones below are a cafeteria at a school and a kindergarden respectively:
It’ll be interesting to see if anyone studies whether modern architecture alters the perspective of children.
4. The Light
Berlin is at roughly 50 degrees north. That means that at this time of year the sun struggles to get above the horizon and is so exhausted when it gets there that it doesn’t stick around too long. It throws weak light and long shadows that paint the city is a particularly beautiful hue.
5. The Bread. And the Sausage
Bread justifies people doing strange things. The New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik moved from Paris to New York because of a pretzel croissant. Having been to the City Bakery (home to said delectable croissant), I can safely say that if Gopnik had been to Berlin and visited any bakery, he’d now be a Berliner.
The pretzel croissant abounds, as do delicious ham and cheese or marizpan or chocolate versions. I am gorging on kaselaugenstange (a finger of pretzel bread with baked cheese on top). Every morning it’s toast from a loaf containing pumpkin and 12 other seeds; sometimes it’s rye from a curiously cylindrical loaf:
There are sweet-smelling bakeries everywhere; sometimes next to one another. Numerous have been strategically placed in subways so that between trains you can get your wheat/rye/oat/gluten fix.
I am salivating as I write this.
But I must continue as we haven’t even begun talking about the sausage yet.
You know a country is serious about its meat in a tube when they’ve created a self-contained, portable sausage cooker:
The bratwurst in this town is incredible, and if it wasn’t for all the bread, I’d probably just eat sausage. In fact, the Bavarian breakfast – two sausages and a pretzel – is a good equilibrium.
The only thing more common than the bakeries are the sausage sellers. While a good bakery is a beautiful bakery, there is an inverse correlation for your friendly sausage vendor. This charmless currywurst (cut sausage with ketchup and curry power) vendor in the middle of nowhere near the Gesundbrunnen subway stop serves such great sausage that I’d go back in an instant:
6. Berliner’s Have a Great Sense of Humour
Those of you who have been to Germany are probably saying ‘Ha, ha – I get it Lindsay; you’re being ironic because everyone knows that German’s have no sense of humour.” But I’m going to suggest that this is not the case and that some Germans (notably Berliners) actually have a great sense of humour.
Here’s a random example of it.
Germany has a popular, but trashy, tabloid called Das Bild. It’s like the New York Post with bare breasts. They make their money with outrageous headlines and frequently the story gets ahead of the truth.
Bild is part of the Axel Springer Verlag and headquartered in their massive skyscraper that used to sit right on the Berlin Wall. Axel was a conservative who hated the communists and he wanted his building to reflect the freedom of the West and be a beacon to those in the East; his papers reflected his conservative ideals.
Two blocks away, in a squat six-storey building, is the Tagezeitung (taz). It’s a left-leaning paper inspired by the likes of Rudi Dutschke (a 60’s liberal who fought against Springer’s views; he ended up narrowly surviving an assassination attempt). They love to try and stir the pot.
First, they successfully petitioned to have their street – Kochstrasse – renamed Rudi Dutschke Strasse – for three blocks: from them just to the Springer building.
Then in 2002 they wrote an article about the alleged penile enhancement surgery of the Bild’s publisher. A suit immediately followed and a court injunction prevented the article from being published. This was followed by an attempt to sue for EUR 30,000 in damages.
But it was rejected by the courts who said that the publisher (Kai Diekmann) “consciously seeks economic advantage from the violation of others’ privacy” and hence “is less severely burdened by the violation of his own privacy. After all, he has knowingly and willingly gone into the business of violating people’s privacy.”
To celebrate this ruling, the taz commissioned a piece of work by artist Peter Lenk and slapped it up on the side of their building (where it’s visible from the Springer building). What is it? Nothing other than a four storey sculpture of, amongst other things, the publisher and his pneumatically enhanced “cobra penis”.
See, Germans do have a sense of humour.
7. Berlin is Home to the Happiest Place on Earth
I could go on, but let me close with one more thing. I have a weakness for chocolate. Particularly Ritter Sport and their nerdy, only-in-Germany slogan of Quadratisch. Praktisch. Gut. (I don’t think a translation is really needed)
So imagine my sheer joy when I stumbled upon the Ritter Sport store. It’s kind of like finding out like there really is a Willy Wonka chocolate factory.
You go inside and they’ll make you your own Ritter Sport bar with pretty much anything you want. They’ve got special flavours that you can’t get anywhere else. There are oversized bars for sale and a cafe.
It’s all Ritter Sport all the time and I love it (and I’m not the only one):
They’ve even got a Ritter Sport advent calendar, so now my Christmas will officially be the best ever:
Berlin. As many reasons to love it as flavours at the Ritter Sport wonderland.