As cities go, Berlin is a hard nut to crack. It lacks the immediate charm of, say, Paris, or the infectious buzz of New York, or the homey feel of London. This is my third trip here, and until now, Berlin has been a bit of an enigma.
Now, however, on my fourth day of this trip, I’m finally starting to get a feel for it, and I have to say that I like it more and more. My impression is that Berlin is extremely laid-back … not in a southern European kind of way, but more in a bohemian way. Everybody here is just doing their thing, and nobody cares very much what you’re doing, or not doing. People love to hang around outside at cafés, talk, and smoke cigarettes. And in contrast to many other metropolises the noise [and pollution] is not overwhelming because there is so little traffic on account of their excellent transport system. Plus practically everybody rides bikes because it’s so flat and there are cycle paths everywhere. And of course it’s the bohemian thing to do.
One of the things I really notice is that everyone has their own style [as in clothing, fashion] and there doesn’t seem to be any pressure to conform. People have this great street style that seems so effortless. This is in sharp contrast to the way things are in Iceland, where everybody CONSTANTLY checks out what everybody else is wearing and there is enormous pressure to look stylish all the time, plus everybody winds up wearing pretty much the same thing. Iceland is so provincial in that respect and people are so judgmental, which is really annoying. It’s something I’ve become very conscious of these last few days, simply because of the contrast with they way things are here, and I realize what a drag it can be.
I guess Berlin seems so bohemian and laid-back because, well, it is. Before reunification, West Berlin was where the German draft-dodgers headed, because residents here were exempt from military duty. It wound up being this little island in the middle of the GDR [East Germany] that was filled with intellectuals, artists and nonconformists. Whereas East Berlin, of course, wasn’t steeped in the massive capitalist rat-race of the west. I suspect this is largely responsible for creating the alternative vibe that prevails here.*
Ragnheiður has been showing us around, so we’re getting to see aspects of Berlin that we wouldn’t seen as regular tourists. This morning, for instance, we went to this fabulous little cafe, tucked away on a side street in Prenzlauer Berg [where she lives], which was just gorgeous, with an enchanting atmosphere and great service. Then this evening we went to an African restaurant. We ordered a combo platter for three, and it all came on one huge plate from which we were supposed to eat in unison. [Not with our hands, mind.] On the menu were [e.g.] zebra steaks, alligator and ostrich, and exotic beers like mango beer and passion fruit beer. This place is just down the street from where Ragnheiður lives, and walking down her street is like taking a culinary trip around the world. Just about every country is represented.
Anyway, I’ve uploaded a few pics to Flickr, and will no doubt add a few more over the next three days or so [along with titles and descriptions].
* Then again, this is probably a fairly glib analysis – of course Berlin has layers upon layers of history, all of which have no doubt contributed to its complex and multi-faceted character. Plus we’ve pretty much confined ourselves to a small area of the city – Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte.