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Searching the heart of Berlin

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.

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  • Bill June 19, 2009, 12:40 am

    I tend to agree about the vibe of Prenzlauer Berg and Berlin in general. My family and I will be there staying with friends for a bit this summer, as a side trip from staying with the wife’s family in Paris. I have to say, on the whole, I almost prefer Berlin to Paris in terms of atmosphere. But let’s not forget that, beyond Prenzlauer Berg, East Berlin can be fairly rife with neo-Nazis and the like, according to my friend who lives in Kreuzberg. My wife is from Senegal (I’m white), my friend said I could venture around East Berlin but my wife should not.

  • Lissa June 19, 2009, 1:19 am

    Alexandria Ritchie’s _Faust’s Metropolis_ is a most excellent history of Berlin. It is long, but I was sad when it ended.

  • AM in Brussels June 19, 2009, 7:39 am

    A very good description of Berlin. I’ve loved the city for years, but could never describe why I liked it, nor why the city is as it is. And I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here.

  • Sigga June 19, 2009, 9:48 am

    Beautiful photos too Alda, I am extremely envious and your description of Berlin is quite apt. The “older” bits of Berlin have so much character and charm and individuality, the newer bits (renovated and reclaimed) though left me a little cold – far to much glass and gloss

  • Ljósmynd DE June 19, 2009, 10:27 am

    There are certainly parts of Berlin, which would provide a different impression while venturing around. Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg are currently very popular – at the expense of other quarters.

    I spent a lot of time in Berlin in the eighties, when it was really spooky to get there by car or cross the border to the other side of the wall. Although pretty dilapidated in parts, for me it had more charm than today. Perhaps, those were just the days. Since then I have been more often in Reykjavik than in Berlin.

    Some of those Trabant cars on one of your fotos seem to have made their way to Iceland. I remember taking a foto of such a car at the harbour of Heimaey about 20 years ago. It was definitely the time before the rule of the ubiquitous jeeps .

    But I definitely have to try this kind of African restaurant next time I get to Berlin. This one seems to offer South African cuisine and Cape Town is one of my favourite cities. 🙂

  • Ibbi-Skribbi June 19, 2009, 9:30 pm

    Thanks for letting me travel thru your lens. Very cool the way you described Germany.

  • andrea June 20, 2009, 3:02 pm

    You know, it’s been a long time since I was in Berlin and I’ve never noticed it consciously whenever I’ve been there but you’re absolutely right about the traffic. Huh.

  • idunn June 20, 2009, 11:04 pm

    From bicycling, to the Bohemian character, seems I might really like Berlin. Thank you for the description. Will have to visit.

  • Jessica June 23, 2009, 3:47 pm

    Wow, you really hit the nail on the head with your description of the city AND, especially, the “anything goes” fashion. I was in Berlin for 10 days last month and thoroughly enjoyed the freedom of wearing whatever I wanted and not looking like everyone else. It’s funny that Icelanders regard Germans as “cheap & un-stylish” but I admire those traits and think they would come in handy here now. And you’re right — the street style is effortless and also so functional. (can’t wear 3 inch stilletos and still get around on the train so easily, can you?) I absolutely loved the diversity as well. I so missed ethnic food ; ‘ )

    P.S. Tell me honestly — did you feel like you were in Breiðholt when you saw the crappy Soviet-style apartment blocks of old GDR Berlin?

  • alda June 23, 2009, 4:16 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    Bill – I asked someone about that after receiving your comment, and it was indeed confirmed. Awful. Mind you, one of the reasons I decided to leave Germany 15 years ago was because of the upsurge of Neo-Nazi violence and I had a mixed-race child.

    Jessica – yes! Most definitely. Some parts of the city are really pretty rough, too – even those that were in the West. But I LOVE the anything-goes fashion and miss it already.