BERLIN - I’m lying in the sand reading, surrounded by birch trees, blackberry bushes, and high grass. The breeze ruffles the leaves, and white clouds, high up in the sky very far away, float past. It’s idyllic. Time seems to be standing still.
Yet this bit of moorland is located between Hüttenweg and Onkel-Tom-Strasse -- two streets in the Berlin borough of Steglitz-Zehlendorf. There used to be a munitions depot here, but now it’s inner-city wasteland gone back to nature. How many cities with a population of 3.5 million can boast something like this? My reverie is rudely interrupted as three barking dogs blast past me and a voice yells in the slang spoken by German inner-city youths: “Ye shudn't be lying here. Dis is dog playground!”
I should have yelled back “the whole of Berlin is one big dog playground!” but didn’t think of it fast enough. One thing was clear from the exchange though: this was Berlin talking. Brutally direct. Mercilessly honest. In this city, friendliness is for the weak -- not for brave and battle-hardened Berliners. And what contrasts! Idyllic moorland near Prussian barracks. Paradise interrupted by a harsh confrontation with reality.
Writers have been noticing things like this about Berlin for well over a century and it’s held true through the different waves of immigrants -- although Kiezdeutsch, the slang spoken by Mr. Dog Playground, is a relatively new wrinkle. Not only does it make mincemeat out of German grammar, it condenses communication to bare essentials. Case in point the threat “I make you hospital!” that efficiently reduces the length of the message from attacker to victim!
Jerks and others
A lucid lack of consideration for others and indifference often mistaken for tolerance have long been key currencies in the jungle of daily life in Berlin. But they’re mixed with an affectionate kind of poetry, as these lines by writer-musician Christiane Rösinger show: “No sun, only rain; underclass drinking their child benefits money; dogs making piles of shit; cyclists knocking you off the curb; dingbats talking to themselves in the subway; eco-parents meeting for brunch and letting their asshole kids yap around the café: yes, you know you’re back in Berlin.”
Poetry and a sobering reality-check are typical of the German capital city, as are the Kurfürstendamm (Ku’damm for short, Berlin’s Champs Elysées), currywurst (fast-food pork sausage with curry powder-flavored ketchup), immigrant culture, street wars, café latte and the annual summer techno demonstration called the "Fuck Parade." It’s not only the extremes that make the old Prussian metropolis seem so disparate, it’s their simultaneity that makes it so difficult to grasp what the city is all about. No wonder Berlin residents have a love/hate relationship with the place.
Then again, as German writer Karl Scheffler wrote in 1910: “Berlin doesn’t want love from its residents.” Scheffler is also the one who coined one of the most oft-quoted phrases about the city: “Berlin is a city condemned forever to becoming and never being.” The quote is as ambivalent as the city itself. It sounds like criticism but it’s also a kind of raw praise sharing something of the same spirit as today’s official marketing catchphrase "Be Berlin!" which stands for: always in flux, cool, groovy, sexy, exciting, adventurous, full of surprises.
In Berlin, the daily battle for survival is desolate, irritating, but never boring. Berlin is a big-city symphony, behemoth and music rolled into one, run-down yet glamorous. If you can take it, there’s not much else out there that could frighten you.
Where has the outrage gone?
One of the ways that Berlin’s very specific form of delusional grandeur – the sum of the pain and glory of its history-laden past -- manifests is in the renowned equanimity with which even the most dismal adversity is met. Of course endless complaining and mouthing off are part of it too, but never anywhere near the point of revolt. Even the left-wing radicals all het up – sometimes to the point of militant action -- about the “gentrification” of the city don’t add up to much more than a kind of local folklore.
Yet your classic outraged citizen doesn’t really exist in Berlin, first of all because there’s hardly any classic middle or upper middle class left, and also because a protest of any significant proportions is the instant subject of TV evening news reporter Uli Zelle’s attempts at ad hoc mediation. Conflicts tend too to remain among those immediately concerned, like controversial plans to re-organize the wealth of art housed on Museum Island (a UNESCO heritage site) or the flight routes to and from Berlin airport -- assuming it’s ever finished: the opening has been put off time and again, and the sheer unbelievable waste of resources is a political scandal of the first water, but even that has not met with massive condemnation.
In Berlin, politeness and consideration of others are not the only characteristics that are considered a form of weakness: so is a sense of responsibility.
And it would seem that even though Berlin is a media center, awash with journalists, there is no body of public or media opinion in a position to put city mayor Klaus Wowereit, the supervisory board, or big wigs at the Berlin Airports company under pressure about any of this. Wowereit, who made 10 appearances at the last Fashion Week, typifies the Berlin philosophy of life that indissolubly links hedonism and a couldn’t-care-less attitude.
Construction sites and blocked streets
Despite the latest in “progress and participation” rhetoric, Berlin’s citizens remain planning objects – they get to go along with whatever is planned whether they like it or not. For instance: the inimitable Berlin culture of the construction site, that reliably ensures that residents, businesses, restaurants spend years dealing with a chaotic coordination of building sites at which work proceeds at a speed that would try the patience of a snail.
"Event culture" is another city favorite, whether it’s a catwalk show or a marathon, authorities will figure out a way to cut off entire streets to motor traffic, sometimes for entire weeks -- and including the area around Berlin’s mega-iconic Brandenburg Gate.
But Berlin wouldn’t be Berlin if people didn’t roll with it, even coming up with snappy one-liners and survival tips. Example: being in the city in winter, when piles of snow go uncleared for days and streets and sidewalks are dangerously icy, is a “holiday on ice,” where pedestrians are told to consider wearing “spikes on the soles of your shoes.” Now there is a genuine Berlin idea.
The open-air museum that is Berlin is completed by columns of tourists on bikes, murderously-inclined “Rambo cyclists,” weaving Segway aliens on their personal two-wheel transportation pods, “Bierbikes” (bicycles that can accommodate up to 16 beer- drinking pedallers), and much, much more.
A tourist boom has put Berlin in the number three slot -- after London and Paris -- of most visited European cities. Some 10 million come every year to this city on the shores of the Spree River, which statistically means 23 million overnight stays, and moving on fast to 30 million.
But there’s a flip side to it: for example, in the boroughs of Mitte and Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, and in Prenzlauer Berg in Pankow, you can already feel how the touring masses are changing the vibe of the supposedly romantic stroll through the big-city maze (which is what the visitors are there to experience). While you can still find ways to spend a few quiet moments with history -- the old walled city, all things Prussian, the era of Wilhelm II, German Emperor and King of Prussia, the Weimar Republic, the Nazi regime and the DDR -- the presence of so many others is beginning to take its toll on the quality of those moments as well.
And then... just a short bike ride away and you’re in a green paradise, one of the many urban oases in and around the city, where time stands still and the whole chaotic mess seems so far away, the words of writer Karl Kraus (1874-1936) come to mind: "What I ask from any city I live in is asphalt, street cleaners, a key to my apartment building, running water, air heating. I can provide my own coziness."