At first glance, I found Berlin to be like other European cities, with its historic squares, cobble-stoned streets, stately apartment blocks and tree-lined canals. I stayed at a hostel (in the neighbourhood pictured below), in the Kreuzberg district, south-east of the city centre . The hostel was run by a young guy, Enrico.
Unlike London or Paris, Berlin is still quite cheap. The average lunch of a curry wurst and chips in my neighbourhood cost around 4 to 5 euros ($5-7). The people are courteous, priding themselves on good service on the counter and good manners on the street.
While a good deal of its past was bombed to dust during World War II, there is still enough history in Berlin to fill the pages. Walking along the city’s most famous thoroughfare, the Unter Den Linten, I saw the statue of Frederick the Great of Prussia (below), the man who made Berlin the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia. On one side of the Unter Den Linten was the the Humbolt University of Berlin, which boasts alumni as Schopenhauer, Marx, Engels and Einstein. I also paid my respects to Brecht, Fichte and Hegal who rest in the Dorotheenstadt cemetary.
One day, I caught a rickshaw from the Siegessäule (‘Victory Column’) to Potsdam Plaza. The rickshaw driver took me past the Brandenburg Gate (top) and the Reichstag, iconic monuments, if less grand than the Arch de Triomphe or the Capitol in D.C. He also rode us past the Holocaust memorial.
The reminders of Nazi Germany are there in monuments like the Neue Synagoge (above), which was set on fire during Kristallnacht in 1938. I visited the synagogue but not the memorial. Commemorating events does not mean visiting the sins of the fathers on the sons. Germany was defeated, partitioned and its people bore the Nazi stigma. If Germany sinned, it has atoned.
Enrico said that one reason Germans are polite is because they feel they must compensate to foreigners for Germany’s past. Still, if Germans are compensating for their past, then what about the British and French? And if Holocaust was the work of Nazis, it has also made Germany a convenient scapegoat for the anti-Semitism of all European societies …
In contrast to London and Paris, Berlin feels young, creative and new. The fall of the Berlin Wall let flow new energies. New buildings rise from the dust. In neighbourhoods like Schöneberg, I popped into public art galleries alongside bars and convenience stores. If it wasn’t the street musicians on the banks of the canal which kept me swaying by day, it was the nighclubs after sunset which kept the pulse going.
This is a relaxed, free-thinking and cosmopolitan city. “A paradise,” one gay fellow proclaimed it whom I met at a bookshop in Schöneberg. The Turkish market at my doorstep brought together Germans and foreigners alike to buy silk, spices, fruits and vegetables and trinkets and haberdashery. My dinner of choice became the Turkish “Manti” – meat dumplings in yoghurt garnished with herbs and spices, topped off with a piece of baklava and some Turkish tea.
Alongside the Landwehr Canal by my hostel, the spring had scattered lovers, friends, book lovers and musicians jamming along its banks. Strolling along, I imbibed the perfumes of Arabic, French, Turkish and English mingling in breeze of spring. Great cities have their spirits and Berlin’s is the marijuana on the breeze, the old Turkish men playing bowls in the park and the colour exploding across the city in its street art.
Thinking I was disappointed after four nights, I realized in those bittersweet moments of parting, that I had fallen for Berlin.
In some ways, Berlin was like many other European cities with its historic squares, cobble-stoned streets, stately apartment blocks, canals and tree-lined avenues. I stayed at a hostel on the outskirts of the Kreuzberg district which is south-east of the city centre. It was certainly cheaper here than London, Paris or New York. The average lunch of a curry wurst and chips cost between 5 to 6 euros.
I found most of the people here to be courteous. The one exception was a vendor at a Turkish market who gave me a light slap on the back when I tried taking photos of his plates of dried rose petals without his permission. I suppose I asked for it; but then, he wouldn’t let me buy anything from his store after that.
Otherwise, Germans pride themselves on making a good impression and on good service. There was only friendly behaviour from the person behind the counter to the person on the street, good manners and a warm welcome. Compare that again to London, New York or Paris.
Unlike those cities, Berlin is not a world financial centre. Nor is it the mecca of fashion and style. Berlin suffered more bombing during WWII than any other European capital, which eradicated a good deal of its past. Although it was the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia, it has left less historical resonance than the imperial pomp of Louis XIV of Paris nor the centre of world trade like London, Germany not existing as such until 1871.
Still, there is enough history here to fill the pages. Berlin witnessed unification under Frederick the Great. It was a center of the Enlightenment, bringing together Kant, Hegel and Schopenhaur. Philosophers and writers like Brecht, Fichte and Hegal rest eternally in the soil of the city.
One day, I had walked some distance to the Siegessäule (‘Victory Column’) when I was too knackered to walk back to Potsdam Plaza. I hired a rickshaw to take me instead. He drove me toward the Brandenburg Gate along the thoroughfare which had carried the procession of history, its Kaisers and Chancellors, its carriages and cavalcades. I had taken my photos of Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag earlier that date, iconic monuments certainly, though less grand than the Arch de Triomphe or the Capitol.
Elsewhere, the reminder of Nazi Germany are monuments like the Neue Synagoge (‘New Synagogue,’ pictured above) which was set on fire during Kristallnacht in 1938. My rickshaw driver also took me past the Holocaust memorial, which I did not visit. I had discussed Germany’s past a day or so earlier with Enrique, our hostel manager. I agreed with him that we should not visit the sins of the fathers on their sons. Germany has atoned. The fate of Germany and of Berlin after the war, including their partitions, were the work of foreigners. Germans even today bear the stigma of Nazi Germany before the world.
When I asked Enrique, why Germans ar eso polite, he answered that even this is partly due to German’s compensating to foreigners for their past. Surely then the British and French have lots to compensate for. And what of anti-Semitism. Hasn’t Germany become conveniently been scapegoated for the anti-Semitism which existed in all European societies.
The history of Berlin is no less covered in blood and gunpowder than other great capital. What’s remarkable is how not only has the city been rebuilt, but how it remains young. New buildings rise from the dust. The high streets in neighbourhoods like Schöneberg have public art galleries alongside their shops and restaurants. Neighbourhoods like Kreuzberg bustle with youth and energy in their musicians, artists and hipsters. The buzz of Berlin is there in nightclubs, in street jams, in the explosion of colour in its street arts.
The city is friendly, relaxed and welcoming, gay-friendly, multicultural and cosmpolitan. My friend recently said that great cities have their own spirit. Berlin feels like Commercial Drive in Vancouver or Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, with its own spirit bubbling in the hookah, unfurling in the bazaars, waiting to be discovered in its bookshops.
Berlin is cosmopolitan and German. In Kreuzberg, Turkish and non-Turkish, German and foreigners live alongside on another. Walking along the canal by my hostel, I imbibed the perfumes of Arabic, French, Turkish and English mingling in breeze of spring.
German cuisine wasn’t the best, but nor was I expecting it to be. I stuck mostly to the Turkish food in Berlin. Whereas Berlin has every cusine available, many of these, like Vietnamese, Thai, Greek, Indian and burgers are available in Vancouver. Where Vancouver is deficient in Turkish restaurants, however, Berlin holds in abundance. My dish of choice was “Manti,” the first Turkish meal I ate in Istanbul when I visited in 2010. Manti consists of small dumplings stuffed with meat and served in warm yoghurt, herbs and spices. At just 5.50 euros, topped off with a cup of Turkish tea, I felt as satisfied as a sultan in that Turkish restaurant on Kottbusser Damm.
The restaurants and cares are not the only Turkish legacy in Berlin. The Turkish are everywhere the local society: at work in shops, cab drivers, students walking home from school, old men playing bowls in the park, mums taking their children out in strollers. The Turkish market is an institution in Kreuzberg, and was happliy just a few steps away from our hostel. Lining the canal, its vendors sell everything from silk to spices to fruit and vegetable to trinkets and haberdashery to round, sesame seed Turkish bread.
Berlin was not a city that hit me across the head. After four nights, I thought I was disappointed. Yet in that bittersweet moment of parting, I realized, that I had fallen for the city without knowing.