Berlin, a tale of 26 weeks

183 days, 28 visitors, 130 glasses of beer, 23 vegetarian burgers, 41 walks in Volkspark Friedrichshain, 1,040 kilometres on my bike and a temperature difference of 44 degrees. I’ve been in Berlin for half a year now and that means the inevitable question is starting to pop up – in my head, but also from the mouths of my friends: ‘Are you going to stay after the next half year?’ And when I tell them I most probably will, they want to know: ‘What’s it like to live in Berlin?’ It appears that ‘great’ doesn’t always satisfy their curiosity.

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View from the Großer Bunkerberg in Volkspark Friedrichshain.
Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

So I’ve been giving it some thought. What’s the appeal, the USP, the magic of Berlin? It’s not the big sights, sorry Brandenburger Tor and Fernsehturm. It might be the many different neighbourhoods with their very own vibe and atmosphere – but then again, Amsterdam, Paris and London have their various localities too. Is it the people of Berlin, with their colourful and laid-back attitudes? Maybe, but isn’t that true of the inhabitants of any big city? Could it be the events, the city’s many parties and cultural highlights? Possibly, but again they are not unique to Berlin.

From the hottest to the darkest place on earth

I think I would have to search for something bigger, something that actually grasps the feeling Berlin gives me. Something that explains why I missed the city when I was in Holland last week, even though I had all my Dutch friends around me. I have to search for the mind-set that I’m trying to convey to my friends when they visit me in Berlin – even though until now I’m not sure what this mind-set is myself. It’s the thing that makes Berlin lovable even now that the sun sets at 4 p.m. (and there’s still a month to go until the shortest day) and also when temperatures were exceeding 40 degrees Celsius last Summer. What is it? I think Berlin is a place to be yourself – regardless of who you are, where you’re from and what your plans for life are. That might sound rather vague, but I’ll try to make it a little more explicit.

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Quite a fascinating place: the much hated neighbourhood of Marzahn.
Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans.

First of all, Berlin offers more than enough space for everyone. Sure, there are also a lot of people in Berlin: almost 3.5 million on 891 km2, which equals 3,900 people/km2. Sounds like quite a big number, but it’s nothing compared to London’s 5,206 people/km2, New York’s 10,518 people/km2 or Paris’s 20,700 people/km2. Like any big city, there are neighbourhoods in Berlin that are less interesting than others – but I dare say that virtually any ‘Bezirk’ has its own USP’s. This summer I even visited Marzahn, probably the borough with the worst reputation in all of Berlin. I hardly dared to leave the car – but then I saw a windmill and a goat. I admired the view from one of Berlin’s highest hilltops and visited an apartment that still breathes the GDR.  And I haven’t even got around to visiting the brewery yet.

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Why not spend a Saturday afternoon in an abandoned swimming pool?
Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

Because Berlin is such a large city, there are activities that answer to anyone’s hobbies or interests. If you’re an art lover, you can spend every weekend visiting the hundreds of art galleries and dozens of art museums in Berlin. If you’re a fan of nature, there are 2,500 green spaces in the city – not to mention virtually the entire state of Brandenburg. But even if your hobbies are slightly less conventional, you’ll find something to your liking in Berlin. Nightclubs where things happen beyond your wildest imagination, parties and movies in squatted buildings (Kopi 137), bunker tours (Berliner Unterwelten), urban gardening, urban exploring in abandoned embassies and swimming pools or flea markets where the strangest things are for sale. To throw in a cliché: everything is possible in Berlin. Or at least a lot more than in many other cities.

Hipsterish people at Christmas markets

What I find truly surprising about Berlin, is the way people mix. I wouldn’t want to claim that the city is the perfect mixed, multi-ethnic community, but I noticed the separation between age groups, ethnic groups and subcultures is much less strict than in the Netherlands. When a new cool restaurant opens in Amsterdam, it is flooded by hipsterish people who want to be seen in this hotspot. Families and old people better stay far away from this place. In Berlin, I’ve seen hipsters, old-timers and babies happily mingle at locations like Klunkerkranich, the beach bar (and now Christmas market) on top of a shopping mall in Neukölln. In the same way, tourists, punks and students get together with Jamaicans and other Rastafaris at Yaam – but that might also be because of the way everyone is up in smoke (actively or passively) at this über-relaxed beach bar.

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Berlin is still looking for its identity – so why not rebuild the city in the way it once was? This is the Stadtschloss, built in 1442, demolished in 1950, rebuilt right now.
Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

Where does this specific Berlin state of mind come from? I think there are – at least – three reasons for it. Whereas many cities have a clearly defined identity, shaped by their historic city centre or, for example, the companies based within their city limits, Berlin has had to redefine its identity many times over the past century. It was the centre of Europe in the twenties, but lost everything in the thirties and forties. It was an outpost of West Germany and the capital of East Germany, but neither of these identities meant anything once the Berlin Wall came down. Right now I think Berlin still isn’t sure what its new personality is, but who cares? Berlin is constantly changing and doesn’t need a clearly defined city centre – its strength is in the many different neighbourhoods with their very own identities.

Nobody wanted to live in Kreuzberg

Part of this identity is naturally also shaped by the inhabitants of the city. Historically, Berlin has always attracted an interesting type of people. At the start of the last century, it was people from all over Europe who wanted to be part of the big, booming city. After WWII, Berlin developed in a way that no other city in the world has ever done – as two separate cities that suddenly became one again in the early 1990’s. Until then, East-Berlin was a closed fortress and West-Berlin a haven for many that didn’t (want to) find a place elsewhere in Germany. Migrants from Turkey found apartments in a neighbourhood nobody else wanted to live in – the now hugely popular Kreuzberg. But also young, free-spirited and rebellious West Germans who didn’t want to join the army moved to West-Berlin – formally not a part of the Federal Republic of Germany – to flee conscription.

Those people who once chose West-Berlin as their refugee are (partially) still there. In addition to that, there’s a continuous influx of new Berliners coming from all over the world. Berlin has a creative, wild and artistic reputation – and people want to be a part of that. Some choose to stay and actually start a life in Berlin, but for many the city is just a temporarily stopover. This also means that it’s a point in life to rethink who you are and what you’re expecting of life and yourself. You’re new in the city, so you have to find new friends and probably also a new job/some other way to earn your money – so why not become a slightly better, or at least different, version of yourself? Who cares that you made a mess of your life in your home country? Nobody in Berlin has to know. If you fail in Berlin too, you can always leave again. Or move to another neighbourhood.

So do I plan on staying after June 2016? Yes, of course. I want to be part of another summer, autumn, winter and spring in Berlin. I want to try many many more beers and burgers (or hotdogs, which is apparently the next big thing in Foodland). I want to climb the Großer Bunkerberg in Volkspark Friedrichshain at least a hundred times more and I want to discover all the neighbourhoods that I haven’t been to yet. I want people to yell at me for riding my bike on the sidewalk and I want to be ignored by too-pretty waitresses in too-cool bars. Berlin, ick liebe dir and I don’t plan on breaking up with you just yet.