Most of the people I know in Berlin are no Berliners. And that’s not because I dislike the locals, but because it’s rather difficult to find them. My city is the city of everyone.
It was one of those perfect early weekend mornings, when you get out of the club and can smell the fresh air again. I opted to walk home, even though it took an eternity, instead of calling a cab or waiting for the subway. That was the moment when I started dating my city.
Berlin is mean. Every encounter is a new experience and, once trapped, you never want to leave again. I didn’t find a crumbling Colosseum on my way that morning, neither did I see an Eiffel Tower, or anything else that impresses at first glance. Instead, the smell of the cafes still open at 5 am, tired ravers ordering the famous after-party Berliner Currywurst at a corner stand, bizarre pieces of art in gallery windows, remains of the Berlin Wall turned into a canvas for graffiti – block after block, it slowly got under my skin. It was a feeling that outdid any Paris or Rome.
It happens to all the people I know: They move here and inevitably fall in love with the city.
It’s the imperfection
After visiting Berlin, a friend of mine decided to sell his flat in the US and move here. He had no plans, no apartment, and no job. But he had Berlin and that was enough. A Swedish friend of mine got a great job in London after spending a few years in Berlin. She earns much more than she did here, but is still desperately looking for any reason to come back to live in her old neighborhood again.
Another woman I know moved here from West Germany, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “It’s the imperfection of this city that I love – the chaos that makes it so special,” she told me. And to quote some famous Berlin fans, the guys from Depeche Mode, one could describe this madness as “No strings attached, just free love.”
Berlin makes you become someone else every day, just to adapt to its myriad facets. A journey from nonconformist Prenzlauer Berg, where you have to stand out to fit in, along the extravagant-trashy Mitte district, and ending in fancy Charlottenburg is like a trip around the world – a very inexpensive one.
One minute, Berlin is so German and the next minute it’s everything else: Russian, French, American, British, Turkish, Polish. And sooner or later it turns German again.
The best part is, here you can be anything, without being judged for it. I once heard someone on the local radio saying that Berlin is the place where you don’t know if something is a piece of art or a piece of garbage.
And you have to be an artist, indeed, to appreciate thousands of paradoxes that make up this city. Here, you can spend an evening at the opera and later go to a sassy fashion show, organized in a church. You can go to a rundown bar and then have dinner at a restaurant just a few meters away, where the brand of your scarf will suspiciously be eyed for authenticity.
Leave on holiday for two weeks and your beloved bakery will turn into a shoe shop, your apartment building will start getting refurbished and the metro you usually take to work won’t be running for the next five months, due to construction work.
I had an Italian colleague at the university in Berlin who couldn’t speak a word of German (we studied in English). Well, just one word, actually: He could perfectly pronounce the tongue-twister Schienenersatzverkehr. It means that some alternative means of transport are substituting the metro you had been counting on because the rails are currently under construction. It also means your morning commute will be a nightmare. I guarantee it will be one of the first words you learn when you move to Berlin.
Love affair with the past
Berlin is someone else’s past meeting your future. And the best place to witness that is at the flea markets. Everything related to the socialist regime is more than trendy here: plastic kitchen utensils, empty boxes of washing powder, even worn-out 30-year-old shoes. In Berlin, GDR sells.
Nevertheless, Berlin is not entirely monogamous in its love affair with the past: There’s a market for new ideas, too. In Berlin you can even make money selling paper eyeglasses made of recycled cardboard – which have no lenses and, basically, no practical use whatsoever. A few years ago, a young Berliner started wearing them at parties, just for fun, and soon they created near hysteria in the city’s hottest clubs. Now, his so-called “Pappbrille” are a viable business.
Sometimes, this city is such a jumbled concoction that it can overwhelm. A local photographer once said, “I have to take Berlin in small doses, so I can digest it”.
But I’m still grabbing any opportunity to date my city. I’m ready for its imperfection and its nasty moods; I’m even ready for Schienenersatzverkehr and construction sites, as long as I have this beautifully arranged chaos, where garbage is art and vice versa.
It’s been a few years now and I’m far from getting bored.
Previously published on http://www.dw.de/english