Coming from the Spanishness of Barcelona, Berlin seemed so much like home that Michelle and I kept finding ourselves surprised that people weren’t speaking English. It was, it seemed, a very American city.
Well, not in all ways.
For example, you know clubs in the States will try to get people in the doors early by saying "free admission before 10 pm"? Well, Berlin clubs do the same, except it’s "free admission before 3 am".
They don’t even open their doors until 11:30 (or 23’30, as they say here) or midnight. When do they sleep?
And the squats are worth a mention: leftovers from when Berlin was divided East and West, there are buildings and plazas and whole blocks occupied by squatters. The police wouldn’t dare try to kick them out, for fear of the protests that would follow, Ernst, our couchsurfing German friend told us. Some are converted into artist live / work spaces, some just live spaces (including at least one tree house…ah, my dream). We went to a late night dub party (again, with the fantastic Ernst) in one such space, which was a good time, though I must say reggae parties are the same pretty much everywhere you go (except Jamaica…I imagine they’d be different there): hippy / punkish white guys with dreadlocks and old Jamaican men smoking waaaay too much for their own good.
And, of course, there’s the Wall. We spent many a day just rolling the reality of it around and around in our heads: at the end of WWII, the Americans, British, French and Soviets divided Germany up and agreed to jointly administrate it. They drew lines through it, with the western part of Germany going to the U.S., Britain and France, and the eastern part to the Soviet Union, and Berlin, the capital, divided the same way.
Except that Berlin was deep, deep in the middle of the Eastern part.
That meant you had a pocket of capitalist West Germany stuck hundreds of miles in the middle of East Germany.
Naturally, as economic and cultural conditions began to deteriorate under Soviet leadership, folks on the eastern side of the city started to move to the western side. The Soviets built a wall around West Berlin, not to keep people from getting out of the wall, but to keep people from getting into the wall. And it stood that way until 1989.
It just all seems backwards.
There is a museum just a block from Checkpoint Charlie that’s been there for decades (all during the period the wall stood), detailing the various lengths Germans went through to make their way out of Soviet-controlled East Germany to West Berlin: packed inside suitcases, in home made hot air balloons, home made submarines, home made scuba gear…We stood mesmerized in front of the pictures of it all, including those from November 11th, 1989, when they finally opened the gates and let everyone through.
Oh, what a party that must have been. They say champagne and tears flowed in the streets.
East Berlin, which was a destitute, Soviet wasteland, has been transformed in just 18 years into the hip, up and coming section of town. New buildings and construction are everywhere, there’s a baby boom amongst the young professionals and galleries and boutiques are the flowers growing in all the cracks.
The weather was cold while we were there (it dipped down to 32° one night), which hampered our exploring a bit, but the food was much better than we expected. Unlike Barcelona and Paris, where it was a struggle to find food that wasn’t designed for tourists, Berlin was full of yummy, affordable restaurants: Thai, Vietnamese, Italian, Indian…oh, and I suppose German, though we just dabbled in that fare: a currywurst (sausage with ketchup and curry poweder) here, a piece of schnitzel (fried, flattened pork) there.
All that, plus the best transit system of scene, anywhere, make it the most livable city we’ve visited.
If only we spoke German.
We also hung out with Brady, Toby and Brooke while we there. They tried the unconventional approach of not bothering to change their internal clocks. Mixed success, according to their blog.