Earlier this month, I met up with Carson and had several glasses of riesling at a bar in Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood with dinner at SoHo House, a mid-rise artist’s den near Alexanderplatz, the de-facto center of Berlin.
SoHo House is something of a microcosm of Berlin. From a distance, it looks gray and nondescript; inside it’s, um, something else. Think vintage couches upholstered in floral fabric, pornstar-looking waiters who don fake French accents on command and well-coiffed people who talk a lot about “art,” but have little to show for it.
(Well, except for framed lists of websites URLs, printed in Times New Roman and center-aligned.)
As we looked out onto Berlin from the rooftop terrace, Carson explained to me how the wide avenue beneath us used to divide the east side from the west. He made note of the seemingly obvious contrast between the two sides, and I pretended to agree.
But all I really saw was a city that never quite recovered from the war that befell it, a bleak smattering of structures smeared over boring terrain as far as the eye could see. And you know what? That’s kind of how I feel about Berlin up-close, too.
The Hype About Berlin
To say Berlin has a reputation as the coolest city in Europe is putting it mildly. Literally everyone I met whom I told I would be traveling to German capital had something wonderful to say about it, even if it was wonderfully vague.
When I met up with my friend Andre in Stockholm, for example, he had just returned from a four-day weekend in Berlin, one he quite blissfully spent sleepless. The parties are absolutely insane, he’d explained, and described in as much detail as his drug-destroyed brain could remember his experience at Berghain, by some accounts the largest club in the world.
Berlin is infamous not only for its regular (for lack of a better word) discotheques, but also for sex clubs.
The reason Berliners (and, by proxy, visitors to Berlin) like to party so hard, I’m told, is because freedom is a novel concept in the city. Fair enough. But I’ve also been told, on more than one occasion, that “you haven’t really visited Berlin until you’ve partied in Berlin.” Um, OK.
Berlin 2005 vs. Berlin 2012
I’ve been to Berlin once before, during my first trip to Europe in 2005. I was coming from Hamburg and remember gazing out the window in horror as my train pulled in to Zoologischer Garten station: Had the Berlin Wall fallen only the day before?
OK, maybe I was a bit ignorant and poorly-traveled at the time, but I was nonetheless taken aback by the hideous, presumably Communist-era architecture that surrounded me, particularly after I boarded the S-Bahn elevated railway and traveled further east into the city. Compared to stately, Baltic Hamburg, I indeed felt like I was in a war zone.
I have traveled around the world several times since my first visit to Berlin, including to actual third-world cities. I thus expected to see the German capital in a drastically different light when I returned here three weeks ago. Yeah, kind of.
To be sure, the city has become markedly “nicer”; formerly dodgy areas like Kreuzberg and Neuköln are now even what you might call “cool.” In fact, Berlin arguably has more hipsters per capita these days than Minneapolis, Austin or Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Art and Poverty
And you know what that means — “art”! I put this term in quotes (just as I did in the intro to this piece) because let’s face it: Hipsters love to talk about art, but they rarely make it.
Now, Berlin is obviously an artistic city; all it takes is a trip down to the East Side Gallery, a section of the Berlin Wall that was converted into an outdoor public art museum, or a quick gander at any given brick building that’s been turned into an avant-garde mural, to see this.
But my problem with art in Berlin is not the art that exists, but the art that doesn’t.
See, many areas of Berlin are still extremely cheap, which means that it’s technically possible to live in Berlin for a time without working, whether you use savings, your parents’ good graces or, as I’m told is often the case, money from the German government.
I would wager, particularly after visiting SoHo House and attending a party in “artistic” Neuköln, that many Berlin “artists” are indeed wannabe socialites, who use a vague interest in art to conceal their poverty. Collectively, this amounts to a lot of people getting high off their own farts, particularly when drug money is scarce.
The Turkish Question
It isn’t a secret that Berlin is home to a huge Turkish population; it also isn’t a secret that strong opinions about this population exist. I had never, to my knowledge, encountered a Turkish person when I visited Berlin for the first time, and was more fascinated than annoyed by the veiled women, Döner kebab shops and mosques I saw.
I have been to Turkey since; I am neither prejudiced against Turkish people nor ignorant to their cultural norms. But you know what? I am not a huge fan of the more Turkish areas of Berlin.
It’s not the presence of Turkish people or the Turkish language that I have a problem with. And in theory, the fact that they seem unwilling to assimilate into German society doesn’t bother me.
But what I do have a problem with is being heckled when I walked down the street in one of Berlin’s gayest neighborhoods holding my boyfriend’s hand. I do have a problem being given poor service in a Turkish restaurant because I am, presumably, gay. Last time I checked, the cultural morays of Turkey don’t apply in Germany.
I try not to play the “discrimination” card very often because I think it tends to be a cop-out, but the Turks of Berlin are undoubtedly homophobic. And as a foreign visitor, I don’t believe fellow foreign visitors should be making me feel unwelcome, even if some of them are technically German citizens.
The Bottom Line
I won’t continue heaping Haterade on Berlin because, to be fair, there are some great things about the city: Beautiful parks and lakes; a wide variety of museums and cultural institutions; an almost endless selection of restaurants; and a generally low cost of living. Actually, when I really think about it, there is probably more to like about Berlin than there is to dislike.
But Berlin just isn’t my cup of tea. I don’t particularly enjoy partying; I’m more impressed by people who make art than people who talk about it; and I’m not willing to compromise being tolerated in the name of tolerance.
Is Berlin the coolest city in Europe? Maybe. But if that’s the case, I guess I’m just not very cool.