Cosmo-topia! 2011: Someone Explain Berlin

Posted on September 7, 2011

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The skinny, kind of fey-looking guy on reception-duty at our hostel bobbed along to trance music as he took our passports. In only slightly-accented English he told us about such mundane things as laundry, check-out times and how you had to pay for breakfast. Meanwhile, another receptionist came up behind him, reached his arms over our receptionist’s shoulders, and started massaging his pectoral muscles.

Our receptionist interrupted his monologue about where we could find the nearest supermarket to say, “Oh, yeah, that feels good… never stop.”

My friend said, nudging me, “I think this is a cool hostel.”

Awesome, awesome twirly sign.

My lonely planet calls it “Europe’s coolest capital”, and I have a friend who loved it so much she decided to defer uni to rent an apartment in Kreuzberg. Everyone raves about Berlin.

So why was I disappointed?

I’ve been to Berlin three times. Once when I was about a year old, and spent the entire visit boring my mother at the zoo. Then again two years ago, and finally… now. I don’t pretend to know the city well, so don’t get angry if I step on your Berlin-adoring toes. But I’ve been there enough to at least form my own impression.

This time, the first thing I did – duh – was go out. Which brings me to my first question: Why is it necessary to delay going out until 3:00am? What’s wrong with leaving the house at 11:00? Honestly, you aren’t proving you’re cool just because you can stay up late. Because that was my main beef with the Berlin nightlife: It seemed so preoccupied with its own coolness, it was almost T.C. When we finally left the hostel at 1:00am, I thought this meant we were headed to das klub. But no. Bar first, where, for the privilege of spending 7 euro on a G&T, I got to gaze at fellow not-yet-clubbers nonchalantly ignoring the blaring trance music in jeans and converse. Which was my second question: Why the dressing down? Call me a bogan, but I actually enjoy dressing up for a night out. If I’m going to spend a fortune on entry, drinks and cabs, I want to do it in a dress and heels. Or at least a fancy coat. Not jeans and converse, which seemed to be the fave outfit that night.

When we finally got to the club – Suicide Circus, a cool place, but why oh why the name? – we were made to line up silently and feel inadequate. Berliner bouncers are notorious d***heads, but was it really necessary to make all the boys feel like they weren’t going to get in if they didn’t pretend to be our boyfriends? Particularly because when we did get in, the place was almost empty (it was only 2:30am, after all, LAUGHABLY EARLY OF COURSE).

I’ve got to admit that I did have a really fun night. Although the bartenders had serious attitude issues (don’t pretend to think I ordered three drinks when I said “Two”, and “Zwei”, and held up two fingers), there was one benefit to the ridiculously late start and cranky tempers: It made it seriously easy to “party until sunrise”. When sunrise happens two and a half hours after you get to the club, even grandmas like me can make it.

This poster terrifies me.

For me, the real drawcard for Berlin had always been its history. After numerous school- and university-history courses, after hours of poring over textbooks about the Second and Third Reichs, after writing essays on everything from “Music in the Weimar years” to “Did the treaty of Versailles cause WWII?” – I really wanted to go on a free walking tour. Our guide, George-from-Missouri, was of the excellent random-dates-in-ominously-short-sentences variety. As in “May 19th. 1941. The day when Hitler made a decision that would change the course of history. Forever.” It was certainly a very suspenseful tour.

If you want to wander amongst the relics of the most catastrophic century in human history, go to Berlin. Translating ominous words like “Kristalnacht”, “Hitler’s bunker” and “Checkpoint Charlie” into visual memory is as rewarding as it is confronting. Despite the sensationalism, there was a wry, black humour about the way George told the story of Berlin’s history – from the way the Berlin wall came down because a lazy bureaucrat forgot to read his notes before delivering what should have been a run-of-the-mill press-conference, to the way Berliners have commemorated Hitler’s grave with a car-park where “Children are forbidden to play games”.

But at the same time, there’s no denying it: Berlin is ugly. A century of air-raids and totalitarian governments – which, whether Soviet or Nazi, are never known for their architectural taste – have created a city of concrete blocks. Occasionally, this concrete is interspersed with an out-of-place-looking neo-classical horror dating from German unification in the 1800s, when the Germans believed that their Second Reich was to uphold the cultural legacy of the Roman and Holy Roman empires. Cue buildings like the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag.

On top of this, Berlin has an overwhelming sense of emptiness. It makes sense – a city with so many bad memories is bound to lose some of its population. Berlin was built to house something like 3 million more inhabitants than it actually does… and it shows.

Berlin, looking rather grey…

For all Berlin’s ostentatious cosmopolitanism and modernity, to me, the place feels as though it’s a city that has outlived its own destiny. The monumental – albeit appalling – events of the 20th century left a (former) history student like me feeling eerily as though I was wondering through a post-apocalyptic city. The empty buildings and deserted parks around the Philharmonie-building didn’t help. Would I come back? Probably. If nothing else, I want to know what I missed, because the hordes who rave about Berlin can’t all be wrong.

What is it about Berlin that I’m not getting?

How do you cosmopolitan readers who have been to the city feel about it? It’s a city entrenched in history and rhetoric, but is it a “cool” city? Comments, readers, comments! 

For more on travel, have a read of Got the Munchies? Eat Your Heart Out In Amsterdam. For more Cosmo-topia!, click here

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