Notes from Berlin

I’m on the very comfortable Intercity train back to Prague, after spending a couple of days on Berlin’s east side. It’s always interesting to compare notes on cities, and here are a couple of observations I’ve made while in Berlin:

A section of the wall, near Ostbanhof train station.

As Berlin goes, so goes Europe?
Berlin is, in many ways, an example of all that is good in Europe, as well as all its perils. People are working hard to reconnect the divided eastern and western parts, as well as to reconstruct neglected buildings in the East. Berlin is cosmopolitan in ways Prague probably won’t ever be, with all kinds of random nationalities everywhere. I got the feeling that Berlin is probably a good indicator of how things are headed in Neuropa.

There are indicators in many places of what can go wrong in Berlin if they can’t pull off their transformation. I had a run-in with a racist on a tram Thursday night. A group of loud, drunk guys with short-cropped hair – not quite skinheads – got on the tram and one of them walked over to me asking if I was Turkish. Then he asked if I was juden, looking for a fight. I put on my tram face and ignored him, and he eventually went back to his buddies. But it still raised my eyebrow.

On the other hand, the city is massively multicultural. The first couple of times I saw Asians speaking German, I did a double take. But then I got used to the idea.

Excellent Citroen parked in front of an East Berlin pizza restaurant.

Berliner hipsters
East Berlin is full of young, hip people. Great bars, restaurants and culture spots seemed to be on almost every corner, and there was definitely a feeling that something was happening. I really loved the vibe in town, and a sort of decision paralysis set in when my friends asked the inevitable question: “So, what do you want to do?” With all the choices, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do.

Micz and his girlfriend Vera took me to NBI, an excellent chill-out bar near Danziger Strasse. NBI was full of excellent DDR seventies-style couches – things a Wallpaper magazine editor would kill for, and full of uber-hip Berliners chilling. While there was a rather annoying folksinger playing for a while – he sang a love song to Columbine – he luckily finished his short set and things got a lot less ponderous.

Micz told me that young people from across Germany are flocking to Berlin because they like the energy and want to be part of the scene, but move away after a couple of years because they can’t find work.

Most things were more expensive than in Prague – like a tram ticket for EUR 2, as opposed to CZK 12, and don’t even get me started about how much a beer cost. But housing was on a par with Prague, or maybe even cheaper. An 80-meter apartment in the up-and-coming Friedrichshein district would cost you EUR 700-800, whereas a similar apartment in Vinohrady would probably cost more.

Poster in an East Berlin Obi home improvement center with German TV presenter Ralf Richter, of a show that translates to something like “If it doesn’t fit, we’ll make it fit.”

Reconstruction on a human scale
Building in Berlin isn’t limited to the big cranes all over the city, putting up massive buildings like those on Potsdamer Platz. Everywhere I saw, people were renovating their apartments. I spent all day Saturday helping my friend Lars install a kitchen in an apartment he was moving into, and got to see the land-office business being done in home improvement centers like Obi. The clientele in these stores was also different than in Prague. Prague centers tend to skew older, to male cottage owners in their fifties. The East Side Obi I went to was full of young hipsters comparing plumbing fixtures. It reminded me of the Safeway supermarket in San Francisco’s Marina district, which is famed for being a big pick-up spot.

East Side babymaking
While walking around Friedrichshein, I noticed a preponderance of baby carriages. Micz explained that a baby boom was definitely taking place in his neighborhood, and in fact Friedrichshein led the nation with its 2.4 birth rate. When housing is (relatively) cheap and you have a neighborhood full of late-twenties-early-thirties people around, storks are sure to be circling overhead. East Berlin really struck me as being a kid-friendly place, much more so than Prague, with clean parks and playgrounds all around.

The train ride
The ride from Prague to Dresden is one of the prettiest I’ve ever been on, winding its way along the Vltava, then the Labe, and then through the mountains in the border region. I really enjoyed sitting in the dining car, next to a gigantic window with the beautiful scenery, and was in a nice travel trance. When the waitress came to ask what I wanted, I tried to order the thing on the menu that seemed most sophisticated to me. “Tří vejce do skla,” I answered.

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