“Berlin is a city that never is, but is always in the process of becoming” were the parting words relayed to me as I left for Berlin from a cozy Copenhagen studio apartment. The quote derives from the late German art critic and writer Karl Scheffler’s 1910 “Berlin, ein Stadtschicksal (Berlin, A Cities Fate),” in which he compares the success of Berlin against that of other capital cities. It is not a glowing review and, to be honest, not the best words of wisdom to bestow upon someone before visiting for the first time.
But here I was, in hour four of seven, on the Deutsche Bahn Intercity-Express swooshing through the German countryside at an average speed of 200mph thinking about what those words meant. Luckily, the sensation of moving at such a ridiculous speed won over my curiosity, and as the surroundings changed from rural to urban, a friendly “ding” notified me that we were at our destination, Berlin’s central train station, Berlin Hauptbahnhof.
Leaving the station and walking towards my hotel, I zigzagged through Mitte, the main central borough of Berlin. The overall size and beauty of the city is the first thing that comes to mind, as I pass parks, boutiques, and cafes stretched out along open boulevards. The history of the city becomes apparent, as well, while walking through Mitte, one of the few boroughs to incorporate both former East and West Berlin districts. Architecture shifts between the Stalinist influenced Socialist Classicism of the East and more antiquity-inspired Classicism of the West.
Remnants of the Berlin Wall, which was created following World War II, dividing the city between the east German Democratic Republic (GDR) and west Federal Republic of Germany until 1989, can be seen throughout Mitte as well. I find most have been left in public parks and spaces where they can function as a powerful reminder to the great divide this city has faced, a testament to the German commitment not to ignore their own history.
Later that evening, I found myself in NEU! Bar located in Prenzlauer Berg. Named after the ‘70s krautrock band, the bar has a cozy vibe that lands somewhere between dive and artisanal. A mix of locals, expats, and those just passing through often make up the night’s company, and all are often taking part in lively conversations. Ranging from global politics to the thriving local art scene, these conversations can reach at times the unperturbed and carefree attitude NEU! embodies, never really drowned out, making it an ideal place to relax after a long day.
Over the next few days, I continued my self-driven walking tours of Berlin. The cobbled sidewalks and paths led me to quaint artist galleries in Kreuzberg one day, then to the trendy Neukölln another, where I had an amazing lunch at Nil, a Sudanese vegetarian snackbar.
Powerful memorials to the victims of the Holocaust - Jewish, Sinti and Roma, and homosexuals - can all be experienced within a short walking distance of each other, making for a contemplative and reflective day of the atrocities we find ourselves capable of. A much more commercialized and touristy interaction can be had at Checkpoint Charlie, a former crossing point between East and West Berlin, just a short thirty minute walk from the memorials.
After an immersive week of art, beer, culture, food, and history, I spent my last evening in Berlin walking through Tempelhofer Park. The park, once the Berlin Tempelhof Airport, became a popular hangout and gathering place for Berliners following its decommissioning in 2008. I spent my time walking and chatting with new friends down the former runway as cyclists whizzed by and families enjoyed a late picnic in the evening sun.
As I walked I couldn’t help but come back to Schaffer’s quote with a fresh mind and sense of the city. The happiness and togetherness felt was an overwhelming euphoria, a sensation that countered the original intent of the space. Upon Tempelhof’s opening in the ‘30s, it was deemed an industrial milestone of the Third Reich and hosted numerous Nazi parades and rallies. It is a reclaiming and empowering act that announces the city has arrived and is no longer “becoming,” a sensation I can only hope will continue to blossom throughout Berlin as it emerges into the cultural powerhouse it promises to be.
Published June 20, 2015 - for Fine Living Lancaster Magazine