Under a Northern Sky: Feeling “ich bin ein Berliner”

Posted by Gautam Chakrabarti • Thursday, August 5. 2010 • Category: People and Places
This is not an average travel narrative, replete with the wonders of a world that is truly wondrous: a jazzy world that, yet, has a large, welcoming heart. This is, perhaps, not an image run-of-the-mill Hollywood WW2/spy-flicks generate, immersed, as they seem to be, in anachronistic assumptions and the resultant antipathies. But, it is clear to this writer, Germany and Berlin define the new Gross European Cool, framed in terms of “Multi-Kulti” (multiculturalism, in colloquial German) and a Kalkbrennerian Zeitgeist.

A view of the city of Berlin by Henk de Boer

Fast-paced, even frenetic, but not unwilling to wait, for those who may lag behind, like yours truly: a cosmopolis with a soft, multidimensional heart; this is the story of a visitor's impression of one of the world's all-time greatest cities, the new New York, “aus dem Herzen Europas” (“from the heart of Europe”)... B-E-R-L-I-N! A magical city, where, as in the epoch-making Wim Wenders film, Himmel über Berlin, angels assuage many a wounded and hurting heart; a quick, rough-sounding word may lead to the greatest kindness; a seemingly-tight-lipped senior citizen may be, when approached for help with an address, so kind as to run behind one for hundreds of meters just to tell one what s/he thinks is the correct direction; and, as an American comedian had once said of New York, as attractive as “a beautiful lady smoking a cigar!”

It's a city where Kurds can be mistaken as Turks but they brush it off, while giving you a friendly food-tip; an Iraqi “King of Falafel” gives you gratis salbei tee (free sage tea), his eyes moistening at his recollection of a lost, “golden” Baghdad, with large, succulent catches of fish by the Tigris; a young Thuringian woman wonders at how an Asian guy can know about or be interested in her grandmother's flight from the barbaric, and hushed-up, brutalities of a victorious horde-like army coming from the East, while discussing her own trip to South America; and a Bangladeshi poet-in-exile, as diasporic as the storm, takes a young Indian researcher to a concert of young European classical musicians. “So bleibt Berlin!” (“That’s Berlin!”)

Berlin Street Art by iMaax

Berlin is, today, a truly-European socio-cultural conundrum, tending towards being a New York-like “melting pot”; perhaps, scholars like Diana L. Eck may suggest it's a “salad bowl”. This doesn't, however, divest it of a certain neighbourhood-loyalty that reminds one of a more laid-back city like, say, Calcutta. Folks in Kreuzberg/Neukölln, which is, arguably, Berlin's Greenwich Village, centre of the megacity's bustling and protean arts-and-culture scene, are loathe to believe that a place like Lankwitz, which's deep in South-West Berlin, one of the most heavily bombed localities during WW2, can even exist!

The denizens of suburban Berlin, especially those living in the Gartenvereine (garden house cooperatives), which render large swathes of Berlin lush green and texturally variegated with vividly-coloured flowers; if one’s window opens out to one such “housing society” one can see usually elderly women and men toiling away at their potato-beds, tomato, zucchini, radish and beet plants, along with myriad flower bushes and apple trees. One can't but be amazed at the productive tenacity of these, apparently-retired, people, who are bent on making the city erupt with a zillion blooms; sometimes, they have visitors, perhaps their children with some of their own. Many a time, they doze on beach chairs, while soaking in the not-so-ubiquitous sun, which, this summer, was at its strongest in the North. Sometimes, a poodle runs out only to be bored by the lack of unpredictability in the familiar surroundings: no surprises for a dog!

Berlin Dog Life by aurica

Berlin ist eine Hunde-Stadt”: this is, undoubtedly, “dog paradise”; canines of all shapes, sizes, colours and pedigrees, or the absences thereof, hold sway over Berlin's streets, alleys, the U- and S-bahns (Berlin’s light rail systems) and parks, even paying a visit to a Spivak lecture. Many a time, one misses them when a train/bus ride is sans a dog, who, typically, lolls on the floor with her/his eyes reproaching you in silent agony: why did you two-legged cretins have to invent such tortures as these bumpy, shaky rides? The owners of these matchless fellow-commuters are, usually, friendly and communicative, with one notable exception when a rather-overweight man swore at this writer when asked the age of his dog and moved away to the back of the bus; most people, however, warm up instantly and an enjoyable conversation is the result, more often than not.

Once, during a visit to the Tempelhof Airport-Park, which is an amazingly-well-preserved structure but, in typically-German fashion, opened up for public use and enjoyment, this writer had managed to befriend a guy who was trying to make his dog do a watered-down version of kite-gliding, whatever that is: don't ask! That's Berlin, perhaps even Germany, for you: Hitler's favourite aerodrome, the mainstay of the so-called Luftbrücke (air bridge), as the much-vaunted Allied food-drops over post-WW2 Berlin, during the Soviet blockade, were called, is now as accessible to a dog trying to kite-glide as the Chancellor! A level of individual and social freedom one can only dream of in countries like Russia and India.

Berlin Street Life by Alexander

If dogs have got their “place under the sun”, can cats be far behind? Berlin, sadly, has disappointed this writer a bit in terms of cat-visibility, though he has seen a few interesting felines in even more interesting contexts; one, a pitch-black kitten, was first seen at the Edenkobener Weg bus-stop, being carried in a wicker-cage by a most-concerned and very chatty mistress, who had green-pink-blue hair and rather-intriguingly-unmentionable piercings. One even saw him a second time, at S-Lankwitz: he had grown a lot in a few weeks and even tried to paw a black sweater-sleeve, presumably because it resembled a rival cat's tail; this brings one to another feature of life in Berlin: it's like a big little town, as one sees complete strangers again-and-again, while commuting, even though one follows no particular schedule!

Is there, then, a hidden, fixed Berlin-community, which remains loyally-stable amidst the city's proverbial fluidity – one-third of the city's population, one hears, has changed in the last two decades – could the iconic city of the Cold War still be full of “tails”? Berlin, “the idea of Hitler that Churchill had erased, that heap of rubble beside Potsdam” – as Bertolt Brecht had said in 1945 – is a city full of Augenblicke, epiphanies of the imagination!

Delhi Sound Tamasha with 22ROCKETS and André Gardeja in Berlin's legendary Club zur Wilden Renate
(c) Knowledge Must

Talking of fantasy, nothing in Berlin evoked more imagination-churning in the mind of this writer than the sound of this techno-loving Hauptstadt (capital); from Paul Kalkbrenner to Thomas Fehlmann and Moritz von Oswald, from the subterranean mystique of Tresor's dungeons to the riotous abandon of Berghain, Berlin's sound spreads peace and light through “Sky and Sand”. The lifestyle that can be associated with such music can't but be influenced by the open, carefree beats of a music that affirms Berlin's ability to sustain unimaginable pressure – not just in the form of horrendous war-inflicted material, architectural damages, but also those lying deeper down, in the psyche – and turn it around. Dancing away, apnī dhun mein (in one’s style), to the inhibition-dissolving rhythms of Berlin-techno is a unique experience, one that can't but be felt first-hand. It's as if the genius of the city carries your struggles and stresses up in her hand and leads you on a journey of self-discovery!

Berlin's architecture is just as “hardy”, never-say-die as its music, as giving up seems to be anathema to the Berliner; that claim, emblazoned so boldly on the Statue of Liberty, on the world's dispossessed, dispirited, deprived and disenfranchised can be made even more rightfully by the Angel atop the Siegessäule (Victory Column)! Berlin had been, before the Allies and the Soviets decided to “bomb it back to the Stone Age” in WW2, a treasure-trove of mainly late-baroque architecture; from the Schloss to the Dome, the pre-War Regierungsviertel, which is now a rather-futuristic post-modern conglomeration of building-statements, to the Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin had them all.

The notorious Berlin Plattenbauten by rp72

After the War, it was, partly, a desire to express a clean break with the perceived imperial militarism of the Kaisers (emperors) and, partly, a functional-pragmatic necessity to build modern and post-modern edifices; as a result, Berlin's skyline had changed dramatically and, till date, it remains one of Europe's most architecturally-eclectic cities: here, imposing neoclassical domes are juxtaposed with the late-Soviet TV-Tower, the show-piece of the DDR, which, occasionally, as President Ronald Reagan had noted, during his “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech, embarrassed that regime by making the sign of the cross at sunset! The neo-Soviet classicist impressiveness of the buildings, on the former Stalinallee, contrast but don't jar with the humble “Plattenbau” (buildings whose structure is constructed of large, prefabricated concrete slabs) that is disappearing fast; the latter, though still common in towns like Frankfurt/Oder, is almost invisible in Berlin, unless one goes deep into the territory of what was, formerly, East Berlin.

The scars, though almost healed, do, occasionally, show their presence and former puissance: they are, arguably, most omnipresent, in people's attitudes and what they choose to remember and forget; a country that is still not quite at peace with itself – nor is allowed to by a baying, bear-baiting world – is no stranger to this lack of quietus. This may be something the German mind and heart have learnt to live with... or so one tells oneself; to deny that is to be pained beyond endurance at the sufferings of this city and its people.

Berlin Cathedral by Andrew Mason

In a nutshell, to be in Berlin, for whatever length of time, is to fall in love with this unique city, clichés apart, and declare residency here: no wonder JFK wanted to be even a jam-tart if that was what being a “Berliner” meant; as far as this writer is concerned, “Berlin is in Germany”, of course, but this wise old habitation on the bank of the Spree speaks for the conscience of the Earth.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Knowledge Must.

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