I can never quite decide whether I like Berlin. My father and sister live there, so I visit quite often , and I have got to know it quite well over the last 10 years. It has changed quite a lot in that time, becoming increasingly like every other German city, but with much ruder inhabitants. It is a much more open city than most, seeming to have many more migrants than the rest of Germany, although most have come from other parts of Germany. As becomes obvious if you have lived in Germany for a while, it is still a collection of discrete regions.They consider each other sufficiently different to view a large concentration of, say, Bavarians in a particular part of town as changing its character. I read a newspaper article about how much neater and more productive Kreuzberg has become since all the south Germans moved in.
Only some grumpy taxi drivers or barmaids ever seem to speak with the distinctive, hard consonants that identify native Berliners. In that respect, London is rather different, since unlike Berlin, most migrants are not from other parts of Germany, but from all over the world. You can eat, buy, smoke and drink anything in London. But it still seems to have established monuments and structures that Berlin, as a result of its history, lacks. It has no real centre I could describe; while the Brandenburg gate is the central monument, the streets around it are devoid of shops or bars. There are duplicates of a large number of public buildings, which can make navigation quite confusing if one hasn’t realised there is an east and a west German zoo. I first went there in 2002, it was still entirely a building site, and didn’t seem to have many tourists. Perhaps it has become a victim of its own success.
There was in those days always a nice bookshop or art shop to wander around, and it was easy to get into one of the many museums or exhibitions. I enjoyed going around the small boutiques in the hackesche Höfe, or looking at the new synagogue, although perhaps the huge police presence and barriers outside it were less pleasing.
Somehow the last few times I have been, the rudeness has got to me. The taxi drivers never seem to know where they’re going, misunderstand directions most of the time, and on one particularly memorable occasion, the guy was still watching a film playing on a portable DVD player as he pulled out of the airport. This time, we were running late and needed a ride around a few blocks, making a fare of €6, and the driver went into an emotional lecture about how he had waited hours for the fare, and if we weren’t going far, we should take the car at the other end of the taxi queue. I felt like telling him he was free to decline my money altogether if it was beneath him.
The public transport system is poorly signposted and disjointed into many parallel services that the first-time visitor must find almost impossible to navigate. In order to know which direction the trains are going, you have to follow the line to its end on the map, only to find that the line branches and changes number on the map. There are no staff to assist with the badly maintained ticket machines, only someone to shout at you if you fail to validate the ticket correctly. Perhaps the city just has little interest in encouraging people to use it, since the vast avenues that cover the whole city have at least two lanes and separate cycle paths.
It is also a city whose past is hard to escape, full of buildings that are iconic in very dispiriting ways. The brandenburg gate is beautiful, particularly lit up at night, and is one of the only things that I do somehow associate with my nationality. But it is also quite depressing to look at, reminding me of the consequences of the nationalism that has always made me feel intense guilt, even though I was born 30 years later and am half English anyway. I love (or perhaps like is more appropriate) the holocaust war memorial that sits right next to the Brandenburg gate; a grid of black marble blocks, which rise in size as the supporting ground falls away to form deep trenches. As you walk between the blocks, the marble towers above you, and as they are all spaced symmetrically, each intersection looks disorientingly the same as the last. In the middle of the structure, the blocks are about 4 metres high, whole at the edges, they look like innocuous park furniture.
The architecture itself is of course an uncanny evocation of how effective the nazi regime was at building monolithic symbols of power. I have only seen tempelhof airport from the road, but it is unfortunately truly beautiful, a lovely half arch of clean roman pillars.
In terms of bars and restaurants, Charlottenburg is not the place to be for the former, as it’s pretty residential. We should have gone to Mitte, but couldn’t quite be arsed and only went for some (very nice) pre-dinner beer in a cheesy bavarian themed beerkeller opposite Hackesche hofe. Weihenstephan beer always tastes distinctive, with slightly stronger yeast flavour in the cloudy varieties.
Charlottenburg does have some lovely restaurants and cafes to savour for hours, like the cafe Lentz right by the station on stuttgarter platz, and cafe Brell on Savignyplatz is one of my favourites. Lietzenburger on Schloßstrasse serves traditional East German or more generally German food in the evenings, at good prices, so it’s a mystery why it’s been empty the last few times I’ve been.
We went to an exhibition of Goya and Toulouse Lautrec at the modern art museum opposite the Picasso (Berggruen) museum, which was quite nice. The film museum at potsdamer platz had a poorly curated but interesting Scorsese exhibition, including a horrific 1960s clip called the big shave, where this guy keeps shaving until he cuts his face to cascades of blood. Freaky.