I’ve just come back from a work trip to Berlin. The last time I went – with a previous employer – was about 10 years earlier. That employer – like the present one – did all the right things: we ate at the famous Kaisersaal, the former Emperor’s Hall moved 75m brick by brick when Potsdamer Platz was redeveloped; visited the memorial to murdered European Jews; and attended an old style German cabaret. It was all very enjoyable (or sobering, in the case of the memorial), yet my abiding image was of a city in transition, pock-marked by cranes and building sites. In all honesty, a bit of an eyesore.
Ahead of this trip, a colleague who knows Berlin well, told me of his jealousy I was visiting his favourite German city. Another commented that what made Berlin so great was the juxtaposition of old and new.
Call me a philistine, but this time around I still found Berlin aesthetically challenged. The building sites remain, and don’t seem any less in number. In particular, many roads are being dug up, making for poor traffic flow. In patches, Berlin is beautiful – restored churches and cathedrals, museum island, avant-garde modern architecture. But in between are the roadworks, and unspectacular streets of modern shops.
It seems to me that what makes Berlin attractive is as much its zeitgeist as its look. There are all those museums – one colleague has insisted I see the bust of Nefertiti, currently on display in the Egyptian Museum – countless fashionable restaurants and bars (we visited the vertiginous sky lounge), cabaret, and events (the Berlin festival of lights, when Berlin’s landmarks are illuminated by night, was stunning). Also, the city is ethnically diverse – over a quarter of its citizens are foreign born – which brings its own invigoration.
Talking of the people, as a rule, I found Berliners extremely helpful and polite. Taxi-drivers jumped out of their cars to help with my luggage. The man at Information in the main train station remained patient and replied to me in perfect English as I asked him for the location of left luggage, and the toilets, and restaurants – and even where I could buy a brolly. Leaving Berlin, airport security were the politest I have ever encountered (as they asked me to strip off practically to my underpants).
There seems to be a decent spirit and sense of community. As I was leaving the main station by taxi, a local newspaper seller – tall, wide, ugly… and white – started screaming at a dimunitive immigrant competitor who he clearly felt was on his patch. The big guy stood towering over his rival, as the situation threatened to turn nasty. At which point an elderly couple approached, and the woman began to harangue the aggressor. A heated debate ensued, but clearly the big guy was now on the defensive. He tried to retake the initiative by returning to the immigrant and harassing him, but by now a middle-aged woman – much more mouthy than the elderly lady – had interposed herself between the immigrant and the big guy, and was really letting the latter have it. By the time my taxi pulled away, about half a dozen solid citizens had come between the two newspaper sellers, and last thing I glimpsed was the big guy shuffling away…
The one thing I still have trouble computing is that most difficult of subjects, the War, and particularly commemoration of the Holocaust. I don’t consider any of the commemoration in Berlin is wrong – it is rather the inadequacy of any possible response we may choose to make that disturbs me. The memorial remains an enigma, but I have (finally) decided that’s a good thing, and that it is well conceived. And yet a part of me still wants to stand in front of a single, tall, monolithic sculpture, something I can get my mind around more easily. And by the way – unlike the blocks – something a 12 or 13 year old girl wouldn’t be able to play hide and seek around with her father – as I witnessed. Apparently the German people petitioned for a memorial, and this is of course a good thing. But again, a part of me is dissatisfied. Modern-day Berlin hustles and bustles, and it is as if what happened has been compacted into a few sites around the city, almost forgotten.
It is not forgotten, of course, and the museum under the memorial is a good reason. It is well done: compendious, sensitive, and of course unspeakably moving. A German lady dabbed her eyes to stem some tears. I did the same, after reading 1 of 9 family stories described in detail in 1 room. I couldn’t read any more of them. In another room, the number of Jews murdered by European country is shown dotted around the walls. And in another, short extracts are read out in English or German narrating the lives of individual, murdered Jews; a sign on the wall says it will take slightly longer than the length of the War itself to get through them all.
Berlin pleases and perplexes me in equal measure. Maybe that is its charm. In any case, I vow to return in another 10 years’ time, if not before, to see what has become of this city that is progressive and a work in progress, both at the same time.