Thirty years after the fall of the Wall, Berlin may be a chaos. It may be loud and dirty. But it is also a diverse and energetic beauty. There is only one Berlin. And it is open and free.
On the M29 line, a bus driver in his thirties complains about the vehicle they make him drive. The model, a Swedish-made Scania Citywide bus, “reacts differently compared to the Polish Solaris buses, especially when I take turns”, he says. “But at least the doors react quickly when I press these buttons”.
Contrasts at ‘Hermannplatz’
At the Waldeckpark bus stop he even demonstrates what exactly he means. Indeed the three doors open quickly and smoothly, as if they were sliding on German-made butter. “See what I mean?” The man is right.
The ‘Metro Bus’ line 29 almost covers all of Berlin. It connects the peaceful Roseneck, which is just a few blocks away from Grunewald park, to the subway station at Hermannplatz. That square is the exact opposite of peaceful. It is dirty as hell and rather loud.
Just a few steps away, at Urbanstrasse, a young lady is on her way to purchase bread rolls at 6:55 a.m., while a man standing in her path vomits on the pavement. He is holding a beer bottle. It might have been his 15th one since he started partying the night before. Two hours later, along the same path, young parents transport their kids to several kindergartens in the so-called Graefe Kiez neighborhood, on their bikes.
Creativity in Backyards
Some of the fathers wear long beards, one of them clothing which he might have purchased in the 1970s, using a Gluten-free time machine. Others squeezed themselves into business attires. Some of these young parents are designers and IT nerds who work in start-up companies with offices located somewhere in the famous Kreuzberg quarter’s backyards.
They create websites, book covers, flyers, advertising slogans and truckloads of Powerpoint presentations, while their kids play in vegetarian or otherwise politically correct kindergartens. Kreuzberg is wild. Here they bring their dogs to work, they vote green “and they listen to Steely Dan” (quote by the late George Carlin). This quarter could hardly be more international either. And it is young and colorful.
Out of the 3.75 million inhabitants of Berlin, some 280,000 live in Kreuzberg. More than 115,000 of them are migrants, mostly from other E.U. countries (31.9 percent). Almost 24 percent of all foreigners in this multicultural part of the German capital are of Turkish origin, and around 9 percent are Arabs.
The Wild End of Kreuzberg
While most Turks, especially the women and the older men, are peaceful and hard working, the police have problems with what they call “legal vacuums” created by Arab clans in Kreuzberg and elsewhere in Berlin. Some Arab families with Mafia-like structures are involved in dealing with drugs, in car theft and the entire spectrum.
Since they do not accept the German police as an authority, dozens of officers are involved in regular raids and arrests. Of course there are German and Turkish criminals too, but the clans are spreading and controlling entire neighborhoods. By now the authorities have identified the problem and are fighting them.
A club which used to be named ‘Ficken 3000’ marks one end of Kreuzberg, the more dirty and wild one. Since that name contained the German version of the F-word, the verb’s infinitive to be precise, some residents across the street, a more intellectual bunch of people who were tired of reading that word, complained to the municipality some years ago. For a while, the club renamed itself ‘3000’, without that infinitive. By now it has been converted back to ‘Ficken 3000’.
Smoked Fish on the Channel
One beautiful and more quiet end of Kreuzberg includes the Landwehr Canal, a channel which basically extends the river Spree through the Alt-Treptow, Kreuzberg and Tiergarten districts. Here, a nice restaurant ship welcomes visitors who insist on having the most delicious smoked fish for lunch.
Very hip places, such as Mugrabi Café, a great spot owned by young Israelis, are spread all over Kreuzberg, and more are being established all the time. At a popular restaurant in Graefestrasse, a big sign promises the “best f*cking burger in town”. Welcome to Berlin.
Neukölln, the neighboring borough, is even wilder than Kreuzberg. It is a true melting pot. Most businesses are Turkish cafès, Turkish food and vegetable stores and gambling halls. On Karl Marx Strasse, the ‘real Berlin’ unfolds all its energy and life. And its chaos.
Berlin, the Serious Place
Just a few hundred meters down the street, the Bohemian Village (Böhmisches Dorf) is a sharp contrast. It provides a completely different look. Historic houses, much flatter than all the buildings and blocks around the corner, and picturesque gardens serve as a tourist magnet today. This part of Berlin was founded as a village some 300 years ago, when Frederick William I of Prussia let persecuted Lutherans settle there.
One of the touristic highlights at the Bohemian Village is ‘Luis’, an Austrian restaurant where they offer specialities such as Kaiserschmarrn. But their most popular meal, by far, is their authentic Austrian Schnitzel. It is the size of Wisconsin. One will feed an entire Hell’s Angels gang.
Berlin is not just wild, funky, politically correct, international, multicultural, colorful and a Schnitzel haven with Swedish-made buses, but also a serious place. The more recent German history is very present. Checkpoint Charlie, parts of the Berlin Wall, the Wall Path, memorials and museums for the victims of communism remind visitors of the times when two German states existed.
Darkest Part of History
Also the very darkest part of Germany’s history can be felt, smelled, touched and seen. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the very center of Berlin is an excellent place to walk around in, to reflect on the terrible past of this country, as well as unfortunate political tendencies seen today.
In the outskirts of Berlin, the Sachsenhausen concentration camp is now a memorial. It is reachable by S-Bahn, one of the city’s train systems. On a Saturday in mid-September, hundreds of Germans, Poles, Uruguayans, Spaniards and nationals of other countries are looking at exhibitions of art work painted by former inmates, the location of the crematorium and the entire premises on which Jews, members of other minorities and of opposition parties were incarcerated, starved, forced to work and murdered by Nazi Germany.
In Sachsenhausen, ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (‘Work sets you free’) a sign above the main gate reads, just like in Auschwitz. On the other side of Berlin, the memorial for the Wannsee Conference can be visited. In this elegant house at the picturesque Wannsee lake, fifteen Nazi war criminals, including the notorious ‘architect of the Holocaust’, Adolf Eichmann, planned the murder of Europe’s Jews on January 20th, 1942.
Back to the lighter side of Berlin. This city is crammed with comedy and music clubs. There is something like a cultural overkill. People willing to check out a gig will have a hard time choosing between killer performances at the ‘Wintergarten’, the ‘Quasimodo’, the ‘A-Trane’ and countless other venues. The same applies to folks who feel like watching stand-up comedians, including Gale Tufts and others who do their ‘thang’ in English, theater and opera performances or musicals.
While the Germans are used to having their Hollywood movies dubbed, Berlin has cinemas dedicated to original versions. Unfortunately the largest one, ‘CineStar’ at Potsdamer Platz, will close for good on December 31st, 2019. The dozens of Berlin museums are always an excellent choice as well.
There are many more contrasts in Berlin. In the former Western Charlottenburg quarter, expensive boutiques and restaurants are waiting for customers on Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s smaller version of the Champs Elysées. Further down the street, the ‘KaDeWe’, a legendary luxury department store, offers the most fashionable clothing and the most expensive perfumes nobody needs by everyone wants.
Addiction in Wedding
On Kurfürstendamm, police are busy stopping and checking so-called posers in their Lamborghinis, Bentleys and high-end BMWs. They are mostly younger men who race those vehicles up and down the street for hours. Their motive is showing off. That is why many of them pimp up their exhaust systems in order to make their engines sound louder and stronger. Police often shut down those cars and fine their drivers.
In the Wedding quarter, hardly anyone purchases Lamborghinis or expensive perfume. When social workers visit families with newborns, which they do in all cases in order to see whether everything is fine, they notice a lot of problems, including domestic violence, addiction and of course poverty.
One of those city employees, a lady in her mid-thirties with a strong personality, says drugs and alcohol are a huge issue in that neighborhood. In some cases, she and her colleagues are forced to inform the child protection services. According to her, this also applies when they notice injuries which make them suspect violence against women or children.
Gambling addictions constitute yet another huge problem. Many fathers cannot control themselves anymore. With badly needed family money, they go to gambling halls all day long, where they lose it in slot machines. This aspect poses a big challenge to wives and mothers, and to the social welfare authorities.
Exploitation is on the list of problems too. Especially Roma (Gypsies) from Romania and Bulgaria tend to become victims of fraudsters who apply for social welfare on their behalf, without ever giving them the money. They also rent out tiny apartments to them for exaggerated prices. By registering several families at one address, whether they really live there or not, the social fraud mafia cashes in even more.
The Wedding neighborhood may be a problem spot, but there is culture as well. Young authors residing here established the ‘reading stage scene’ (Lesebühnenszene). During their events, they read their latest humorous and sociocritical stories to visitors. A very international blend of little pubs and shops gives this quarter a nice atmosphere, at some corners.
Too Good to be Real
Berlin is all of the above, and it can be a culinary adventure. Those Austrian Schnitzels which are so huge than can be used as blankets are not all they offer in the German capital. How about going vegan? Berlin, the place to be for all Gluten-free vegan yoga gurus, offers as many as 60 vegan restaurants, including some with convincing names such as ‘Lucky Leek’, ‘Emma Pea’ or ‘Tutti Island’.
Two words: Doner kebab. There might be more Doner places in Berlin than in Ankara, and many of them are simply excellent. There are countless little Kebab stands, and there is high-end Kebab. The latter is the kind of Kebab which will get you on your knees, begging for more. The kind of Kebab suitable for kings and queens. The kind of Kebab which melts on its consumer’s tongue. Simply too good to be real.
‘Hasir’ in Adalbert Street is such a place. Doner Kebab platters may cost 14 Euro, but they are worth it. This is where they successfully sell the best Kebab in the Western world. ‘Hasir’ started with a fast food stand. Now they have restaurants all over Berlin. Whoever eats one of their platters will know why.
Shopping Spree Cancelled
Berlin is far more than a vegan or Kebab paradise. It is probably the place with the worst dressed people in the entire world. This does not apply to all Berliners, but to many, especially in its Gluten-free parts, such as Kreuzberg and Neukölln. Ladies in old, pink pullovers with brown cord pants, which should be two sizes larger, are a daily sight. So are guys wearing table cloths, or undefinable clothing with the appearance of the latter.
It is the opposite at Angela Merkel’s impressive Chancellery at the Spree river, or around the Bundestag. Over there, MPs, ministers and their employees wear 2000-Euro suits without any flaws. When the author of these lines grows up, he wants to be like them.
Shopping is what tourists love to do when they take city vacations in Amsterdam, London, Paris or Berlin. In the German capital, and the entire country, they might be in for a pretty bad surprise. On Sundays, any shopping spree scheduled will have to be cancelled, thanks to the powerful Christian churches in Germany.
Easy as Pie
To them, Sundays are for praying rather than shopping. That is why only restaurants, convenient stores and gas station shops are open. So are shops in train stations. But supermarkets, boutiques, department stores and all other shops are closed, in order to make sure God will not be angry.
But there is an advantage too: This way, parts of Berlin and all other cities in Germany are more quiet on Sundays. Also there are so many things to do in the city anyway, including renting rowing boats, walking the 208 parks, and visiting one of the two excellent zoos, or both of them. Many of the up to 13.5 million tourists who visit Berlin every year will hardly notice the Middle Ages are not over in Berlin, in this regard.
Getting around in Berlin? Easy as pie. The BVG, the city’s public transport operator, owns some 1500 buses. Many of them are double deckers. There are 152 bus lines, 10 metro lines (U-Bahn), 22 tram lines and six ferry lines. Also there are many city train (S-Bahn) lines run by Deutsche Bahn.
Those who do not want to smell the beer pee in subway stations can easily rent bikes or e-scooters. Mobility is Berlin’s middle name. But safety is not. Especially at night, drunkards and criminals in public transport stations insult and sometimes attack passengers. Riding bikes can be dangerous too.
Famous speeches were held in Berlin. When John F. Kennedy said “Ich bin ein Berliner”, Ronald Reagan was still riding horses, as a cowboy, in Hollywood flicks. Once the cowboy held his own speech in Berlin two decades later, he asked Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” And he did.
Another famous quote from Berlin: “Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten” (“Nobody has the intention to build a wall”). It was the GDR’s dictator Walter Ulbricht who said so in 1961, two months before that wall was built anyway. It fell on November 9th, 1989, and disappeared some months later.
Stockpiles of Food
The Soviets blocked West Berlin from June 24th, 1948, to May 12th, 1949. There was no land access. The Americans saved the city’s residents by quickly putting together the biggest air lift of all time, Berlin’s inhabitants were so grateful. They called those planes ‘raisin bombers’.
Because it could have happened again, West Berlin always had huge stockpiles of food, stored in underground tunnel systems, for the remainder of the Cold War. The western part of the city had a special status during those times. Young men who were registered here did not have to join the army, which is why many moved to Berlin.
East Berlin was a sharp contrast. It looked different, also because the GDR did not repair its war ruins as quickly as the Western part. It smelled different, actually it stank like hell, because the East used brown coal in winter.
Berlin’s Evil Regimes
The other differences could not be seen at first glance, or at all. Of course the GDR held political prisoners, spied on its inhabitants, confined them and shot them when they tried to flee. All of that evil was planned, ordered and partially executed in East Berlin. The Nazi regime was even more evil than the communist one or any other regime in the entire world, and resided in Berlin as well.
If today’s freaky, diverse, smart, poor, politically correct, intellectual, beautiful and ugly, organized and chaotic Berlin had to be compared to the same city during any other era, the Berlin of the Weimar Republic would be the closest match. There are cultural similarities between today’s Berlin and the same city during the wild 1920-s.
Berlin gets far too hot in summer these days. Berlin’s authorities register up to 5000 protests every year. Berlin has four major airports two of which are operational. Berlin is in a major housing crisis. Berlin has the nicest weekly market on Earth. Berlin is unique in many ways, positive and negative.
Everyone is Here
The greatest aspect of them all is the diversity. Berlin has a large Latino community, an African one, a Russian one and an Indian one, apart from those already mentioned. Quite a few Britons and Americans are here too. Everyone is. Many migrants or expatriates in Berlin would not want to be anywhere else. Neither would most German Berliners.
Note: An earlier version of this feature was previously published under a different title.