Monday, August 13, 2012
Berlin so far has been, in a word, awesome. It offers what I think is one of the premier urban experiences anywhere. Transit is expansive and all-encompassing, neighborhoods are distinct and have strong local identities, places are vibrant and walkable, prices are relatively affordable, the city has extensive late-night options, etc. It goes on and on. As an added plus, the city lacks pretension and the annoying, socially awkward attitudes that come with it. To give some perspective, if people in Paris or Manhattan “dress up” to go out, Berliners dress down. Berlin feels like a fun, easygoing city of janitors, train conductors, hipsters, artists, musicians, punks, anarchists, Turks, and African immigrants with ugly-looking German girlfriends. All of whom like to drink publicly in squares, on the sidewalk, and inside of subway trains.
What I like most about the city, however, is that everything feels within reach. It is not like London, Paris, or NYC, where you can see a café or boutique, and feel discouraged to drop in because of exorbitantly high prices. By contrast, most restaurant prices rarely go above €9. Fortunately, there is no $15 hamburger (or equivalent) or $7 beer here. In comparison, Scandinavian cities and places like London feel like utter rip-off’s, with no real value anywhere to be found, even for those paid in local wages. Heck, at the type of restaurant that I would be hesitant to visit in Los Angeles, I could at least occasionally visit its Berlin equivalent and have no regrets afterwards.
I am staying in Neukölln, a majority Turkish (with some Lebanese, Africans, and hipsters) neighborhood in the south of the city. Lots of women in hijabs. Interestingly enough, these Turks are often viewed with anger and scorn by cosmopolitan Turks in Istanbul, of whom view German Turks as country bumpkins. The premise does have some basis, though: a large portion of the Turks bought into Germany as guest workers following WW2 hailed from the predominately rural and conservative eastern regions of Anatolia, far removed from the leather jacket-wearing, fashion blog-having, lime-infused vodka-drinking Istanbul liberal élite. Most of the restaurants are some type of Turkish, usually offering kebabs, böreks, or shawarma. The area closer towards the canal is where most of the gentrification is taking place, and one can find a number of new coffee shops, cafés, used record stores, thrift store, etc. It has a really nice vibe. I love the kebab stand in front of the Rathaus Neukölln (U7) U-bahn, and like Chelany’s for Pakistani food, eis for ice cream, and Katies Blue Cat for coffee and English pastries.
The smoking…man, that takes some getting used to. Smoking is everywhere here, and, most shockingly, is still allowed inside of bars and establishments. It can be downright annoying, especially when in bars, where the copious amount of smoking seems to seep into the fabric of one’s clothes. When in cities where smoking is so widespread, I wonder if people smoke because it is a cultural thing? Or because they simply see others doing it? Or is it integral to socializing here? Another surprising thing is the popularity of soul music here.
Every hip-looking bar, restó, or record store with a well-dressed English-speaking staff plays soul music! I find its popularity intriguing, given the ostracization and poor integration of blacks in Europe, outside of the UK. Being black abroad and Europe, from a number of social experiences, I can’t help but feel as if certain population segments view blacks as more “authentic”, or as a group of people laden with street cred and legitimate, “real life” experiences, grievances, and hostilities.
Another thing I like about the city is how, even though a multitude of historic events have taken place in the city, the city does not dwell in the past. It is still evolving and continually changing, which means that it avoids the museum feeling and frozen-in-amber feeling that places like Paris (and San Francisco) can often have. And it is not just because of its large amount of decidedly unromantic Communist and Brutalist architecture; its appreciation and acceptance of new, groundbreaking ideas (music, art, creative fields, new technologies, architecture, mass transit, street culture, etc.) help set it apart from the above, where the old guard more or less prevails. It is almost as if somehow because of its dark and bloody history, of which oversaw the changing of power by a number of different regimes, that there is restrictive historic precedent or reference point to how things should be done.