There is a certain bleak majesty to Berlin. You feel this immensely when you walk alone at night through the streets. It’s raining and freezing cold. Barely illumined by the streetlights, the buildings look imposing, imperial, impenetrable. You can see and sense that a lot has happened here, and that the city is still weighed down by the trauma of its recent history.
The city is about half the size of London, with less than half its population. This sparseness is cruelly evident. The streets are almost deserted, even though this is the centre of town. The boutiques that line the street are all brightly lit and beckon to you to come in, come in, bitte, if only to take shelter from the cold. But there’s hardly a soul in them. A live model performs a series of yoga-inspired stretch manouevres behind the window of one of the storefronts, ostensibly to advertise the apparent flexibility of the latest season of an American brand of jeans. She performs to no one in particular because there is no one in particular in the streets. It’s so tragic it’s absurd.
The U-bahn (subway) stations have a post-apocalyptic look to them. There is no discernible barrier between the city and the interior – no gantry or station control. You simply descend into them and wait. You always wait, because trains only come every 10 minutes, even during rush hour. The city just doesn’t have the population density for greater frequency of service. The dozen or so commuters loitering in the stations look resigned, nonplussed. A few of them (male) are drinking from bottles of beer. In the meantime, the smell of cigarette smoke wafts through the station.
As a matter of fact, the smell of cigarette smoke pretty much wafts everywhere. It is outside where you stand waiting for the bus. It is inside the bars and restaurants, where it has been since the 1920s. There is now apparently a ban on smoking in enclosed spaces in Germany, but Berlin ignores what it deems uncool. Ventilation in the bars is deemed uncool, and so is the very notion of second-hand smoke. And so you the intrepid wanderer are left to gasp and wheeze in a smoky miasma so thick you can see it under the lamps. Berlin is not for the weak-lunged.
Not far from the city-centre is Potsdamer Platz, once a desolate wasteland divided by the Berlin Wall and now a new downtown with gleaming towers of steel and glass harboring offices, cinemas and a mall. To the west stands a monumental circle of cultural institutions teutonically named the Kulturforum, and constructed in the stark, modernist style of the 1950s and 60s. You would expect that the dramatic skyline and concentration of commerce, culture and entertainment would result in a precinct heaving with crowds on a weekend afternoon, but a stroll through the area reveals it to be only moderately peopled. The mall is devoid of shoppers; half of the outlets are shut.
You grab yourself a sandwich – whatever’s left over at the food outlet; which happens to be some kind of foot-long sausage in a bun – sit yourself on a bench by the (dead) fountain and watch nothing in particular. You ponder and invariably stumble upon the truth: that the story of Berlin is equally about grandness and squalor. Even as the city attempts to recapture some of its grandiose past, it revels in its messy, unkempt image. There is no industry and so there are no jobs. But who cares? It’s Berlin. To even think about jobs is so uncool.
To the south of the city, there is a park that used to be an airport. To enter the park, still ring-fenced as though it were the airport, and to walk along the runways where airplanes used to take off and touch down, is to experience the very essence of Berlin. The park is immense – you can see to the ends of it – but there’s nothing in it, no landscaping, not even a tree, only the shadow of the former airport terminal (and the Cold War) and the brutal wind. The city simply doesn’t have the funds to do anything more than open the park to the public. But the public doesn’t seem to care. They walk their dogs and fly their kites amidst the crumbling, decaying buildings and the lichen-infested tarmac, as if there was nothing in the world wrong with it.
There is a certain bleak majesty to Berlin.