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A city of infinite ghosts

A city of infinite ghosts
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First Published: Fri, Feb 25 2011. 06 31 PM IST

Capital view: ‘Poor but sexy’ Berlin at night. Thinkstock
Capital view: ‘Poor but sexy’ Berlin at night. Thinkstock
Updated: Fri, Feb 25 2011. 06 31 PM IST
Berlin, a former mayor claimed famously in a television interview in 2004, is poor but sexy. For Berliners, long accused of possessing the Berliner Schnauze (snout) which dubs every Berliner a rude, snooty and cranky fella, this was a much nicer stereotype to live with.
The phrase became such a hit it made every junkie in punk-haven district Kreuzberg glow with renewed pride. Since enchanting or enthralling doesn’t quite sit with Berlin as it would with Paris or London, the mayor’s quote indeed gave tourist brochures a catch phrase to describe a city that’s hard to define and harder to fully comprehend.
Capital view: ‘Poor but sexy’ Berlin at night. Thinkstock
For Berlin is a haunted, scarred city where the ghosts of the past and cranes of the future nudge each other constantly. It is not by accident that the German capital has been labelled by many as an ever-changing architectural exhibition. Uniquely for a European city, Berlin undertook massive construction in the 1990s in a feverish attempt to build a shimmery “new” capital. So you had a complete transport network constructed to connect East and West Berlin; renewal projects in the historic Museum Island, a Unesco heritage site, and snazzy steel and glass structures looking sombrely down on Checkpoint Charlie, once the most famous crossover point from west to east and now the city’s only “touristy” spectacle.
But it hasn’t worked.
Berlin, happily, does not look “new”. If anything, history has become more defiant in this city pockmarked by World War II bomb-blackened church domes, grey, square and ugly (there’s no other word for it) Communist apartment blocks from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) era, some of which have been gentrified into fashionable boutiques and art houses, abandoned spaces and memorials—some seen and some unseen. Because its past has been traumatic, not once but over and over again, knowingly and unknowingly, ironically and accidentally, the “haunted geographies of the land” are all too obvious. Like the 2ft-wide foundation of the Berlin Wall you come across every now and then in the city.
Or the dazzling Sony Centre with its uber modern Japanese-inspired steel dome at Potsdamer Platz—which was once a “death strip” no-man’s land where death routinely triumphed.
That’s another German characteristic very evident in Berlin’s startling architecture—the eager attempt to forget; the determined attempt to move on, yet still hostage to the inevitable pull of memories, horrific and compelling. Which is why Hitler’s bunker has to be searched for under the hot sun; there are no touristy directions to it, no commemoration of any sort. Just modern apartments above it with people going about their everyday business and a cursory board stuck on the ground, saying, well, if you really want to know, this is where Hitler’s bunker was.
The recently renovated “Topography of Terror” documentation centre and the still under-construction memorial to the Berlin Wall are both vast spaces that further communicate this conflicting social desire—to remind oneself as well as to forget a violent past that has fused inexorably into the present. The predominant colour is a dull grey; the mood is one of acceptance; and the effort is to present as minimalistically as possible the nation’s traumatic history. But this kind of minimalism has failed utterly to mute the guilt and horror of it all, if that was ever the intention. It has only further scratched the wounds raw.
Layers: (from top) The Brandenburg Gate (THINKSTOCK); and graffiti-filled statues and walls around the city(Bloomberg and Siddarth Mohanty).
As my German host narrated in a sidewalk café serving Spanish tapas, the city was the capital of five different Germanies—the 1871 German Empire, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, East Germany, and now the reunified Germany, and it has been the space where German “supremacy” and fierce nationalism was showcased, destroyed and showcased again. Scholar Rudy Koshar wrote that Berlin represents the “unstable optic identity” of the nation. My host laughs self-consciously and calls it a collective national guilt that still colours German education and thought.
Which is why it is not surprising that the Holocaust memorial designed by Peter Eisenman stirred such contrasting emotions when it was finally unveiled in 2005. Typically, before the memorial came into being, the space designated for it was an eyesore, a vast empty plot covered with a fence full of political graffiti both opposing and supporting the construction.
Crossing: Checkpoint Charlie, the former border between East and West Berlin. Bloomberg
I know of no other city that speaks of space and constriction in the same breath as Berlin does. A 19,000 sq. m memorial in the heart of the city, with the landmark Brandenburg Gate a few paces away and the almost hidden Hitler’s bunker just beyond it, the over 2,700 unmarked grey stone slabs in varying sizes scream more poignantly than anything else in Berlin. At its unveiling, the architect had hoped that the “memorial would blend into the background of the city” and be used both as a short cut to a way home or to walk in and around and through it, in contemplation. Of course, it doesn’t blend. It is starkly visible—physically and metaphorically—but if you allow it to, it does hollow out space in your cluttered mind.
But it is clutter of a different kind that the “new” hip Berlin is thriving on. Downtown Berlin has been invaded by students, artists and other “creative” types who have given this Berlin an edgy and exciting cultural ethos—from thriving punk and techno to serendipitous art galleries housed in former GDR blocks, to “guerrilla” fashion boutiques (enterprising artists stealthily taking over tenant-less places).
These independent fashion stores specialize in quirkiness really. And since they are “guerrilla” they are always now there, now gone. They are set up mostly by struggling designers in the bohemian neighbourhoods of Berlin such as Mitte and Kreuzberg. The designers sell their stuff for a few months and then disappear without a trace. Ah, the serendipity they promise! It is the quest that makes the purchase at these boutiques so special.
With cheaper rents than other European cities, Berlin has become the city to live in for such risk takers. Add to this the cultural mishmash, music and art forms of its growing immigrant population and the proud tradition of street graffiti, and there is another Berlin brewing here. In fact, Berlin is said to be the most “graffiti-ed” or, in graffiti lingo, “most bombed” city of Europe, giving its street architecture a contemporary edge that no mere odd-shaped building can.
This is not your everyday “I love Alice in Chains” graffiti—it is invariably intensely political and, as my host says, without a hint of humour. “They are artists, they are reclaiming the city.”
As with everything else in Berlin, its graffiti too has a history. Kreuzberg, everybody’s favourite neighbourhood, used to be the heart of the American sector, surrounded by the Berlin Wall on three sides and bursting with Turkish immigrants, rebellious punks and everybody else, it seems, with a can of paint. And it had loads of free unclaimed space and little policing. So it became and remains the city’s premier canvas.
But after the fall of the Wall, graffiti rapidly moved eastwards. For these street artists, it was as if a new untouched, whitewashed world had opened up. The earlier unmarked Stasi-controlled East Berlin was soon captured by celebratory brushstrokes and angry squiggles. Though officially it is still vandalism, most Berliners look at graffiti with indulgence rather than annoyance. Which explains the popularity of the “graffiti festival” that is often held in the hallway of a former Kreuzberg hospital and helps you comprehend what Berliners mean when they say their city is constantly being remodelled by somebody or the other.
Perhaps more than the city’s much loved mayor, it was author Karl Scheffler who got Berlin right. Way back in 1910, he had this to say: “Berlin is a city forever condemned to becoming and never being.”
HIGH FIVE
Favourite catchphrase
“Berlin ist arm, aber sexy” (Berlin’s poor but sexy)
Must-do
Give yourself a comprehensive history lesson before you land. Or stay with a knowledgeable German
One touristy indulgence that can be forgiven
No matter how kitschy it feels, a photo of yourself with the graffiti-ridden preserved piece of Berlin Wall
Must-try
Stroll into one of the “guerrilla” art boutiques in Kreuzberg. You never know what you might find
Don’t miss…
…Travelling on the Berlin U-Bahn and S-Bahn. It is cheap and fascinating, much like Berlin itself. A whole sub-culture awaits your exploration
BREAK FROM THE PAST
How to escape history in Berlin. Well, somewhat
Berlin can be overwhelming. Getting to know Berlin is like seeing one of those early 20th century silent film reels that play images in jerky fast-forwards. It is a city that is ruthless in its emotional assault on you despite its subtlety, or perhaps because of its subtlety. But since it is also accommodating, it offers you a chance to take a breather. How you do this is by ducking inside one of Berlin’s numerous parks. One of the greenest capitals of the world, Berlin has more than 2,000 parks. One-fifth of the city is said to be covered by trees. It even boasts of a forest, but more about that later.
Siddharth Mohanty
Easily accessible and most popular is the Tiergarten, which is a mind-boggling 630 acres in central Berlin. Once a hunting preserve for royalty, much like Bangalore’s Cubbon Park was for the British, the park literally soothes your mind. It is eye-poppingly green and has enough rabbit paths, fountains and flowers to make you just want to watch life go by. If you walk deep enough, you might even come across the secluded area reserved for nudists. If that’s too edgy for you, stick to the periphery, which is overrun by bounding dogs, thrilled four-year-olds and their parents sitting around with mugs of beer and prams.
In West Berlin, bordering the river Havel is the deliciously named Grunewald forest. These are your real Grimm brothers’ woods, 3,000 hectares of dense foliage, tall conifers, ancient lakes, cabins and even wildlife. You can be Hansel looking for bread pieces or the dark lord Grindelwald plotting to kill Muggles. You can say you met a pixie lurking behind a tree and not many will disbelieve you. These woods are the pride of Berliners and have been for some time. Many still narrate tales of how in the 1900s, the city collectively resisted settlers from taking over what must have been a tempting expanse of real estate.
There it is again. You might be able to escape history in Berlin, but not for long.
TRIP PLANNER | BERLIN
Berlin is not a city for the busy tourist. It is a city to be drunk in leisurely; it is a city that demands understanding and patience, almost like a sullen lover. Not surprising then that it rarely finds itself on the feverish itinerary of tour operators. But there’s plenty to discover—great food, stunning architecture and layers upon layers of history.
Good to know
Most Berliners speak excellent English and you shouldn’t have any trouble communicating. But learning a few German words, especially greetings, may earn you brownie points and if you are luckier, that rare smile from the busy Berliner. The city offers an experience for all budgets. You can easily save precious euros, if so inclined, by staying in one of the many cheap and clean hostels scattered all around the city or you can choose to blow it all up by staying in exclusive (and expensive) hotel apartments, which often overlook beautifully landscaped gardens.
Getting there
You need a Schengen visa. If Germany is the only country you are visiting in the Schengen region and Berlin or any other German city is your first port of entry, you have to apply to the German embassy or consulate. Check www.new-delhi.diplo.de. Many major airlines have direct flights connecting Mumbai/Delhi and Berlin. Some choices: Turkish Airlines (Rs35,000), KLM (Rs53,000), and Air France (Rs57,000), offer return economy fares from Mumbai, while Austrian Airlines (Rs43,000), Swiss International Air Lines (Rs49,000) and Lufthansa (Rs60,000) fly from Delhi.
Scratch the surface
Head to Berlin’s posh organic market Kollwitzplatzmarkt (okay, no need to pronounce it). It has on display a mind-boggling variety of produce, enough to just stand and stare at even if you are not exactly the organic type. Prepare for long queues, since organic is big in Germany right now. And take a full wallet. If you have the energy, we recommend you trudge up the shining glass dome on top of the Reichstag. The design of the dome incorporates several mirrors, the effect of which is that you can see German parliamentarians going about their work below. Transparency is the idea.
3 ways to do it...
Rest: Opt for luxurious hotels such as the Adlon Kempinski or the Rocco Forte Hotel de Rome. Or make things interesting by staying in former prisons converted into boutique hotels such as the Dan Andere Haus VIII.
Eat: Berlin has so much to offer that it will be tough to decide what to eat. If you go in summer, keep aside warm evenings for tramping around its sidewalk cafés, which offer decent food and lots of beer. Berliners seem to prefer their pastas and pizzas—Italian restaurants are the easiest to find, though many Chinese and Mexican ones can also be spotted.
See: If you insist on “sightseeing” in Berlin, our advice is not to miss its great squares—Alexanderplatz and Bebelplatz, the Brandenburg Gate, the legendary Friedrichstraße and the architectural marvel of the Gendarmenmarkt square that contains the severely rectangular concert house.
LGBT-FRIENDLY
Berlin’s one of the most LGBT-friendly cities in Europe. It has excellent museums on gay culture and history, a number of gay and lesbian bars and ‘Bruno’, one of the biggest gay-interest stores in Europe. In 2001, it even voted for a gay mayor who famously said “Ich bin schwul, und das ist auch gut so” (I’m gay and it’s ok that way).
CHILD-FRIENDLY
Berlin’s not exactly a kid’s wonderland and you would want to leave your child behind to enjoy Berlin’s culture and history fully. But if the child tags along, you can always take him to Berlin’s zoo and aquarium and its greatly interactive natural science museum. And of course, there are numerous parks for them to run around.
SENIOR FRIENDLY
A growing senior population in Germany (a third of all Germans will be over 50 soon) means that even supermarkets are remodelling their interiors to have non-skid aisles and emergency call buttons. Public transport in Berlin is also very access-friendly for senior citizens.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Feb 25 2011. 06 31 PM IST