Thursday, August 19, 2010

Klaus and Me

Scenic Marzahn

My friend Al Burian asked me to write about my experiences in Berlin. I hope he won’t mind me letting my response do double-duty by posting it here. I have been here all of three months. Ah, the outsider’s perspective, pristine in its naivete! But what is it, more particularly, that Al is after? What insights that he, as a fellow (more entrenched) Berliner, cannot glean on his own? After all, the newcomer’s eye is attuned to so many perplexing details. Do I find small faults, dredge up petty grievances? I was, for a while, baffled and annoyed by the shoppers at my neighborhood Rewe, who insisted, almost without exception, on placing plastic dividers between each set of purchases on the checkout counter--even when each purchase was small, compact, and kept a wide berth from neighboring purchases such that there was no possibility of confusion or intermingling. It seemed a blind and nonsensical adherence to the Rules. I noticed, around the same time, that Berlin pedestrians tended to wait for a walk signal before crossing an intersection, even in low-traffic areas with nary an auto in sight, and such is a foreigner’s sensitivity that I found this extremely unsettling. What chilling brand of Teutonic lunacy was this?, I pondered--what nefarious social contract prevented otherwise sane people from crossing an empty street?

But I don’t think this sort of dimestore anthropology is what Al is after at all. Mightn't I dig for something deeper? And yet, I have only been here three months, which is really no time at all--a vacation, a lark. And now I’m leaving. They have a word for people like me, and by “they” I mean the embittered expatriates who people a popular online forum called Toytown Germany: 90-day wonders, cultural tourists who come to Berlin for a season, buy a bike at the flea market and take out a short-term sublet, piss away their savings drinking in the parks, and then leave abruptly when their tourist visas expire and they haven’t found a job or any practical way of extending their residency. The expatriates here, clannish and prideful, can hardly be bothered with the masses of English-speakers who wash over Berlin each summer and then recede with the cooling weather, having left no discernible mark.

I have tried to live here as if I live here. Berlin is, after all, according to whatever voodoo math determines these sort of rankings, one of the world’s most Livable Cities--though it’s been nudged off the Index’s Top 10 for 2010, falling just behind Melbourne and Madrid. Have I any right to complain, really, about the way Berliners cross the street? Could it even be that their manner of crossing the street is superior to mine? My hometown of Chicago, after all, does not appear on anyone’s livability index. In Chicago a person is permitted to cross the street as they wish--and they may well get plowed down by a renegade SUV, or caught in gang crossfire, before reaching the opposite corner. The idea of a social contract is a novel one to me, one that’s taken some getting used to--Berlin’s honor-system approach to paying for public transit or preventing bike theft. The only social contract I’ve ever known is Dog Eat Dog.

I’ve tried to live here as if I live here, tried to venture beyond guidebook parameters, not always fruitfully. My boyfriend and I ride our bikes out to Marzahn, as almost an exercise in guidebook-defiance--it’s the one area of Berlin that’s universally sneered-upon, when anyone bothers to think about it at all. Marzahn’s history is gloomy and sordid: home, in the 1930s, to a labor camp for some 2,000 gypsies, it was the first Berlin district to fall to the Red Army in 1945. Huge, mind-numbing housing projects were built under Soviet rule, and after reunification the district became known as a haven for neo-nazis. Yony promises me an American-style ghetto--boarded-up windows, fried-chicken stands--but our bike tour fails to yield even this; Marzahn is spectacularly drab; a vast water-treatment facility, some sad little shopping centers, Burger King, a lot of old people.

Or: we get some psychedelic mushrooms from a guy in Yony’s neighborhood whose business card advertises ‘healing arts’. But rather than waiting for a nice day and eating them at, say, sunny Schlachtensee, we take them on a cold, drizzly afternoon and end up in Treptower Park. The mushrooms are not especially powerful, but they are strong enough to lend some otherworldy dreariness to the park’s already-grim main attraction, the imposing and monstrously tacky Soviet War Memorial. Much of the gold leaf has been painstakingly removed from inscriptions on the park’s sarcophagi, presumably by desperate junkers. The memorial grounds are meticulously groomed, but the surrounding parkland is overgrown and litter-strewn.

What does Al hope for me to excavate? And why spill yet more ink over a city that is already so self-consciously hip? There is plenty here, of course, that is worthy of praise--the world-class street food, the robust public sphere, the myriad squats, the radical politics, the total bikeability... dashing gay mayor Klaus Wowereit famously sums up the contemporary atmosphere as “poor but sexy,” and indeed, the street-level vistas, thoroughly graffitied, have the effortless shabby-chic of a music video, the sort of grungy patina that a place like Williamsburg cultivates so carefully. I mean, I like it here, but why advertise it? People are already wondering how long it can last--the “artists”, according to no less stodgy a source than the Guardian, are already “pouring in” to this low-rent paradise, and we all know what follows in that wake. Already there is a sense of panic among the older-school expats. Exberliner magazine runs a sneering feature on Berlin’s “post-tourism tourists”--“place consumers,” members of a “creative class” who skip the whole Brandenberg Gate-Reichstag itinerary in favor of hanging out and drinking beer on the Admiralsbrücke or gallery-hopping in Friedrichshain. It’s easy to sneer along with the article, but I can’t help seeing a bit of myself in it as well.

I mean, I like it here, but am I doing the city a disservice by announcing this in a public forum? Shouldn’t we be trying, maybe, to stem the tide of hipster immigration, accentuating the negative in an attempt to dissuade the sunglass-wearing masses? This, at least, is the presumed tactic over at Toytown Germany, where been-there expats do their best to discourage would-be Berliners. There are no jobs here!, they insist. There’s a housing shortage! And indeed, so there is! I’ll attest to it myself! The only gainful employment I’ve managed to find, in my three months here, was a one-day gig, hooked up by my friend Al (alley-oop!) herding goats somewhere out in Brandenburg. And the only place Yony and I could find to live, on arriving here, was a two-month sublet which turned disastrous--our landlord, an American expat named Dr. Dot (who turned out to be the sex-advice columnist for the aforementioned Exberliner) proved to be alpha-pyschotic. Yet the party, in booming Berlin, seems to just get bigger by the day (but keep it under wraps, Liam!).

Not that everyday Berliners seem to be doing much hand-wringing--Berliners, needless to say, love a good party, and as long as there’s enough kleingeld for a few beers and some late-night döner no one seems to be complaining. Still, there’s a feeling of unrest on the breeze sometimes, I think. Kunsthaus Tacheles, the city’s most visible and visited squat, a major tourist attraction unto itself, is facing imminent eviction--the property’s “owners,” HSB Nordbank, are planning to build luxury-something on the site. Sure, the city of Berlin has survived through some difficult times these last 100 years ago, and one should hope it will withstand whatever mega-trendiness may be coming its way. Better poor-but-sexy than poor-and-unsexy; I can’t imagine many East Berliners nostalgic for the pre-reunification days when the city was decidedly uncool, when a person couldn’t even buy a bar of chocolate or bottle of shampoo.

This is perhaps less personal an account than Al had in mind. The somewhat embarrassing truth is that my time in Berlin has been dominated, in more-or-less equal parts, by mindless summery fun--swimming, drinking--and by mundane personal, financial and relationship problems that shed no light on Berlin as a city. I have not spent my summer taking anthropological notes, other than occasional scribblings on architectural oddities or the baffling club-scene.

Speaking of which, I may as well air my greatest cultural complaint: the music scene here--take note, would-be Berliners!--is total shit. Whatever indigenous music-scene exists here between the omnipresent pillars of electro and hardcore-punk has about the width and breadth of the infamous “death strip” that separated the parallel barriers of the Berlin Wall. Why this should be the case I couldn’t begin to say, other than noting a possible inverse-relationship between Quality of Life and Rock and Roll, a bit of a pet theory of mine--New York or LA in the late 70s could hardly have scored very high in any quality-of-life index, but they certainly produced some enduring music. It does make me long, perversely, for Chicago, where daily life falls somewhere between boring and hellish, but where, when night falls, some tortured and beautiful voices can be heard singing somewhere above it all. I don’t even have a stereo here, only a crappy radio that’s tuned to NPR Berlin, the perpetual emergencies and eccentricities of the States beaming, through a haze of static, into my kitchen.

I don’t know, Al. By all accounts, Berlin is a world-class city, and I suspect it’s only my relative provincialism which prevents me from embracing it fully. It’s certainly a viable place to consider settling-down, if the proverbial crap ever really hits the fan back in the US of A. I’m continuing my German studies, just in case.

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