Wednesday, July 11, 2007


People have this idea of Europe in their heads[1]. This idea of the continent usually encompasses one or more of the following - old cathedrals with stained glass windows, cafe lined cobblestone streets, tulips and roses, museums and ruins, a slower pace of life, less work and more alcohol, refinement in everything. To be fair, a good many European cities possess some or all of these traits, and they do seem to live up to most people's expectations. Ofcourse any serious visitor to the continent will find out in a matter of hours that what keeps this "old world charm" intact, first and foremost, is the desire for the New World's gaping mouths (to be promptly converted to euros at current exchange rate) but that's a different post. This post is about Berlin. So what I was going to say is that if you are one of those people who's out to "experience Europe" as I believe is called, give Berlin a miss. Its not worth your time.

Not because Berlin doesn't have any of the things you will be looking for. There are (a few) cathedrals and cafes and beautiful squares, and world class museums and way too much alcohol but the difference here is that unlike other cities, the sum total of these things do not make Berlin[2]. In fact, they come nowhere close to defining the city. Berlin takes every one of the Western Europe stereotype, and right next to it puts something so different, so incongruous that it will either totally disorient you or as in my case, makes you fall in love with it. Berlin is part Munich yes, but more importantly it is part Warsaw, part Chicago and part Shanghai. Because of its unique history, Berlin can afford to do something which no other city in Western Europe can - it can grow. Physically. And that, more than anything else, is what makes this city my kind of town. And that's why to really like Berlin, its not just necessary that you appreciate history but its also absolutely essential that you appreciate glass, steel and concrete. (And Meis. And Jahn. Its called the reverse drain. Or the reverse takeover. We will get there in a couple of posts. Don't worry.)

I remember a New Years Eve nearly eighteen years ago. Or maybe it was the last Friday of the year. I remember it because it was the year that I developed a serious interest in the world outside the subcontinent[3]. In June of the year that was fading away, the Chinese military killed hundreds of students and activists at a Square[4] in Beijing. In November of the same year, halfway across the world, the most famous Wall of the century came down. Two momentous incidents of the decade, and of my eleven-year old life in the same year. We were at some sort of a party that night. We had just watched the year-end edition of The World This Week or its equivalent. The party went on inside while the Don and I sat down on the balcony and talked about the probable repurcussions of the two incidents in the coming years. The Don was drunk; I wasn't. I called him on Monday evening to tell him about Berlin. I was drunk; he wasn't. I promised him that I would write all about Berlin on paper with ink in my lovely handwriting and get Royal Mail and the Indian Postal Service to deliver it to him. Why am I telling you all this? Just to assure you loyal readers that atleast three posts on Berlin will be coming up soon - a couple on memorials and monuments and another couple on Berlin's beautiful buildings. Happy? No? Okay, how about this?

(Did you see the rainbow? I am cool, no?)

[1] Yes, of course I am generalizing. I can't do that now? Says who?

[2] From a visitor's standpoint. Ofcourse every city has layers and strawberry jam in between but that's usually meant only for residents

[3] Though sometimes, I confuse it with the year that followed as that one was a little closer to home - home being Kerala, we got quite a few new students mid-term, right before the War

[4] A must-read article in current issue of LRB on the incident here


Space Bar said...

yes, waiting for other posts with great eagernes. i've a friend who once looked at a couple from berlin in goa, and said with a faint note of contempt, that they were east berliners. would love to hear your take on that.

Veena said...

Space Bar: Yes, yes, we shall do more posts and make you happy. Must say I am overwhelmed by the attention of all you poetic junta!

But I am afraid I have no real insights on East Berlin - West Berlin dynamics except for the observation in some parts of E Berlin, there is still a palpable tension. And most of the service industry people seem to be mostly from the East. I spent just over two and half days there and really, they are good people once you get to know them and all but nobody ever accused the Germans of being, you know, friendly with strangers.

anjali said...

Yep, Berlin is a very modern city. We enjoyed the wide streets, the greenery, modern architecture. I am glad though that we still got to see opera and have good coffee and cake afterwards. Some of the charms of 'typical' Europe still remain in Berlin and we were thankful for that.

You might find this an interesting read -