Berlin – Crossing Borders

Germany’s hip capital is in a renaissance: Once dividing a ­continent, the city attracts those who fit in nowhere else

Despite years of ­conflict, the Brandenburg Gate is still the symbol of the unified state | Photo: Ben Sprenger

Berlin’s 12-day ­Festival of Lights puts the arcitecture of the city in a new perspective

The modern TV tower ­(Fernsehturm) peeks in from above ­Alexanderplatz at the heart of the city | Photo: Ben Sprenger

Every October, ­illuminated by night, the ­Berliner Dom is almost ­iridescent | Photo: Ben Sprenger

Brandenburg Gate at night

Despite years of ­conflict, the Brandenburg Gate is still the symbol of the unified state | Photo: Ben Sprenger

“Berlin ist nicht Deutschland,” says Kathrin, sitting on the grass. Behind her, a guy spins a diabolo, an hourglass-shaped piece of plastic, on a length of string attached to two wooden sticks. From somewhere out of sight, the sound of bongo drums glides through the air, amplifying the liveliness that the whirl of people bestows on Boxhagener Platz on this afternoon in early autumn. Like every Sunday, the sidewalk hosts the local fleamarket, a trademark of every Berlinian Kiez.

The stands hold books arranged by topic (or not at all), punk-rock CD’s eye the collection of East German vinyl records suspiciously. Several steps onward, then: Lamps and Action Man figures. This is Berlin. Something for everyone. Berlin isn’t Germany. Actually, it isn’t much like anywhere else.


At the centre of it all


Berlin’s 12-day ­Festival of Lights puts the arcitecture of the city in a new perspective| Photo: Ben Sprenger

The casual visitor is already familiar with Germany’s capital, whose division for 28 years symbolised the realities of the Cold War. But once you are here, where do you start?

“I’m going to the protest at Alexanderplatz,” Kathrin announces. Against what? “Political imprisonment. You get arranged in rows and have to stand still until you hear a gunshot, then everyone falls to the ground. We do that a few times.” It’s settled then.

At Alexanderplatz, the scene has less the feeling of protest than of a Sunday fair. Onlookers flock to eye the spectacle. At 15:00, a distorted gunshot blares from a speaker. The protesters hit the ground, the more experienced flashmobbers jolt their head backwards before dropping to their knees and doubling over in a virtually lifeless heap, the younger ones lower themselves to the ground gently. “Kapier ick nüscht.” (“I don’t get it”) mumbles a moustached middle-aged Berliner.

Berlin’s Fernsehturm (TV tower) looms over the scenery, the sunlight hitting the metallic surface of this East German relic, forming a cross pattern between the studs atop the giant orb. After paying €12 to get in, we are ushered into a small elevator. Gerhard, the elevator boy, explains that we are now traveling at six metres per second to the top of Berlin’s tallest structure. The carousel room at the top offers a panoramic view of the blocks of the East’s Plattenbauten juxtaposed against the quaint, unimposing architecture of the West, the buildings cluttering ever closer as they converge at the foot of the tower. Behind the city the even plains of Brandenburg spread out and disappear into the horizon before the tourists sidle along the circular corridor and back into the elevator.

Downstairs, in the bustle of the city, the crowd has dispersed apart from a few dreadlocked activists who now look a bit lost as they try to roll up a banner. Where now? The Brandenburg Gate? “Ey, du bist so ein Touri!” Kathrin exclaims. “You’re such a tourist!”

On Pariser Platz, beer bikes, mimes and bear costumes build the frame of the Brandenburg Gate, perhaps the most visited landmark of Berlin. The East German border guard and the American MP look on, grinning as Darth Vader awaits his next opponent. A challenger steps forward and takes the plastic green lightsaber that is taller by a good length. The applause softens his amazement, and with newfound confidence (and a brief glance back to his parents) he lunges forward. The Dark Side has never faced a worthier foe.


A history of division

TV tower ­Fernsehturm

The modern TV tower ­(Fernsehturm) peeks in from above ­Alexanderplatz at the heart of the city | Photo: Ben Sprenger

Constructed between 1788 and 1791, the former city gate would be invariably connected to the history of Germany. Facing westward, the Quadriga, the four-horse chariot on top of the archway, overlooks the former West Germany. With the Wall passing just behind it on the Western side, the Gate was the perennial backdrop for well-scripted moments of history. A plaque on the Straße des 17. Juni acknowledges Ronald Reagan’s appeal to Mikhail Gorbachov in the summer of 1987 to “tear down this wall!” which just two years later became suddenly, and astonishingly, real.

Today’s divisions are more subtle and multifaceted, social and economic, not marked by physical barriers. Strolling along Frankfurter Tor, the gigantic white Stalinbauten constructed in the 1950s make the wanderer feel small – a sentiment that the people casually sipping their beers at the steps at Warschauer Strasse clearly do not share.

“Was guckst du mich so an, man?” “Why are you staring at me like that?” asks a man in his late twenties, tattoos plastered across his shaven head with his dog on a leash, who stops in front of a solitary beer drinker. “Kommst du von hier?” he asks the bewildered youth who stutters an indiscernible response. The dog-walker sneers.

The appeal of urban culture and affordable living conditions has caused many of Germany’s youth and young families with disposable income to relocate to the city, often from the richer south. “Ihr kommt her und treibt unsere Mieten in die Höhe,” complains the man about the rents that have risen astronomically in recent years, pushing locals out of their homes – gentrification that is creating tension towards the newly arrived Germans. The dog stands alert.

“Verpißt euch aus unserem Kiez!” His screaming ricochets off the walls and buries itself in our heads. The leash loosens, the aggravated guy trudges along, the youngster lowers his head in relief, as his beer bottle travels from hand to hand unsteadily.


Stationed in Berlin 

Berliner Dom at night

Every October, ­illuminated by night, the ­Berliner Dom is almost ­iridescent |
Photo: Ben Sprenger

The scene at Schlesisches Tor in Kreuzberg revives the enthusiasm for the night. The bars and restaurants are packed, and we head for Transit, a Lokal run by a group of young Portuguese. Apart from Portuguese and Spanish beer things like chili, chicken salads and a few things that one cannot immediately decipher are on offer, the prices averaging €5 – €6. German is rarely spoken here.

“I studied municipal engineering in Turin.” Ingrid says, she arrived a little over a year ago from Bolzano in South Tyrol. The relationship between her German mother and Italian father did not sit well with her grandmother. “She refuses to call me by name. It’s too German for her. She thinks Italian names have more melody.” She was not able to find a job in Italy so she came here.

“I didn’t know anyone, so I started working in an Italian restaurant, until I can find something else.” It is a thread that reaches around the table, giving a definition of what Berlin is to every new arrival: a station on a path protracted by the current European problems, offering an opportunity to stop and figure things out. “When you are somewhere and don’t manage to fit in, you come here,” Ioannis summarizes. He arrived from Athens almost two years ago and is making movies.

The discussion turns towards a crowning end to the night, and the name Katerholzig is put up to the vote. A club on a Sunday night might seem strange, though in Berlin things operate differently. The parties usually start on Saturday night and run through Sunday all the way to Monday morning, thus even a €10–€14 entrance fee does not seem exaggerated. The club is hard to miss. On the other side of the river at the Jannowitzbrücke station, the roof of a run-down former factory hosts a giant mechanized cat that waves to the visitor in a friendly manner. Groups are advised to pair off before entering Berlin’s clubs as the bouncers rarely let more than two people in at a given time.

In the courtyard, a bonfire attracts a circle of partygoers taking a break from the carnival inside. The techno music is typical for Berlin’s nightclubs, and no matter how crowded the dance floor, the people remain friendly. The other two floors, one in a wooden hut outside and the other on the third story of the empty factory building, offer similar themes and sounds.

The blue and red box bends time strangely; outside again, the sun is just about to rise over the Spree. The bonfire casts a softer light across the faces and vacant stares that just minutes ago nodded in deep immersion to the electronic beats left inside.

For another impression of Berlin, see Philippa Hohenzollern’s “Berlin in Early Spring” in April 2011 TVR.

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