By Caitlin Kelly
The lobby of my hotel, the Savoy.
I’d heard so much about Berlin I wanted to give it some time, so it was the longest one-stop stay of my six-week journey through Europe.
I didn’t see all the official sights — it was very hot this week, and I have an arthritic right knee, so long days of walking in the heat were unappealing to me.
I did visit the Holocaust Memorial, which is built on oddly, (I assume deliberately) undulating land, a huge mass of blocks on an unshaded corner. It is, as it’s meant to be, brutal and disorienting.
Loved the legendary Pergamon Museum, with spectacular Babylonian tiled murals and Islamic art.
Took an hour’s boat ride on the Spree, a great way to appreciate the city’s many bridges and some beautifully designed buildings.
Walked the Ku’damm, the city’s main shopping street.
Saw multiple stumble-stones, small incised brass markers amid the city’s cobblestones, reminders, mostly, of local Jews killed in the Holocaust, an ongoing project that began in 1992.
Ate a very refined, delicious but spendy lunch (69 euros!) at Pauly Saal, which has a Michelin star.
Loved lunch in the garden at Literaturhaus, a few blocks up the same street from my hotel.
Marveled at Walter Konig bookstore, just one of many amazing Berlin bookshops, specializing in art, photography, architecture and design; I bought books twice here.
Ate sausages, drank beer.
Loved this cafe, a block from my hotel on Fasanenstrasse in Charlottenburg, and ate/drank there often; (they have wifi.)
This cafe is amazing — with a stunning selection of coffee, tea and chocolate — on a quiet, shaded street in Charlottenburg, in the quieter, more staid part of the city.
Took lots and lots of photos, my favorite activity.
Some random impressions:
— It’s really hot!
To my surprise, (and I admit, discomfort and dismay), air conditioning is not much done here. My room, in a 60-year-old hotel, the Savoy, (which I love) gave me a small rotating fan on my first night and it’s been a godsend.
Stores, whose frigid interiors offer reliable relief in most North American cities, are no better, usually with one fan aimed at the poor staffer. A long day of walking on hot streets without much shade is enervating.
— Parks! Lakes! Nature!
My favorite day here, and one of my happiest days anywhere, ever, was Sunday, when — with thousands of others — I took public transit to Schlachtensee, a lake just outside the city limits. Berlin has many such lakes, clean and accessible, and this was the perfect place to rest, snooze, sunbathe, picnic and swim.
One guy near me showed up with an entire inflatable raft, which, un-inflated, he carried home in a massive blue Ikea shopping bag.
People were there in rowboats, paddle-boarding, on floats and rafts, of every age, from babies learning to walk to seniors. I was impressed with how well-behaved people were, even lying within a few feet of one another on the grass.
Tiergarten is simply amazing — a huge central park where you can sit by a lake, rent a rowboat, enjoy one of several beer gardens (serving very good food), picnic, wander, even stare at some of the animals next door in the Zoo.
— Bicycles rule. Look out!!
Like Amsterdam, Berlin is a city of cyclists: ladies in pretty dresses (no helmet); men in elegant suits (no helmet) and many hapless tourists like me, who’ve rented a bike for the day for 12 euros. Locals go really fast and are pissed off when people like me (the rental bikes are sub-optimal) wobble or stop suddenly in a narrow and busy bike lane.
— It’s a massive city
City blocks here are often very long, so your map can be misleading.
— Safe, quick, clean public transit
It operates on the honor system, (with a 60 euro fine if you cheat and are caught). You buy a ticket, validate it and get on, with a two-hour limit for transfers. But (oddly?!), there are no conductors or station agents, so you better figure it all out for yourself.
— Anything goes
Lots of tattoos and half-naked people. Lots of suited businessmen. It’s a busy place, pop. 3 million, but with a relaxed attitude, a nice change from Paris, where elegance really matters.
— Great architecture, whether classic/baroque or starkly modern
— Rudeness hinging on what-the-fuck?! aggressiveness
I wanted to love Berlin, and I liked it very much, enough to want to return, but holy shit, people can be shockingly mean! I’ve lived and worked in/near New York City for decades, but have rarely seen behavior with this kind of nasty edge there.
It even has an official name, Berliner Schnauze. Here’s an explanation of it from a local blog:
In New York City, it’s often said that the locals are actually quite friendly. Provincials who arrive to New York are the ones who insecurely perform the stereotypical New York sass. Being in the City, in the anonymity of the metropolis, is an opportunity to insult your fellow citizens indiscriminately, when they get in your way or you don’t like how they look at you. After you’ve exhausted your creative vocabulary, you can really feel like you belong. The line between “acting like a local” and la violence gratuite can be awfully thin. I sometimes wonder how many of those Berliners who give you sass aren’t from here at all, just like Claire Waldoff.
This leaves us with a number of aperçus: Berliner sass is a problem of historic proportions, insult masqueraded as humour (ok, I might just admit it’s funny), a commercial invention packaged as a local speciality in the 20s, a stereotype sold by the provincials to the capital, yet somehow linked to the city’s local dialect. Berliner Schnauze is a sham, but it bites you in the ass all the time.
Overall, I’m really glad I came and gave Berlin so much time.
I’ve made new friends and left plenty of things still to explore for next time, preferably some September, when it’s cooler and less crowded, to see more of it with Jose.
If you’ve never been, I recommend it highly!