Wednesday, June 01, 2005


Ich bin ein Berliner!

Translation: “I am a jelly donut!”
– Pres. John F. Kennedy

So said our 35th president, in his famous speech expressing solidarity with the people of Berlin. As a friend of mine observes, Kennedy’s phrase is the linguistic analogue of expressing solidarity with the people of Copenhagen by saying “I am a Danish!”

Ein Berliner.

But if you were to visit Berlin today, you too might feel like a jelly donut. In a good way.

Berlin is an amazing city, one part Paris, one part New York, with a sprinkling of Chicago. Although largely wrecked by World War II and the postwar partition that imposed ugly Soviet-style architecture and decrepitude on half the city, Berlin retains – or has painstakingly restored – a remarkable degree of its old world charm. There are abundant buildings and monuments of 18th and 19th century design, sidewalk cafes as numerous as Paris, picturesque waterways and bridges, out-of-the-way niches with cobblestoned streets, and fascinating trails of courtyards. There are gorgeous overgrown parks and tree-lined streets all over the place.

Brandenburg Gate, restored.

Sidewalk cafe, near Hackesher Markt S-Bahn station.

Left: Beer garden in Tiergarten. Right: boats.

nr alexanderplatz
Near Alexanderplatz, a cobblestoned enclave with a small village square and one of Berlin’s oldest surviving churches. In the background looms the Russian-built former East German TV tower.

The city also offers the edginess and buzz of a big, modern city with a major arts scene, impressive ethnic diversity (at least by middle-European standards), and mind-blowing designand architecture. There is new construction everywhere, but also serious preservation and restoration of the old. The scars of the no-man’s land on the East side of the former Berlin wall are all but vanished.


Turkish shops in the Kreutzberg district. Berlin has the largest
Turkish population of any city outside Turkey.

Ubiquitous cranes, here in the background of baroque monumental
buildings of Museum Island (left) and Unter der Linden (right).

Pending restoration: bullet pockmarks can still be seen on some buildings in former
East Berlin. Here, the colonnade surrounding the National Gallery.

Maybe Berlin sticks out atypically from the rest of Germany, the way people say New York is atypical of the U.S. and Paris atypical of France -- but I like what I see. After reading in my tour books that Germans tend to be polite but businesslike or brusque in transacting with strangers, I was surprised to find Berliners genuinely friendly. The people who sell you stuff across a counter, or who answer your request for directions on the street, seem unphased by foreigners, quite happy to speak English, ready to smile, and not at all intent (as often happens in, say, New York or Paris) on making you feel vulnerable or stupid for not knowing your way around.

There are bike paths everywhere, and people riding their bikes. And an aggressive recycling program, with, for example, 25 cent returns on one liter bottles.

And fabulous public transportation. There are copious streetcars and buses, and separate-but-overlapping underground and elevated trains. I love the elevated train viaducts. Several times a day, you see them go by in the background, a moving snatch of red or red-and-yellow framed by trees or buildings, reminding me of ... well, actually, of the Disneyland Railroad.

Disneyland Railroad.

The S-Bahn and intercity trains (red) on the upper track, the streetcar (yellow)
on the
street level, the U-Bahn (not pictured) below ground.

Like New York and Paris, Berlin is a 24 hour city. On a recent warm night, B and I strolled down the Unter der Linden from Brandenberg Gate to our hotel after 1 a.m., and the streets were charmingly and comfortably peopled.

The only downside to Berlin so far... well, let me put it this way. I am so not going to be busted by eyedar around here.

As recently as two years ago, I had zero interest in visiting Berlin; a week ago I was eager but anxious about visiting. Yesterday I asked our Berliner friends about the cost of apartments, so I could imagine living here.


Too easily charmed. Berlin does NOT have as many cafes as Paris. Give me the numerical breakdown or else...
And here's the other thing: when you take in a city, do you experience it as it presents itself, or do you see it with the history atop its shoulder? Because, despite the destruction, Berlin's history is more forgiving than, say, that of its eastern neighbor.
Still, I do love your photos and your openess to the place and its people. I really do love that.
Hey! Stop stealing our warm weather! It's been more like San Fransisco than New Jersey around here this week.
Like you, I've never had any interest in visiting Berlin (or Germany for that matter). But your post makes me reconsider my position -- at least a little bit. And what's this about not getting busted in Berlin for scoping out the attractive women? Are you really saying that there aren't any good looking women there?
Pretty much, yeah.
I'm still not booking a trip to Germany anytime soon. But you have made me consider the possibility that I might want to someday.

Just don't try to sell me any bridges, ok?
What about the German guys? Are they good looking? I'll be going to Berlin for a conference and will need to prepare myself if all the residents of Berlin are unattractive.
According to B: Really good chocolate candy. Really bad eye candy.
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