First Impressions: Berlin

Everything is closed on Sundays.

The big streets look almost abandoned as we emerge from the U-Bahn station and realize that finding our air b&b room won’t be as easy as we first thought. Luckily the cafes are open on Sundays – Berlin parties hard and it’s a given everyone will need their coffee after a Saturday night out. Most cafes, therefore, are closed on Mondays. This doesn’t help however: despite its status as a major capital city, WiFi is hard to come by in Berlin, and we are stuck sitting on the side of the road for a while before we find our bearings again.

Berlin wall, west (L) and east (R)
A slightly skewed but valid representation of the two sides of the Berlin wall.

Berlin is different than I expected.

It is not as shiny – a metallic metropolis of high rises is not visible upon our arrival, nor further into the city center.  What modern building exists is sparse and barely protrudes between the old brick residences, communist concrete rectangles, and the eloquent churches and halls from long ago.

It is both bigger and smaller than I thought. Converted into the capital city for a united Germany (then Prussia) in the late 1800’s, it was eventually built up for 6 million people with condensed centers filling in the spaces between the villages to make it so. But this did not make up for Berlin not having the most thriving economy in the country. The city never fully filled in, and today just over half that number actually live within its borders.

Berlin is unlike any other city in Germany. A friend from California and another from elsewhere in Germany both cite “openness” and “freedom” as the reasons they chose to move here. The city is more tolerant, more welcoming, more flexible. It is less judgmental, less rule-oriented, less strict.

And so it is more international, and more multicultural. There are Turks among the Germans, Danish and English heard amid German. The third generation Turks, brought here as necessary workers after a severe lack of men post war, are now an accepted part of society, their own cultures permeating what “typical Berlin” includes. The Roma and Sinti (gypsies), however, are a new phenomenon, still striving for that acceptance and freedom,  even the Turkish kiosk clerks shooing them away.

My favourite piece in Berlin - unkempt greenery over graffitti covered walls.
My favourite piece in Berlin – unkempt greenery over graffitti covered walls. And of course, a bicycle.

There are more backpackers, and whether the tourists or the ambiance came first, Berlin feels like the Khao San Road of Germany. Despite flying through trends, fashion follows the simple rule of not trying too hard: dressed up in Berlin often means your clothes are actually clean. Bier can be purchased for €1 at the nearest corner store and leisurely sipped walking down the street.

Berlin is also grittier than I expected. Less clean and proper. More colorful and unkempt. The result is charming. There is graffiti everywhere. But it is safe: besides some strong suggestions to not walk through Gorlitzer Park at night, most crime is petty, and no one really balks at walking alone in the dark.

The canal near Kreuzberg, Berlin
Sitting on the canal near Kreuzberg, Berlin

Berlin is a hedonistic city – a lot of things are still about pleasure: the partying, the fashion, the socializing with friends on the canal. But what seems to draw the crowds here is what Berlin embodies – tolerance, acceptance and freedom – to be who you are and do as you please.

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