WHY WOULDN’T you buy a 1936 solid marble writing set when abroad and bring it home? You’d think that I’d have learnt, after carrying a 2kg piece of carved slate from Belize all the way around Mexico and Guatemala only to find at the airport that it had broken in two. Before confiscating the slate the cheerful airport official helpfully pointed out that the razor-sharp edge created by the break could be used to cut someone’s throat. Frankly I was glad just not to be carrying it anymore. I’m pretty sure that she recognised my tears as an expression of relief, rather than frustration. Anyway, I thought, as I lugged the writing set back to the hotel, they’re surely not as hot on rules in Germany as in Guatemala…
It’s remarkable and somewhat shameful that at 28 years of age and living in the UK I had never visited Germany, the most populous country in the EU and the economic giant of Europe. When I first heard one of my former housemates talking about the amazing time that they had it Berlin, I remember being surprised because in my mind Berlin was some kind of depressed, concrete hell, with everything in sepia – basically Soviet-era East Germany.
Anyway, Berlin is now in my top 5 cities in the world. Here are some reasons why:
For lots of reasons – and not just the Fawlty Towers one – Berlin is a city acutely aware of its own history, and does a lot to remember the past. But it feels like a city full of futures (mind you, coming from Britain any city that has public transport that runs on time feels vaguely futuristic. UK public transport is less futuristic, more optimistic). It’s hip, it’s international and it has something for everybody. While we were there we did history at the Berlin Wall, trendy bars in Prenzlauer Berg and top end dining in Kurfürstendamm. And compared to any other European capital I’ve been to it’s cheap.
I promise that I’m not on commission from the Berlin Tourist Board.
THERE’S SOMETHING that I need to get out of the way: stereotypes. It’s never good to rely on national stereotypes at the best of times, but visiting Berlin I realised that growing up in Britain had filled my mind with cultural stereotypes of Germans.
None of the popular British stereotypes of Germans were borne out in Berlin: humourless? Blown right out of the water by our joking with staff on the hotel reception and just about everyone else to whom we spoke. Sticklers for rules? Maybe, but I certainly wasn’t the only one eating eating on the metro (I only found out later that it wasn’t allowed!). Efficient? Er, yes, actually this one was true, but I was very happy for all my trains to arrive on time. Can’t queue? Actually, this is a stereotype that the British have about every other nation in the world. AND IT’S TRUE! Three times in queues in Berlin I got hustled by the people behind me: they weren’t being rude, they just quite clearly wanted to be standing where I was. At one point at our hotel’s breakfast buffet I nearly turned around and said something to the woman behind me in the queue for the Muesli. Unbelievable.
Sometimes, stereotypes tell us just as much about ourselves, as those we are stereotyping.
I also found that an unexpected stereotype of mine was challenged in Berlin: kebabs. During my pre-reading for the trip I was shocked to see that a full page photo in the Lonely Planet City Guide to Berlin was devoted to a picture of a man carving a doner kebab. Like this:
In Britain kebabs are what you have at the end of the night, when you’re too drunk to care that you’re eating horsemeat and goodness knows what else. They are not something that the gourmets go for. In Germany, Berlin especially, they are something that you go out and enjoy on a lunchtime when sober. This difference is a phenomenon of the large immigrant Turkish population in Berlin and the rest of Germany, dating back to the 1960s. Turkish immigrants brought their own cuisine with them and doner kebabs became a speciality. I’m not entirely sure why there’s such a qualitative difference in cultural and cuisine terms between the kebabs in Germany and the rest of Europe, but I could speculate that because there’s such a large, distinctive Turkish population in Germany with which kebabs are associated, they came to be an important cultural marker and hence quality was of greater importance. Plus, there are simply more Turkish people eating them and hence driving up expectations. If you go to Green Lanes in north London, where there is a large Turkish community, you’ll also find kebab shops open in the middle of the day and doing a roaring trade.
The photo above is not mine – I stole it from a now defunct blog called “Berlin Study Abroad” which can be found here. I came across it whilst searching for an image of a kebab. The first line of the post that I took the image from reads: “Recently I have found a heavenly food called a Doner Kebab.” If I wrote that in Britain it would be ironic. In Berlin it’s genuine. When I was there, I had the best kebab and falafel that I’ve ever had, world over. Now that’s a stereotype that I didn’t expect to have challenged in Berlin.
ALL IN all, Berlin has a wealth of things to commend it. So is surprising that I wanted to bring a little bit it back with me?