Berlin, the capital of hipsterland, the coolest place in Europe?! Yeah, I love living here, but not everything is nice and shiny. Time to debunk some popular misconceptions about the Hauptstadt.
- Poor but sexy: We will never know whether it was a shrewd marketing ploy when former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit coined this phrase for the first time in an interview in November 2003. But this quote has been abused for more than a decade now. Yes, Berlin was poor after the fall of the wall. And it is still buried in debt, but it has a lot of new assets (especially not so sexy buildings) to show for that. The annual budget of the city is actually under control, the tourism and digital economy are flourishing and unemployment rates are falling. Sexy? Yes. Poor? Not so much.
- It doesn’t have a city center: Some old bullshit, the Beastie Boys would say. Geographically the area around Alexanderplatz is the heart of the city, and if you ask inhabitants, they will probably mention this ugly square (it has been even uglier in the past) as the focal point. No, we don’t have a beautiful historic centre where people live and work (such as London), due to some unfortunate recent historical events between 1933 and 1989, but the centre it is.
- Germans are organized : Berlin is the living showcase of German incompetence. Although, maybe it really is the fault of Berliners (see point 4), as we are piling one failure on another one. When I moved here in 2012, the new airport should have opened weeks before. No one even dares to name an opening date anymore, there is a referendum on keeping the other city airport Tegel open (just in case BER breaks down completely in the future), and some are actually talking about building an airport in Sperenberg after all, which was the original choice for the new airport anyways. By the way, did you ever have a good look at Hauptbahnhof? It is 120 metres shorter than it was in the original design, the last part of the glass roof was ditched to make sure the station was ready for the 2006 World Cup. The glass was already produced by the way and is still lying idle somewhere. Oh, and we have been renovating the opera (Staatsoper) as well since 2010. It should have lasted three years, it is taking between 7 and 8 years according to the latest estimate and the budget has been doubled in the meantime.
- We are partying 24/7: bollocks. We are taking a break on Tuesday, except for the despicable Matrix disco, but that one only attracts tourists.
- Berlin is a liberal city: Yeah, anything goes in Berlin. Whether you are a drag queen, or walk around naked, no one really seems to care. And with the biggest seaweed-eating community in the world, also known as vegans, you would expect politics to be very progressive. Strangely enough, it is a very mixed bag. Since the latest local elections, we have a progressive majority of social-democrats (SPD), the Green party and Die Linke. But the latter is too left-wing for a lot of progressives, and leaves a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of people because it consists of the remnants of the former ruling party of East Germany. And strangely enough it was very popular in parts of Berlin where the extreme right-wing AFD gained a lot of votes. So huge parts of the city vote either very left or very right, an indication of the extremities you see here all the time.
- All men wear beards: Definitely not true. Though in the hipster capitals of Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Neukölln it has become very hard to spot examples of the male species without one. And as a friend of mine told me: ‘Wow, you are not into men with beards? That is almost like saying no to sex in Berlin!’ Absolutely true, so my latest manhunts have brought me to male species from Russia and Lebanon (though not at the same time, sorry to disappoint you).
- It is easy to find a cheap flat at a great location: Oh, those were the days. Somewhere at the start of the millennium, when the expected real estate boom didn’t happen, the population didn’t grow and there seemed to be an endless supply of cheap rentals. But times have changed completely. Compared to other capitals it is still relatively cheap, but no one will ever tell you that the wages are also lower than in other countries (or big cities in Germany for that matter). Add to that an influx of young Spanish and Italian and Polish people trying their luck, hipsters who want to party, civil servants that had to move to the capital and a huge influx of refugees, and you understand why rents and house prices have soared for a decade. Only in the suburbs you can still find bargains, but in that case you live in between Die Linke and AfD voters (see point 5).
- It is a relaxed city: Freedom comes at a price. Yes, in summer everyone enjoys the ample sunshine and the beer gardens, showing an occasional smile. But the city has become increasingly rough. Homeless people can be found in increasing numbers, being drunk or drugged up or both on a thursday morning in the subway is not an unusual sight, don’t even start talking about traffic behaviour (most are very relaxed, but the occasional hothead ruins it for everyone). The Berliner Schnautze (grumpy face) has become an institution. Expect it in a bar near you 🙂 Anyway, what would you expect from a city where Rammstein are the local gods?
- The flea market in Mauerpark is a great thing: Listen, if you really want to do karaoke (and I am darned good at performing Britney Spear’s Hit Me Baby One More Time, amongst others), go to a karaoke bar. If you really want to buy some old crap, go to eBay. If you really want a taste of exotic food, go to the Markthalle in Kreuzberg. But can we just light up our BBQ in peace, pleaaaaaaaase?
- Berlin is the coolest city in Europe: It is hard to accept for us, but one day we have to pass the title to another city. It has probably already happened without us noticing it. Because we are approaching saturation and boiling point, just like Barcelona, after it experienced a massive tourist boom after the Olympics in 1992 and is now fighting to preserve its Catalan culture amidst the hordes of foreigners that take over the city centre every weekend. We didn’t even need Olympics for a tourism boom (we of course voted against nominating us for the Games in 2024 or 2028), the fall of the wall proved enough of a fertile breeding ground for innovation. Because if you have nothing, you have to come up with something new. So check out Madrid, Lisbon, I dare not even say Amsterdam as a Dutch guy. Or Athens. They will be heralded the next big thing in the New York Times in the next few years. Paris? Yeah, the French economy is going down, but they’re French, so don’t expect anything too shockingly innovative in the next few years 🙂
Prost! And don’t forget to make up your own mind and explore the city yourself. I also have a personal digital notebook on Berlin, better known as a city guide, called Heimat Berlin!