Moving to Berlin: the search for Utopia

There’s no doubt Berlin is a fantastic city, but there are times when it appears more a shimmering mirage than a city of concrete, air pollution and of flesh and blood humans being. Gushing tales about the city could make you believe it existed only as fantasy – whether it’s digital nomads living the dream in cutting-edge startups, the razor sharp arts scene, the dazzling hedonistic nightlife or the hipster-filled fashion world. This is the funky, creative and youthful Berlin carefully crafted into the stuff of marketing legend.

As I cycle to work – albeit under the Brandenburg Tor, past the Reichstag, through the Tiergarten and along the Spree – it’s not always easy to reconcile the idea of Berlin as some sort of 21st century Utopia with the work-a-day city I see each morning at 8am. After reading too many travel guides it’s possible to imagine it as a modern-day City of the Sun, Tommaso Campanella’s 17th century fictional city that is a temple of learning, where there is an equal division of labour and all people are treated with dignity.

Grave of The Red Baron, Invalidenstrasse Cemetery, Berlin, Germany
Grave of The Red Baron, Invalidenstrasse Cemetery, Berlin, Germany
East German art, Berlin, Germany
East German art, Berlin, Germany
Berlin, Germany
Berlin, Germany
Kaiser-Wilhelm Church war memorial, Berlin, Germany
Kaiser-Wilhelm Church war memorial, Berlin, Germany
River Spree, Berlin, Germany
River Spree, Berlin, Germany
Berlin, Germany
Berlin, Germany

I studied Campanella’s philosophical work at university and his vision of Utopia, like the dozen or so other fictional works I read on utopias, ultimately leads to a dystopian vision of humanity’s future. Think Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In Berlin you can tell you’re not living in Utopia by the complexity of the recycling rules. In the abstract, German recycling is utopian. It covers almost every commodity known to humanity and should benefit the planet. Yet, like all utopian imaginings, it has quickly become my own personal dystopia.

You need a PhD in bloody-mindedness to understand the recycling rules. I’ve counted seven different colours of recycling bin that, even with a two-sided colour-coded A4 leaflet, I still can’t work out. Some of them are even different shapes. It’s complicated enough to need an app to guide you. God-forbid you put your recycling in the wrong bin. The seventh circle of Hell is reserved for people who do that. If the tourist schtick is to be believed, this is the “anything goes” city. Just make sure it goes in the correct colour-coded receptacle.

I’m also pretty sure that in Utopia the service would be better, and even occasionally delivered with a smile. It’s cliche to knock Berlin’s service culture, but experience has taught me to recalibrate expectations. We’ve had good experiences in restaurants but the reality is that bad tempered and wildly inefficient service is commonplace. You may be handing over your hard-earned cash, but don’t think for one minute that it pays for anything more than thinly veiled contempt in some places.

Your hard-earned cash will also need to be carried in its physical form, because Berlin, like much of Germany, is only just getting around to recognising credit and debit cards as an acceptable form of payment for services and goods. The Berlin ‘walk of shame’ is attempting to pay with a card and then having to search nearby streets to find an ATM. This seems crazy in one of the wealthiest and most tech-savvy nations on earth. It’s the polar opposite of the Netherlands, where some shops don’t accept cash.

Memorial to Ronald Regan, Berlin, Germany
Memorial to Ronald Regan, Berlin, Germany
David Bowie memorial, Berlin, Germany
David Bowie memorial, Berlin, Germany
Berlin, Germany
Berlin, Germany
Berlin TV Tower, Berlin, Germany
Berlin TV Tower, Berlin, Germany
World Time Clock, Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany
World Time Clock, Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany
Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany
Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

These small frustrations aside, the unnaturally good weather has allowed us to get out and explore the city. There is much that makes Berlin a fascinating and wonderful place to live, whether riverside walks along the Spree, fantastic food in intriguing areas like Kreuzberg, a multitude of open spaces like the former Tempelhof airport, or the daily comings and goings of Germany’s political capital – the city centre was in lockdown for the recent visit of Turkey’s President Erdogan, making my cycle to work a nightmare.

Almost everywhere you go you find yourself bumping up against Berlin’s history. We recently found ourselves standing in front of the grave of the Red Baron – First World War fighter ace, Manfred von Richthofen. His headstone, still bullet-riddled from the Second World War comes with a backdrop of pieces of the Berlin Wall, which cut a swathe through the cemetery. A short walk away is a memorial to the first person to be killed attempting escape to the West. In Berlin, the ghosts of its own dystopian past are all around.

17 thoughts on “Moving to Berlin: the search for Utopia

  1. Somehow as I move to different parts of the city all the recycling rules and colour codes change and I can’t imagine anyone truly knows the correct procedure

    1. The recycling rules are Byzantine in their complexity, it’s hard to imagine that everyone follows them to the letter.

  2. Viel dank for the Berlin walk.
    I’m sure you will encounter plenty to muse on.
    Utopia- or culture-wise.
    (I am slowly beginning to realize that we may possibly never really understand other cultures…)
    (And I just pressed the wrong bl..dy button, unfollowed you and then re-followed you! So don’t be surprised)

    1. I’m not sure it’s possible to fully understand other cultures either. You’ll always be an outside in some ways, but that’s not a bad thing. The ‘clash’ of cultures can be a creative force, however frustrating!

      1. I was born and have lived in dozens of different cultures. (And speak close to a dozen languages). I think all you can do is keep an open mind, listen and observe, and aim for a 50-60% understanding? And we’re talking Germany here, not Lompok! 😉

  3. “You need a PhD in bloody-mindedness to understand the recycling rules.” Twas ever thus. I recall more than one self-catering holiday in Germany that has ended with us standing baffled befpre the bins. And like you, I’m also baffled by the speed with which they have failed to get the hang of card payments. I’m sure there are good reasons for all of this, but even from my half-German standpoint, I’m damned if I know what they are!

    1. The cash thing is so unexpected given the impression of Germany as a highly efficient society, I don’t know if there’s some explicit reason for the attachment to cash? As for the recycling, I’m told I’ll get the hang of it in a year or two!

      1. I’ve always been lead to believe it’s a hangover from hyper-inflation, coupled with the German dislike/distrust of credit that also stemmed from that, but given that was almost 90 years ago now it seems strange that it’s hung on.

        1. Stella, that’s a non-sequitur. If one was afraid of inflation, taking out a loan would actually be a smart move. It’s the creditors who lose out under hyper-inflation, not the debtors.

          And no, I think the high inflation in the 1920s (which affected other countries, too, not just Germany) is no reason whatsoever. There is nobody alive with a living memory of it, and I doubt many people even know about it. In any case, since the introduction of the Deutschmark (1948) and then the Euro, there has never been a period of hyper-inflation. The people who grew up in East Germany had a different currency until 1990, of course, but inflation was not the problem there, either, it was lack of goods to be bought.
          The last inflation that was somewhat higher was in the 1970s and again, it was a worldwide phenomenon after the OPEC price increases.

          As I wrote in my other comment, it’s mostly a question of convenience and of privacy. If you pay everything by card, you are giving a whole lot of institutions a very intimate and almost complete look into your life, possibly over decades.

        2. I did say that was what I was told. I would dispute there being no one alive who remembers it. My father was born in 1922 and remembered hyperinflation very well. He would not take out credit if he could avoid it, and while he and most of his generation are now dead, there’s always the possibility that they instilled the same fear of credit in their children, who will be still around. As I say, it’s only a theory that was shared with me once. It’s intriguing, whatever the reason.

        3. Hyperinflation in Germany ended in 1923, so your father would have had to participate in the business sector at a very early age.
          This sounds more like a case of imagined memory, based on stories being told.

          And it really doesn’t make any sense to be afraid of credit and of hyperinflation in combination. Anyone who really lived through 1922/1923 would remember that people who had taken out loans were the biggest winners of hyperinflation (because you can easily repay the nominal debt with now worthless money). This was actually one of the reasons behind hyperinflation, as the German government was deeply indebted due to lost World War I and thus benefitted from hyperinflation.

          The problem with hyperinflation and credit is actually that nobody would give any loans, not that nobody would want any.

        4. No one said it was logical.

      2. It’s probably that paying with cash is actually quicker than with a card, particularly if a PIN is required. (That’s why efficiency-loving people in Germany are often annoyed by the foreigners paying by card at the supermarket, in particular if it’s only for a bar of chocolate.)
        Of course, there is always the one counter-example of a grandma looking for coins, but then, she would also take ages to find the notebook in which she wrote down the PIN.

        And with a card, you never know how much money you have with you.

        If the card doesn’t require a PIN, which is the only way it’s really quicker than cash, then it’s a much bigger loss when it is stolen.

        Lastly, maybe you don’t want the card company, the bank, the processing company, any hacker and the intelligence service to know where you shopped at what time, where you ate what at what time, who else was there at exactly the same time, or which type of magazines or books you bought, and what your diet is based on your grocery shopping.

        1. All valid points Andreas, but I just don’t buy it (so to speak). Paying by card is a digital fingerprint, but most people are happy to provide all kinds of data to anonymous companies via their smartphone apps, including geolocation data (although that’s very handy when one of your colleagues has accidentally taken your phone home with them).

          I don’t mind carrying cash, but it’s far less user friendly in a city where there’s a shortage of ATMs and ‘private’ ATMs charge €5 for the privilege of using them. I much prefer pin or contactless payments, even if it means a small delay occasionally at the checkout.

  4. So given the need for carrying cash, does this affect the level of mugging compared to other cashless places?
    That female statue is so beautiful, was she a Goddess?
    Again, fascinating insights.

    1. The statue is Clio, the muse of history. Apparently there were six similar statues but only two survived the war. Thankfully she was one of them.
      Despite having our cellar broken into after living here for only a few weeks, Berlin is one of the safest big cities in Europe. Serious or violent crime is very low. Whether that changes with the changing demographics and wealth inequalities is to be seen!

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