I’d only visited Germany a few times when, two years ago, we moved to Berlin. The only time I’d been here for fun was a gap year travelling around Europe with an InterRail pass in my hand. My old passports have a couple of stamps from the former East German government, one allowed me to travel to Berlin to see what the fuss was about, the second to use Berlin as a jumping off point for a trip to formerly communist Czechoslovakia.
It was the 1980s and, to a young history student, Berlin was one of the most exciting cities in Europe. Most of the rest of the country remained a mystery. Studying 18th and 19th century European political history gave me an insight into the rise of Prussia, but my knowledge of German culture and society was woeful. Germany’s image in my imagining was a collection of cliche shaped by the hit TV series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, football and the distorting lens of 20th century conflicts.
Germany just wasn’t on the radar. This is strange given my well documented love of beer and sausages. Unconsciously, I had succumbed to a mindset of “why visit Germany when France, Italy and Spain exist?” Moving here has brought a different perspective. We’ve made a conscious effort to explore and to understand our new home. The former is much easier than the latter, especially working out why German cuisine largely consists of pig and pickled cabbage.
This is a country with a long and storied history, much of which has been destroyed or tainted by the events of the 1930s and 40s. I’m only now beginning to understand the vast diversity of the country, the singular histories of its regions and city states, the extraordinary variety of landscapes, the vibrancy of its major cities, and all the ancient places that survived the Second World War. Germany has 46 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, fourth highest in the world.
We’ve visited eleven of them, and my list of places still to visit is dauntingly long even without the other World Heritage Sites. In the time we’ve been here we’ve seen the great Hanseatic cities of northern Germany, the extraordinary timber-framed towns of Bavaria and Saxony, the rugged landscapes of the Baltic Coast, the gentle woods and water of Spreewald (home to Germany’s most famous gherkins), phoenix-like Dresden, and the ‘Protestant Rome’ of Wittenberg.
On top of that, we live in Germany’s largest and most culturally diverse city, Berlin. It’s a place that confounds and confuses as much as it delights. Anneliese Bödecker captured the uncompromising personality of Berlin with great accuracy: “Berliners are unfriendly and reckless, gruff and bossy. Berlin is odious, noisy, dirty, and grey; roadworks and congested streets wherever you go – but I’m sorry for everyone who does not live here.”
There have been times I’ve been sorry that I do live here. The unyielding, frequently hostile bureaucracy to do even the smallest of things can drain the will to live like nowhere else on earth – and I’m a survivor of getting residency in Bolivia. Our two years in the German capital have had challenges – I may never work out the recycling rules – but this is a city that repays efforts to get to know it.
Ironically, the coronavirus has pushed us to explore further afield than we might have done under normal circumstances. It has revealed a city that, as German art historian Karl Scheffler has said, is the “capital of all modern ugliness”. Post-war reconstruction has been shockingly unkind to Berlin. Yet, it has also revealed itself to still have traces of the Berlin David Bowie described as the “greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine”.
Germany and Berlin are starting to come into focus … it’s just a shame about the food.