We knew in December 2020 that we’d be leaving Berlin, but the coronavirus put paid to relocating for months. I started a new job remotely, and it was four months before I met my new colleagues. We finally moved in August 2021, one of the longest goodbyes in history. In the end, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, leaving Berlin was more whimper than bang – the closure of my favourite bar, Gagarin, by the pandemic was a sign it was time to move.
That should really be ‘farewell’, because the city David Bowie described as “the greatest cultural extravaganza” feels like unfinished business. Half of our time there was during a pandemic, and most of that time we were in a lockdown of varying degrees of severity. Less extravaganza than reprising Berlin during the Cold War, when leaving the city limits was forbidden.
Knowing far ahead of time that we were leaving didn’t make it any easier when the moment finally came. While it’s fair to say it took time for us to find our feet in Berlin, it came to feel like home. It’s an extraordinary and rewarding city, but it can be hard work as well. A Bavarian friend told me that it took her three years to feel accepted in Berlin, and she speaks fluent German.
Not that some Berliners would recognise Bavarian German as the same language spoken on the River Spree. She put it down to the Berliner Schnauze – the notorious attitude of Berliners, most diplomatically described as lacking politeness. Some would simply say, rude. It’s more complicated of course, but it’s an attitude that once led a Berlin waiter to reprimand me for ordering Bavarian weizen not Berlin pilsner.
Theodor Adorno, one of Germany’s most important post-war philosophers, described Berlin as “too much and not enough“. It often felt that way. That finds echoes in German cultural commentator, Karl Scheffler’s saying, “Berlin is a city condemned forever to becoming and never to being.” Berlin does feel like a city with a split personality – if it’s not weird to anthropomorphize a city.
It’s a state eloquently summed up by British-Ugandan, and Berlin-based, Musa Okwonga, who said, “Berlin is an introvert fiercely disguised as an extrovert.” At first, it was a struggle to understand a city enveloped in cliche and beset by contradictions that was clearly going through a traumatic economic revival. The ‘poor but sexy’ Berlin of former Mayor, Klaus Wowereit, is in a fierce struggle for its identity.
Despite spiralling costs and unaffordable housing, it’s the only European capital that is a drag on the national economy (the average German would be 0.2% richer without Berlin). It’s Germany’s largest city, and one of Europe’s great cultural capitals – whether its famous techno scene, or its world class opera – yet, confronting its notorious bureaucracy is like traveling back several decades in time.
This is a city where government offices still use fax machines, where restaurants and bars only accept cash, and where an airport no one wanted was built thanks to a dodgy political deal, was billions of euros over budget and delayed for years thanks to chronic incompetence and corruption. Fax machines belong in museums, not government offices of the world’s fourth largest economy.
Berlin is a city defined by its past in more obvious ways. Refreshingly, it wears public reminders of the crimes of the Nazi era and the decades of communist oppression openly on its sleeve. Not long before we left, I walked past the Federal Ministry of Finance, formerly home to Hermann Göring’s Nazi Aviation Ministry and one of the few monolithic pieces of Nazi architecture still standing.
A giant bow in the colours of the LGBTQ rainbow flag hung from the gates. It may be symbolic, but it seemed like progress. Around the corner is a memorial to those Berliner’s killed by the East German authorities in 1953 who were protesting and demanding democratic reforms in front of the building. It’s like a potted history of the city’s last 70 years.
Perhap T.S Eliot captures the feeling best in a line from the same poem, The Hollow Men, somewhere in the ‘shadow’ lies the real Berlin:
“Between the idea,
And the reality,
Between the motion,
And the act,
Falls the Shadow.”