Tuesday, August 26, 2014


It's late summer in the capital of Germany. Days are getting cooler, crisp air and bright colors. We finally lost the heavy, muggy heat of the last month. First chestnuts are dropping, but the chestnut trees look sad, their leaves a crumpled brown. They’re infested with the larvae of the horse-chestnut leaf miner, and by this time of the year there’s not much green left.

I enjoy riding my bike through town, smelling all the layers of air and letting hundreds of faces and little scenes zip by. I love summers in Berlin: people actually smile, populate the streets and cafes, and there are so many bikes that it’s total anarchy on the roads.

I think, for now, I have sort of come to peace with my hometown. Many years ago, some woman, engaged with me in the standard US- “where are you from” small talk, yelled: “Yeah, of course, you HAVE to hate your hometown. “ I really did not like Berlin back then, but I wasn’t sure that had to apply to everyone and their hometowns.

So I was gone for 20 years, and I changed. I lived, and raised children, worked my butt off (but never had what they call a career), and experienced different cities and environments. I changed some more. And now that I am back, most people here with kids are now way younger than me. It feels weird, and a little sad, I didn’t get to raise my children in my native culture.

But I haven’t changed as much as my hometown did in these same years. So there’s one thing I like about getting old: History becomes a lived-in period, rather than a concept of the past. You see change, good and bad, watch developments, and you begin to distinguish the things that don’t change.

Things that have changed in Berlin:

(I left in 1994, but these changes occurred roughly since the wall came down until today, and are described from a West-Berlin perspective)
  1. There is countryside around town. And it is amazing, has lots of destinations, plenty of lakes and old big rivers, beautiful old towns (all newly restored, yet appearing somewhat post-apocalyptic, since no one is ever out in the streets), and a fairly well built-out road system. When I grew up, there was one area within the Wall that was an agricultural field, with a little bit of a sense of open space. That was it. Now you drive 20 minutes any direction and you are in rural Brandenburg. It has not ceased to amaze me. (of course this is totally old news to anyone who’s been here the last 20 years). 
  2. Berlin has become an international, diverse city. Back then, West-Berlin was a pretty homogenous, provincial little place, its people wearing this snooty, overblown self-perception of being a unique subculture. Now there is not much difference to London, Paris, Prague or Copenhagen: Lots of people from all over the world, residents and tourists. In between, you can spot the occasional old disgruntled Berliner, not quite grasping what the fuck happened.
  3. There now is genuine economic development, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. When I grew up here, West-Berlin was sustained by economic subsidies, to keep it alive while being geographically isolated. Today, there is much real wealth, a strong middle class, a thriving IT start-up scene, and some signs of social innovation, neighborhood projects, alternative economic models, the arts…. even some humor: The building that houses the association of German foundations, located at the former checkpoint Charlie, reads in big letters: ‘You are now entering the Nonprofit Sector’.
  4. There are SUVs and leaf blowers. Anyone who buys an SUV in Berlin is by definition a complete idiot. Streets are way to narrow, there’s no parking, and gas is around 4 Euros/Gallon. Leaf blowers are idiotic too, anywhere.
  5. About 50% of people employed today in the service industry attended a professional development training at some point that included a PPT slide titled: Be Nice to Your Customer. The other 50% are still treating you like a nuisance. When I grew up, all waiters were nasty. Still today, about 90% of wait staff in Berlin completely forget about you after they have delivered your food, and you have to wave our arms around and holler to get their attention in order to pay the check.

Things that haven’t changed:

  1. Berliner Schnauze: This is the term that describes the big mouth of the Berliner, always quick and ready to educate you, make sure you look stupid for asking a question, and to appear completely unhelpful. Everyone has dozens of stories on this. It also inevitably happens when you get back to town from somewhere more friendly, as if they know to catch you at your most off-guard and vulnerable. I got back from London a few days ago, and asked a security guard at the airport: ‘Where does the bus into town take off from?’ He goes, sarcastically: “ From the bus station. ” Long pause, him enjoying the moment. Then the directions follow.….Ha. Ha. Ha.
  2. There is an extension of this, when Schnauze turns into passive aggressive behavior. Like one recent Sunday morning, when one of my neighbors pulled his car down the driveway next to the house, to load it up for his vacation. When he was done, somebody had locked the gate, which never gets locked, with a special key. To make the point that you shouldn’t bring your vehicle on the property. Funny and sweet though, when all the other neighbors came down in their pajamas and robes, all working together to unlock the thing.
  3. The sidewalk pave stones. These are a visual of my childhood, and it's comforting that they continue to be there. Although the public works department could do a better job at preserving the 150 year old color schemes in our neighborhood.
  4.  Most of downtown West-Berlin has been fixed up now too (after the East part of town was finished), but a few pockets of post war West-Berlin ugliness remain, including Hardenbergplatz, the big square between the Zoo train station and the Zoo.
  5. Winters? The jury is still out on those.
A few days later, as I finish writing this post, it has gotten significantly colder. I walked the dogs around Schlachtensee, and now I feel tired, just from the extra work my body has to do to stay warm. I hope we get a few more weeks of summer before it gets nasty, and we move into our second winter here. The harsh, long gray Berlin winters – they were one of the main reasons I left.

Or, hey, maybe it won’t get nasty….Last fall was beautiful here, and last winter was really not bad at all. So I am hoping for the perks of global warming. My newfound hometown peace could get significantly disrupted by six months of wet gray subzero horror, combined with grumpy Berliners in SUVs. Stay tuned.

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