Tuesday, 21 April 2009
The bear is a fitting symbol of Berlin - gruff, endlessly adaptable, forceful, fiercely protective of its young, able to endure times that would spell doom to a lesser species and, at once, loveable and frightening in some of its aspects.
With a history that has disproportionately shaped Europe's destiny - for both good and ill - Berlin today is a galvanic force in German, European and world affairs, wielding great influence in the realms of science, technology, commerce, architecture and the arts. The 'new world order' - however you may wish to define it - has a well-tuned, roaring outpost here.
Brassy, bold and beautiful in its austerity, Berlin is a sexy temptress that will ensnare you with her infinite riches; she's a creative genius that will amaze you with ideas and trends uniquely her own; she's a hotbed of hedonism, feasting passionately on the bountiful buffet of life; and, above all, she's a clever chameleon, endlessly adaptable and thriving on change, almost pursuing it like a drug. Berlin is all that and then some to the people who live here and those ready to make the journey to the depths of her past, present and future.
Berlin functions on a welcoming and exquisitely human scale. It's a city in which you can embrace and be embraced, relish and revel in its abundant charms and variety with total abandon, and feel energized in ways that you'll feel in few other world-class cities. A simple 'Wie geht's?' (how are you?) uttered in any pub or street-side café may well unleash a torrent of opinions and perceptions in perfect English. And, boy, do Berliners have their opinions! It's no exaggeration to say that your average cabbie can hold forth respectably on any subject from the best sausage in the city, through the meanderings of Nietzsche, to the likely outcome of elections anywhere in the world - Berliners are that broadly learned and curious about the world and its people.
Since reunification, Berlin has undergone a massive evolution in how it presents and regards itself. Gone is its self-perception as a beleaguered and schizoid city existing beneath the ominous presence of the Wall. What Berlin is now becoming is surprising, innovative and stunning - even by its own standards. The last vestiges of communism have been detonated, rebuilt, or at least received cheerier paint. All that's worth salvaging has been lovingly and expensively restored while some of the world's greatest new architecture jostles for position with the classical splendour of old Berlin.
Your own 'movie' of time spent in Berlin - whether you're indulging your appetites, drinking in culture by the bucketful, or exploring pathways, parks and forests within the city - will most likely star a huge international cast, thronging with gusto into the streets. And if you don't party hearty, you just don't belong in Berlin! The sheer exuberance of the city sweeps you along with its throbbing beat and hurls you - via one of the best transport systems in the world - into its pulsing club life, vibrant neighbourhoods, dining and arts scenes and close encounters with some of the greatest historical sights in all of Europe.
Your time in the city will be spent rubbing shoulders with influence peddlers and politicos from every corner of the planet, from government courtiers to fashion couturiers and the cultural illuminati. Berlin is one of their primary playgrounds and you'll find them - bedecked in their Armani and Versace - roaming the lobbies of corporate temples, the sumptuous halls of baroque opera houses and at tables in the city's exquisite gourmet shrines. 'Gourmet shrines, ' you say, incredulously? Yup, it's true. Dining in Berlin is reaching previously unscaled heights. Sure, you can still grab a quick curbside Currywurst (curried sausage), but you'll also be increasingly snared by the tempting aromas of the Far and Middle East, the Americas and the dining dynasties of France and Italy.
Whatever memories remain in the Berlin psyche from days of the 'Wall' are losing their biting edge and fading into forgettable pastels. Yesterday's dour correspondent for Pravda now runs an ad agency with major contracts from Sony and Disney. A browbeaten teacher of the official communist line is now a real estate tycoon with a mobile phone screwed to her ear and a lovely villa in Capri, thank you very much! The teenage daughters of immigrant Anatolian shepherds have shirked their headscarves, now opting to sheathe their legs in French silk. The headlong creative rush of this new Berlin wastes scant time in dwelling on the past.
And if there's a single earmark of the Berlin mentality - past and present - it would have to be that of tolerance. Some may not like what you do, how you look or what you eat, but most Berliners follow the motto of Frederick the Great: Jeder nach seiner Façon, which loosely translates as 'live and let live'. It's no coincidence that one in every 7.5 Berlin residents is an immigrant, or that one of Europe's liveliest gay and lesbian scenes flourishes here.
All these factors make Berlin a most 'un-German' city; one largely free of the rigid social structure so entrenched elsewhere in the country. A trendsetter by nature and necessity, Berlin feeds on fledgling moods, trends and appetites, and processes them into the new Zeitgeist, which is then exported to the rest of the country and beyond. The world has always looked to Berlin - sometimes in fascination, sometimes in horror and sometimes even in deep sympathy. At once repellent and seductive, light-hearted and brooding, Berlin continues to be a city of exhilarating extremes.
Travelling to Berlin demands that you abandon yourself to its pleasures and forget about how you might behave at home. This is a larger-than-life city with a past, a present and a future, and a creative and youthful vibe that will have you shouting Ich bin ein Berliner! So join in and unleash your inner omnivore. Berlin is indeed a bear, but it's one that's learned how to dance and sing, and, above all else, roar!