I have this strange relationship with Berlin because there is some history between us and it goes back a long time. Growing up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, West Berlin was the window to the normal world. Everybody knew it. The ruling communist party was 'the best' of course and they did not want you thinking otherwise, which is why U-Bahn trains venturing temporarily into the west end of the city had steel plates welded on the windows so the passengers couldn’t see how the other side was booming.
Life can go astray on a short notice, really out of control, and the way down is quick, and this is how you can end up riding a train with its windows welded shut.
YOLO, as the kids say these days (you only live once), so the advice is this - Achtung Baby!
I knew two Berlins, the somber east and the booming west, the showcase of cold war propaganda coming from the western media.
“Whatever best you got, multiply it by 10 and display to the guys in the east,” was the motto. “Show them how miserable they really are.”
Interestingly, Berlin went through a slump after the unification of Germany. Sure the government functions moved in here in full swing, but these guys don’t make money – they cost money.
“It was quite bad until about 2006,” the taxi driver in a cream colored Mercedes said to me. “It has been getting better ever since, high tech and banking moving in here mostly. And the law firms of course,” he looked at me “it used to be that to do business you shook the other guys’ hand and went for it, but not anymore.”
“Are you a Berliner?” I asked. “All my life,” he said, “all 62 years.”
“JFK said that too,” I remembered.
"Ich bin ein Berliner," the driver nodded his head and he was a serious man now.
I was in Berlin for a few days recently, attending a conference and staying not far from the famous Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point to the East that was featured in more movies than I care to remember. In Elton John’s “Nikita” song too, just watch the video, its very 80’s but it brings the point home.
The hotel’s name was Titanic, which is a strange name - not exactly a success story that you would want to put in bright lights above your establishment.
Then it occurred to me – the Germans are always busy building an empire. Ein, zwei, ein, zwei, building an empire. Then they start a war and the whole adventure ends up in a big blow up, and after they start again. Ein, zwei, ein, zwei, building an empire. So maybe the Titanic word has different vibe in their minds, like sinking is a part of life.
I walked the Kurfürstendamm on Saturday night and I thought – “where is everybody?” I was hoping that Netflix had something good on that evening, otherwise this was depressing.
In contrast, walk around Yonge street in the downtown core of my second home, Toronto, and you will see vibrant and intoxicating nightlife at it’s best.
In my view Berlin is still a wounded bird, not fit to fly and it may never be.
Sad story, this.
Still, being here has some appeal to me. It brings up memories from my youth, really better then the real experience.
At Checkpoint Charlie they’re building a condo now, it will be called “Charlie Living”. Kind of neat.
And I want to say this - I don’t believe that humans can learn intellectually, I read about this concept, just never saw it happen in the real life. We learn by experience, and the experience that shapes us is impossible to shake.
The Berliners have their own, and maybe this is why the city seems strange to me.
The memory of it is better than the real thing. How weird is that?
Tom Kubiak is the author of The Traveler