Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Berlin: A Second Opinion

What does it take for a city to improve its standing in one's humble opinion? Great weather helps. The first time I visited Berlin, in November of 1995, it was the dead of autumn, and every time I stepped outside of my drafty budget hotel room to explore my West Berlin neighborhood, one of many in that part of the capital that was populated by grim, characterless Bauhaus-style constructions, it was a crap shoot whether I'd come back without frostbite. Gray skies, blustery wind and a constant drizzly haze make for very gloomy days indeed. Brrr!

I've been told by several people during my second Berlin visit that the wintry gloom generally lasts for eight months, so everyone had better enjoy the blue skies and sunny days while they can. For a guy whose timing has never been impeccable, I probably couldn't have picked a better moment to arrive in Berlin than the middle of July. (Insert smiley sunshine face here.)

It almost doesn't matter that none of the apartments in the city have AC, making sleeping through the night a challenge indeed (a big chill indoors that requires at least one layer of blankets is the best sleeping pill). A sky-blue backdrop makes everything in the foreground appear twice as gorgeous, especially when you're running along the Spree, taking in scenery that already would look beautiful without a stitch of make up.

And then there's the food. I was expecting to gain a few pounds (most of it in cholesterol) by overindulging in German cuisine or to lose a few trying to avoid it. Who knew there'd be so many restaurants serving foreign cuisine that's not only palatable but genuinely remarkable? It makes every meal a culinary adventure. So far my favorite restaurant is Good Morning Vietnam on Alte Schönhauser Straße, which is near Rosa Luxemberg Platz, down the block from my rental apartment. I could eat the curry sauce there as soup! It's the best Vietnamese food I've had since my last supper at Green Bamboo in Buenos Aires.

Other noticeable improvements: 1.) My location. The Mitte neighborhood in East Berlin where I'm staying is far more picturesque than my previous West Berlin stomping ground near the Zoologischer Garten U-Bahn station. 2.) The guys, handsomer and taller than I remember them being 18 years ago, treat me like gold (although I don't agree, I'll never tire of being called "sexy"). 3.) At my current age, cracking the nightlife code is no longer a high priority, so it's okay for Berlin to take nights off from impressing me.

It's okay that I haven't found any packed bars in which to mingle with people on off nights, or that if you're a gay man who loves the nightlife and has got to boogie, you can pretty much do it only on weekends, at GMF on Sunday nights, and at Chantal's House of Shame or Monster Ronson's on Thursdays, and you have to wait until well after midnight. I'd much rather go to bed around 11 and be up a few hours after the crack of dawn (which is still arriving around 4.30am daily) for a run along the Spree anyway.

Jogging past the lush foliage and natural beauty in the part of the river that's adjacent to the Tiergarten, I'm reminded of Germany's status as a green country (so said my new friend Alex). I applaud the environmental awareness and admire that people here aren't slaves to modern technology, but I do miss my AC and my microwave oven.

Meanwhile, my walks -- and runs -- around the city would be a lot more enjoyable if aggressive bicycle riders who think they always have the right of way (and considering that the bike lanes on the sidewalks are as big as the spaces allotted to pedestrians, that just might be the case) weren't constantly threatening my well-being while testing my patience and my reflexes. The emphasis on using bikes to get around cuts down on traffic and automobile pollution, but couldn't the city commuters on two wheels be a little nicer?

Congeniality, though, does not appear to be a major aspiration around here. (And let me begin this rant by stressing that I'm talking about Germans in Berlin, not Germans in general. My first love was German, so I'll always be a little protective of Germans in general.) The other day I was hanging out with Luke, an Australian expat from Sydney who has lived in Berlin for one and a half years, and when he described his feelings about the city, he summed them up thusly:

"I love Berlin except for the people in it."

I couldn't believe my eyes (Luke was 27 and looked like he was going on 19) or my ears. That's the exact same thing I've been saying for years about Buenos Aires, and although I hadn't come to the same conclusion in Berlin, I could see his point. Berliners are nowhere near as challenging as porteños in Buenos Aires, but over the course of the past nine days, I've found myself thinking that their general disposition could use some work, especially when it comes to tourists.

Considering that I'm a visitor in their city, it's hard for me to understand why they're constantly sneering about tourists in my presence. Why would it matter to me whether the people walking by me on any given straße in Mitte are from Berlin or elsewhere, if I'm not actually interacting with them? I try to avoid any part of any town where tourists tend to congregate en masse, but if I walk into a crowded bar that serves good drinks and plays good music, it hardly matters to me whether most of the people on the inside are Berliners, expats or visitors. Just pour me another Pilsner and let's get on with it.

Casual xenophobia rears its head constantly here. Comment about being hot inside your gym or missing the ability to nuke a frozen meal for dinner, and you're likely to hear something along the lines of "You're so American," or "This is Berlin, not the U.S.," as if the United States is the only country that indulges in such creature comforts. Not that there's anything wrong with being "so American," but I haven't even lived in the U.S. for seven years, I keep reminding them. Not one apartment I've had in all that time has been without AC or a microwave oven. So how exactly are those particular luxuries American?

East Berlin architecture: a dichotomy of ornate and functional, the latter of which, collectively, exudes a severe and dramatic elegance that makes it as much of a spectacle as the former.
Luke and I might be alone in our not-so-glowing assessment of Berliners. Clearly they're in love with themselves -- a quality they share with porteños, Australians and Americans -- and apparently, my friend Marco couldn't agree more with their positive self-image. Last night, he laid out all of his complaints about Berlin -- It's too hot. Northern Europe isn't supposed to be so hot. The buildings aren't old enough. I can see this kind of architecture anywhere in Europe. There's no culture. I haven't been to a museum, but culture is in the people you meet, and there's nowhere to go on a Tuesday night -- so when he was asked what he likes most about Berlin by a stranger in The Sharon Stonewall Bar, I was floored by his response.

"The culture and the people."

I wondered if he had been meeting an entirely different species here? We had a little bit of back and forth, during which he got me to reconsider my improved impression of Berlin. It's funny how all it takes is just one negative review -- of a film you enjoyed, of an album you love, of your own work -- to make you doubt it. It seems cities are no different.

(On a somewhat unrelated note, Marco also suggested that a museum is a museum is a museum. "You can see the same art in all of them," he said -- a curious pronouncement, especially coming from someone who is an artist. Yes, you can find another "San Sebastian" pretty much everywhere (and I did, in virtually every room, in Gemäldegalerie in Berlin), but does that mean da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" in the Louvre in Paris and his "The Last Supper" in Santa Maria delle Grazia in Milan, Picasso's "Blue Period" paintings in the Picasso Museum in Paris, Suerat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" in the Art Institute of Chicago, Michelangelo's frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City and his "David" in Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, and the bust of Nefertiti and the breathtaking statue of Helios the Greek sun god, left, down the hall from her in the Neues Museum in Berlin -- all of which I've had the privilege of viewing in person -- do nothing to distinguish the institutions or cities that house them?)

I understood Marco's complaints, but I didn't share them. In the end, we agreed to disagree. I can handle warm evenings tossing and turning in bed and locals sneering at tourists and my hopeless American-ness, as long as I have gorgeous runs along the Spree, my next meal at Good Morning Vietnam to look forward to and plenty of sunshine to light up my life here.
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