Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Final Thoughts on Berlin: I'm Still Waiting for the Magic, Man

"My month in Berlin has been quite eye-opening. I'm still processing everything. I think it's a very cool city, but I haven't figured out how I feel about it on a personal level yet. I suppose I still have three and a half days to stumble upon that magic moment that makes me fall head over heels for a city."

I was surprised by the declaration I made on Sunday to Frederik, a Berliner who has spent most of the last seven years living in London and New York. Not because it wasn't true. It was my very own gospel truth at that moment. Up until that very same moment, though, I hadn't been able to pinpoint the reason why, despite my appreciation for Berlin as a city, it hadn't quite moved me. It left my heart standing still and me wanting so much more.

Frederik concurred: "As much as I like Berlin, I'm still waiting for that head-over-heels feeling there myself."

I'd been talking as much about the people in the city as I had been about the city itself, but why risk insulting someone who might take a too-honest assessment of Berliners personally? I continued my city-centric train of thought, metaphorically linking it to the sort of people I'd met here without naming nationalities. "Berlin is like that really handsome and distant lover. You admire him and want to get close to him. But he just won't let you. As much as I appreciate this city, I will be sort of happy to leave it."

My next magic moment will probably have to wait. Berlin could still surprise me, but I'm not expecting it to -- which, come to think of it, is the perfect mental state to bring about a magic moment. They happen when you're thinking about something else entirely, when you're walking through the train station in Florence, en route to Pisa early in the morning after a wild night out, looking like hell but not really caring because who the devil are you going to run into here? Then suddenly, bang! There it is, your magic moment, in the form of your ex-boyfriend and his current boyfriend, who are approaching you from across the crowded terminal. (This scenario, by the way, is based on a true story.)

A magic moment isn't something you knowingly bring about or for which you set the scene. It comes out of nowhere. It can start with a thrilling meal, a gorgeous view, a random feeling of contentment while walking down the street or sitting in a park. More likely than not, though, it involves another person. It could be a particularly fantastic night out with friends, an awesome date, a killer kiss, or just a spontaneous conversation with a random stranger on a sidewalk. The closest I've come to having one in Berlin was the night I met a ridiculously nice guy who recognized me from my blog at GMF two Sundays ago.

He wasn't German -- of course. I can't imagine any German approaching a complete stranger to tell him they like his work. That's the sort of thing an American would do. "Don't talk to strangers" our parents continuously warn us when we're kids, only to have us grow up and do the opposite. I don't know what German parents teach their kids, but whatever it is, it meant that I came all the way to Berlin to have my near-magic moment with a fellow American!

I've seen this coming for a while now. Several weeks ago, Luke, an Australian who has lived in Berlin for a year and a half, commented that he loves everything about Berlin except the people. I understood what he meant because I'd had the same experience in Buenos Aires, but it was still too soon for me to draw any conclusions of my own regarding the people in Berlin. Now, less than two days before my departure from here, I get what Luke meant as it applies to Berlin, too.

That's not to say that I completely agree with him. I would never want to insinuate that I don't like Germans. I'll always have a soft spot for them. Not just because my first boyfriend (the one I ran into in Florence) was German, but also because I've met so many great ones outside of Germany, whether they were on holiday or living abroad. But then, people tend to be more fun and outgoing on holiday, and with any country, the people who move outside of it, might be expected to be a bit more daring and individualistic, not necessarily typical of the people in the country they left behind.

In Berlin, once engaged, I found the people to be intelligent, certainly not shallow, though sometimes given to a too-literal interpretation and reaction to everything. (If English were the national language here, the national motto probably would be "It is what it is.") But conversations with them don't happen effortlessly. You'd better work, or at least make the first move. I often found myself missing the easygoing congeniality of my beloved Australians, who will start chatting with the perfect stranger next to them just because they're both there. Aussies prove that a little charm and charisma can go a long long way. This is the stuff that magic moments are made of.

I always seemed to be having conversations with the same dynamic in Berlin (even with non-German expats, who often seemed to adopt key personality traits of their adopted fellow countrymen), ones in which I felt like a comedian whose routine was bombing badly. If anyone laughed, they did so without smiling. I've seen so few people smiling over the course of the last four weeks and one day. I often got the distinct impression while chatting to Berlin locals -- like the two 27-year-old girlfriends of my friend from Bangkok who was in town last weekend -- that if I were to suddenly vanish, they'd shrug and say, "Good riddance."

Maybe the aloofness is just a Teutonic pose, or maybe I'm not as entertaining as I like to think I am. But this morning a comment made to me by the Director of Communications of Hotel de Rome, a Turkish woman who has lived in Berlin all of her life, made me rethink my by-then-ruling it's-not-them-it's-me assumption. In talking about Berlin winters and how much of the city disappears indoors rarely venturing out socially until the first blush of spring, she said that this sort of isolationism is probably the "true German way." That explained so much.

It's not that people are unfriendly in Berlin. They're happy to help -- if you're willing to ask for it. I spent two and a half weeks getting lost while wandering around town and staring at my map before someone actually approached me and offered assistance without my having to seek it out. In contrast, in a city like Dublin, people will come to your aid simply because you have a slightly confused expression on your face.

My Berlin landlord, who was born in L.A. but has lived most of his years abroad, the last 15 of them in Berlin, tried to explain the German mentality to me last week. He said that they are very reserved people, careful about not overstepping their self-imposed social boundaries. He offered an example: If you crash your bike in Berlin, the Germans won't run over to assist you. They'll step aside and give you room to get up on your own.

Perhaps that's a bit of a harsh analogy of the German psyche, but it did explain why I felt more isolated here than I did in a city like Bangkok, where far less English is spoken. Normally, I don't depend on the kindness of strangers to fall for a city. For years, I loved Buenos Aires, though I never really took to porteños as a whole. I'm a loner with borderline reclusive tendencies. I'm better off alone. I can make my own fun.

But it's not so easy in Berlin, a city that practically forces you to be social in the summertime. Since most apartments here do not have AC, if you don't want to boil, you have to keep your window open, letting in the noise, the cigarette smoke and the conversations of your neighbors. In a sense, you're not living alone but with all of the people in the apartments around yours, most of whom you might never actually see if you're staying for just one month. And if you do see them, chances are there'll be nothing more than a quick smile and a "Hallo" exchange, which would suit me just fine in any other city, but in Berlin, it made me resent their presence in my apartment even more.

Of course, you can always close the windows and head out to the cooler streets, which is what a Berlin-bred friend suggested I do when I complained about my deep sleepless nights in heat. You can enjoy quiet evenings at home in the apartment that you paid $1,250 a month for in another city. Go out in Berlin! Eat, drink and be social!

On the sidewalk outside that little bar down the street, you'll find slight relief from the heat and lots of people standing around, smoking and talking amongst themselves but rarely, it seems, to strangers. You can admire all of the tall, beautiful men (Berlin has a surplus of those, especially in McFit, my gym, at any given hour), eat yummy Vietnamese food, enjoy a fine glass of Riesling, maybe even have a random conversation with a German that you'd never met before. But be prepared to start the small talk.

Personally, I'd rather be sitting alone at a table for two in a Roman trattoria, eating too much farfalle al salmone, which is just what I hope to be doing two weeks from now.

Berlin, it's been great reconnecting with you. I'm sure we'll meet again. But right now, I'm ready for some up-in-my-face Italian hospitality in the eternal city where people smile, get passionate and do crazy things, and where little magic moments seem to happen every day.
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