World

Is Berlin the Coolest Cultural Spot in the Western World?

Berlin is a locus where many pasts meet in a vibrant present.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ andersphoto

Confronting the national past—an important and ongoing exercise for any nation—is especially fraught for a country like Germany, whose recent pasts perhaps more urgently beg for confrontation than most. And so it is that Germany is known for its formalized memorialization of these regretted pasts, in the form of museums, monuments, exhibitions and tours. (One current debate in Berlin centers on whether Tempelhof Field, a former Nazi airport-turned-park, should remain undeveloped or not.)

But contemporary Berlin is also the hyper-current mecca of contemporary European (some might say Western) arts and culture. Creative and international, the city is host to young people from all over the world. Berlin, both representative of Germany and a bubble apart from its less cosmopolitan surroundings, is a locus where many pasts meet in a vibrant present to develop an ever-changing and as-yet-unknown future.

I feel it’s important to say, first off, that Berliners aren’t nearly as cold as they would have you believe. It’s almost as if they want to sabotage one another—or perhaps manage expectations. I was warned by more than one person not to expect to get hit on at a bar, which sounded okay to me, but I can imagine that a general culture of keeping-to-oneself would alienate with time. Apparently knowing your Kant does not a mixer make. Overt come-ons aside, my second night in Berlin I was approached by a group of three Germans who were extremely hospitable and inclusive, and ended up being my go-to-friends throughout my one-month stay.

Sure, on the whole you may be confounded as to whether you’re passionately connecting at a party, being psychoanalyzed, or entering into a debate on NSA surveillance (even before we discovered Angela Merkel’s phones were tapped, Berliners were all-NSA-all-the-time) but at least you know their smiles aren’t shit-eating fakery. I found Berliners to be friendly, if generally stoic, formal and a bit serious. But what’s wrong with serious? There’s something nice about a little cold reserve sometimes.

Nowhere have I seen such cutting-edge haircuts (except maybe in Brooklyn) as in Berlin, from the beautiful to the confusing. Neighborhoods Kreuzberg and Neukölln (or “Kreuzkölln,” a phrase only to be used if you want to sound like a Lonely Planet-toting American) are swarming with too-short and spiky bangs, androgynous bobs and bowls, more white dreadlocks than I’ve ever laid eyes on, mohawks and faux-hawks of varying heights and stamina, and undercuts galore.

Over the last few years, the German left has been troubled, not knowing what to do with little change since the global fiscal crisis. The moderates are in flux as well, as the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD in German) and Merkel collaborate. There’s some talk of a broader left coalition forming in the next few years, led by someone charismatic like Hannelore Kraft (leader of the SPD in North Rhine-Westphalia and the current Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia), but who knows. Meanwhile, the student or young intellectual left of Berlin is reading Adorno aesthetic theory and criticizing contemporary art and architecture for the potential emancipation of humankind and the like. With all the artists/creators in Berlin, it’s no wonder. A friend of mine believes that Berlin artists could have the potential to create a promising movement, though he emphasizes the need to consider, in addition to aesthetics, the very real material oppression and power structures of the present.

The spectrum of ethnic identities that compose Berlin is impossible to ignore. “Guest-worker” (Gastarbeiter), a term most often referring to people of Turkish or Arab descent, is often anachronistically used to describe the darker-complexioned residents of Berlin whose parents, even grandparents, may have been living in West Berlin (/Germany) since they  immigrated in the ‘60s or ‘70s as part of a formal guest worker program that was designed to boost the economy. (East Berlin/Germany had its own program, which resulted in large Vietnamese and Korean populations, among others.) Asked specifically about immigration or identity-based tensions, Berliners would gently inform me that we were not in America anymore, “or especially New York—with your sense of being an immigrant country. Anyone can be American.” Of course, this isn't true.

But tabling for a moment America’s need to confront violently racialized national pasts and our own debate about immigration policies, the German conception of German-ness is markedly different from the American view of what makes an American, not to mention the radically different religious and ethnic demographics of the two countries—no matter how our own professed ideals of equality consistently fall short. Though early ‘00s reforms in nationality law made it somewhat easier to obtain citizenship, it’s still tough, and often it require renouncing one’s former citizenship. German citizenship is based primarily on the principle of jus sanguinis, right of blood.

Der Spiegel reporter Özlem Gezer describes growing up Turkish in Germany, a no-man’s land of identity where she was never quite German, the only physical place she might call home. Her Turkishness was played up even by well-meaning Germans, quick to assume the difference inherent in “multiculturalism” without the presumed equality of belonging. As in America, “there are two types of immigrants,” Gezer writes, “model immigrants and problem immigrants.” But assimilation there sits between a rock and a hard place, when no matter what you do, you’re considered a permanent guest. “The Germans have Turkified our children, not us,” Gezer’s father observed.

Parallels are sometimes drawn between the experience of Turks and Arabs in contemporary Germany and that of Jews historically. While useful for marking a sense of being German—or decidedly not—that relies on historical ideas of purity, equations of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and racism that ignore the particularities of the time and experience of the group in question only oversimplify the vexed and continuing history of German identity-making.

Though the culture of a post-WW II commitment to confront this history seems, at least in part, to have bred some bitterness and frustration among contemporary Germans, grappling with the past need not, does not, preclude embracing the über-current in Berlin. Tech, design, startup, and venture capitalist are words one hears whispered through the nippy Germanic air. Berlin has been called the “next Silicon Valley” and was the chosen home for the launch of SoundCloud and ResearchGate, among other ventures. Coworking spaces like betahaus, Agora collective and the WYE create an environment of working by the Google-model, and hip cafes like St. Oberholz are known to host those starting up all the startups.

But does Berlin’s development as a creative capital mean a transition from cheap artist’s oasis to a more tech-friendly vision of progress? Of course it’s not a simple matter of artists vs. venture capitalists. But Berlin, a city that’s experienced so much constriction, is now in a period of expansion. Expression and creativity are palpable—where and how they will be channeled is the question in flux.

Two examples of the vibrant expansion are on offer in monthly installments: supper club Fortuna'sFeast and the storytelling venue Club Motte, Berlin’s version of NYC’s the Moth. In Berlin, the name plays on the popular corner-store drink Club Matte, a soda-fied version of the caffeinated South American tea, often made into a cocktail called Vodka Matte. Speaking of cocktails, Moscow Mules are big in Berlin these days, and old-school “classic cocktail” culture in general is catching on, despite Berliners’ continued allegiance to beer. And speaking of beer, Berliners are not used to paying the 7 euros “mixology” demands. Speaking of alcohol in general, I never got used to the absence of open-container laws, and reveled in once seeing, at 9:30am on a weekday, a smartly dressed woman chain-smoking and sipping a Pilsner while waiting for the U-bahn.

Which leads me to my next point. Berliners have way cooler relationships with their dogs than Americans do. I’d been vaguely aware of this fact after less than a week, but the realization rose to full consciousness the day I saw a girl my age (mid-20s and hiply dressed with that particular Berliner air of messy fashionable-from-birth nonchalance) get into the subway with her dog (little, squat, unobtrusive) following behind. I didn’t notice him at first, no leash in sight—their interactions so human, so unburdened by ownership. She got on looking bored and sat down. The dog lay down in the middle of the floor, not quite close enough to be “at her feet” but not far away enough to be a stranger. The girl broke their mutual non-acknowledgment upon reaching their stop with a nod to her four-legged friend. They interacted, in other words, like close human friends: without ceremony or condescension.

I realized Berliners have some relational wisdom we Americans don’t possess when it comes to dogs—dare I say with pets, or even animals generally. I don’t know what foundational German temperament is responsible for this particular respect for animals, but it seems related to all the vegan meats I saw. Berlin is a vegan’s paradise. I’m not sure how long this has been true; it’s probably fairly recent and runs parallel to the globalized free-range, grass-fed, juice-conscious trends of the world’s upper classes.

It’s particularly interesting to note how veganism adapts to and infiltrates such a meat-centric culture as Germany’s. For instance, the pillar of cheap Berlin street food, currywurst: pork sausage with ketchup and curry powder (a surprisingly delicious combination) now includes a vegan option. The phenomenon is particular to specific populations—poor Berliners are not munching vegan-wurst. But it speaks to this larger globalized shift that the sausage aisle at my local BioCompany (organic) food store offered as many, if not more, vegan sausages as meat sausages. It took me 10 minutes to decide which veggie-leberwurst to try. It wasn’t bad.

This also may run parallel to a broader European consideration of environmental issues. For instance, this month a referendum on the recommunalization of the energy supply in Berlin, created by citizens' initiative "New energy for Berlin,” got an overwhelming majority of voting Berliners’ favor, though not enough of a voter turnout for the measure to be passed.

On a Monday morning S-bahn ride, one might see six-pack-toting partygoers returning from or going to Berghain (the most well-known club of all clubs) rubbing shoulders with business-suited commuters heading for work. If New York is the city that never sleeps, Berlin must surely be the city that sleeps at irregular intervals. I’ve done no studies and claim no expert knowledge, but it seems to me that the party hours kept in Berlin (an unremarkable night lasting easily until 7, 8am) simply require a spectrum and supply of drugs less widely found among New York’s parallel young public—especially MDMA and cocaine—and therefore require also a more open and various drug culture. I may be naïve, or running with the wrong crowds (or not running enough).

Berghain, named after its location near the border between Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, was generally regarded since its opening in 2004 as the world capital of techno. Outside the renovated old power plant, Sven, Berghain’s face-tattooed bouncer, and his minions curate the crowd to create a party they’d want to attend (much has been made of this illusive selection process, even an app). Lines snaking around the surrounding industrial yard-space are consistently two to three hours long on weekend nights. What I found most interesting about Berlin clubbing is that weekend nights are not the only—not even necessarily the best—time to go out. It’s said that Berghain (often open from Friday night through till Tuesday) is best visited on a Sunday afternoon, when the weekend party is winding down and a chiller, more often music-centered vibe continuing on. In other words, it’s when you’re least likely to be bombarded with tourists.

Going out is different in Berlin, and the world was bound to pick up on it. The party tourism the city experiences today—people coming especially from all over Western Europe, Israel, South and North America and elsewhere—is a somewhat recent development, hitting peak in only the last few years and already transforming the scene, according to local friends. There are other clubs/bars besides Berghain/Panorama Bar, of course (to name a few: WaterGate, Salon Zur Wilden Renate, Kater Holzig, Trust, and the tiny perma-packed King Size) and techno, followed by house, mostly still reigns supreme (though I experienced some good hip-hop nights at Cookies and Bi-nuu, and reggae/dancehall at YAAM). Sex clubs like KitKat, with a decidedly gay as well as heterosexual pull, or the less-touristed Insomnia are visited by those looking to observe or indulge, though the general Berlin party-vibe discourages a desire to experience without participatory contribution. Generally, Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain have been the main areas to go out.

Wedding, one of the most ethnically diverse districts, alongside Kreuzberg, and the “big mouth and big heart” (schnauze mit herz) of the Berlin working class, is on the rise, with clubs like Stattbad and Humboldthain and up-and-coming art spaces. Wedding was for the most part unaffected by the boom and gentrification of the 1990s, unlike places like Prenzlauer Berg, which transformed from a ‘90s bohemian center to a gentrified young-family haven.

I was in Berlin during the second annual Berlin Art Week, held mostly around Mitte’s Auguststrasse gallery district but throughout the city. It’s a chance for contemporary artists to show their stuff, an attempt to grow the Berlin artistic scene into an international buying market, and an excuse to schmooze and drink beer. Open yearround, but with special hours during Art Week, the Boros Collection was particularly interesting to me for its unique space and excellent guided tours. It’s a private collection of contemporary art displayed in a converted bunker in downtown Berlin. The unique space, originally constructed as a civilian air-raid shelter during WW II, later used as GDR fruit and vegetable storage in the '50s and a hardcore club in the '90s, houses 100 of the 700-plus mixed media pieces owned by the private German collector Christian Boros, who lives in a modernist penthouse built atop the bunker. The translation of the now-gallery space over time, a manifestation of the many layers of German history since the war, is mirrored by specific art pieces that echo and interrogate questions of continuity, time’s passage, authenticity and perception.

“Women from East Berlin put their bras on first before their underwear,” a friend noted, describing a morning-after ritual observation. “To them nudity is just way less of a big deal than it is for West Berliners. I mean, they didn’t have TV growing up, what else were they going to do but have sex all the time?” Culled from 20-plus years of experience sleeping around Berlin, these observations of my (West) German friend, 35, are offered here less as evidence of an East-West divide on questions of sexuality than as evidence of the interesting ways in which 25- to 35-year-olds address and conceive of the wall’s lingering psychological and cultural effects.

“I like East Germans,” a different West German friend, 23, said of his East German boyfriend. He said it playfully, but followed with detail: “They’re more laid-back. I mean, their families had to adjust to this incredible upheaval and change. Life as they knew it was over. They just see things as more go-with-the-flow, whereas for West Germans, nothing really drastic changed day-to-day.”

Lucy McKeon is a writer based in New York City; lucymckeon.com