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Is Berlin the Coolest Cultural Spot in the Western World?

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

Photo Credit: 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.

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