Editors’ Note: For reasons known only to himself, Nashvillian Addison DeWitt moved to Germany a year ago. For reasons known only to the editors of this publication, he was asked to file this report.
Several Sundays ago, the police forbade traffic on the streets around my apartment. When they clear the streets in Berlin, it augurs either a riot or a celebration. Luckily, this was a celebration.
The Carnival of World Cultures is a parade/spectacle that’s blossomed after only four years of existence. Based loosely on London’s Notting Hill Carnival, it’s officially a chance for the foreigners in Germany’s once-and-future capital to strut their stuff, a sort of Benetton St. Patrick’s Day. It’s also an excuse for German fun-lovers of all stripes to don outrageous homemade costumes and enjoy a creep-along parade of 100 trucks and wagons, each turned into a colorful work of art, equipped with rib-shaking stereos blasting salsa, techno, hip-hop, and disco.
Unfortunately, I spent most of the day in my apartment in the Kreuzberg district. I was packing, getting ready to move to a new apartment, and Frau Coelle, my cheerful, fortysomething tanning-bed-victim landlady, had promised to drop by in the evening to collect the key. The spacious, turn-of-the-century apartment actually belonged to Frau Coelle’s boyfriend, but it was clear she didn’t like coming to Kreuzberg.
While the Wall was up, Kreuzberg was an out-of-the-way island bumping up against East Berlin. It was Freak Central, home to poor Turkish immigrants and punks living in squalor. The punks were there because Berlin was a subsidized playland that spent (and still spends) $800 million a year on culture, a place where kids from West Germany and elsewhere came to avoid real lives. The Turks were there because Germany brought them there. To supply a labor force for its “economic miracle” of the 1950s-70s, Germany made deals with Italy, Greece, and Turkey that allowed millions of “guest workers” to come do the dirty work. In a development that surprised only the Germans, few of the “guest workers” left.
However, in a reunited Berlin, a city of 3.5 million people and Germany’s primary urban center, Kreuzberg is enjoying a renaissance. The punks now spray graffiti like “Yuppies Out!” and “More Money for Me!”; then they move to rundown neighborhoods in the former East, where the squalor is more genuine. On May 1, the day when punks and communists traditionally gathered on the square beneath my apartment window to condemn capitalism and glare at the cops before getting their heads busted open, things were downright calm this year. The action had moved east; this year’s highlight was an evening riot in Prenzlauer Berg where a mob set up barricades, burned some cars, and shrewdly plundered a computer hardware store.
Back in Kreuzberg, the old buildings are being renovated. The main streets are filling with cafes and ethnic restaurants, and the only people not playing along are fraidy-cat Germans, including Frau Coelle, who believe that rows of Turkish fruit stands are somehow dangerous. It’s downright musical the way the Turkish grocers bark sale prices on red peppers: “Pa-pri-ka! Pa-pri-ka! PAAH-Pree-Kuhh!”
It was hard to stay inside while a crowd of 100,000 was headed for the nearby parade. As I mopped the parquet floor, the local public TV channel broadcast live shots of the spectacle I could hear echoing around the corner. Frau Coelle had no answering machine, and the day wore on with no call from her. I finally ventured outside at 8 p.m. and joined the parade.
My favorite groups were the drum troupes, composed of two or three Brazilian-looking types keeping the beat, then hordes of German girls in cut-off jeans, bikini tops, crazy hats, and all manner of face- and body-painting.
Many young Germans are anti-nationalists; their country’s shameful behavior during the first half of this century makes them hate being German, and they cringe when they hear the national anthem at sporting events. They are desperate to belong to the world, not to Germany, so events such as the Carnival of World Cultures are excuses to adopt a new identity for a day.
Some dress like it’s Halloween. Most wear homemade costumes with the Cultural Garanimal mix-’n’-match philosophy. Everyone’s an honorary foreigner for a day, relieved of the burdens of history. Is that woman supposed to be a Brazilian carnival siren, a Royal Thai concubine, a Star Trek war princess, or a Mayan queen? It doesn’t matter; we’re united in the dance.
I returned to the apartment to wait for Frau Coelle, but she never showed up. She couldn’t get through the traffic blockades. Cursing the transportation system is the German national pastime, and it’s an especially touchy topic in Berlin. More than a billion people use the local public-transit system here each year. It is efficient, cheap, fast, and omnipresent, amazingly so when one considers that the city was split into two separate systems from 1961 until 1990.
For Americans, The Wall was a symbol of Communist intransigence; for Berliners, the Wall was a 40-year pain in the ass that hampered natural movement and isolated neighborhoods like Kreuzberg. It was fitting then, that I began my first Berlin summer the victim of a party blockade.
The two conflicting urges of the summer are the desire to party versus the German desire for orderly transit. With the capital set to move here in a little over a year, Berlin is currently Europe’s biggest construction project. Federal government buildings, massive office developments, museums, apartment complexes, and local train stations are being built or renovated as an astounding display of the political and architectural desire to return Berlin to the ranks of the great world cities. However, a new Berlin is also being reborn in spirit these days, and I’ve had the pleasure of living here and observing both the physical and metaphysical renaissance. In some ways, the experience has reminded me of life in Nashville.
While Berlin is four times older than Nashville, both cities are musical hubsBerlin being the reigning classical-music capital of the world and a major center for, gulp, techno. Both cities are in the throes of major demographic upheaval, as generations of locals face the onslaught of immigration from foreigners and fellow countrymen alike. Most important, both cities are striving for that elusive goal of being somehow bigger and better, a devil’s mixture of futurism, boosterism, and optimism.
Much of the optimism results from the mountain of money being spent to drag the states of the former communist Eastern Germany, which surround Berlin, into the modern Western economy. Since German reunification in 1990, some $300 billion has been spent on East Germany. German Rail has spent approximately $12 billion upgrading its service in the East, assuming, of course, that the world really needed fast, efficient rail access to the chemical refineries of Halle or the auto plants of Zwickau.
One consequence of the spending spree is that Berlin’s entire inner-city rail system was rebuilt in a four-year project, completed in May. German Rail recently restarted its Berlin routes, sending 360 national, regional, and city trains through Berlin’s center. An amazing display of logistics it was not. The system quickly became overloaded, leading to daylong delays, complete cancellations, and a raft of complaints about the bad attitudes of the German Rail workers, who are recruited for their ability to bark “This ticket is not in order. You owe an extra $2.50!” in six languages.
The trains haven’t been running on time lately, and as a result everyone is a bit on edge.
One cause was this summer’s world-famous high-speed train accident. An Inter-City-Express train traveling the length of the country, from Munich in the south toward Hamburg near the northern coast, derailed while zipping past a small town at 120 mph. It slammed into a concrete bridge support, folded into a stack of smashed wagons, brought the bridge down on top of itself, and became a grisly pile of wreckage and bodies.
Seemingly as important for Berliners, the wreck skewed the German Rail company’s daily punctuality records. According to the chart published in one of the city’s seven daily newspapers, only 81 percent of long-distance trains ran on time on the day of the accident. Luckily, 86 percent of such trains coming through Berlin ran on time, and 99 percent of all City Rail commuter trains ran on time that day. Even death can’t stop German Rail from completing its published routes on time.
In all matters of news and culture, we Americans always look for the personalities behind the story, an individual-based philosophy that has ruined both our national politics and Olympic figure-skating broadcasts. On the other hand, Germans get obsessed with the statistics, the numbers, the technical details of how things work or don’t work. It’s an infectious quest for perfection, and if you get suckered into playing along, you can become convinced that this amazing nation of 80 million people has more problems than Haiti. Criticism is the lingua franca of Germany.
For instance, in a front-page column in Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel (The Daily Mirror) earlier this summer, editor-in-chief Walther Stuetzle rapped his countrymen’s knuckles for the perceived inhumanity with which the train catastrophe was being depicted and the orderly way in which grief was being expressed. Federal flags were lowered to half mast. Television correspondents descended on the wreckage site and interviewed experts, psychologists, victims, and officials. Blame for the accident was already being assigned to faulty 1991 wheel technology. In the face of an event so ripe with death and life’s most basic emotions, Germany, and Berlin, had responded with cold logic, Stuetzle complained.
Stuetzle might as well have asked Berliners not to be Berliners. This is a city which endured being Adolf Hitler’s architectural play-toy and genocidal weigh-station, was deservedly leveled 50 years ago by Allied bombs, was divvied up by the four occupying powers, was walled off by the Soviets, and turned into the epicenter of the Cold War. Berlin survived and rebuilt itself one brick at a time. Along the way, its citizens developed a foxhole mentality that left little room for concern about one’s fellow man.
Berlin’s lingering mixture of island-dweller isolation, neighborhood-based provincialism, political polarization, and glad-it-wasn’t-me selfishness is being challenged by the influx of Germans and foreign nationals flocking to a metropolis that’s soon to be at the center of a united Europe. Berliners are aware that their city is becoming “multi-culti” (seemingly the German word for “non-German”). Drunk skinheads respond by beating up the Vietnamese and Africans on commuter trains, but most Berliners embrace the notion of being a world metropolis.
For instance, as an avid soccer fan, I watched with interest recently when Tennis Borussia Berlin, a third-division soccer team, won a playoff match and was subsequently elevated to the high-profile German Second Division. During the game’s live broadcast on local TV, the announcer repeatedly noted the T.B.’s multi-culti identity. The fans provide nonstop samba drumming, and the players have names like Muslum Can (a Berlin-born Turk).
Can Berlin support both a team in the first and second division, wondered the announcer during the postgame show. Can Nashville support both Vanderbilt and The Oilers? The answer was what you’d expect. Of course! We’re going to be a really big city! Indeed, the Berlin city Senate just approved a $400 million plan to renovate and expand the old Olympic Stadium, where U.S. track legend Jesse Owens left Hitler’s Aryan Master Racers bent over and clutching their pure white shorts during the 1936 Olympics.
Actually, there might not be enough warm bodies to fill the stadium’s seats at current rates. Berlin lost 27,000 citizens last year, primarily longtime residents escaping to the suburbs, the sort of relocation those pesky Soviets didn’t allow for half a century. The resultant housing surplus has sent prices plunging, even affecting Frau Coelle, who can’t find anyone willing to pay $1,100 a month for my apartment.
When I informed Frau Coelle that my roommate and I were vacating to find a cheaper place in Prenzlauer Berg, she quickly offered to rent to me again. “What would you consider paying?” she asked. I said we were looking for a $600-$700 place. “We should discuss this,” she said, before driving me to a supermarket so I could return my empty bottles for cash. She could have driven me to a supermarket just around the corner, but she says that she never drives to Turk-infested Kotbusser Tor because it’s not “unser publikum” (“our public”), a PC way of saying she thinks waddling grannies in head scarves will make off with her Mercedes.
There is no such thing as political correctness in Germany. As I watched the World Championships of Women’s Basketball on TV, live from Berlin, the German commentator incorrectly pointed out that U.S. guard Katie Smith is the only white person on the team. Apparently U.S. backup center Kara Wolters had a tan. UT star Chamique Holdsclaw was touted as “Ka-meek.” Ironically, the game between these two longtime adversaries was played in an arena adjacent to one of the best-preserved sections of the Berlin Wall. (It also boasts a great illegal bar, in a ramshackle house nearby, that offers super-cheap Capirinhas.) The writing at center court for the hoops showdown said, “The new Berlin.” It’s a fitting name for a city where the U.S. and Russia once faced off with tanks and ICBMs but now battle it out with big-boned gals.
As serious as the Berliners are about their athletics, the arts are almost as big a deal for them. The German Film Prize awards are the equivalent of the Oscarswithout the humor or the air conditioning. This year’s ceremony was held in massive tents erected in front of the Brandenburg Gate, meaning, yes, that traffic through the gate was blocked for two weeks beforehand. I didn’t read so much about the upcoming awards show as I did about the earnest debate surrounding the closing of the GateBerlin’s best-known symbolfor special occasions.
Hell, the gate’s going to fall over one day soon anyway; tunneling for a brand new subway line deep beneath the Gate has caused ground vibrations that have cracked some of its columns. Should the gate be destroyed, it might be a good idea for Nashville to build an exact replica on Dickerson Road. The city could always use more German country-music tourists.
In case you were wondering, the film awards were swept by The Comedian Harmonists, a charming film depicting the true story of a six-man Berlin singing group who became bigger than The Backstreet Boys in the 1930s but were forced to break up by the Nazis. Three of the members were Jewish and emigrated to the U.S. Just like the Patsy Cline movie Sweet Dreams, this one features a soundtrack of the original recordings, making the actors merely good lip-synchers.
Speaking of good lip sinkers, President Clinton’s visit a few months ago to mark the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift was beamed live to my TV, and I enjoyed watching the large crowds greet my president so warmly. Throughout the two days of non-events and addresses in packed town squares in East German gingerbread villages, Clinton stressed themes of German-American friendship and asked the people, who are currently enduring record postwar levels of unemployment, to consider the lilies. Clinton was a dynamic contrast to ever-panting German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who has achieved obesity of Jerry Springer Show-guest proportions.
After almost 16 years in office, Kohl is up for reelection in September. His three-party governing coalition is currently tied in the polls with the party of his challenger, Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder. Berlin is taking special interest in the results. The federal government will move here officially this time next year, so whoever wins the election will be the first Berlin Chancellor, winning all the new goodies.
Schroeder already set off ripples and titters by taking a tour of the under-construction Chancellor’s office and residence complex and inquiring if there was going to be a children’s bedroom. Schroeder’s fourth wife, a young blond journalist named Doris, has a child from a previous marriage, and the comment was duly analyzed for signs of overconfidence.
Meanwhile, the biggest event of the summer in Berlin will involve a rush of crowds into what is called the Love Parade. The annual ravein which a million scantily-clad European youths do Ecstasy, stand in the Tiergarten waiting for trucks to inch past blaring eternal techno, walk on the grass, pee on the bushes, and defy numerous other signs and ordinanceshas become a strain on the city. It’s also a strain on the ears of those wanting to enjoy what is considered the world’s cutting-edge techno. With approximately 40 parading wagons playing music, that works out to around 25,000 listeners per truck. Where is Summer Lights when you need it?
The celebration always disrupts Berlin’s traffic patterns for hours on end. Still, Berliners won’t complain too hard. Love and culture are pretty good reasons to block the streets these days. Not long ago these streets were the site of battles between youthful gangs of Fascists and Communists, then a standoff between democracy and totalitarianism. Berlin has fought long and hard for the right to party, right-of-ways included.
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