I got an e-mail yesterday from a friend who read my post on that ridiculous New York Times story, and he had an interesting point:
“Figured the Times piece would detonate you. Would you say it was accurate as of, say, early 90s, but the economic collapse has made it outdated? Or was it ever true? Certainly Berlin has had that image since, say, a few years before the U2 Zoo album. Seems time for a counter-hype travel article puncturing the outdated image yet celebrating what, if anything, is there to enjoy.”
And he’s right. Much as I don’t enjoy living here any more, I do have an affection for Berlin, and newcomers and visitors often take my famous walking tour of the central city, which starts at my house and ends up two blocks away at Berti Brecht’s grave, if they last that long. In fact, that’s what I was doing yesterday when this guy’s e-mail came. When I put myself in the mind of someone who’s seeing this city for the first time, I know there are a lot of things I’d recommend they do.
So for this proposed counter-hype story, some notes:
Stop ringing the hip! edgy! Berlin! bell. Sorry, it was like that ten or more years ago, but the coming of the government in 2000 and the attendant real-estate hype all but killed that Berlin. It used to be possible to set up an illegal club in some disused space, sell beer out of iced tin tubs, with a sound system and some minimal lighting, maybe some odd art from one of your friends, and have a little party a couple of times a week, the location spreading among the cognoscenti by word of mouth. But the disused spaces became objects of speculation and as the speculators displaced not only the club spaces, but the working spaces and living spaces for artists, those artists and the hangers-on and scenemakers moved on. I’m absolutely positive there are still illegal clubs, and little scenes here and there, but nothing like there were in the mid-90s and earlier. And, of course, there’s the annoying fact that if you write about them in the media they get busted.
Instead, consider that just your normal everyday bar scene seems weird enough for the American readership, and that some of the most “authentic” experiences can be had in places hipsters either don’t notice or take for granted. Stories are everywhere. Try to find some of them out. For instance, there’s a rather nondescript restaurant/bar towards the top of Friedrichstr. I’ve walked past for years, the Bärenklause, I think it’s called. Just the other day, I found out it was a secret meeting-place for a bunch of anti-Nazi workers who passed on information to the Allies during the war. The place up on the corner by my place, Honigmond, was a gathering-place for dissidents in the DDR. And the Kellerrestaurant am Brecht-Haus a couple of blocks away was, in fact, Brecht’s basement (the house is a museum upstairs), and the food there is hardly innovative, but usually top-notch. Of course, being able to identify a schnitzel is sort of a basic requirement for being able to appreciate these sorts of places.
Nazis and Jews: that’s what people come here to see. So give it to them! Look, it’s a basic statement of fact: people don’t come to Berlin to eat or to shop (especially the latter), so what’s left? History. And the history that’s here is pretty much all recent, which is to say Industrial Revolution and later. I can see taking a pass on the Jewish Museum, but what kind of travel writer are you if you can’t find a new spin on the exhibition inside the New Synagogue or point out one of the many Nazi air-raid bunkers around town? Am I the only person who still notices the bullet-holes from the street-fighting as World War II came to a close here? How about fashioning some clever statement based on the fact that the deportation monument and Christian Boltanski’s The Missing House are across the street from each other, or walking up to Koppenplatz and checking out that sculpture in the park of the table with the tipped-over chair, another comment on the deportations, as, of course, are the Klopfenstein brass memorials. Do you suppose the hip! edgy! writers even see these things? And there’s even a humorous take on this stuff, if you want it: how awful Berlin bagels are, and how truly vile the food at the Beth Cafe, run by the local temple, is. I thought it was just supposed to be more authentic until I met an old man there who’d grown up Jewish in Berlin and escaped to Toronto in 1939. “My mother cooked Berlin Jewish food, and it didn’t look like this, I tell you! What are these people palming off on us?”
Besides the Nazis and the Jews, of course, there’s also the Communists. Although the Wall Documentation Center on Bernauer Str. is pretty incomprehensible to a non-German-reader (and who wants to read all those documents, anyway?), the Wall walk from Nordbahnhof to Mauerpark is lined with those trilingual plexiglass signs about the Bernauer Str. death-strip. There are two Stasi museums, apparently, and the new Museum of the DDR. And, on a lighter note, there’s lots of DDR crap for sale in Ostalgia stores and flea markets.
Mista Issyvoo, he dead. And so is the world inhabited by David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Stop looking for it: it’s not there. Instead of trying to force your own preconceptions on the city, why not look at what’s actually there? Surely there’s enough to say about the real Berlin that would attract a reader here. It’s got more green space than any other city in Europe, per square mile. In the summer, that means tons and tons of lawn, forest, park. Places to sunbathe, walk, feed ducks, let the kids run around, or just read a newspaper under the sun. Go to a Wochenmarkt, where more and more organic stuff is beginning to show up, and where you can also buy some pretty neat non-food items a lot of the time. Take a few of the river cruises and figure out which ones are best. Is this stuff corny? Hay-ull yes! Is it fun? You bet!
And when the sun’s not shining — 89% of the time — the continuing reshuffling of the museums here has presented some great opportunities for culture-vulturing. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been remiss in checking them out in recent years, and with the Bode Museum now re-opened, just a few blocks from my house, I’m totally embarrassed that I don’t have a clue what’s in there these days. But the city’s current poverty notwithstanding, the Prussians were some acquisitive bastards, and the city’s holdings reflect three centuries of a royal family that grabbed what they could and commissioned the rest.
So you see, there’s a lot of stuff these stories miss in their headlong rush to perpetuate a long-dead stereotype, stuff that could be made attractive to the crowd they’re writing for. There’s another problem, though, which lies in the last sentence of my friend’s e-mail, a sentence I purposely left out:
“But who would run it?”
Indeed. I can’t think of a single travel magazine aimed at people who travel the way I and the vast majority of people I know travel: not so much “budget” as not spending unnecessary money; not so much “adventure” as guided by a curiosity about out-of-the-way places; not so much voyeuristic as open to learning something about where we are on the earth, knowledge which can come from every one of our senses, as well as our intellect. Me, I’ve given up hope that such a magazine will ever appear. For one thing, where would you get advertising for it? Not from the big cruise lines. Not from the huge resort chains. Not from luxury jewelers. Nor, more than likely, from Cadillac Escalade and other high-end SUV makers.
So you’re not going to read the story about the real Berlin — or the real Paris or the real Kyoto. Instead, you’re stuck with people who don’t know a sausage from a schnitzel and think salads can be plump. And who, incredibly enough, still get to write for the New York Times.