Berlin has no boxes, no labels, everything is for everyone. Nobody is surprised. I chose West at the time because I think it is the largest part of the city, the part that most reminds of the glory days before the war. Berlin from the interwar years, the city that experienced the roaring twenties like no other. The traces are still visible in West.
I lived in Charlottenburg for 14 years and now for almost 3 years in Schöneberg, the rainbow district. Where most gay, lesbian and trans people live. The transes are often high-heeled, usually dressed as if they were on their way to the opera, the beard stubble still clearly visible under the heavy make-up. Nobody is watching.
When the artists’ colony Tacheles still existed and had not been swept away to make way for new construction (where you have to pay a million for a small apartment) I sometimes went to the cinema on the top floor. You got there by a narrow concrete staircase, filthy and smelly of piss. To my surprise, I sometimes walked between neat older couples, who had also fit in the Philharmonie, looking at their outfit.
The Kurfürstenstrasse, just around the corner and certainly not to be confused with the elegant Kurfürstendamm, is the domain of street hookers, pimps, junkies, you stumble over the waste and the thrown syringes. The stately Villa Einstein there is a renowned restaurant, where Angela Merkel and other VIPs are often seen. A Dutch friend wondered why Merkel doesn’t go to a restaurant in a chic neighborhood. Well, Berlin. Who cares.
The prostitution scene continues in the nearby Bülowstrasse, a hideous dingy street that has been home to an excellent Italian, Centro Sud, since 1995. Who’s going there now? Make no mistake. The wall is full of photos of the proud owner in the company of celebrities, prominent politicians such as the current Minister of Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.
The fact that these circuits run so happily together is one of the nice aspects of Berlin. But ‘who cares’ does not apply to everything. Cross when the pedestrian light is red and you can expect the anguished question whether you might be color blind, even though there are no fields or roads to see a car. And my most recent, typically German experience: because of corona, many shops have separate entrance and exit.
I was already standing at a table in a bookshop (which thank God can stay open during the lockdown) with a book in hand, when I was called from behind the counter that I had come in through the exit. I looked back and indeed, Ausgang. I apologized nicely. Whereupon the man, who in the meantime settled with the only other customer in the store, urgently asked me if I wanted to get out again, a little to the left and then enter through the real entrance. It was no joke.
That annoying ‘Ordnung muss sein’ attitude also has its advantages. The Berliner is neatly lined up, pushing ahead is not an option, so you will not find a number machine in any store like in the Netherlands. I once stood in the early morning waiting at a cinema for a long time to get tickets for the Berlinale film festival. I was among the first ten waiting, a long procession formed after me. When the doors opened it was 9 am.
But the till would not open until 10am, I saw! The long queue dissolved, people sat together and opened up thermos flasks with coffee and tea. What now? I turned desperately to my neighbor: “I have been standing blue-faced for hours, and soon the cards will be snatched in front of me.” She had to laugh. No, everyone just remembers who they were behind and so that row is formed exactly like outside, she said.
I could hardly believe it, but it was true. The new queue of at least a hundred people formed automatically. I was almost in the front again.
Not a bad word was spoken.
Marjolijn Uitzinger is a publicist and has lived in Berlin since 2004.
She writes non-fiction and thrillers set in the city.