Berlin does not possess the cohesive, store harmonising beauty of other capitals. It’s not poised like London, ambulance polished like New York, or showy like Prague. The architecture jars sharply, with ugly, smutty apartment blocks hulking over medieval churches, and chunky yellow-Lego trains chugging under antique bridges.
Anything that has been destroyed, or removed, or simply disintegrated with wear and tear is simply built over. Anything that remains is built around. The skeletal remains of a monastery in Klosterkirchestraße, built in 1250, glares at the massive television tower, Fernsehturm, across the street. Berlin never pretends to be anything other than what it is. It lacks any kind of pretension. Turning some of the ugliest parts of its history into some of its most popular attractions is one of its most endearing qualities.
A classic example of this is the Sunday market in Mauerpark, the former no-man’s-land between the Berlin Wall and West Germany. Once an unwholesome gash through the heart of the city, it’s now a massive green swathe, with a mini, semicircular amphitheatre where people sing karaoke every Sunday to a crowd of surprisingly tolerant onlookers. I sat gobsmacked, listening as a few hundred people roared the words to ‘Everybody’ by the Backstreet Boys without missing a beat.
This effortless blending applies to the Einheimischen – the natives. Businessmen in immaculate suits casually roller-skate along the footpaths, talking seriously on their Blackberries while twirling like urban ballerinas. Dirty, scruffy looking metalheads sit on the grassy verges and eat expensive-looking sushi, armed with chopsticks and effortless grace. Then there are the students.
They have artfully ripped clothes, bohemian bicycles and make having a ballpoint pen stuck through one’s ponytail look easy. The coolest thing I own is a pair of Converse with strawberries on them and I daren’t wear them every day, in case they think I’m trying too hard. I stick out like a sore thumb here. I have yet to acquire a leather jacket and a bicycle. Short of wearing a fanny-pack, nothing screams “tourist!” more.
After the half-hearted public transport system in Dublin, the tangled web of multicoloured train lines on my map reduces me to sitting like an idiot in a funny-smelling hole in the ground where the train comes, drawing a line from my current place to my destination like on one of those drawing mats given to kids in Eddie Rockets. The Germans have enough manners not to laugh, but I get my fair share of sympathising looks.
The most impossible of all tasks, actually talking to the Einheimischen, carries with it the same terrors as a first day of school. After twice having my grammar corrected by bunches of haughty adolescents while looking for directions, I swear privately that my necessary grocery shopping is going to be carried out using only smiles and the occasional wavy hand signal. A Dictaphone, bought for me as a going-away present by my Dad to record my lectures, needs AAA batteries, as does my Mp3 player. (Yes, those ancient forerunners to iPods still exist and I still have one.) It’s remarkable enough to earn me a few strange looks, even in areas of Berlin that still haven’t managed to break away from post-Communist chic.
I walk into the most non-descript shop that I can find and try and make myself also look as non-descript as possible as I poke around. I do a slow lap and come to the front: there are the shiny packs of batteries, behind the counter. Not wanting to point like an idiot, I clear my throat a little and smile at the middle aged woman reading a newspaper. She smiles back dutifully, bids me a tired “Hallo” and goes back to reading some critique of a female member of the Bundestag, or city parliament, who has earned the ire of the city Mammas by going back to work a mere 10 weeks after having her baby.
Come on missus, help me out here. “Excuse me please,” I mutter to her,” could I have a pack of batteries?” “Sure, dear,” she shoots back in lightning-fast German, reaching behind her to grab the batteries, taking my shabby fiver and drawing out my change without looking up from her magazine. I stuff them triumphantly into my rucksack, delighted with myself. She peers up for a second and proclaims -with beautiful English and an accent straight from a BBC broadcast- “don’t worry dear, you’ll pick it up.”
Three weeks on, standing with both a bicycle and a leather jacket (neither of which were mine, unfortunately), someone asked me for directions. Of course I didn’t have the faintest clue where to point them to, but I was happy enough to give them my scribbly map.