The waiter arrived with an apology.
“Sorry guys, I don’t speak any German. Hope that’s OK,” he said with a smile and a slight Australian twang. Given that my friend and I had been nattering away in English, ignorance of when and how to deploy the dative hardly seemed an impediment between us and a pair of Negronis. The location — the rooftop bar of Soho House in east Berlin — is a haven for a footloose, self-consciously sophisticated crowd, for whom English is the language of choice. A world away from your local Eckkneipe. But, all in all, no big deal right?
Not quite. Taken on another level, our brief exchange was part of a bigger story in the German capital: the proliferation of non-native speakers has become just one of the expressions of Berlin’s pulling power. The number of foreigners — residents as well as tourists — is at a record high. The city looks and feels more cosmopolitan. It ranks highly on the ubiquitous lists of most-liveable cities.
Berlin’s attractions are easy to define. Loaded with history, culture and a reputation for edginess (even deviance) it’s also a manageable and relatively cheap place. In our turbulent geopolitical times, Berlin — perhaps oddly, given its past — now appears a bastion of sanity, a flag-carrier for the liberal order and an ideal refuge from Brexit Britain and Donald Trump. Throw in some unusual scenery — a landlocked city that boasts forests and real beaches only a short bus ride away from tenements and all-night bars — and it is quite a package. The global metropolitan elite just loves Berlin.
But not everyone is happy. The unwillingness of some newcomers to learn even a smattering of German has prompted harrumphing from conservative politicians. The inability to order Kaffee und Kuchen in the proper manner is apparently further evidence of the ongoing threat to German national identity.
Away from such nativist Stammtisch (saloon-bar) soundbites, there is a wider question of whether Berlin’s popularity is coming at the cost of the city’s character. The local media has long feared this might be so, worrying that the fringe culture of hardcore techno clubs risks being eclipsed by that of stag parties. Is Berlin now so cool that it has lost its edge?
To those of us of a certain age the answer has to be yes. To a generation that cut its teeth amid the debris of the Berlin Wall and the chaotic — at times lawless — opening up of the eastern half of the city, the place today looks, well, a bit too normal.
Yes, there are scores of cool cafés, challenging art galleries and — still! — bunkers of techno. And the high-ceilinged, parquet-floored lifestyle is certainly less fraught than, say, career-obsessed London or New York. A sense of opportunity and change abounds. Nearly 30 years after the wall fell, large areas are still construction sites, as the business of rebuilding and reconnecting the city continues. As a well-worn observation about the stimulating restlessness of Berlin has it: the city is forever in the process of becoming, never of being.
Yet, something has been lost: a sense of Berlin’s unique otherness that was once derived from its singular geopolitical situation. Physically divided and sidelined from the European mainstream, Berlin existed in a kind of suspended animation.
To some — especially oddball types — this quality was irresistible. To most, it was simply ignored. The fall of the wall in 1989 put an end to that and the arrival a decade later of the national government and the attendant baggage of lobbyists, journalists and their kind, completed the process of normalisation.
These were, of course, welcome developments. The wall was a grotesque monstrosity. Its immediate aftermath was a thrilling, wild time, when all seemed possible — but you kind of knew it could not last.
The squats, illegal bars and riots that once defined my old east Berlin district have given way to boutiques and cafés selling artisan coffee. For every older generation bemoaning the good old days, a new one is having fun in its way. Scratch the surface and it is still possible to find that distinctive Berlin touch. Soho House is located in the former home of the Communist party central committee. Before that it was a department store whose Jewish owners were expropriated by the Nazis. Quite a story, in any language.
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