Return to Berlin

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Ich bin Berliner! For the first time since I arrived in Germany last week I feel at home. What makes this expansive city different? I think its counter-culture: 16 years on, it has retained enough of the edge that came from being a divided front-line statelet to keep it interesting. It has the feel of Amsterdam on the Spree. Plus the surge of energy that came with reunification was nowhere more powerful than here.

You sense immediately that here is a city at ease with itself – a vibe I had not detected in my peregrinations around Munich, Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Stuttgart – and which most definitely was not the case the last time I was here in the early 1980s.

My abiding recollections from that trip are the dead expressions of the East German border guards; the paintings of Otto Dix; the absence of fresh milk (no small privation for a tea-drinking Englishman); and the gear-stick/seat cover envy of East German motorists. Since everyone had a Trabi, the only way of personalising your conveyance, it seemed, was with a lurid plastic knob, or a leopard-skin print. You used to find the same appetite for kitsch in divided Belfast.

I saw contemporary Berlin at its best during Wednesday night’s Germany versus Poland match, a nail-biting occasion, as it turned out, for the host nation. I watched this munching pickled zucchini and Kartoffelsalat on a big screen in a beer garden around the corner from my hotel. From my vantage-point, the trunk of a lime tree – yes, we were Unter den Linden – bisected the screen. But the atmosphere more than made up for my hopelessly compromised view of proceedings.

These were not hate-filled nationalistic thugs: I counted two German flags and not a single football chant all evening. What I had stumbled upon instead was a neighbourhood coming out in the balmy evening air for a shared experience. I think the operative word is “communal”.

There were excited babies, aware that something unusual was going on but not sure what; older children running around in the few bits of untenanted space; a 50:50 gender distribution; and steak and sausages on the grill. There were two bored dogs. What more could one want, if not some half-crazed Finn running around collecting glasses - and there was one of those as well. No respecter of authority, I nearly swooned with delight the first time that the puffy features of Angela Merkel, the spectating German chancellor, appeared on screen to be greeted by a spontaneous rumbling of disapproval.

Even better was to come though. In the second half, pressing to win the game, Jurgen Klinsmann, the adventurous German coach, introduced David Odonkor, the young right-winger he had chosen as the surprise inclusion in the home team’s squad. My beer garden companions went into rapture. In the minutes that remained, every move that the young man made warranted a cheer and when his cross led to Germany’s last-gasp winning goal, well...it was as much as the two self-conscious flag-bearers could do to stop themselves from waving them.

The important thing about Odonkor is that he is the offspring of a Ghanaian father and a German mother. If Germany goes on to have a good World Cup – and, now that they have recovered their time-honoured knack of notching last-minute winners, the chances are that they will – we can legitimately hope that it has as positive an effect on race relations as France’s win all too briefly did in 1998.

More David Owen diary:

When Leni met Luis

Munich puts World Cup in the shop window

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.