Europe is having an unusually gloriously early and long summer this year, even in its otherwise colder northern parts. Which is what made an early May 2018 trip to Berlin, the fifth largest city of the continent with its sashaying leafy avenues and its myriad waterways, gently rippling in its dark blue serenity, memorable. This was my second, more leisurely trip to this city, and I wanted it to be a different experience from the glitzier albeit hurried trip there a few years ago.
So, this time I consciously stayed in the parts of the now uber-lively capital that were under the administration of East Germany barely 25 years ago. My small hotel sported dozens of Erich Honecker-era images framed on the walls, softened by their sepia tones and rather succeeding in romanticising an era that may have been less happier than portrayed.
Honecker, with his signature thick-rimmed glasses and fedora hat, was the general secretary of the Socialist Unity Party and led the German Democratic Republic (GDR as East Germany was called) from 1971 until weeks before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989, triggering a wave of global sea-change epitomised in the breathtaking implosion of the Soviet Union two year later.
The hotel manager, a forbidding matron with her old-style spectacles perching dangerously on the edge of her nose, was a specimen straight out of an East German film as she emphasised the dos and don’ts of the establishment — presuming there was more to me than met her eye — when I checked in. She warned me, for example, of “no breakfast after 8.30am.” A tad alarmed, I assured her I had no intention of staying hungry in the mornings and made sure not to test her patience by reporting dutifully in the restaurant every morning by 8am.
I spent long hours across two lovely days exploring the area on foot. Since the two Germanys were reunified, the country has poured in vast amounts of resources reintegrating the two distinctly separate halves of Berlin and bringing services and infrastructure in the erstwhile exhausted East Berlin on a par with the development standards of former West Berlin. The result is fascinating — as the city is now seamlessly one in terms of standards, services and logistics but in design and style remain very much representative of their times and purposes.
Having now broadly explored both parts, it is clear East Berlin has a distinct visual style mainly due to the endurance of pre-war facades and streetscapes, with some still showcasing signs of wartime damage. The rather exceptional Stalinist architecture — austere but imposing — in East Berlin contrasts markedly with the more functional urban chic in West Berlin.
Also, the former East Berlin retains in many places its GDR-era street and place names memorialising German socialist heroes such as Karl Marx Allee, Karl Leibknect Strasse and Rosa Luxembourg Platz. Many other similar ones, of course, were changed after long public debates, after being deemed inappropriate for various reasons.
But even if one was architecture-blind, a dead giveaway of whether you were in East or West Berlin is the popular symbolic icon of the former East Berlin — and actually of GDR as a whole — the “Ampelmannnchen” of “The Little Traffic Light Man”. This is a stylised variety of a fedora-wearing man — rather in the style of Honecker — crossing the street. This is found on traffic lights at most pedestrian crosswalks across the eastern parts of the city.
The Ampelmannchen symbol was retained after a long civic debate of whether to abolish or retain it considering its historical significance. For the purposes of some uniformity, it has in recent years also been imported into the western parts of the city.
Exploring the city on foot, bus and train, it was clear that this is one big single city and yet despite the reunification, generational gaps linked to the distinctly separate pasts of the city persist — and rankle. This is especially so among the older generations who often employ derogatory slang for each other. A former East German Berliner is called ‘Ossi’ — implying someone without ambition and chronically bitter while a former West German Berliner is mocked as ‘Wessi’ — implying someone who is selfishly arrogant, impatient and pushy. The youngsters don’t care and get along with each other much better and more seamlessly and sharing the zeitgeist between them.
But Berlin beyond its anthropological history and present-day is also a city of many touristy and sociological splendours. For instance, this is a city of museums — there are at least 180 of them, according to my tour guide, while there’s an average of 100 days of rain, which means even if you make rain the excuse to shy away from cultural enrichment, you can still visit 80 museums on sunny days. The city is also incredibly green with the third highest numbers of trees in a European city — currently over 440,000. Berlin holds a tree census every five years and every single tree has a number that is clearly marked in white on a two-centimetre black square piece of metal and studded onto the trees. Looking at the trees and their numbers in envy became addictive for me and I wondered how many trees Islamabad and Lahore — the greenest of Pakistani non-mountainous cities — had, and if we could ever emulate Berlin and protect them.
Signage, official and banned, is everywhere in Berlin. Urban restlessness by the youngsters is manifested in artful graffiti everywhere. If Berlin were a modern-day Hades, Sisyphus would be condemned to life as a street cleaner. The city administration spends upwards of 35 million euros a year wiping it clean. There’s even a separate fully-staffed municipal department dedicated to it. But like magic it reappears almost as soon as it is wiped clean.
The city is also one of the last bastions in Europe to allow smoking in bars. This is surprising since Berlin was the first city in Europe, all the way back in 1848, to ban smoking in public. The city administration estimates it collects about 3 billion smoked cigarette stubs every year. And of course, the Berliners love their beer — the city boasts over 1,000 all-night bars that offer nocturnal relief to those who want to blunt their nights’ edges.
Other than leisurely tracing the city’s architectural landscape and curiously observing the people’s interaction with it, I also did not forget to undertake the obligatory tour of the key landmarks of Berlin, of which there were too many to familiarise myself with, but some that needed to be explored and experienced more intimately. These included, but were not limited to, the fading Berlin Wall, or parts of what’s left of it; the kitschy Checkpoint Charlie; the uber gloomy Holocaust Museum; the spirited Brandenburg Gate; The Reichstag, the glitzy glass-domed national parliament; the historic Alexanderplatz square with its signature freestanding 370-metre tall Fernsehturm tower boasting a revolving restaurant offering breathtaking city views; the Unesco-heritage Museum Island with its overwhelming district of five museums; and a life-affirming beery lazy traipse along the café-lined embankment of the Landwehr Canal.
Berlin is not just two cities in one, it’s many really, with its uneasy parallel pasts still haunting its present. It’s what time travel would be, were it possible. Except that no time machine is needed for Berlin. Just a summer plane ticket.