Berlin: there’s a surprise

The ride from the airport was flat and featureless, the road lined with single storey factories that made fridge liners, nappies and machines to mould plastic forks. The taxi drove at exactly the speed limit demanded by the signs, the Klassik Rock station on the radio played low volume, mellow and inoffensive electronica. Berlin: what was I thinking?

Well, I was actually thinking men dressed up as women, wearing top hats and suspenders and bright red lipstick, smoking cigarettes in long holders. I was thinking dandies driving posh cars draped with women of easy virtue, groups of lusty arbeiters spilling on to every street corner from snug-looking beer halls to abuse sneering punks and anarchists. I was thinking outrageous.

Instead, the taxi passed about ten people riding uniformly well-lit and sensibly-maintained bicycles on otherwise deserted streets. The huge old blocks of apartments with their arched and gated entrances all looked really imposing — but where were the people? Was I mistaken about Berlin? Maybe it isn’t what it used to be. But next morning my eyes were opened and I saw the real Berlin. And without doubt it is a wonderful place.

First impression: The space. Even though it’s an old city, every street is wide enough for cars, vans, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians and dog walkers to all park, drive, stop randomly for a chat, unload, stick posters or do whatever they fancy without bugging anybody else. Cars parked at an angle? No problem. Parked on the path? Easy to walk round. Double parked? Just hoot a bit and the driver will soon arrive. Dog need a crap? Plenty of green patches to aim for. Place to park the bike? Absolutely anywhere. Most people seem astonishingly flexible, as long as the end result doesn't actually harm or impede anybody else. Hordes of cyclists ride an astonishing variety of bikes along lovely wide cycle paths on EVERY street. Massive grass-covered and statue heavy squares pop up every few corners, and the whole vista is wide open, elegant and easy on the eye.

The second impression: Accommodating. The variety of people in Berlin, from ex-military pet-walkers to trawling homosexuals to would-be pickpockets to Turkish grandfathers and bourkah-clad Somali women is astonishing. I thought London was diverse until I visited Berlin. Although there was one stereotyped white, drunk, shaven-headed man shouting at black women in the park, the whole place seems to live without significant antagonism towards anybody no matter who, how strange, or where from.

Middle aged men with dreadlocks and startling eye makeup nod to old ladies in Zimmer frames as a group of trendy mums on bicycles shout Guten Tag to a Turkish busker playing a piano accordion. Kids play in any one of hundreds of street corner play areas, with no minders or parents around. And everywhere you look, especially if you look up, there are churches, mosques, synagogues, restaurants from every corner of the globe, and people doing their own thing with only the ubiquitous graffiti to remind of a deep current of the anarcho-revolutionary vibe about the place. Berlin has such a totally tolerant buzz it is astonishing, yet it hasn't abandoned its traditions in its quest for tolerance of modern life.

One main street near my son’s flat sells balls of wool from an owner-run, wooden-shelved shop from 1937 on the equivalent of something like Charing Cross Road or Regent Street. Brilliant. There are Lidls and Aldis, of course, but the small shops don’t just soldier on — they are vibrantly and actively patronised (one bookshop boasted a resident purple haired granny with a lacy brolly). I visit the barber where the local expert demonstrates the removal of ear hair by burning it off one customer with a Bic lighter. I take hoummus in a Turkish bar where the plumply middle aged manageress jiggles to Fats Domino, and coyly invites me to join in.

Then there are the streets themselves, many still paved with cobbles and looking like the Panzer First Division had just rolled out of a nearby courtyard, headed for the Eastern Front. Many have lines of mature, lovely trees and singing birds to go with them, along with cool retro signs on street furniture and doorways. Add to that tinkling fountains, shady public spaces, ancient and modern statues and a feeling of relaxation and you realise Berlin doesn’t need the top-hat/suspenders brigade to activate your senses. It’s seductive enough as it is. My son said unemployment here is higher than most other places in Germany. It’s probably because it’s such a great city to lounge around in that nobody wants to work.

To underline this Berlinesque tolerant raffishness, in a kind of nose-thumb to the myth of German transport correctness, both men and women appear to spend more on outrageous hair colouring than they do on their cars — battered old Opels and Polos are everywhere, driven by people with every kind of colour upstairs from green to orange to purple. Yet at the same time, nobody jay-walks, and the sound of a police siren is a significantly unusual event. It’s like no matter how pierced the punk, how blue-rinsed the frau, how enveloped the Muslim woman, everybody has a deep pride in the place.

I ask a taxi driver why he lives in Berlin, and if it is a good place. “I came from Istanbul 12 years ago,” he says. “I went first to Frankfurt, Dresden — but they are nowhere near as good as Berlin. This place everybody can walk anywhere and not be afraid. Not like New York, eh?” He’s right.

He’s also very positive about Berliner women. “I like blonde girls, not skinny ones, ones with big titties,” he confides. Berlin is OK then? “Oh yes, it’s the best. I have two girlfriends, one German, one Polish.” Cosmopolitan, tolerant and obviously very friendly too. No wonder residents think it is wonderful. You have to go there once, at least . .

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