Berlin Is a Mirror That Doesn’t Care What You’re Wearing
In a city where you can be anyone, you must be okay with who you are.
Yesterday morning, as I got dressed to meet a friend for coffee here in Berlin, I applied my new burgundy lipstick. Deep burgundy. Matte. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t buy it for this purpose, but user experience has shown me that it definitely draws the gaze; the first morning I wore it (to a different coffee shop) I already discovered as much. Young men gave shy, sideways glances. Older men gave full-on, contemplative, flustered stares.
But the nice thing is, in Berlin, everyone’s gaze is just as disinterested as it is not; people might notice certain details of each other’s self-presentation, might study each other with curiosity… but ultimately no one’s passing judgment.
I can’t say the same about my coal-mining Pennsylvania hometown. Or anywhere else I’ve ever lived. This is why I paused in front of the mirror yesterday with my doe-foot applicator in hand and smiled; I was overcome with gratitude for the fact that I live in a town where burgundy lips on a quiet Friday morning are genuinely no big deal. Where I come from? People would be apt to make whorephobic judgments about such a look at the breakfast hour… or any hour.
In Berlin? No one cares.
Here, you can express any whim of self-presentation at any time. There is no “evening look” in Berlin. Berlin is a place where day and night coexist, in multiple senses: from the shadows of history starkly visible in the gleaming now, to the way the Earth’s sharp tilt overlays day on night and night on day (all summer and winter, respectively) this far north… to the techno clubs that stay open 24 hours, carrying the “nightlife” straight through the weekend — all year round.
But more than this — more than the fact that there’s no clearly-distinguished “evening look” in Berlin — is the fact any aesthetic is welcome. More than anywhere I’ve ever lived, Berlin is a place where you can be (and become) whoever you are.
On the morning commuter trains, you can see every look, from goth, to grunge, to hipster, to gym buff, to ’90s pop, to ’80s neon, to ’40s glam, to manic pixie dream girl, to burlesque, to suit-and-tie, to drag, to unicorn costume — all coexisting.
You can pursue any lifestyle. Scholar, artist, teetotaling health nut, drug-fueled raver (or drug-fueled health nut, or teetotaling raver…), startup cool-kid, family woman/man/non-binary caregiver, basic curmudgeon. Whatever label you want, or whatever label you want to eschew.
Berlin is a city that was once blown to bits, totally exposed, and then rebuilt itself quickly in a utilitarian fashion — with a priority on core over surface.
Berlin is still renowned for its hedonism (as it was a century ago) — but it is simultaneously grounded in a close-to-nature, appreciate-the-simple-things air all at once. Lots of parks, organic groceries, and farmers’ markets. Lots of sidewalk cafés with micro-fleece blankets on chairs, where you can sip relaxation outdoors — even when it’s cold outside. Because Berlin loves Mother Nature too much to shun her even in the harshest seasons.
It was Berlin’s harmony of incongruities that ultimately made me fall in love with this place five years ago:
I remember my first night here, watching the streets roll by from the window of my cab as I rode into town from the airport. I remember seeing all the dimly lit streets, all the the color-drained graffiti, the industrial desolation and utter lack of frills… and I remember thinking, I’ve made a mistake.
I’d just come from two years in Shanghai, where everything is glitz and “face” (and the face is always a jaw-dropping stunner). Unlike Berlin, even Shanghai’s dilapidated, unpolished alleyways and storefronts drip with color or yesteryear charm.
But Berlin struck me as having none of Shanghai’s sheen. Not on first glance.
After a few weeks, though, I did start to see more of Berlin’s physical beauty. And while I appreciated this, it wasn’t even the physical beauty that changed my heart. Rather, it was this fact that finally dawned on me: Berlin reflects the contents of my heart.
Contemporary Berlin has an astonishing inner beauty. And that inner beauty reflects the things I most value. Freedom. Truth. Memory. Sincerity. Creativity. Joy in simplicity. A spirit of learning and a willingness to share one’s own hard-earned lessons, to light the way for others. And above all? A sacred covenant to live and let live. And love and let love.
In a city where you can be anything at all, though… you really have to know who you are. And you have to carry no shame about that. No inner yearning to impress. No proneness to peer pressure or compulsive escapism or validation-seeking. Because it’s very easy otherwise to lose yourself in a place so vast and all-embracing.
It’s futile to chase approval here, because Berlin approves of all. Futile to chase belonging, because all belong. So if you’re waiting for permission to be who you are, you will probably wait indefinitely in this city; the permission to be who you are is unspoken because it exists everywhere already. Berlin assumes that you will simply be yourself (or whichever plural selves you might be experimenting with at any given time).
No, in Berlin, you declare who you’ve decided to be — and then the world of that identity builds itself around you. This can be the ultimate freedom, or the ultimate fetter. It depends on how much your own declaration aligns with and honors your truth.
Ever since I lived in Shanghai years ago, I often think of places as having their own energy, a sort of signature gift they’re ready to bestow upon whoever visits them. Like trinket panpipes in the Andes, tile magnets in Spain, or silkwares in Korea. Except that places have signature esoteric gifts too, which tend to reflect facets of universal human experience.
In China, for instance, I always used to say (and my friends who have lived there all agree) that Shanghai could offer you any life experience your soul was seeking, on steroids. Luxury, poverty, power, codependency, vice — take your pick. In the city of Shanghai, there could always be “more.” It was up to you to decide what was enough. Thus, one of Shanghai’s gifts (among many) was that it taught you your own limits.
Berlin, meanwhile, offers everyone a mirror. And what it mirrors back to you is your own self-image — naked and magnified. You can be whoever you want, but since self-image and self are not always the same, Berlin’s mirror will only reflect who you truly are if your image matches your truth. In so many ways, Berlin is a city of transparency: the thirst for political transparency and personal liberty walk hand in hand with the elevation of the free and transparent self. You need to have a strong sense of self here, if you want to have a healthy and fulfilling experience.
Who are you? Berlin asks. Or, rather, Wer bist du? And are you ready to own who you are without shame?
The nice thing is, Berlin eliminates a lot of the pressure to feel any shame at all. You’re not likely to find much shame here, other than whatever shame you’ve brought with you. This, too, is how Berlin gives you freedom.
(Or so it has felt to me.)
I’m not writing any of this to sound holier-than-thou. I’m a social animal just like any other human being. We all crave belonging. I’m not totally immune to self-consciousness either. I’m just writing this as a person who feels truly thankful to inhabit this city.
Because it feels like such a blessing to know that at least while I continue working out the deeper existential questions of my life — romance, professional fulfillment, creative expression — the surface-level stuff poses no issue in Berlin. It’s refreshing that on any given weekday morning, I can stand in front of the mirror and dress exactly how I feel. And if that “feeling” involves large earrings, skintight pants, cleavage, and a deep burgundy lip, all just to go to a quiet little French café? It feels damn good to know that my self-expression will face as little intrusive scrutiny or disrespect as that of the hipsters vaping in the park. Or the unicorns, uh, unicorning on the U-Bahn.
Because Berlin cares about surface things only insofar as it treats self-presentation as a sacred art form. It cares far more about what lies within.