On my way back to my current residence Bangkok, reflecting on my past two months in my home city Berlin. Somewhat involuntarily, I should add, with the entertainment program being lousy and my space – which is being reduced further by my neighbor – too limited to sleep. I prefer writing over watching “Pacific Rim” or dozing off on my neighbor’s generous bio buffer.
Ode an Berlin
I am already missing the fresh air that feels like drinking cold water. The freedom to move and go anywhere I want anytime by foot, bike or cheap public transport. Speaking the right language. My friends. The memories that pop up all over Prenzlberg, Mitte, Friedrichshain and Neukölln.
Berlin is dynamic and laid-back at the same time. It has the highest number of start-ups, clubs and internationals in Germany. Berlin is “cool” and a magnet for creatives. Some people compare it to New York City “as it used to be” (whatever that may be), which I personally find far-fetched in many ways, but I nevertheless enjoy the comparison.
If you want to see the latest creative trends, have trilingual kindergardens and like your Latte soy, decaf, and fair traded, go to Berlin. Berlin has a large amount of cultural institutions and has much to offer for the adept tourist.
Berlin’s unofficial slogan is “poor but sexy”, and quite adequate. From what I know, tourism, small IT firms and galleries are booming, but there is no real industry. Germany’s profitable heavy industries – automobile, machinery, chemicals – are mostly in the South, which is why Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg are so well off and have to subsidize Berlin thanks to Germany’s “socialism light”.
Relative to its 3.5 million inhabitants, Berlin’s area is huge. That is because unlike most other cities, it did not grow tightly around one medieval center, but is in fact a conglomerate of many small towns that grew together over the centuries. When industrialization hit Prussia and immigrants came to Berlin for work, factories were set-up all over its suburbian towns and surrounded with apartment complexes. In this time of strong growth, Berlin was in the favourable position to have both enough money and space to construct the many representative housing blocks and well-planned, large boulevards which are still typical for the “founding times” (“Gründerzeit”) look of Berlin. “Everything is big here” commented my brother who came to visit from Cologne for a few days, “too big for my taste”. Being accustomed to village-meets-city Cologne with its small, grown structures, this perception is understandable. Berlin has few narrow streets, and sidewalks sometimes are as wide as entire streets in Cologne. Apartment buildings mostly have 5 stories, and three blocks (forming a C from a bird’s view perspective), with at least one big courtyard in the middle – something that is not seen often in other German cities.
The German Angst
However, looking upwards, the capital’s grandeur usually already ends with the fifth floor – the occasional 10-30 story apartment blocks from East times or modern office buildings hardly change that impression. Just like the rest of Germany, with tiny Frankfurt being an exception, Berlin does not have skyscrapers. In fact, Germans dislike them out of a mixture of technophobia and conservatism. This mentality has led to a legislation that makes the construction of new buildings that do not “merge with the given environment” very difficult. When Germans manage to build high rises, they are still so short that any comparison to other Western metropolises is inadequate.
The famous “German Angst” exists, and architecture is but one example. You can smell it everywhere, from the tiny problems that are discussed in the news (while ignoring actual issues), the anti-entrepreneurial spirit, the morality drained “warning” comments everywhere, the huge discussion about the surprising death of some soldiers involved in developmental aid in Afghanistan, while other countries are putting hundreds of lives on the line. The same naïve surprise at spying agencies actually spying. Germany is sometimes like the annoying student who keeps criticizing others but is not willing or able to stand on the stage himself. Of course, Germany is on the stage, but more subtly. It is more of a string-puller than a performer.
The same spinelessness can be found in its strategy for future growth: Rather than promoting and investing in IT, efficient energy generation, medicine, genetic engineering, space travel, or any other area which one may consider future-oriented, German policy has managed to focus almost entirely on the concept of “ecological progress” which, in the backwards-oriented way it is being implemented, is an oxymoron. What is worse, due to its international standing, Germany has contributed to a great extent to the current zeitgeist of technophobia and eco-religion, not realizing that its obsession is nothing else but the old self-chastising story of Garden Eden which has to be restored.
Eco-socialism in practice
But let me explain further. I am not talking about recycling or energy efficient devices, those are good ideas. I am also not talking about the usage of wind, water and sunrays as energy sources when it makes sense. Or the mid-term idea of generating energy from coal, which does not seem to be very sustainable. What I am criticizing is the anti-rational and almost religious path Germany has taken with its current eco-socialist strategy. Some examples:
- The Nuclear Angst
When the earthquake and Tsunami in Fukushima killed 20,000 people and the subsequent break-down of the nuclear reactor killed 0, the German chancellor and nuclear physicist (!) Angela Merkel publicly stated that the disaster of Fukushima had changed her mind about nuclear energy. I would like to believe that this was not because of the scientific evidence, but the mass panic she witnessed among her people. Anyway, she went on to declare that Germany after 2022 would not run on nuclear energy anymore.
Generally, speaking of nuclear energy rationally as just another energy source has become almost impossible in the media and in educated circles. Arguments and statistics are replaced with vague, unsubstantiated fears, full of inconsistencies, always following the “what if…” logic and never seeking any solutions.
- Improving it for the worse with the renewable turnaround
Germany has been heavily subsidizing private and commercial owners of solar and wind energy plants and financed this through an “eco fee” payable by all electricity consumers in Germany. The goal: Supporting an industry until they are able to produce solar plants so affordable that “grid parity” – when self-generated energy is as cheap as energy from the socket – is reached. The problem with that: a) German consumers prefer Chinese solar components which are much cheaper. As a result, 90% of the German solar industry collapsed in recent years. b) By levying fees on electricity prices and reducing nuclear energy, electricity became automatically more expensive, which distorted the perspective on “grid parity”.
As could have been predicted, the subsidy on renewable energy plants was not primarily used by ecological idealists, but private and commercial investors, on a large scale. Why invest your 20,000 with a bank when you get a return of twice as much, guaranteed, ecological correctness included? As the subsidies became more and more expensive, and the electricity net became less and less predictable (with forced EU electricity trade being the rule and power cuts becoming more common), electricity prices rose. The social effect in a nutshell: People who already had some money to invest bought themselves a solar plant and still profit from the subsidies which are guaranteed for 20 years, while not so well off city dwellers have to pay the bill.
Many young state worshippers in Berlin believe the price increase to be the evil electricity providers’ fault and demand a re-communalization of electricity generation. And greens usually blame the government for not having invested more into “smart nets” which would have solved all problems (not true). But the fact is: The entire “energy turnaround”, as the ambitious reform is called, was and is still just a bad idea.
To off-set the high prices policies are now subsidizing energy-efficient technologies and architecture, as though this patching up would be in any way “sustainable”.
- The organic food cult
A huge number of consumer products are now “eco”, i.e. organic. A yoghurt manufacturer once even put a ribbon saying “without genes” on his packaging, many vegetables producers opted for “without chemistry”. I am still wondering how such a thing would even be possible. Some products are now even difficult to get without the “eco” label. No one truly understands what “eco” is supposed to mean and I usually get vague answers when I try to find out. Eco products are a bit like anti-aging cream I figure – you don’t have much evidence of its benefit, but you choose to believe that it could help, or at least won’t hurt. The problem with eco products is that they do hurt on a large scale, because they support ineffective small-scale farming which is only made somewhat affordable (not to all) through – guess – subsidies. That too, the idea that eco products are somehow healthier or “better for the planet” is mostly a myth.
- Climate Phobia
Climate change (or the lack thereof) has been another taboo for the last years that could not be doubted, even in private circles. I will never forget the incident when I, together with one co-student, was the only one who publicly voiced her doubt about “climate change” in a business school class and another co-student shouted at me from the back bench “ignoramus!”. This was the same guy who later answered the question about India’s greatest problem with “the environment”.
Now that even one of climate change’s creators, the IPCCC, has admitted that temperatures are actually not rising and Al Gores propaganda movie has been forgotten, at least people’s brains are slowly beginning to warm up. Of course, as always, the billions of Euros, let alone the heated discussions and personal attacks will vanish in the fog of historical mistakes and no one will be held responsible.
Angst, of course, is the enemy of all freedom, and thus it does not come as a surprise that the German parliament has no libertarian party left, but a pseudo-diverse mix of modern or conservative socialists.
So, after sharing with you what I will not miss about Germany, let me return to Berlin and non-political spheres!
Of bums and hipsters
“Is he a bum or a hipster?” asked my German friend when she came to visit from her new home Madrid, looking at a passer-by dressed in a neon green XL polyester pullover with a Norwegian meets Commodore pattern, combined with a fake leather tight and worn-out sneakers. It was a rhetoric question of course, aimed at the disputable taste in Berlin’s fashion.
Berlin-Mitte is full of small boutiques and even fuller of hipsters from all over the world; a wonderful study ground for artefacts of Berlin’s style. As all fashionistas, Berlin hipsters have something intimidating; they always make you feel so yesterday and not belonging. On the other hand, I just can’t make myself like that layer look with one shapeless cloth hung over the other, or overpriced shirts that look like they have been taken from the rummage table at a second hand store.
I never understood how people take fashion that seriously. Sure, I am also influenced by it – but copying the latest trends 1:1, and then – worst – claiming that it is your own personal taste…that’s just weird.
What famous Berlin-born comedian Rainald Grebe sang about the neighboring district Prenzlauer Berg also applies to Mitte: “Everyone looks the same, somehow unique”. Ignoramus, I probably am in this case.
Of course, style does not end with clothing. Cool women currently wear huge classes, red lips and a loosely fixed bun. And men have begun to re-discover the full beard. Sometimes I feel like I have been transferred back to the 70s. Not that these looks don’t have their charm. Just that I find the glasses a bit unpractical; though at least I am actually shortsighted, possibly unlike some of the ladies who wear them. And the beards…I suppose it could look manly, in some contexts – but mostly I really think of food getting stuck in the hair, or the scratchy feeling when…but let’s not go there. Thanks to the beard trend, hipsters can now even look like bums when they are naked. I experienced this together with a friend in the urban sauna “Liquidrom”, a fusion between a sauna, pool and lounge, when we saw a figure coming into the sauna who looked like Robinson Crusoe, or Brian from the famous Monty Python movie. That guy was crossing a limit, we both agreed.
Berlin-Mitte is not just the hub for hipsters, but also for artists, tourists and entrepreneurs. Somewhat comparable to the famous writers’ cafés in Paris a hundred years ago, the latter were bred and fed in Berlin-Mittes cafés, the most famous of which is St. Oberholz at Rosenthaler Platz. Now more of a mainstream place for small scale entrepreneurs and tourists, it used to be the hub for the first wave of Berlin start-ups. Reminiscent of these times, an ocean of Macbook upper cases still welcomes you when you enter the place, and the tables without Macbooks are usually occupied by tourists. If you ask someone what they are doing they typically reply that they are “working on a project”. When I lived in Mitte in the early 00s, I used to make fun of these creatures who in my eyes did not do anything proper and felt all important about it. Now that I am one of them my perspective has changed, and I even went there to work myself one day. Soon you will see me wearing huge glasses and fake leather tights, you never know.
The costs of the city
So far, you might have got the impression that Berlin is expensive. It is not. Rents, restaurants and tickets are still cheaper than in other Big 3 Hamburg, Munich and Cologne. You can still get a small apartment for 300 €, a Döner for 2,50 € and a daily ticket for all of Berlin costs you 6,70 €.
That is changing though, particularly the rents are rising. A sign of a prospering city, some would say, but most people in Berlin agree that it is mere greed and should be stopped – by law, if necessary. Similarly, noticing the increasing difficulty to get a good apartment in any of the popular districts (while ignoring available offers in “B” districts) many have declared a housing shortage and want to counteract this by the same tool of rent control.
The senate has already put a cap on rent increases, and has strengthened tenants’ rights further, which make it close to impossible to give notice to a tenant. In addition, it is now being discussed whether holiday apartments should be forbidden in the most popular districts to make more space for “aboriginals”.
The lack of logic, and degree of envy and xenophobia in this should be evident to the attentive reader, but I will not get into politics again.
To some extent I tend to agree with the complaint of mostly leftist critics who say that “Berlin is loosing its character” and “not what it used to be”. But the line between conservatism and “social envy” on the one hand and legitimate criticism of a loss of heterogeneity is thin.
There are still plenty of districts that are not yet gentrified, almost without tourists, Starbucks and boutiques. Why not move there? Because, I think, many of the critics are either conservatives, who don’t want anything to change, or actually enjoy the quality increase that comes with gentrification, but can’t take being on the loosing side – since they can’t buy their way in through money, they do it through politics. I think that is pretty much it – simple psychology, following the same motive everyone has: optimization of one’s own position.
City of options
Berlin makes life quite easy. No matter what your taste, you will probably find it in Berlin. One of the main reasons is its multi-faceted districts (“Kieze”) which, originating from the small towns they once used to be, have developed their own flair and culture, and also their own district centers. Once you have settled down in your Kiez, you don’t ever have to leave it again if you don’t want to. If you are a classic or an elderly well-off person, one typical district would be Charlottenburg; if you are on a budget, you live in Wedding, Tiergarten or Neukölln; if you like it “alternative” and grungy and you are below 30, you live in Friedrichshain, older generations typically (still) live in Kreuzberg; Prenzlberg is for young to middle-aged ecologically correct upper middle class – former students who have auto-gentrified the district with age; and Mitte is already known to you.
The same diversity can be found in activities, institutions, parks – in short all elements you would need for a rich leisure time. I recently came across a top 10 of international cities and I think Berlin was ranked among the top 5 in terms of quality of life.
I have landed a while ago already and it is time for me to seek my quality of life over here in Bangkok. Back to no language, no fresh air, and not much to do but shopping, eating and Yoga.
Actually, not too bad when I think about it. Bye Bye Berlin!