Category Archives: Berlin
One of my favorite activities when I lived in Denmark was doing gymnastics. The high bar, the rings, the floor, it was a blast.
Since I moved to Berlin, I haven’t been able to find a place with proper gymnastics equipment. Instead I’ve been going to the gym a few times a week–the power of homosexuality compels you!–but it feels like an obligation, not a hobby.
I finally found a weekly gymnastics team here in Berlin, so tonight I attended for the first time by to see what kind of shape I’m in after trading in my unitard for trackpants seven months ago.
Apocalypse. I can’t do any of the shit I used to love doing, including handsprings and front flips, which were basically the only thing I achieved in my 20s. During my downtime every moving part of my body seems to have become a coal-fired little pain factory.
The surprising thing is, despite how monotonous and horrifying it is, I’ve actually been pretty diligent about going to the gym since I moved here. It’s literally next to my work, and lifting iron bars up and down, it turns out, is a pretty decent way to de-spreadsheet on your lunch break.
I thought at least some of my new gym muscles would come in handy when I started doing gymnastics again. Weight, motion, it’s all the same thing, right?
No, punk, my body replies in aches and weakness. You’re gonna start from the scratch I give you.
This just confirms everything I hated about the gym in the first place. Working out doesn’t make you good at anything, it just makes you better at working out. If sports were kitchen utensils, the gym would be an apple corer. It performs precisely one function–one for which other utensils easily suffice, I might add–and it doesn’t take skill or finess to use, only force.
I realize this is a preference, not a principle. In a society where no one ever forces us to get up and move around, all exercise is equally arbitrary. In my experience, the gym is the only kind that feels that way.
I went to the doctor as soon as I got back from Albania.
Me: I think I need a cast of some kind.
Doctor: What’s the problem?
Me: I have pretty bad foot pain. I’m pretty sure I have a metatarsal stress fracture. I can barely walk.
Doctor: Who diagnosed you with the metatarsal stress fracture?
Me: I’ve just been looking around on the internet, and that’s what it most sounds like.
Doctor: Well, I don’t think you have a stress fracture. So, who are you going to trust? Me, or Doctor Internet?
Me: What do you think I have?
Doctor: Foot pain.
Me: … Wait, is that the diagnosis? That’s my symptom. Are you allowed to do that?
I’m getting orthopedic shoe inserts today. And buying the URL for doctor-internet.com.
Titled ‘A Victim of Its Own Success: Berlin Drowns in Tourist Hordes and Rising Rents‘, this Der Spiegel article is a distillation of a lot of the bitching you hear from Berliners.
This new city could soon become the actual city. If that happens, Berlin will no longer be primarily a home for Berliners, but a stage for an international audience. Some ugly terms to describe this new city have been making the rounds in Berlin, with some calling it a “giant Ballermann,” a reference to a notoriously rowdy beach bar on the Mediterranean resort island of Mallorca. Others call it a giant Disneyland, because of a growing sense of artificiality and absence of authenticity.
The ‘tourist hordes’, goes the argument, are gentrifying Berlin into an expat playground at the expense of the locals. They push up rents and genericize neighborhoods, pushing out the artists and layabouts that made these neighborhoods vibrant in the first place.
There’s something kneejerkically appealing about this argument. If you’ve lived in a neighborhood for 20 years through thick and thin (and Berlin has seen some thin, son), then it must be irritating to see a bunch of rookies show up the minute the place becomes livable. Hearing people rave about ‘low cost of living’ when you’ve barely been getting by in a 300-euro-a-month apartment has got to sting.
But if you think about it any harder than that, tourists and expats moving here is a sign of progress, not destruction.
First, Berlin doesn’t actually have all that that many interlopers. In Berlin, 13.5 percent of the population was born somewhere other than Germany. In London it’s 33 percent. In Paris, 19.5 percent. London has significantly more tourists, expats and short-termers than Berlin. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who lives there who considers this a bad thing.
Second, tourists and expats contribute disproportionately to quality-of-life services like restaurants, cafes, nightclubs and art galleries. They support citywide events like the Berlin Festival, and incentivize city leaders to organize more of them. Think of how much Munich gets out of the annual Octoberfest, both in terms of easy income and city branding. Smart Berlin politicians should start coming up with Berlin equivalents.
Last I read, unemployment in Berlin was 13 percent. According to this irritating brochure, tourism employs 300,000 people in Berlin and Brandenburg, and contributes 17 billion euros to the economy. Every fanny-packed tourist taking pictures of the Brandenburg Gate represents a string of businesses that might not have a chance in Berlin without his dollars, rubles or yen.
It’s understandable that Berliners are wary of how their city is changing, and miss the Berlinier Berlin of yore. But all of this is a symptom of the fact that Berlin is finally becoming a place that people want to live. That brings rising rents, yes, but it also brings jobs and quality-of-life upgrades. Legitimate concerns about the impact of rising tourism should acknowledge the broader context of the city and its economy. A lot of what makes Berlin so terrific wouldn’t be sustainable without the tourists.
Der Spiegel paints a dystopian future for Berlin: ‘Perhaps the day will come when the budget tourists will realize that they aren’t experiencing a Berlin party, but a party in Berlin.’
Not unlike, in other words, a party in New York, London or Hong Kong. Berlin is the 4th largest city on the world’s most economically and culturally important continent. Eventually it will have to get used to that.
This weekend I finished Tina Rosenberg’s The Haunted Land, about the attempts of former Communist countries to come to grips with their pasts. The section about East Germany was particularly good:
Once a girl I went to school with up till twelfth grade called me in 1985, saying she was in the neighborhood. She was here for an hour and we had coffee and cake. My son was here and I introduced him–briefly, he didn’t even sit down. I saw her report. She wrote it was obvious I loved my son, and as a result the Stasi developed a package of measures to take him away, trying to prove I was neglecting him, portraying him as antisocial.
As Rosenberg puts it, East Germany was ‘the most spied-upon people who ever lived’. The Stasi had 6 million informants for a population of 16 million. At a 1989 protest march against the regime, more than half the 70,000 marchers were Stasi informants.
After the army, [the Stasi] was East Germany’s largest employer. There were 2,171 mail-readers, 1,486 phone tappers, and another 8,426 people who monitored phone conversations and radio broadcasts. […] There were dissidents with literally a thousand people spying on them.
This, for me, is the most chilling part:
The genius of the Stasi had nothing to do with political information.[…] Practically no information in the Stasi files discussed East Germans’ political ideas. The dissident groups’ politics were certainly not secret information–just the opposite; dissidents publicized their views all they could. But the Stasi was not interested. Political views mattered only as a recruitment tool.
[…] The Stasi recruited children as young as six. […] The child would tell him who came to the house, what TV channels his parents watched, who their friends were. […] There was no information they didn’t find useful.
What interested the Stasi was the psychological portrait of the person being spied upon, his character, his weaknesses–women, alcohol. […] The informer could leave the meeting having refused to speak of politics, satisfied he had told the Stasi nothing, while in fact it was the chitchat about the subject’s drinking or family problems that gave his handlers exactly what they needed to them blackmail him. The whole purpose of informers seemed to be to collect material to recruit new informers. Perhaps this was the idea: East Germany would be safe only when every East German was Stasi, a chain of people ach informing on the others, 16 million long.
Since I moved to Berlin, I’ve been constantly surprised at the number of undeveloped spaces right in the city center. You can walk past a row of bustling restaurants and cafes, only to bump into a block-sized patch of grass with a fence around it.
It’s a reminder of Berlin’s history, and gives you the impression that the city is basically too big for the number of people currently living in it.
I don’t live in a patch of grass, obviously, but my new apartment is in the middle of a strangely underdeveloped stretch of cobblestone less than 1km from the border to the city center:
Isn’t this weird? There are cafes surrounding my immediate neighborhood like an invading army, but there’s none in it. That ‘A’ up there is the closest thing I’ve got, and it’s about a 10-minute walk door to door.
It’s not that I actually mind this. Living in a dead zone is sort of a metaphor for my social life anyway. I like being close to the cool stuff going on, but not so close that I’m actually participating. I’m always the guy hanging out in the kitchen at house parties, so I feel comfortable acting out the urban-life equivalent.
But I’m genuinely curious as to why the cafe-ing of Berlin seems to have skipped the wedge of land I live on. My neighborhood is just as densely populated as the neighborhoods to the north and east. It’s not as wealthy as the area just south of me, but it’s doing better than the area north-west of me, and they have some dots. It’s not like there’s loud noises or a smell-factory artificially preventing people from coming here for recreation.
Anyway, I like living in a neighborhood that’s quiet even on Fris and Sats. The tranquility was one of the first things I noticed when I moved in, and a major reason I’m glad to be here. At first I thought it was quiet because all my neighbors work full-time, but now I know that it’s because they haven’t had coffee in decades. If they had any more energy, they would have left by now.
I haven’t posted this week because I moved. To a real apartment. Because I am a functioning adult.
The last four days have been like a reality-show challenge: Move into a completely unfurnished apartment. In a neighborhood you’re not familiar with. In a city where you’ve never shopped for furniture before. In a country where you don’t speak the language. Do this without a car, while working full-time and while hosting a houseguest from Copenhagen.
Day 1: Dirty Deeds
Arrive at 10 am, pick up keys from former tenant and discover he hasn’t cleaned the apartment before moving out. Sit crosslegged on the crackling rug and negotiate with IKEA to deliver a bed before you next see Halley’s comet.
Take tram to thrift store with the canvas bags you stole from last week’s pre-emptive IKEA trip. Thrift store has nothing of use, and don’t deliver furniture anyway. Depart feeling like a spurned marauder.
On tram ride home, talk IKEA into letting a van driver pick up your furniture for you, instead of trekking to suburbs to get it yourself. Pay 100 extra euros.
Back at apartment, frantically google ‘thrift stores berlin open late’ to try and get some lightbulbs before it gets dark. Give up and go to a real furniture store, spend way too much buying two lamps for your three dark rooms. Move them around as you clean after dark.
Day 2: Cash and Carry
Wake up early for more googling. Identify three secondhand furniture stores in Wedding and send houseguest to Prenzlauer Berg in likely-futile search for lamps.
Spend two hours at ‘Penny Land’ buying the kind of household items you only notice when you don’t have them: Welcome mat, cutting boards, garbage cans, soap, sponges, extension cords.
Receive text from houseguest: ‘The motherload. Get here. Bring cash.’
Bike to specified address, find acre-long junkyard of used furniture. Resist urge to drop to knees and tear off shirt like Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption.
Pick out all the furniture your cash will allow, put it in a pile and start haggling. Call Van Guy. He can’t pick you up for two hours, so walk to the other junkyard across the street. Wheel your items on a donkey cart back to the first junkyard before Van Guy gets there.
You haven’t eaten all day, and Van Guy refuses to help you carry anything up the stairs. Eat at your new dining table for the first time: Falafel and salad, easy on the yogurt sauce.
Spend next two hours carrying furniture to your fifth-floor apartment. Wonder how much of this houseguest can take before he deletes you from Facebook.
Day 3: The Quick and the Bed
Think about furniture at work all morning. Go to gym over lunch to de-stress. Receive call from furniture store: ‘We’re outside your building with your couch. Where are you?!’ Dash home in gym clothes to let them in. E-mail boss to apologize for leaving computer on and ask that he pour out the coffee you left on your desk.
Attempt cooking in new apartment for first time. Realize as you turn on the stove that you have no olive oil or salt. Saute vegetables in vinegar left in cupboard by former tenant. Chicken bouillon is mostly salt, right? Sprinkle some on top.
Spend rest of evening building IKEA bedframe. Two people, three master’s degrees, two and a half hours.
Lift mattress into bedframe, feeling genuine sense of accomplishment. Sit on mattress for first time and feel it sag down the sides. Mattress is now an upside-down taco, resting on middle support bar. Lift mattress back out of bedframe and set on floor again. Note that this feeling, monumental accomplishment followed by instant failure, must be what it’s like to be elected president.
Day 4: Photo, Finish
Struggle not to unload IKEA-related bile on coworkers when they ask you how The Great Furnishing is going. Visit another round of junk stores on the way home. You still only have two lamps.
As sun sets, take train to furniture-burbia. Ask IKEA employees how to solve mattress-taco problem. Buy recommended bed-slats and spend the last of your willpower staying awake to put them together. Put bedslats into frame and mattress onto bedslats. Carefully climb on top, roll back and forth, appreciate horizontality of sleeping arrangements for first time. Ask houseguest for one last favor: Take the lamp out of here.