Thursday, November 18, 2010

Letter from a Small Room in Berlin, by Stuart Glover

A week in Berlin has underlined the boundaries of travel. Not quite in the way that Laika, the space dog, might have experienced in the launch of Sputnik 2—perishing from overheating in a tiny craft at the very limits of transportation—but in a more mundane way that helps remind us of the different reasons we might be on the move. Berlin makes clear again that tourism, travel, and expatriatism are different things. It is clear after a week that this city serves each of these impulses differently well. Berlin accommodates the tourist in a perfunctory way, but it returns the embrace of the traveller and the émigré.

My own imagination about Berlin has always been jejune. I have read about the bunker; I have read about the bombings; and I have read about the spy swaps on Glienicke Bridge between West Berlin and Potsdam. My contemporary sense of the city is even less informed, but here my ignorance is coloured by paranoid fear rather than by wartime romance. Contemporary Berlin seems to suggest avantgard art and artists. I am not sure what I mean by this but it involves Nick Cave and a coal-eyed woman called Petra pointing out that I am just not cool. As though in Berlin you can be anything: rich, poor, German, Turkish, a sex-worker from Moldova—but you must be cool.

As a tourist, I am easily satisfied by old things. Not so much museums, although there are plenty to enjoy in Berlin, more so streetscapes that crowd you with a sense of history. But Berlin, so wretchedly bombed in the war, has had much of its past erased. I came to Berlin from the Swiss World Heritage-listed town of St Gallen with its intact 15th century townhouses and its startling Abbey Library. By contrast, Berlin in a gloomy moist Autumn is not pretty. Like, say, Exeter in Britain, Berlin has a long history but the war truncated its physical connections to it.

This erasure turns sight-seeing into a task of sight-seeking. You must travel to Postdamer Platz to see the cold, but striking, contemporary architecture that marks the re-unification of the city. You must travel to Postdam on the city’s outskirts to see the Kaisers’ castles and summerhouses. But the city itself is plain, ugly even, dominated by post-war apartments—few of them higher than five stories—which sprawl outwards for many kilometres to house more than three million people. As a local explained it to me, Berlin is a trick for the tourist because despite its fame and romance, “there is no there, there”.

The city seems to deliver much more to the traveller, intent on staying somewhere for a month or more, or the émigré looking for somewhere to live. Berlin is easier and more rewarding to inhabit than to visit. It is cosmopolitan in two senses of the word. On one hand, it is touched by the exotic, sitting as it does between Western and Eastern Europe and home as it is to waves of migrants since its establishment in the 1300s. And on the other, it is welcoming, tolerant, and curious about things from elsewhere. It is the budget World City.

And cost seems to be much of the reason that young westerners are here in large numbers from the UK, the US, Australia and elsewhere in Europe. In my home town of Brisbane—which is hardly a world centre—the inner city rents, the food prices and transport costs make the life of a moocher or the life of an artist more and more difficult. But Berlin with its eight-dollar meals, its two-dollar glasses of wine, and its $1000 a month apartments supports a large population of musicians, writers, gap-year students, and art-scene poseurs who eek out a life through part-time work in bars or suchlike.

And the city is enlivened by this wash of the young and the adventurous. Since unification, suburb after suburb has been gentrified, often marked by the arrival of cheap restaurants, idiosyncratic bars, street buskers, and tiny cafes that welcome everyone, even smokers. Late on, just as the train system shuts down and the night buses start up, the city comes alive with clubbers and drinkers.

I am awkward in the face of this kind of self-propelled fun at the best of times, so I am not sure how as the lone tourist, adrift, to enjoy Berlin on its own terms. I am just here for a week and I have nothing to offer but tourist cash. But alone in my pension room, late on a rainy and cold Wednesday night, overdue on a conference paper deadline, I can still tell it is out there: Berlin, a real city.

The author: Stuart Glover lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland.