Berlin

Men and women of Berlin.
Men and women of Berlin.

As far as urban centre points go, Berlin's  Alexanderplatz must be one of the ugliest on the planet. But while the 368-metre TV tower and adjacent steppes of windswept concrete (with the lightest sprinkling of relics from a less apocalyptic age) make for deflating postcards, this and countless other corners of Berlin have no equal for jarring symbolism and creative reinvention.

 

The  protrusion dates from the 1960s, when the East German regime raised this Sputnik-inspired finger to the capitalists over the Wall. Its boast of crushing the West through technological supremacy is now three decades dead, and when the square fills up with stylishly dressed down young Berliners on a Saturday evening, pouring into the adjacent metro hub from all parts of the city, all that cement seems to become light as air. 

Monumental shifts

Column of new beginnings.
Column of new beginnings.

This was my third visit to the city, after a post-university whirl around Europe in 1994 and a 24-hour layover in 2006, which coincided with the city hosting the football world cup. But in another sense, the place and I go back even further. Berlin's vast energies made it the epicentre of tyranny, hot and cold war which sent my family packing from Eastern Europe to Australia. And in the wake of the city's epic redemption event, the demise of the Wall, I drifted back to Latvia and decided to stick around.

 

The scope of the tragedy and turmoil of the place is reflected in countless monuments. Take for example the Victory Column on the city's main east-west boulevard, another phallic eruption bearing a golden angel. Built to commemorate Prussian triumphs against the Danes (1864), Austrians(1866) and French (1870-71) which led to the creation of the First German Empire. 

Fractured history.
Fractured history.

The four friezes around the base are the epitome of bombastic, jingoistic triumphalism. Which is why the French had three of them removed in 1945 (though the other allies vetoed Gallic calls to dynamite the whole edifice), only to return them as a gesture of reconciliation in the late 1980s, minus bits and pieces they'd lost in storage. The missing heads and limbs are down to careless French storage rather than the artist's aspiration to realistically depict combat.

 

Brandenburg flip-flop.
Brandenburg flip-flop.

When it was his turn, Hitler had the thing moved to its present location to fit in with his grandiose scheme for New Berlin. Today, the extensive information stands hold all the history up to light, but Berliners have reinvented it as the staging point for their Love Parades. Perhaps Berlin's great patriarch Frederick the Great, a gay lover of the arts and keen warmonger rolled into one, would appreciate the contradictions.

 

The decorators on the U-Bahn take a similarly flexible approach to iconic monuments, flipping the Brandenburg gate all sorts of ways on train window stickers.

Sesitivity

Brutal memories.
Brutal memories.

A stroll down Berlin's main east-west boulevard which eventually name-changes into the Unter den Linden brings you to the famous gate itself, and a left turn leads to the Reichstag. What is most astonishing though is the Soviet war memorial almost on top of those weighty symbols of state. Thrown up in the summer of 1945 

Split personality palace.
Split personality palace.

The latest grand restoration project also reveals this genius for flexibility. Once home to the kaisers, the Berliner Schloss was demolished by the GDR in 1950 and replaced by the Palace of the Republic, a giant social club for the proletariat. That one got the wrecking ball in 2008 over asbestos issues, and now  the Baroque marvel is being born again as a museum of world culture. With a few alterations - East Berliners were fond of their clubhouse, so to satisfy their wishes and cut costs for the already over-budget and late building, one side will be done in Neo Brutalist splendour.  

Many German flavours 

German modesty.
German modesty.

Weighing the scales of history is a never-ending process. With the 30th anniversary of the end of the Wall coming up on November 9, a series of official street posters sets a self-deprecating, lighthearted mood. The phrase "That's sooo German" is illustrated in one version by a giant hedge screening a family from their neighbours, and another with a bunch of signs banning pretty much everything on a forest trail.

 

Clearly, the message is of a nation at ease that can laugh at its own stereotypes. And Berliners seem to be adept at not getting worked up about stuff that riles folks in other places which haven't gone through the same degree of trauma and therapy.

You can have ketchup and mustard, too.
You can have ketchup and mustard, too.

I stayed in a hostel near Hermannplatz, in the eastern part of the city. It's one of the poorer neighbourhoods in a city in the economic doldrums, but the locals make the best of the situation. Around 30% of Berli's inhabitants, one million people, have an immigrant background, and like everywhere, the less well off areas reflect this much more than the posher parts. Discount stores and the odd smoky beer den mingle with bargain eateries and market stalls offering everything from Vietnamese spring rolls to kebabs to bratwurst.

 

People of different shades mingle in Middle Eastern sweet stores and sip beers together at rickety tables set up outside grocery stores. The bakery I went to for breakfast has an equally eclectic crowd, including uniformed cops getting their morning coffee. On Saturday, a visibly hungover young guy in a leather jacket accidentally spilled a drink down one of officer's trousers. The reaction? Nods of sorry and no problem, a staff member came and cleaned up, and that was that. The whole episode was over in less than a minute, and showed such a friendly, live-and-let-live attitude on all sides that all seemed right with the world, and this city in particular.

While you're here, please check out my tours of Riga and my free guide to dining, dancing and hanging out in Riga - Enjoy Riga!