Berlin is big.
The road we took to get here from Switzerland diagonally dissected Germany in two from south west to north east and unexpectedly there were tall, green trees in our eyesight for almost the full length of the road. I started to wonder if pre-historic Germany was just one big forest of tall fir trees. The trees stayed with us until just ten miles outside of the centre of Berlin's and I've never approached such a huge city in such a green or secretive way before.
As we drove into bright lights, speeding city traffic and bikes - hooray, bikes! - I thought to myself, this feels like London . 24 hours later I know that Berlin isn't really at all like London (the roads are wider, the cars more patient, the cyclists slightly less in danger) but for a second that's what my instinct was and if I'm honest, that sparked my interest, which was fast fading after an eleven hour car drive, three hours of which were spent in traffic.
So, yes, Berlin is big. And I can already see what they mean when they say that there is no centre in this city. No West End, no Eiffel Tower, no Times Square, no Red Light District from which you can roughly attach your bearings to or apply relative distances. We are staying in Mitte, a "central" location if ever there was one in Berlin and if you didn't venture too far from here you would think that this was it but a ten minute cycle in either direction will take you somewhere else with just as much energy, just as much activity and that same "centre of something" atmosphere. I've noticed a stark, industrial theme running through the city from the over ground three metre high pipes which are apparently necessary to help water flow when construction work is under way to the simplicity and honesty of the buildings I've seen so far. Houses, homes, offices, shops are built for purpose not for elaborate romanticism like is often seen in France. Although there is much more out there for me to explore, already I can see the signs of Berlin's modern history of drastic change. Since the fall of the wall Berlin has undergone many face lifts thanks to the ebb and flow of people who have first reclaimed, then artistically adapted before now gentrifying this city. The buildings, which were once fit for a specific purpose have been practically adapted to suit another and then another.
Already I can smell hints of Berlin's commitment to hard-work and it's natural almost elastic adaptability to the changes it has undergone. I have also spotted signs of its subsequent success - new shops, busy restaurants, a hustle and bustle in people's step - though it appears to be cloaked in an understated pride.
This is not a boastful city, a proud one, yes, but there's little room for arrogance. This industriousness and humility, not to mention some of the redbrick geometric buildings I've seen, remind me of cities in the north of England, like Manchester and Leeds.
It's hard to not compare where we are now to where we've come from. In less than four hours in Berlin we managed to buy SIM cards, mend NewMan's sunglasses (as well as buy him a new pair), fix new lights and reflectors to our bikes and have a healthy lunch. In twice this amount of time in France we'd not even found pay as you go SIM cards and all we'd achieved was a headache. The Berliners we've met so far did not suffocate us with their enthusiasm - no bad thing - but they did want to help and help they did.
There are bikes here but it's obvious this is not a biking city like Amsterdam is a bike city. In perhaps typical German style there is an order to the way bikes are ridden and this does not accommodate the creative passenger transporting methods that were a daily occurrence in Amsterdam and even yesterday I questioned whether riding while holding a shopping bag may get me in trouble. I both love and fear the Germans' commitment to sense and system.
We will save money here. Eating out is shockingly cheap and buying groceries is cheaper than Amsterdam or France and certainly compared to London.
I've noticed a lot of broken glass on the ground from smashed beer bottles and the like. I read an online reference to this when researching Berlin's bike scene and the author said "... the trendier the area, the more glass there is on the ground". We shall see...
And finally there's the "cool". Though my first impression about "the Berlin cool" that clearly unites this city and its many centres is a confused one. I'm unsure if this is a cool city by chance or by intention. As we wandered around our immediate area in search of some breakfast yesterday morning I saw women arriving at work dressed in a variety of the latest styles, men dressed according to their own personalities and it was hard not to spot the more creatively cool with their tattoos, coloured hair and mismatching outfits. But all had individual style. I hope that this is something to do with what I have possibly detected as a "live and let live" attitude not only adopted but actively encouraged by Berliners.
Although I'd like to be right about a lot of the above most of all I hope that there's truth in Berlin being a live and let live city. Oh and that I don't get stopped by the Polizei for carrying a shopping bag on my bike...
Frances M. Thompson
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