Arm aber sexy (poor but sexy)

By | November 2, 2010

Jonathan Rosenthal, The Economist’s European finance correspondent writes about my (for now) adopted city, Berlin:

Iconoclasm is not just the preserve of the rebellious poor. In Berlin’s opera houses—there are still three, despite the broken budget—audiences are known to boo and hiss. When I went to a performance directed by Nigel Kennedy earlier this year at the Berliner Philharmonie, which was beautiful if unconventional, I found people brazenly getting up from their seats to leave before the end. That may have been because the bad boy of Vivaldi had upset their sense ofOrdnung by discarding the programme. Yet a few months later the audience almost flattened Daniel Barenboim in their rush to leave the concert hall before him.

For all this, Berlin is a very human city and easy to love. A stranger once ran two blocks to hand me a tiny shoe that my infant son had thrown from his stroller. When my wife got into a taxi with a child who was upset, the driver started singing to calm him down. And the city’s many Kindercafés provide a remarkably grown-up environment to drink good coffee while the children head for the communal pile of toys in a sandpit. Berlin’s suburbs are surprisingly compact and easy to get around. London, it is often said, is a city of villages, but that has more to do with its origins than a real sense of kinship. Berlin really is a city of neighbourhoods. Most have been built with a village-like communalism in mind. Park benches are set close to one another, so that strangers can talk. And sharing tables in restaurants is common, as long as you remember to make the ritual enquiry, “Is this free?”

You come across thoughtfulness in unexpected places. I saw a pierced, tattooed and black-clad young man waiting for the lights to change before crossing an empty road. “It sets a bad example for children,” he told me when I wondered why he, of all people, should be so obedient. In this tangle of contradictions, the thing that perplexes me most is the seeming inability of Berliners to form a queue. In this regard there are two sorts of Berliners. Some of my German friends take umbrage at the notion that they are pushy. Yet when quizzed they confess that if confronted with, say, a single queue in front of two ATM machines, they would unthinkingly walk straight to the front to form a second line. The second sort of Berliner tells me that they have noticed when travelling abroad how foreigners line up and often have gates and ropes to guide them. Yet they find this infantilising and an assault on liberty. “Free people”, one tells me, “don’t queue.” I finally felt I had gone native late one night at the main railway station when I pushed past a throng of people waiting for taxis and hailed the first one I saw. As I got in I overheard the wistful complaint of a German couple who had been waiting. “Why can’t we be more like the English?” one of them said. I shuddered.

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