berlin. her disruptive history, complicated culture and resilient survival is difficult to comprehend yet fascinating to interpret. upon a recent trip to the wonderous german city i became tangled up in her divine, eccentric beauty. another landscape where i feel perhaps i’ve existed in a different place and time …
the enlightenment, a period in time that i marvel for the unfolding of philosophical thought, saw the reign of friedrich ii, king of prussia. friedrich the great believed his beloved land to be one of utmost tolerance and acceptance. perhaps it was the naive optimism of the late 18th century that was sweeping old europe or the fact that he ruled over a just metropolis. whatever the reasoning, he promised his kingdom and its people that berlin would be a throne of tolerance:
religions must all be tolerated and the state must just be vigilant that no one does anyone harm because here everyone must allow to be spiritual after their own fashion.
to think how disappointed the dear king would be to see the chaos in which the world still lives in today. he must have been talking about utopia, not berlin. or did such a place once exist? a place where all religion, regardless of spiritual god or worship, coexisted; a place where a woman could bear a child with another woman and a man could marry a man; a place where humans did not enslave one another. a place of tolerance. a place of pure peace. history always does seem to tell a tale of prussia through a utopian lens, even if its reality was a shambled abyss.
tolerant it may not have been with its wars and social class divide, but prussia would become a center of intellectualism and culture as a fallout to the french and american revolutions. according to voltaire, the french philosopher of the enlightenment and once trusted advisor to the king, “when the masses get involved in reasoning, everything is lost.” i contest that this is untrue with respect to this particular city state as berliners have always appeared to unite together. it was the masses that lost everything when two kings warred; when four world powers erected a wall because they couldn’t get along–confrontation on land that wasn’t theirs to confront, native life disrupted and displaced because the west and the east of the world (not of berlin) could not concur to peace. how intolerant the world was–and still is–indeed.
yet admist all the conflict berlin never allowed her culture to be challenged. two hundred years before jack kerouac introduced the modern world to the open road, the traveller johann kaspar riesbeck wrote of berlin in 1784, “[it] is an extremely beautiful and splendid city … it does not possess the uniformity which makes most new and orderly cities boring after a time.” stepping foot into potsdamer platz or staring down the east side gallery (artist murals celebrating freedom of the berlin wall) in kreuzberg, the convergence of history and strife is a time warp. and for modern-day drifters such as i, where the open road spans across a global frontier, such beauty still resides in this glorious city; riesbeck’s words as relevant a description today as it was during his voyage.
the essence of berlin’s beauty is the cascades of coffee houses and neighbourhood taverns that transcend the places of reading and drink from the 1820s: the “lesecafes (reading rooms) where karl marx, friedrich engels, michael bakunin and max stirner would philosophise about the chaos of the world; the less well-off went to less sophisticated places for their entertainment–numerous gartenlokale (garden pubs) [and] zelten-lokales (pubs in tents) which were used both for pleasure and meetings.” the great king of prussia might have asked for a tolerant society but the turn of the century–the welcoming of the world’s 19th era–social class was dividing the city. from prussia to perils, silent walls were being built around berlin.
yet as a passerbyer, i didn’t see any of this. i could only read about it, i could only feel the whispers in the wind while visiting historical sites or paying my respects at memorial shrines. the ‘lescafes’ and ‘gartenlokales’ are still poignant and distinct, delicious espresso and brew, yet lack the romance of yesteryear. but for an instant while sitting at the einstein cafe across from the university where the nobel laureate’s brilliant mind once researched i momentarily felt like a student of the city circa the early 1900s. finishing my weihenstephaner it was time to continue my adventure as a city stroller, a der flaneur.
i’ve taken the defintion of der flaneur as an alternative definition to being a tourist:
city-strolling is like reading the street, where people’s’ faces, displays, shop windows, pavement cafes, rails, cars and trees turn into letters which make up the words, sentences and pages of ever-changing book. a proper city stroll has no particular purpose and because there is so much on offer in the way of entertainment, food, drink, theatre, film or cabaret … one can set out for a walk with no real aim and just allow the adventure to happen.
my travel manifesto to a tee: eat, drink, walk and play my way through a foreign city. strolling, we see more of the world that way.
what i admire most about berlin is her resiliency, how she retaliated when the well fell down in that magical year of 1989. she had overcome the foreign feud of east and west–the troika of britain, american and france against the then soviet union–that inflicted such sorrowing grief:
the division of berlin became more and more of a tourist attraction in the west and the berliners themselves learned to live in a divided city. for one half an island existence became a reality, and the other half slowly came to terms with the white expanses on their maps.
yet she restored her urban divine and perhaps here on this day in 2012 watching the city fusion of languages, sexuality, political beliefs, religion, skin colour, fashion, wealth, poverty and activism, the line between east and west has been permanently erased; replaced by an open tolerance–great king freddy bestowed.
berlin, es ist wie ein gedicht.
source for quoted references: hartel, christian. berlin: a short history. be-bra verlag, 2011.