Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Letter from Berlin

with one comment

Now that Germany is such a heavy-weight in Europe, non-German European politicians should do more of traveling in Germany in order to understand the Germans a bit better. After just a few hours in Berlin I had understood that it’s not just German politicians who like to tell their foreign counterparts how to do things – this is indeed very much a German character trait and it’s well-intended

Asking the bus driver at Schönefeld airport if there were other buses going into Berlin he pointed at an info point a few meters from the bus where I could study the various travel options. Having done that, I opted for the bus. Once again on the bus, I asked for a ticket. Sighing, the bus driver pointed at the ticket machine next to the info point – I could have bought the ticket there, he said; then he would not have to sell me the ticket and lots of good things would have ensued from it, which did not happen now that I had not had the foresight to buy the ticket from the machine.

The following day, a taxi driver to whom I made some comment about the Berlin traffic gave me a long lecture on how best to drive in Berlin. Unfortunately for the traffic and Berlin travellers, not so many drivers were as enlightened as my driver.

I came to think of all the media coverage where various European non-German politicians have aired their irritation with their German counterparts lecturing them on economic prudency and other virtues Germans feel they are better endowed with than most others. This is generally taken as German politicians being arrogant. My first 24 hours in Berlin taught me otherwise – the willingness to lecture others is a German trait in general. If non-German European politicians spent a few days in Germany they would understand the Germans better – and, most of all, understand that it is well meant, not just arrogance.

That said, I warmly recommend spending some time in Berlin. I adore living in London but Berlin has some great things to offer – and most of all, it can teach us (yes, a bit of lecturing here) some interesting things about what makes a city an interesting city.

What the indies tell us about Berlin – and London

On the corner of Unter den Linden, facing one of the tourist magnets of the city – Brandenburger Tor – there is a Starbuck café. Otherwise, the city is full of independent coffee shop. My favourite part of Berlin is where I happened to be staying this time, Die Mitte and it is, as other parts of the city attracting youngish crowd, full of very tempting cafés. This being such a great neighbourhood, I spent most of my time there, as well in Kreuzberg, around Bergmannstrasse.

The cafés hark back to the pre-war times and the city’s cultural life. But it is also a sign of the fact that although property prices have gone up quite a bit in the last few years it still seems possible to make a living by running just one café in the centre.

Another sign of the same are all the antiquarians. For anyone who loves books, Berlin is a wonderful place to peruse. And prices are low. I picked up an Insel Verlag book with a great selection of Otto Dix’ work for €3 – no need to read German to enjoy it.

Then there are the small shops of fashion and design – again, shows that small can be done in Berlin.

In London, independent places like these can be found almost nowhere in the centre. The number of independent coffee places might be going up in central London but it seems that these places are quite often a hopeful first in planned mini-chains and chains. Second-hand books are now mostly found in charity shops in central London. Very few second-hand bookshops are run by dedicated book lovers any more, as the Berlin shops in the centre.

Yes, London has benefitted from being the favoured place of bankers, oligarchs, wealthy entrepreneurs and other billionaires. But this influx of money has killed off everything that makes Berlin a vibrant and quirky place. And part of the vibrancy and quirkiness comes from the artists, both German and foreign – quite a number of British artists among them – who find Berlin such a congenial place to live and work in.

Berlin house-prices – upward movement but still on a human level

My Berlin friends tell me that house prices have gone up a lot in the last four or five years. However, the square-metre in Mitte, one of the more expensive parts of central Berlin, is around €3.500. A four-room flat (three bedrooms, one living room) with one bathroom can be rented for €700 a month, in Mitte. A four-room flat (two bedrooms, two living rooms) with two bathrooms in Kreutzberg costs €1400 a month. And so on. Compared to London, this is heaven.

Ever since Berlin replaced Bonn as a capital there has been talk about an imminent property boom in Berlin. But in spite of recent up-ward trend it has not really happened. Not on the scale of London, not even on the scale of Paris. The bureaucrats who moved from Bonn to Berlin, used to the leafy villa quarters in Bonn, opted for the Berlin suburbs and did not move prices in the centre.

The bankers are still in Frankfurt – Gott sei Dank, from the point of view of those with less well-paying jobs, such as the artists that flock to Berlin. Creative industries such as design and advertisement are also increasing their presence. What could move the prices are people from pharmaceuticals and other industries that are increasingly settling down in Berlin.

Russians are now flocking to buy property in Helsinki, moving the market there. So far, nothing like this has happened in Berlin. Eric Schmidt chairman of Google, preparing to fork out £30m for a suitable London home, could buy a whole quarter of Berlin Mitte for that sum.

But then, some of the most fantastic flats in Mitte can’t be bought for ready money at all – the city itself owns some stunning flats in Mitte, true “Herrschaftswohnungen,” and offers artists to live there for a very decent rent.

Where the UK does not exist

It was an interesting experiment reading the German papers en masse every day. Plenty of coverage of all things Europeans, usually with some focus on the stance of other leading EU countries on the various issues. Britain was hardly ever mentioned except there was some weird news about Prince Charles and his tenants. So much for the British political relevance on the continent.

Germans do politics differently from the British. In so many ways. One thing is that German politicians are not afraid of serious culture like opera. Chancellor Angela Merkel attends Wagner operas in Bayreuth and the press invariably covers her visits as those of other politicians. For the last many years, I cannot remember ever having seen news of a leading UK politician going to Glyndebourne or the Royal Opera (and if they do, they seem to go incognito). Germans are not afraid of art and culture nor are German politicians afraid to show their interest in the kind of culture the British call posh.

There is just a much more ingrained interest in culture in Germany than there is in Britain. It shows in the newspapers – plenty of serious culture-related articles. Earlier this year, Die Zeit published a 40 page supplement where leading philosophers wrote on various topics.

In addition, there are all the German regional papers, can’t remember if Berlin has two or three and they are good. Much more substantial than just real estate ads and short news on a blotter being seen in a park. But Germany doesn’t have anything like the BBC – but then, the BBC is pretty unique.

– – – –

Mainstream shopping is not my thing (Kurfürstendamm is i.a. the street for that in Berlin) but there are certain very interesting shops in Berlin.

I don’t hesitate to say that The Different Scent, at Krausnickstrasse 12 in Mitte, must be one of the most interesting and exciting perfume shops in the world. Not only does it sell the best of young labels like the Geneva-based Ys-uzac (the maker of Pohadka, a stunningly intriguing and original scent as well as other of their interesting scents like Lale, Metabole and Monodie and its brand-new additions, Immortal Love and Satin Doll) but the shop owner has a fantastic insight and knowledge of the rarefied world of scent. This shop is just about scent and the discovery of the best made and most interesting scents and I love the fact that the décor is Spartan, firmly placing the attention on the essentials, the scents sold there.

For those interested in costume jewellery, Berlin is haven. At markets there are stalls with interesting offers, even at collectors’ level. Rianna, Grosse Hamburger Strasse 25, Mitte, has a fabulous selection of costume jewellery, also new pieces in a vintage shop with an extraordinary selection of clothes from labels such as Pucci, Yves Saint-Laurent and Dries van Noten, mostly echoing the Greek Rianna’s own love of interesting bling and riotous colours. As can be expected in a specialised shop the prices are in accordance with the pieces, not cheap, but for anyone interested this is a place that holds many wonders.

There are so many vintage shops in Berlin – one of its many attractions – and “No Name” at Torstrasse 62, Mitte, has a great selection of costume jewellery, as well as clothes, carefully chosen by its young owner with a great eye for quality and originality. The reasonable prices are part of the joy of visiting this small but excellent place.

The Barn is a café, on Koppenplatz, just off Auguststrasse with good coffee, great sandwiches and cakes (German cafés all seem to do cappuccino with soft froth whereas I prefer the Italian stiff, dry froth but the coffee in so many of the Berlin cafés is exceptionally good).

Bar+wine shop, Not just another Riesling Schleiermacherstrasse 25 (side street from Bergmanstrasse, Kreutzberg, by the market hall, great if you are buying food to cook) is a welcoming place where you get to taste wine before buying it and can have any bottle + €9 corkage to drink, also some nice cheese and charcuterie. Had a fabulously interesting Saignée from Josten & Klein, a lovely and fresh sparkling Mosel (I think) whose name I did stupidly not write down and one of the most interesting red wines I have had recently, the Spanish Bancal del Bosc 2011 – all of these wines around €15 or less.

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

July 15th, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Posted in Iceland

One Response to 'Letter from Berlin'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Letter from Berlin'.

  1. “The Germans, German politicians, German Character”
    Should I talk of “the consumer”…..
    I was told 10% of Germans own two third of national wealth. Therefore a generic term like consumer hides such disparity that it becomes meaningless.


    20 Jul 13 at 12:40 pm

Leave a Reply