A Messy Existential Reflection on Berlin

: or Berlin will not help us find out who we are

Thinking about Berlin gives me a headache. This is the first problem: I think about it way too much. I, perhaps unwisely, found a city to share with me my daily identity crisis. In the morning I peek through my curtain, assess the grayness of the sky, and worry for about 12 or so minutes if I am cool or smart or funny enough to leave the apartment and be seen in public. I consider the repercussions of not getting up, of forgetting where I actually am and creatively transporting myself back to New York, someplace decidedly less stressful. I am fortunate to have commitments, however. So I get up. I imagine though that Berlin (to anthropomorphize the city and further complicate things) has a similar neurotic morning regiment. But Berlin is much worse off than I am because she’s been struggling with this nonsense for centuries. It was once said about the city – early in the last century or late in the one before that, I can’t remember – Berlin wird, wird, wird. Nie zu Ende. Berlin becomes, becomes, becomes. Never to end. A haunting prophecy. And it’s so true! What the hell is this place really? How many articles are printed saying Berlin is this thing or that, arm aber sexy, morbid, hopeful, dying, being reborn, too full, too ausländery, really cheap, getting expensive, not enough flats in Neukölln, too many in Hellersdorf, is it supposed to snow this much in winter? Everyone is trying to put their finger on the pulse of this place. But no one actually knows if blood is really flowing, or if we’re just feeling our own egotistical heartbeats.

The first time I lived in Berlin I was studying abroad with my East-coast hippie college. One of our assignments at the end of our stay was to pen a reflection about our time in Berlin. Part Tripadvisor hotel review, part hallucinogenic soul-searching, jazz-inspired personal narrative (think Allen Ginsburg in San Francisco): this was the academic caliber at which we were expected to perform (it’s actually a really great school). In my reflection I go on for a bit with some academic-y blah-de-blah about the subjunctive tone, which defined my early days in Berlin. I listed all I thought could have been in this city. To quote myself, I had pretentious fantasies of becoming “the scholar; the artist; the fluent expatriate.” Of course I am pretending to make fun of that right now, but honestly, I don’t think I’ve actually deviated much from these conceited ideals. Depending on how much human contact I’ve had or how much I’ve had to drink, I might sincerely think one of those things about myself. (This is, by the way, why no one should read Hemmingway.) On those special days when I find myself being particularly pathetically human, when I don’t get out of bed and watch TV and read online articles about something fucked up someone marginally important said on twitter, I imagine (somewhat arrogantly) that I am the only person in sweatpants, surrounded by various electrical chords, müsli flakes, and empty Club Mate bottles. I think: I do not deserve to be here. I eye the books I bought, my art supplies, the clock, and climb deeper into my duvet.

I do have a number of disparate lives here. I am at once resident, Anglo-expat, university student, tourist, 20-something single female, etc. Each of these categories is steeped in its own set of expectations, none of which I think I am qualified to fill. Some of these identities work well together, others seems to conflict. Any non-comatose person alive today is confronted at some point in their life with their particular role in whichever milieu they happen to have been shoved into. Worrying about who we are, what it means, to which end, who benefits, is very human – so much so that it hovers on the banal. What complicates the situation is the specific backdrop against whatever existential queries are being presented. As I articulated before, Berlin is its own crazy thing. Less a background and more of an agitated piece of scenery, threatening to topple over and kill us all. How are we supposed to figure out who the hell we are, when we are actively trying to shape and define the very context in which we live? How do I come to peace with my various roles when I can’t even imagine what this city means?

The first piece I ever wrote about Berlin concerned the tension between Berlin as historical-city and Berlin as global-city. My attention was turned to the bit spanning from the Reichstag over the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, to Potsdamer Platz. Though lots of other problems and tensions have captured my attention since, this little section is especially fucked up. Since the fall of the Wall, Berlin’s identity crisis has seemed to reach hyper-neurotic heights. They moved the entire capital of the Bundesrepublik from Bonn to Berlin, automatically thrusting this very raw and confused city into the national spotlight as the representative of the newly reunified nation. As if Berlin did not have problems enough with large gaping holes where a death-strip had casually cut its way across the city center, sex shops opening up in deprived East Berlin, U-Bahn lines that had to be reconnected, and various people who spoke the same language having to deal with seeing even more idiots on the street everyday. All at once everyone threw all their hopes and dreams for Germany of the future on this ugly little town, like the only surviving child after an accident. The Reichstag/Memorial/Postdamer Platz line is the trifecta of delusional expectations (meiner Meinung nach).

Despite all the work, the endless construction projects (endless!), groundbreaking events, candle-lightings, public forums, open debate, op-ed editorials, etc. nothing really definitive has happened. The more one tries to make a statement about the city, the more volatile it becomes. On the former site of the East German Palast der Republik they are (re)erecting the Hohenzollern palace. One historical site has been uprooted for another. At face value, the old Hohenzollern dynasty seems less scary than the legacy of the DDR, but that doesn’t mean it deserves memorial preference. This is merely another example of attempting to stamp the face of the city with a declarative statement: this is who we are. Everyone who lives here (everyone!) scoffs at these gestures. But is there an appropriate one? This is exactly the problem, why getting out of bed can be so difficult – there is no “right” way to live here and somehow we fool ourselves into thinking that there is, that we’ll serendipitously come across it and all these identity-crises will slow down to a halt. These crises play out on so many levels: the individual – each of us who came here not sure of what would happen, who we would be; the cultural – what kinds of people live here? How have they shaped the city?; the historical – what memories have been preserved? What does the cityscape want us to remember? What is being forgotten?; the entrepreneurial –the businesses that are opening up shop, linking Berlin to other zones of trade and commerce, turning it into a generic global-city; even the national – what does it mean to be German? Who is a German? Who is the government (based in Berlin) working for? Of course there are even more layers, but this just a taste to show how far we are from resolution. I am happy to live here, happy to be thrown off guard by all of this frantic searching. It’s best not too think to hard about why we’re here, what we’ll get out of it. The city, up to her elbows in her own quandaries, cannot help us make sense of ourselves. I like it that way.

It reminds of Wim Wender’s beautiful film Wings of Desire (Himmel über Berlin) when the angels are listening in on everyone’s thoughts. They wander around the city, into people’s apartments, the Staatsbibliothek, and the field where the wall had been and where Potsdamer Platz would later be (re)constructed. Each person, somehow dealing with this city in transition, is fixated on their on thoughts, worries, fears. The city is changing dramatically around them and no matter what happens, they’ll still be moving amongst each other, concerned with themselves while walls continue to fall down around them and everything physical transforms. Today the city looks quite different from the one in the film, but somehow we know it’s the same place – it is familiar. Despite the shape shifting, we grasp on to something constant. As cliché as it might sounds, perhaps the only stable thing about this place is its inability to take shape.

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