10 Things About Berlin

I arrived in Berlin having never spent any time in Germany apart from what must add up to a few days in the Frankfurt Airport (sorry “Flughafen”) and knowing almost no German. Here are some incredibly pedestrian insights resulting from that set of circumstances.

1. From outside the U-Bahn, it sounds just like the Washington D.C. subway. From inside, once the doors open, the recorded voice says a word that sounds an awful lot like “Ookla.” Then the recording says something in German that means “get in, please.”

2. The S-Bahn is lame. At least at night. The u-bahn provides maps that can be figured out in their stations. The S-bahn provides maps but four people with PhDs couldn’t make sense of them. Maybe the PhD is getting too easy to acquire. . . .

3. Like all European cities, you are surrounded by history, but this history is heavily mediated. Much of the division between east and west has been erased, at least to the causal visitor bumbling around the city. Which makes sense since the division itself was so violent and artificial.

4. People really do seem to refer to themselves as “Berliners.” I had that stupid joke running through my head the whole time.

5. I learned that this very cool letter — ß — is pronounced “ss” and that the Swiss got rid of it. German, like French, has language commissions that actually make decisions about these kinds of things.

6. The museum of musical instruments has in its holdings a string bass from about 300 years ago that looks like it could not have been played by fewer than two people, given that people were smaller then. The neck was like a tree trunk. A small tree, but still.

7. “Please” and “you’re welcome” are the same word.

8. They’re “almost out” of East German kitch at the tourist sites. Supposedly the best place to find it is a flea market on Sundays, but I wasn’t there for a Sunday. I did pick up the last tourist guide to East Berlin ever published by the East German government. That’s something, isn’t it? Oh, and a few “wall chunks” of questionable origin. Anyway, the guy at Berlin Story, which is one of the better stores for touristy stuff just said to me “look, it’s been sixteen years.” Sixteen years of stupid Americans like me showing up looking for kitch for their families.

9. It’s not as bad for vegetarians as you might think. Oh, and apparently gummy bears are German. I always assumed they were American. They seem like the kind of thing that gets invented off the New Jersey Turnpike from gelatin byproducts. (I like them too, don’t get me wrong). But they’re so perfectly artificial, how could they not be an invention of American cuisine like the blue raspberry icee? Or pop rocks?

10. I’ll be back.

Photo essay and short report on the conference still to come.

3 replies on “10 Things About Berlin”

  1. Glad you enjoyed the place, in all its crazy historical richness.

    The term bandied about in reference to GDR kistch is Ostalgie. The fleamarkets are the best to find it, and they don’t all run on Sunday. You’ll do well to find more options in the summer.

    You’ll often hear “Bitte” used as “Please”

    The Museum of Technology is pretty amazing as well.

    If you spend a bit of time there, you will notice that East and West are quite distinct, actually. The West looks like it’s stuck in a time warp (circa Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three”); the East rapidly gentrified.

    It’s a shame the Palast was gone. A great icon and symbol which was the subject of great debate for many years before it was torn down earlier this year.

    I can rip a copy of a great documentary on the rebuilding of Berlin, “Berlin Babylon,” and send it your way if you like.

    Ask me for some tips next time you go. Happy to give you pointers on where to go.

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