What’s worse than getting caught in an economic crisis? How about, not? I know it’s wrong to laugh at poverty, even the first-world variety, because there are plenty of sad situations out there.
But when the tongue-in-cheek headline laments, “Can’t even afford a crisis: Berlin’s poverty protects it from downturn”, that’s practically baiting you to light up just a tad bit, no? In the article, the author contends that Berlin is just too “cool” (I’m guessing economically) for the recession.
Recession? What recession? From Berlin, it’s been hard to tell that there is a global economic downturn. A lack of industry and years of high unemployment mean that Germany’s capital can’t sink much further.
And listen to this.
“We don’t feel it at all,” he said. “It’s a lot of theory, this crisis. These financial types, they make crises and they make stimulus packages — it’s all very hypothetical. Everything can’t always keep growing; you can’t have 4 percent growth every year. It just doesn’t have that much to do with real life.”
That’s right, in the eastern frontier named Berlin, the city has long accepted the concept of a no-growth economy. Its lengthy money problems have bizarrely insulated the city from a crisis rippling through from rest of the continent. Its mayor proudly proclaimed the city “poor but sexy” in 2003, when the rest of the world was growing at breakneck pace. With unemployment hovering between fifteen and twenty percent, and a debt of €60 billion, Berlin is no stranger to financial crisis. It’s been in one for twenty years. Or any crisis for that matter, it’s been at those for the past century.
Berlin, from the onset, looks like that grubby teenager with badly dyed hair that’s greasy and streaky, bitten nails, jeans that are too long and hangs too low, with a T-shirt that begs for attention, and when you stare at it for too long, he looks up and glares at your with pure venom and then gives you the finger. And then you hear about his abusive father and alcoholic mother, and learn about him having to look after his grandfather with Alzheimer, has a job in the grocery store and occasionally turn tricks to bail his drug-addicted sister out of trouble. Something like that. That’s how Berlin feels to me: wounded and indignant, angry but indifferent, stalled but trying to push through.
Because everywhere you go in Berlin, you feel it’s a city burdened, no, almost crushed by its history. There is the church with bullet holes from Allied shelling during WWII that the government doesn’t bother to fix nor hide. There are remnants of the Wall everywhere, covered by commissioned graffiti artists. The images are dreamlike, distorted, and scream the existential angst of Edvard Munch. The open air gallery is just next to the river that many died trying to cross during the separation. Some were fired upon, some drowned, some electrocuted as the Soviets put up nets that killed whoever tried to climb the wall.
There were also symbols of endless guilt. On the one hand, Berlin made amends to the allied forces and entire European Jewish population for its wartime crimes. Thus the various open air museums to its wartime aggressions, and its famous and solemn Jewish memorial in the middle of the city. Then, Berlin had to submit to its other master, the Soviets, by allowing the various memorials that commemorated Soviet sacrifices in defeating the Nazis. Angular and symmetric, they are ruthless in construction and the feelings they inspire, awe and fear.
Proceeding to Checkpoint Charlie and its museum, the city finally acknowledges its own suffering through years of Soviet rule. The exhibits conjure up a collection of dark, cynical and hopelessly miserable memories. Then on May 1st, ghost of Berlin past emerged, now in the forms of anarchists, right-wing anti-immigration groups, and left-wing labour unions. They marched on, some peaceful, some violent, scrutinized by nervous police brigades dressed in riot gear, all the while looked on by the many curious Berliners still beholden to Ostalgie.
That is the Berlin I remember from a year ago. Here are some pictures I dug up from the trip.