Fear of a Vanilla Cityby Gustav Preller / 05.02.2010
Eastwards: “Luxury cars and toilet paper for everyone.”
It was a December night and I was in a Volksküche – a sort of wannabe soup kitchen for cultivated ascetics – off the Frankfurter Allee in Friedrichshain. I was there on ratty sofas with two girls who worked for the department of economic development and collaboration – a government department that gives German tax money to third world countries (they call them developing countries or “partner lands”) – to develop.
Franziska was chronicling her spiritual revelations during a Jacobean pilgrimage in Spain. A guy with a head consisting 50% of dreadlocks and 50% of skin, overheard the conversation and added his experience of the same pilgrimage: “I went on that pilgrimage and it was like all walking in semi-desert and all…and with all those 20 person dorms I couldn’t have sex with my girlfriend. So we hitchiked down to Portugal. And then there was sex again.”
We were drinking cheap Glühwein and eating the three-course vegan, organic, fairly-and-communally-prepared-by-young-people-who-work-for-love-and-not-for-any-filthy-system, lentil soup, when I heard the shocking sentence:
“Berlin isn’t sexy anymore.”
I looked around the smoggy, squalid room. Vintage German music was playing through the boom-boxes. The room was populated by dread-locks, piercings, leather jackets and pavement specials – all in some state of devouring red lentil soup. No one seemed to notice the heretic.
The slander couldn’t have been aimed at the über-sassy German capital which even its mayor once called, “Poor, but sexy”. No way.
“Berlin is getting fat,” the slanderer continued, rolling a cigarette from a pouch of American Spirit tobacco. “It’s like its lard-filled toes are popping out of it’s retro-high heels. It’s gotten fat. Not curvy, cute phat. FAT.”
It was the über-sassy Hauptstadt.
The slanderer wore black Diesel Design Lab shoes, slightly roughened. I could see he was German from his pastel cardigan and the €40 haircut that left him with a blonde fringe licking his forehead.
“Soon Berlin will be just another European city… This place will probably be a dentist’s waiting room. The island is sinking! This June, I’m quitting my job with my girlfriend. It’s going to be the last proper Berlin party-summer.”
A stray mutt wormed through the coats on the floor and started licking the lacquered shoes. The Diesel Design Lab shoes.
I went to get more Glühwein at the counter. The guy behind the counter was wearing a T-shirt reading “Free Palestine.” I scraped my €2 coin on the counter, but he was slow in responding – he was rolling a joint. I stole a glimpse into the kitchen to see if it was still in operation. Cabbage on the counters shared space with dirty squeegees, and lead paints. A poster on the kitchen door revealed that the room was used as a silk-screening workshop on Tuesdays, a meeting hall for the Neo-Marxists on Wednesdays.
Stepping into the Damen/Herren restroom on my way out, I found strategically written in permanent marker on the brown tiles: “Luxury cars and toilet paper for everyone.”
Once “poor, but sexy”, a spectre is haunting Berlin. It is a spectre so horrifying the German language had to borrow a name for it from English. Gentrification. Barely has that word been uttered and the dread-locks smoothen, the tattoos peel off, and the piercings cannon out.
“Berlin has always been kind of an island,” a British guy who runs the bookshop East of Eden on Schreinerstrasse told me. “When it was still West-Berlin, Berlin was a place of draft-ditchers and students, who lived off the heaps of Deutschmarks pumped in from the West. After reunification, with all the combined East-West living space and rock-bottom rent, Berlin still has that irresponsible playground feel. It also has the dark ex-communism charm. It’s a place where people come to be something else.”
Something else indeed: the biggest sin if you are young and in Berlin is being spiessig.
Becoming a pram-pusher in Prenzlauerberg is being spiessig. Practising monogamy, making coffee the next morning, thinking of 2009, pursuing a viable career, having money, owning a car, driving a car – these are all very spiessig.
Spiessig adj. Bourgeois, square, middle-class.
For Germans, known for their frugal, hardworking – essentially spiessig habits – the possibility of escaping these values makes Berlin the perfect German-speaking Utopia. But it’s not as if ‘other’ Germans are very welcome in Berlin. If you don’t pronounce your Ich like Icke (Eeeh-kuh), and if you can’t appreciate Berlin’s fine cuisine of the Currywurst (a crumpled vienna-sausage dished up with a slop of red sauce on a paper tray) you remain an alien. You might even be thought of as a Schwabe – Germans from the power-house state of Baden-Würrtemberg. Schwaben are spiessig. Schwaben are the ones believed to be turning feral communes into young family apartments (where they also clutter the staircases with prams). They are the ones that are cobbling the weedy lots. They are the ones photographing the graffiti and tearing those über-designed graffiti-stickers off the lampposts to paste them in their scrapbooks for showing mama back in Stuttgart what’s happening in the Hauptstadt.
But Germany being Germany, – a country that pays you €400 a month if you are unemployed and up to €600 pocket-money for being a student – the bourgeois gentrification of Berlin is no paranoia – it’s just an expression of the (secretly) rich reality.
On 21 November 2009 the Berliner Morgenpost reported that one of the last squatter-apartment blocks in the tinselled-up Eastern borough of Mitte was being evicted. After reunification, many old empty buildings in the city were squatted in by those seeking well… something non-spiessig. The ‘squatters’ were evicted when 600 policemen charged the building to evict 12 healthy-looking youths who were found flying a drooping anarchy flag on the roof.
But the rift in East Berlin is not just one between property-developers and urban hippies. Albeit a cliche, the wall is still very much a reality in Berliners’ minds.
Anything West-Berlin is thought of as consumerist, conservative, wealthy – essentially spiessig. Anything East-Berlin is sexy, edgy, fresh.
Martin, an IT guy, explained the mindset to me: “Many Wessis are proud that they have never set foot beyond their Berlin – which ends where the wall once stood, at Bahnhof Zoo. Many Ossis (East Berliners) are equally proud to have never stepped beyond Friedrichstrasse.”
Curious about this mindset (of people that mostly look similar and speak the same language) I decided to head West.
Westwards: Dimmed decadence
I didn’t see much of a difference as I got out at Bahnhof Zoo. There was a decent Burger King, which seemed to have been there for a while, and the usual kebab shops. But nothing excessive. Most surprisingly: nothing new. I walked down Kurfürstendamm street. The place smacked of 70’s money. It was a boulevard of moody hotels, once-swanky cabaret bars with lights blown out, sex shops with video-cabins. The only sign of apparent affluence was that the Currywurst stand only sold organic sausages.
Nothing was new. Nothing was freshened-up with reunification money. West-Berlin felt like East Berlin probably felt to Westerners when the wall was still there. It was a bubble. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing poor about it: it had the usual website-feel of store names. But the fur and cigar shops, didn’t seem to be thriving. And even-though some kebab stores advertised champagne, I doubted they still served it.
Dulled, I decided to subway over to Kreuzberg, a part of town the Australian backpackers that write for Lonely Planet would probably call “the hip scene of Berlin”.
It started snowing. In Oranienstrasse there were many musty cafes, kebab shops, art-related outlets. But there was also, finally, a dingy bar. The streets were slushing-up. I entered the bar. Two drunks were standing by the counter, drinking beer from heavy glasses. They spoke about someone going to prison. The bar lady with the Russian accent and red tracksuit tapped me a beer in a heavy glass and I sat down at the counter. There was a Kenyan woman playing a SUPERNOVA slot machine. She spoke of her rural village and of how she once put €20 into the machine and won €50. The fruit bars weren’t aligning this time. The drunk told me he would be closing the blinds in his apartment that night and drinking a bottle of Tequila alone.
Southwards: Back to Joburg
Berlin is probably an important city for Germans. It is kind of what Cape Town is to privileged Gauteng suburbanites, what California is to land-locked Americans: a place where you can, apparently, be “something else”.
The one thing Berlin shows any South African is to appreciate the roughness of our cities. There is still honesty – often horrific poverty – in our grit. Our grit is reality, not decor. Berlin is trying to keep its remaining grit alive, trying to sustain its mild squalor as a non-bourgeois fashion statement. It’s not working. In South Africa it’s there. Okay, maybe not in Parktown, Umhlanga, Brooklyn, Clifton and other space stations…but you don’t have to go far to find it. South Africans know how not to romance the squalid. Pseudo-poverty – it just isn’t sexy.