Somewhere in the post-Nietzsche world of German socio-cultural philosophy, it was decided: forget God, Berlin is dead. At least, that’s what scores of think-piecey type articles from every think-piecey type magazine have been saying. The city was put on the map sometime after the fall of the Berlin wall for its cheap rents, thriving gay scene, fantastic street art, and abandoned warehouse spaces that lend themselves easily to whatever performance art space/vintage sweater shop/”Eyes Wide Shut”-style orgy you might be hoping to arrange.
Now the city is overrun with flannel-shirted Brooklyn transplants shouting at each other across tiny coffee shops about how to get in the door at some three-day-long, non-stop rave in a former Soviet bowling alley that only plays Billy Joel songs backwards.
For longtime Berlin residents and fresh central Connecticut transplants alike, it’s surreal and exhausting. And like woodland animals and mom jeans before it, Berlin now finds itself in the midst of a divisive backlash.
A quick interjection: I didn’t come to Berlin just to people watch in cafés, to eavesdrop on conversations while in line for clubs, or to contemplate the changing fate of an “it” city. I came to see a new culture, confront history, have immersive learning experiences, and fill a Facebook album called “Das Wastedddd #berlin” with pictures of me drinking beer out of a comically oversized Stein. But in the process of doing all of these things, I couldn’t help but notice a weird sort of hyper-awareness Berlin has of its own coolness.
In a way, it felt familiar. I’ve spent two years at Wesleyan engaged in debates about whether or not Wes has lost the quintessential weirdness that made it distinct from its ’CAC-ier peers, and whether or not there’s some inevitable trade-off between Patagonias and performance art or Econ majors and naked parties (though the averted eyes in my Micro class suggested this one wasn’t true). And I came to Wes from Austin, a city so jealously guarding what little quirkiness it still has that we have to mass-produce T-shirts espousing our desire to “Keep Austin Weird.”
So Berlin feels something like home, mixed up in constant “we’ve still got it” vs. “it’s been gone since the ’90s” dilemmas. I’m used to the omnipresent self-consciousness of buzz cities, as well as the inevitable debates, both important (such as the ramifications of gentrification and changing economic landscapes) and less so (are people from Brooklyn or L.A. more annoying when they talk about how mad cheap beer is?).
So what stands out the most in Berlin isn’t the fact that you feel like you’re walking around an American Apparel photo shoot, or that no one goes out before 3 a.m.; it’s those moments of genuine German Weirdness. I can pass a thousand tattooed skinny dudes in all black smoking their cigarettes in the line for a naked club, but inevitably somewhere nearby is one mustachioed 50-year-old man wearing forest green shorts and matching knee-high, forest-green socks tucked into neat Birkenstocks. No matter how many wanderlust-filled hipsters cross international waters to pour into Berlin, they can’t turn it into a sausage-filled Brooklyn. The city seems somehow unwilling or unable to completely subvert its own genuine weirdness to something more palatable.
A lot of this probably comes from the German affinity for order and neatness. On a recent class hike through the woods, my German professor, who, despite the sun and heat, was wearing his standard three-piece suit, pointed out a tag hanging from a nearby tree.
“Typisch Deutsch,” he said, explaining that the German government has a list of literally every tree in the entire country. Similarly, in downtown Berlin, there’s a bridge to which lovers, like in Paris, affix locks bearing their initials. The German police regularly come through and cut every lock from its rail, presumably detesting the cluttered look.
Berliners simply don’t have time for your hipster nonsense. They have a tortured relationship with something like street art, which is beautiful and explosive throughout Berlin, but adheres to a fundamental logic, only adorning certain types of buildings in certain types of neighborhoods. You can certainly have a crazy, Ketamine-fueled night of trance-dancing until noon, but if you’re meeting a German, you show up on time, not a minute after 3 a.m.
Just like Austinites will still love greasy breakfast tacos after the hipsters move on to some newer city for some newer food (I heard Pittsburgh has an artisanal toast scene that’s really coming into its own), the German quest for order and cleanliness will almost certainly outlast whatever übercool status the country has achieved.
The Germans actually seem okay with that. Maybe the burden of being home to all this messy coolness is something that Berlin is ready to do away with. And as the think-piece backlash suggests, the twenty-something club-goers also seem ready to hand off Berlin’s cool credentials. Maybe to a place like Leipzig: somewhere further east, somewhere more ravaged by communist rule, somewhere with cheaper rent and a less saturated market for third-wave coffee. Like some post-modern proletariats, the hipsters will pick up their ukulele cases and leave the warehouses-turned-clubs as empty as they found them, littered with empty prescription pill bottles and half-drunk craft beers. And when they do, the Germans will be there, industrial brooms in hand.