Ich bin Berliner

Reichstag
Reichstag

The title of this post is the proper way to say it. When JFK said “Ich bin ein Berliner” he said “I am a jelly doughnut”.  These details are important. Be careful when you use the indefinite article in German, especially if you are from Frankfurt or Hamburg.

In proper French fashion we went someplace else for the month August. Unlike so many others, we did not go to the south of France – we already live there. Instead we spent the month in Berlin. It was unexpectedly wonderful. Indeed, Berlin may be the best city in the world.

We arrived on August 1st into the Tegel Airport: Brussel Airlines from Marseille-Provance Airport to Brussels, a brief layover and change of planes, then on to Berlin. After gathering our bags and heading outside the airport terminal,  we looked for transportation to our apartment.  Because we were five with suitcases, we could not fit into a normal taxi. I walked over to the taxi boss to request he send along a bigger van for us. Now began the excavation in my brain of my long dormant German.

Me: Guten tag. Wir sind fünf mit Gepäck. Gibt es ein größeres Taxi für uns?
(Good day. We are five with baggage. Is there a larger taxi for us?)

So far, so good.

Taxi guy: Ja, freilich. Wann brauchen Sie es?
(Yes, certainly. When do you need it?)

He understood me. I understood his reply.

Me:  Maintenant, bitte.
( Now please)

Taxi guy: Was ist das?!

My last reply was a mixture of French (maintenant) and German (bitte). This problem would recur throughout the month: my foreign language replies would be a mixture of French and German. When my brain took the path of Not English when trying to speak German, the result was a convoluted speech with mixed results (nothing new, really). I see it as foreshadowing of future dementia.   Over time the sentences became mostly German, but for the longest time I continued to say “Ich möchte gern ein verre de vin rouge.”

My friend Tony has reported a similar, if less severe problem. Tony has lived in France, and I assume took a few years of Spanish while in high school in Long Beach. Every Fall when he hires temporary workers to help with the harvest on his vineyard, he tries to speak to them in Spanish.  Tony says that what actually comes out of his mouth is some unintended Franco-Spanish mixture. He says the workers smile politely, then turn to their capo for instructions.  But at least in either tongue he was still in the Gallo Iberian language family; my problems were more profound.

A few anecdotes describing why I think Berlin is the best city in the world:

  • we stayed in an apartment in the Kreuzberg section of Berlin. We were one block from the Bergmannstrasse, where there’s a concentration of good restaurants with outdoor seating.  The clean and pleasing building architecture is not unlike the Marina in San Francisco, but better. On the back streets there are smaller restaurants and cafes and many parks for kids.
  • the museum, music, and other cultural trappings are numerous and hold their own against the traditional heavies of London, Paris, and New York. Among the highlights on this trip were the German Technical Museum, the Museum of Asian Art at the Dahlem Museums, and the Old Master Paintings.
  • on a hot Sunday we took the S-bahn and U-bahn (schnell- and unterstrasse-) to the SchlactenSee. We rented a couple of row boats, we swam in the lake, and failed to keep our beers cold enough even though them over the side of the boat in plastic bags.
  • there’s an excellent municipal pool system. The one nearest us had several pools, including an outdoor 50 meter pool.
  • there might be more bikes here than in the Netherlands or any Chinese city. The city is full of bike lanes.
  • Berlin is remarkably clean and quiet for such a big city. I heard only two car horns the whole time we were there.
  • it’s affordable. From everything we can tell regarding rents, food costs, dining in restaurants, it’s much cheaper here than in any comparable European city. Prices were comparable to Marseille, which is cheap relative to the rest of France.

There’s much more that’s wonderful and some that isn’t: the used books stores with titles in all languages; the Topography of Terror museum; a surprsingly diverse population (I remember Germany as being much more homogeneous, and maybe the rest of the country is); the Stasi Museum; the Berlin Philharmonie, Zoo, and Tier Park (Animal Park).

Aliens should visit Berlin to see us at our best and our worst.

It’s not a perfect city. Berlin is located well inland, so winter and summer extremes can be nasty compared to those calibrated to say, coastal California. Berlin sits north of latitude 52 which means winter days are very short. For some sports Berlin is lacking. Sailors will have to get by with lake sailing, skiers won’t find much nearby, and surfers are out of luck unless they are willing to do stand up paddling.

To be sure Berlin had the advantage of us recently living in Marseille, but I think our impressions are more due to how Berlin really is, not how it compares. Annie wants us to move to Berlin for a while. I’m going to have to bone up on my German.

I studied in Heidelberg  many years ago.  During that time I made several trips to Berlin. I had not been back to Germany until our trip this summer. Below is a short list comparing the country and city then and now.

Flag of Berlin
East Berlin, 1984
Berlin 2012
Number of GermanysTwoOne
CapitalsBonn and East BerlinBerlin
CurrenciesDeutsche Mark and Mark der deuteschenEuro
LeadersHelmut Kohl and Erich HoneckerAngela Merkel
Length of Berlin Wall140kmLess than 3km, all in memorials
Staying in touchLetters, phone calls, visitsA different kind of wall
Cheap flights to EuropeIcelandic AirCheck your favorite search engine
Cheap flights within EuropeDidn't existRyan Air, Easy Jet
Travel GuideLet's Go, Fodor's, Frommer'sLonely Planet, Rough Guide, Trip Advisor
Definitive German carPorschePorsche
Great beersPaulner, Franziskaner, AyingerPaulner, Franziskaner, Ayinger
Performance art at hip Berlin localeNaked people rolling over plastic Champagne glasses while someone read a poemEnglish language comedy improv in the cellar of a newly opened bar
BaguettesNot goodNot good

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