Ich bein ein Berliner

Whenever I travel, I like to do a full economic assessment of the locale, a post-trip post-mortem. Oftentimes, it is not worth writing up, but Berlin was fascinating enough to jot some thoughts down.

Quite a few things were memorable from this trip. (I’ll post some photos later below)

Berlin is a world class city, comparable in most respects to London, Paris or Rome. It is now the 3rd most popular destination in Europe, a marked change from a few decades a ago.

Flying in, you see lots of mixed use — plenty of farms, green fields, small housing and industrial centers. Plenty of wind farms too. I am struck by how green and open the area immediately around Berlin is.

The city is low and wide, minimal towers, lots of open spaces and green areas. A 18th century law requires all streets be tree lined (something that other cities should consider). A combination of new and old, history and modernity stand shoulder to shoulder.

The architecture is delightful – the pre-war buildings that made it through the war were quite impressive; the modern architecture ranges from cliched to Bauhaus to dazzling (photos here).

And, as a City, it is quite affordable -– a 2 bedroom apartment in the (Mitel ?) section just outside Berlin proper runs € 450-500 Euros. ($1.59 buys you a Euro today). In NY, that same apartment would run $2,200-3,300 and up; London is even pricier.

The economy has not been too badly hit by the economic downturn – the financial sector is much smaller here than London or New York. Hey, chase all of my people out of the country 70 years ago, and what you are left with is a nation with a smallish banking sector and not many great delicatessens.

I kept seeing T-shirts for sale that said Berliners – Poor but Happy. I asked several people about it – my Ghanese taxi driver, a staff member at the hotel, a waiter. They said that while there is plenty of economic activity, most people have jobs, but they pay poorly. The living standard of East Berlin is rising post-communism, but the West Berliners are paying the price for this as cheaper labor moves in.

I was staying at the Hotel Adlon, a few steps from the US Embassy and the Brandenburg Gates (photos here)

On a short trip, I tried to avoid the Holocaust museums, as they are a bit emotionally exhausting and require a day to recover from. On my next trip, its a must do. (Perhaps the Holocaust deniers out there can explain how the entire German nation has been fooled into believing the Nazi regime committed unimaginable atrocities).

Instead, I visited the spectacular Pergamon Museum (photos here) and Checkpoint Charlie, with lots of pictures of both. (photos here) The Checkpoint Charlie Museum was poignant and heart rending (photos here) – the many ingenius attempts to escape the Totalitarianism of East Germany were astonishing. The artwork was also inspiring; There is no doubt in my mind that the condition of mankind under the boot of communism is a crime against humanity. Humans were born to be free. Any totalitarian system is unnatural and cruel and crushing to the spirit.

One of the things I noticed were the cars – an intriguing mix of European and Japanese vehicles. I saw a few of the infamous Trabants – they make the mini cooper look spacious. Lots of small Japanese models – Nissan Micra, Toyota Yaris, plus Citroens, Peuegots, Alfas, plus a 4 door Smart car that makes more sense than the little version. There are BWMs and Mercedes that will never make it to our shores – BMW 320i Diesels, micro MBs, other variants. In terms of US made cars, they were very few — I saw a Jeep Grand Cherokee, a few PT Cruisers, lots of Opels, and a ’37 Ford. Speaking of Ford’s – there were plenty of Focus, Fiesta, Kas, Escorts – they seem to be the right size for Europe.

Two last items that were noteworthy: My last name (which is German) was frequently commented on by various people — Customs, Hotel Check In, Restaurants. “Ritholtz – dieses ist ein deutscher name?   “Ja, ist es” I would reply in weak German, which provoked a torrent of language I could not follow. I would meekly reply Mein Deutsch ist nicht guter der (my German is not that good). People seemed to appreciate the effort, regardless of how pathetic it was.

Second, I had a funny experience with the vaunted Teutonic efficiency. Check in at the airport was slow, as their system server was crashing — it took way too long to get a boarding pass. I was pondering this as I went through security, when my check on luggage got flagged for a knife. I have a mini screwdriver in the laptop bag, but it was my roller carry-on that was flagged. They show me the x-ray, and I cannot find anything — until I reach under the corner edge of the bag, and I find an old, rusty (literally) cigar cutter. The blade is in between two pieces of plastic). Must have been in there for 2 years, and no one else ever caught it.  That’s efficient!

Ich bein ein Berliner” is the famous quotation from the June 26, 1963 speech by U.S. President John F. Kennedy. As I sat waiting to fly home, I thought of that speech, of the history of central Europe, of all I saw over the past few days as I made my way around Berlin.

I would love to come back – make a longer weekend of it – you need at least 3 or 5 days to really see and do everything.

I very much look forward to my next visit to Berlin . . .

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