I was walking down the main street in Neukölln, an area of Berlin, when a middle-aged man stopped me to ask for direction to Hermannplatz, a square in the area. I was rather surprised that someone asked me for directions; I had noticed that in Berlin these kinds of things rarely happen. People mostly go around with their maps, Plus if you want to ask someone for directions, why choose one who obviously looks like a foreigner?
My first thought was that he asked me directions because Berlin is the kind of city in which anybody could be at home, Germans and non-Germans. But it later became apparent that he asked me because he felt that an African might be better inclined to stand and chat with him. From the man’s accent I noticed that he was from Bavaria, the German federal state that is home to FC Bayern Munich. Germans from other parts often describe Bavarians as rural people.
I gave him the direction to the place but warned that he might want to take the Underground, since it was quite some walking distance to Hermannplatz. Then he launched into a commentary about the problem with cities and city life. He said he wondered why everybody seems to be so busy in Berlin. Earphones plugged into ears, faces trained on cellphones, fingers busy on the phones. He said he felt the lack of human contact, while complaining that people seem to be so isolated from each other. He also said that he didn’t expect that things would be like that where I am from.
Of course, this is the kind of thing one always hears of cities. But, Berlin, with its own peculiar history, has contours that are specific to it. Berlin, with the script that history has written for it. John Keane, in the introduction to a book titled Civil Society: Berlin Perspectives writes of the city:
Berlin is a city in which high bourgeois politeness and proletarian good humour have simultaneously flourished, at various times. It is a city that has spawned terrible incivility; witness organised rape and cold-blooded murder by uniformed troops; and suffered under total war that virtually destroyed the local civil society and left the city in chaos.
The second sentence refers to World War II, when Berlin was the most prominent of Hitler’s headquarters. The war ended through the efforts of Soviet Russia and the Allied Forces, and negotiations between them divided Germany into two – East Germany (known as the German Democratic Republic) went to the Communist Bloc, and West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany) went under the influence of the Allied Forces. Further negotiations saw Berlin, which was inside East Germany, divided into two major parts, one for the Russians and the other for the member countries of the Allied Forces.
The Eastern Communist Bloc had emigration restrictions from their countries into Western countries, a restriction that was largely ignored by East Germany until 1961, when the German Democratic Republic started building the Berlin Wall. By then, about 3.5 million East Germans had left for West Germany, many through the East Berlin-West Berlin border. The Wall was built around West Berlin, an area that was directly inside East Germany. The Wall, often referred to as the Iron Curtain separating the Eastern Bloc from the Western Bloc, existed till November 1989. Over a hundred persons died trying to cross the wall during the years it existed. The twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is currently being celebrated.
Like I wrote above, what the middle-aged man said about Berlin is what one normally hears of cities. But Berlin is not your regular European city. Compared to others, there is a laid-back atmosphere that one could only wish for in Paris, London or Amsterdam. It is indeed a place where anybody could be at home. One could almost hear the city saying, ‘I’ve seen a lot of things, you know.’ I can understand the man though; after all, I am a Nigerian living in Berlin. As one would expect, I know a thing or two about being in a different place.