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Scene in Berlin

Berlin lightens up as foreign smiles trump the grumps

In just two decades Berlin has undergone a major facelift. But it’s not only the buildings that look different - the people have changed as well.

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It occurred to me recently that Berlin has acquired some manners. Whereas once upon a time, not all that many years ago, it had a reputation for extreme rudeness, the German capital now manages to elicit accolades of "cool," "creative," "open" and most surprisingly, "friendly."

When I first moved to the city's former East in 1995, it was anything but. Such shops as there were did not dispense niceties with their goods; a smile cost extra and daring to cross the threshold with anything but the correct change in one's pocket was a crime sometimes severe enough to mean returning home empty-handed.

In restaurants and on public transport the picture was similar. I recall being served a meal I had not ordered and then being told it was my fault and I should just eat it anyway. On a bus I was once refused the right to travel because although I had the correct fare, it was comprised of too many small coins for the driver's taste. In short, the customer was certainly not the proverbial king.

And then there were the neighbors.

"Stop that noise!" " What noise?"

My first experience of Nachbarn from hell was in a flat in Berlin Mitte. I lived above a couple who kept to themselves - and kept a broomstick close at hand. Whenever the sounds of my quiet, unintrusive day-to-day life became too much for them, they would pound it on their ceiling (my floor.) When I saw them on the stairs they would offer me a " Guten Tag" begrudging enough to make me consider moving out. In the end they left before I did, but I have lived above others of their ilk since.

Group of smiling teenagers

There are more smiling faces in Berlin these days...

I'm sure such unfathomably grumpy types are not restricted to the bit of Berlin that languished behind the wall for so many years, but the fact that they exist here at all stands in stark contrast to the much-told tale of GDR camaraderie.

Ask most former citizens of East Germany what they liked about it, and they will tell you that necessity drove them into one another's hearts and homes, and that thus an unbeatable sense of community was born.

Or perhaps not. The fact that during the four decades of its existence more than half a million citizens of the GDR signed up to spy on their friends, neighbors and relatives is a trifling detail that often gets lost on those animated trips down memory lane. But even if the community spirit was stronger than the Rotkaeppchen sparkling wine that was its likely genesis, it didn't make for a friendly city.

Illusory good cheer

I was talking about this issue with a friend of mine, who was born and grew up in East Berlin, the other day. When I challenged her belief that the capital of old was more friendly than the city in which we both live today, she back-tracked a little to concede that what had passed then for cheerfulness was perhaps just an illusion, born of the same necessity that led to the much-lauded sense of community.

If I am surrounded by the tristesse of gray streets and buildings, she went on, am I really going to be open or well-disposed to others? She answered her own question with a succinct "no."

It would be facile to suggest that a coat of paint is enough to change the fabric of a city, but there is absolutely no doubt that Berlin feels more chirpy now than it did when I first got here. In terms of the service sector, this has much to do with management training and the competitive realities of a consumer society, but they cannot explain the new vibe on the street. There, demographics are at play.

Colourful house facades

... and grey facades are starting to be replaced by color

The past few years have seen an increased influx of both Germans from other parts of the country and foreigners who come to Berlin because they want to be here and because they want to help shape the place in which they live. That is not to say that the original East Berliners have packed up and left, as many have not. But they have mixed and mingled to create the "friendly" city that new visitors rave about.

Although I personally wouldn't go so far as to say the modern capital is all about smiles, it has certainly learnt to turn up the corners of its mouth. At my local supermarket, the cashiers have clearly been taught to ask customers if they have had a successful shopping trip. The words sound a little odd coming from some of their pursed lips, but I don't mind because it makes a world of difference.

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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