Berlin 24/7: Why many Berliners feel at home in a department store | Berlin 24-7 | DW | 25.03.2018
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Berlin 24-7

Berlin 24/7: Why many Berliners feel at home in a department store

The KaDeWe is one of the largest department stores in the world and a place to revisit the Berlin of yesteryear. While many treat it as a second home, for columnist Gero Schliess it's also a place for farewells.

My anticipation is running high. Good friends from Washington are on their way to Berlin and have gotten in touch to let me know. But before I can welcome them, they've let everyone on Facebook know where the most important address is in Berlin. It's not my apartment, but the Oyster Bar at the Kaufhaus des Westens, or the department store of the West — KaDeWe for short. They post a photo that shows them in the company of a friend, Marie, slurping oysters and drinking champagne.

Why did I lose out to KaDeWe? "The gourmet food department is soo famous. My friends in Washington raved about it when they heard about my Berlin trip," said my friend, Jim, consoling me. "Ideally, I would have never stopped eating, with such an amazing selection of food."

Another friend, Paul, who lives in Washington but was born in New York, is impressed with the "combination of marketplace and little food stalls" — something he can't even find in New York. Okay, maybe I've learned something, despite my grumpiness: although the KaDeWe's well-respected gourmet food department is "only" the second-largest food department in continental Europe, it may perhaps be unique in the world.

KaDeWe through history

KaDeWe is famous, almost as well-known as the Brandenburg Gate or the Berlin Wall. The department store was founded in 1907 by Adolf Jandorf, and has become an integral part of the city's history. It has seen splendor, war, destruction, numerous conversions, seven changes of ownership, and at 60,000 square meters of sales space, boasts the title of Europe's largest department store.

A man and his son at the KaDeWe food court

Tradition is a good thing, says this Berliner. He used to come with his mother, and now he brings his son

KaDeWe makes it into every Berlin tourist directory, and is featured in every top 10 list of the most popular places to visit. Perhaps not a surprise, 40 percent of customers come from abroad.

This popularity is a mystery to me. To be honest, I don't understand the hype. This enthusiasm for KaDeWe irked me even before my friends professed their love for the place, particularly when it came to the "feeding department" on the sixth floor.

With its low ceilings, stark, tiled floors and a jumble of stalls, counters, bars and mini-restaurants — none of which are especially elegant — I certainly wouldn't give the place an award for style. I found it old-fashioned, a bit corny. And right in the middle is this buzzing, enthusiastic tangle of people.

Yearning for 'old Berlin'

That crowd is exactly what Christel Hetler is looking for. "I need it! I really like the life here, everything about it," she says in her Berliner dialect. Hetler, a retiree, has come to the Lavazza Coffee Bar every Tuesday and Friday for the last 10 years, first with her husband, and since his death, alone. For her, the KaDeWe is "old Berlin," the soul of the city.

Hetler and waiter Vincenzo

Hetler (left) comes twice a week to the Lavazza bar — to be welcomed by waiter Vincenzo

After I hear Hetler's story, I feel something completely unexpected growing in me: a feeling of home. Maybe the KaDeWe really is Berlin's living room, I think. I suddenly understand Hetler, who is afraid of the planned renovations coming to the gourmet floor by renowned architect Rem Koolhaas. Hetler thinks the idea is "a bit foolish."

She's right: Berlin has completely changed. Cafes, restaurants and even the theaters on the nearby Kurfürstendamm are going under. For that reason alone, the KaDeWe should remain a home and keep its unique nature. Its down-to-earth atmosphere distinguishes it from Munich's sophisticated Oberpollinger, or the cooler Harrods in London.

That's probably why there are so many regulars, even if not all of them can afford it. Katie, who works at the Pommery Bar, tells me about the older ladies who set aside money for their weekly glasses of champagne. Other regulars come from far away, for example Roxana and Laszlo from Budapest. They love to shop and enjoy the champagne — but they're here, above all, to meet friends. "The social life here is fantastic," they rave, adding that KaDeWe was part of the reason they decided to move to Berlin.

I've started to warm up to KaDeWe, but would never have had the idea to meet friends here.

But when I meet up with my neighbor Doreen later that evening, I find out that even this could change. Doreen is moving to Australia, and wants to say goodbye: at KaDeWe's champagne bar.

For me, it will be a double farewell: from Doreen, and from my column and you, my readers. This was my last Berlin 24/7 column. Thank you for reading, and a toast to our time together!

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