Great things are expected of Berlin: a bastion of freedom and creativity, a laid-back city where being different is accepted. But the city is still looking for itself, says guest columnist Carmen-Francesca Banciu.
It was love at second sight, as I was frightened by Berlin. I went there with a scholarship for one year, then I wanted to go on to Paris. In March 1990, Berlin was still a divided city, an island surrounded by the sea of East Germany, a.k.a. the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The GDR was in the process of coming apart, but the atmosphere it emanated was omnipresent, and gave me the shivers.
In the beginning, I was benumbed in a way and couldn't take much pleasure in the city. I felt the still-open wound that was Checkpoint Charlie like a cut in my own flesh. At that time, the Russian soldier and the American one opposite him who were guarding the crossing between the sectors were not merely props for the tourist industry, and the border was not just a backdrop in an open-air museum. Here, I could clearly recognize, experience, grasp the spirit of the Berlin Wall - and feel grateful that it no longer had any real power over me.
Intoxicated by the maelstrom of history
Berlin was not yet Berlin when I arrived. This could be most clearly seen at Checkpoint Charlie: Two worlds, two political systems, two attitudes to life, two mentalities, East and West came into collision there. And were soon not only to tolerate one another, but create the best possible fusion. Grow together. Become one. As a writer, it was a privilege to be allowed to watch on as a new world arose - a world that gave birth to something unprecedented derived from the two political systems. It was a privilege to watch this and put it into words, to find words for it. Words in the new language.
I was not the only person to have recognized this, to be intoxicated by the turbulent changes and to be attracted by the rebirth of Berlin, the new global city. I was not the only person to feel called upon to become involved, to help shape it. To believe I had been given an important task by fate and that I had found my place in life, at least for a certain period of time.
As soon as the borders opened, Berlin became an open city that attracted the rest of the world. Berlin had cheap rents and provided the intellectual freedom to experiment. It offered openness and acceptance of diversity and difference, of non-conformity, of individualism. It possessed a certain laissez-faire. It offered a kind of osmotic life between the islanders and the new arrivals; for East Berlin, too, was an island in its own way. And even in the Kreuzberg district, where Turkish was the main language, a great inner freedom and sense of connection with this nascent city could be felt.
Shortly after reunification, Berlin was in danger of suffocating under the burden of its history and needed a breath of fresh air, a sense of ease, help to recover. Artists, inventors, brave and daring people, enterprising spirits of all kinds whipped up the city's energy.
Particularly in the eastern part of the city, everything was turned on its head. Or even reinvented. Unconventional artistic forms of communication were created between the city and individuals, between artists and their audiences, along with unusual types of events and venues in the cultural field. Artists, musicians, designers and architects transformed the city, making it lively, modern and hip – often with and for little money, but with a lot of ideas.
But as soon as a neighborhood was revitalized, the rents and living costs skyrocketed and drove out the people who had brought about the change. Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg and parts of Neukölln, to name but a few areas, are no longer affordable even for those who earn normal salaries. The plan seems to be to push those that have invigorated the city to its periphery or even beyond. But they are the soul of any place. Without them, a city or a country will starve, die of thirst, dry out. Consume itself.
Berlin is a city of start-ups. Many international businesses, publishing houses and universities were founded here or moved to the city. Berlin is now a world-famous, popular metropolis in which English is considered the lingua franca. There is a growing need for multilingual events, or at least ones in English, for a cosmopolitan public. But event organizers and cultural institutions financed by the city are still dragging their feet on this. They either have not recognized the spirit of the times or don't want to let it in.
Alongside educating people to respect and cultivate their own language and culture, teaching multilingualism is a great importance in times of globalization. It is one of the major tasks of schools and those entrusted with education and cultural affairs in our society.
A city with many missions
The growing influence of the English language in technology and music, and not only there, cannot be prevented. If this is not recognized, if people fail to learn to deal with this fact creatively and thus cultivate a balanced relationship between what is their own and what comes from outside, Berlin will be cast down from its new pedestal into provincialism and insignificance.
Berlin is a metaphor of our times. As a place where East and West have grown together in the middle of Europe, the city has big tasks before it. And the world has great expectations of it: as a bastion of freedom; as a place that fosters creative energy, the acceptance of difference, generosity and easygoingness; as a city with peacemaking, conflict-solving and mediating abilities and a clear stance on dictators, whether of political or religious character.
Berlin is still not yet Berlin, but every day it becomes a little more so - with every new person who comes to it, feels accepted and pitches in with a sense of shared responsibility. Berlin is not yet Berlin. Berlin is a work in progress. And in the famous words of its longtime former mayor, "that is a good thing."
Carmen-Francesca Banciu is a Romanian-born writer and lecturer who has lived in Berlin since 1990.