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Sexy Berlin

Tamsin Walker March 22, 2013

Berlin has a reputation as a city where anything goes, day or night. But does it really? Tamsin Walker is willing to risk the wrath of the Szene set, and beg to differ. Just a little.

Club Cookies Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It was a decade ago that the mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, famously declared his city to be poor yet nonetheless sexy. His words were immortalized on the very breath which gave them life, and have since served to attract a flow of sexily impoverished stragglers and strugglers looking for a cheap new home and preventing the slogan - and by extension perhaps themselves - from going out of fashion.

Wowereit's statement was prompted by a question about the relationship between sexiness and money. He held Berlin up as an example of how the two things need not necessarily be mutually inclusive. But what exactly constitutes a sexy city?

I'm told it's all about "cheap rents" and an "anything goes" way of life. The latter includes the freedom to sunbathe naked in public places, croon karaoke on the former East German death strip, tango on rooftops, trip out to techno everywhere, or watch impenetrable performance art in the cellars of un-gentrified buildings where the only thing stopping anyone smoking is moisture dripping atmospherically from low-hung ceilings.

Don't get me wrong. I have spent and enjoyed my time and soggy cigarettes in such cellars, and if I'm honest, they probably did feel a tiny bit sexy because they were small and flagrantly challenged the norm. But somewhere along the line such events and venues became synonymous with Bohemian Berlin. Word got out, people came in, and the very defiance that attracted them became a kind of norm in its own right.

Sexiness versus frigidity

Whether that is good, bad or wholly irrelevant is a matter of opinion, but what's interesting is that, try as they might, the culturally quirky and avant-garde have yet to determine the prevailing mood, or, for that matter, the sexiness of the entire city. For there is another, deeper layer to the fabric of this society, and it is unattractive, constraining and decidedly frigid.

In a recent blog post, German comedian Paco Erhard, whose show, "The Five-step Guide to Being German," has received rave reviews, explains how he was chased away from his Heimat by his compatriots' love of order. Every good German knows that Ordnung muss sein - because order really must be. And Berliners are sadly no exception.

Scene in Berlin logo

Erhard laments the national obsession with everything having to be done the way it has to be done, and "the way everyone subconsciously watches each other, and how that leads us to watch ourselves." And that nails it. That is the very aspect of Berlin that prevents it from being truly sexy and offering its citizens unbridled freedom.

Unsexy red lights

When I first moved here a couple of years after the fall of the Wall, I remember being stunned and utterly alienated at the sight of two punks, their Mohawks reaching into the dead of night, standing at a pedestrian crossing on an empty road waiting for the little green man to invite them to the other side.

Need I say more? Actually, yes. The German I was with at the time explained to me that they are taught to set children a good example by not crossing at a red light. Wouldn't it be better to teach kids to use their eyes than just make them learn rules? I asked.

Apparently not. I have lost count of the number of times an outraged Berliner has objected to my jaywalking, but I know they do. Sometimes they just tut and grunt, sometimes I'll get a long, infuriated "ehhhhh!” and on a really good day my efforts might be rewarded with attempted witticisms such as, "If you keep trying, you'll get hit eventually." Not exactly the stuff of anything goes.

They reserve the same collective right to tell each other - and me in particular, it seems - how inappropriately I dress my children. Not warm enough. Ever. Even in the height of summer. And then there's bike riding. Granted, we're not meant to ride on the pavement, but given the eternal under-construction status of the city, there's not always an alternative. There is, however, always someone waiting to berate you for breaking another golden rule.

The future is not so golden

Take that word, golden. It is not innocent in all of this. Back in East Germany, citizens who collectively kept their tenements neat and tidy and positively sparkling with Ordnung were given a golden plaque in acknowledgement of their efforts. And although the city, the country, and indeed the world have moved on at a rapid pace since 1989, mentality is notoriously resistant to change. It is not very long ago that people were encouraged, incentivised even, by the East German Secret Service to spy on each other.

Red pedestrian streetlight in Berlin
Most Berliners would stop and waitImage: picture-alliance/ZB

But I am hopeful that this outspoken civilian surveillance will die out eventually, and that there are now parts of the city where more people use their intelligence rather than a rule book to get from one side of the street to another, is encouraging.

So to go back to where I began, I say let the strugglers and the stragglers keep on coming, because although they might unwittingly be helping to normalize the unconventional that attracted them in the first place, they are also quietly challenging the city's contract with order. And pulling that off would be sexy.

Tamsin Walker blogs at www.tamsinkwalker.co.uk.