In Berlin, Europe's most innovative urban bad-boy, something peculiar is occurring. A down-home atmosphere is being cultivated, right here in hipster heaven, says DW's Leah McDonnell.
Being a Berliner once meant never having to say "I'm sorry" - or even "hello" - to your neighbor. Or anyone else, for that matter. The German capital reveled in its cold cloak of urban anonymity. Being friendly was rejected with urban arrogance as provincial and unsophisticated, the behavior of rural peasants.
Recent waves of international newcomers have brought with them an appetite for neighborliness which has proved to be infectious. Now, a network of co-dweller connectedness is developing in the city and an almost tangible openness to interaction hangs in the air.
The area dubbed by trendsetters as "Kreuzkölln," bordering the neighborhoods of Kreuzberg and Neukölln, is at the top of Berlin's hot neighborhood hit-list. Here, I'm on casual banter terms with everyone from my Turkish grocer to the native Berliner who runs the one-euro shop on the corner. The loud, young Americans, who opened a café and vintage clothing store across the street, are also always game to gab (whether I am or not).
Neighborhood chitchat is of a more informed quality at the beauty salon down the block, where the Lebanese owner waxes my legs at record speed. While working, she intermittently screams matronly commands at her five children, who run randomly in and out of the shop. Over a whispered manicure from her daughter, I get the family news and the latest neighborhood and high school gossip.
Breaking cosmopolitan taboos
All across Berlin, folks are interacting in a way I've never witnessed here before.
Neighbors talk easily, and know each others' life stories, habits, partners, and professions. Friendships and business connections blossom effortlessly; at the local street market, on the yoga mat, at a shared-office rental space, or at the opening of a new neighborhood bar, gallery or boutique.
Eye contact with strangers in the street is no longer a cosmopolitan taboo, and even neighbors who silently brushed by each other in the stairwell for years without uttering a word now manage to mumble a greeting in passing.
Taking an interest in your co-dwellers is no longer regarded as nosy, and engaging in one's community is no longer the ultimate urban no-no. In fact it is quickly becoming the hip urban norm.
Leave your armor at the gate
Berliners are taking it upon themselves to water the trees outside their buildings, sweep the sidewalk, and construct benches around trees and plant flowers. People are engaging in everything from community clothing swaps, neighborhood pot-luck dinners, local gardens, and balcony bee-keeping.
Still, Berliners can still live lives of anonymity and separation if they choose. Folks here have an innate sense of when it's best to leave others to themselves. But it's nice to know that you no longer need a suit of armor to face the once hard-shelled people who live here.
Word has it, similar small-town trends are emerging in other large European cities. And in this time of European financial austerity it's a good thing. With more belt-tightening sure to come, it might soon be the only program of demographic and cultural integration the continent has left.
Author: Leah McDonnell
Editor: Kate Bowen