When Travel Writing Goes Wrong: 'Edgy' Berlin Edition
"Wait, no. That’s not my city."
I can’t be the only person who thinks this when they happen across a travel article about their hometown. Whether it’s being recommended a "hip" restaurant 10 years too late, or reading ludicrously false advice on how to blend in, there's something about travel writing that takes us into a parallel Narnia version of our own city, similar to what we know but somehow terribly, horribly wrong.
I’ve particularly noticed this with Berlin, where I’ve spent much of my adult life. The city’s been getting a fresh slew of European press coverage this month, in the wake of David Bowie’s newly released song about his past there. While some pieces have been great, others have been excruciating, expressing astonishment that the former East now has boutiques and noting that Berlin is far from Bavarian stereotypes ... not surprising given that Bavaria is 400 miles away.
Does this matter? As a sometime editor of city guides myself, I’m aware that not everyone wants to travel like a local, and that if there are stereotypes entrenched in the reader’s mind, writers need to at least acknowledge them. But the constant repetition of clichés about a city can actually help enshrine these truisms as dogma. This could be why the same slightly mistaken images of Berlin are so often reheated and served up as fresh, usually some sort of mash-up of Cabaret, The Lives of Others, and The 120 Days of Sodom.
There’s something in this view, of course, but it too often rests on well-worn mistakes. You don't even have to be all that familiar with Berlin to recognize them:
Don’t (always) mention the war
The Sowjetische Ehrenmal (Soviet Memorial) located in the Tiergarten, Berlin. It was built in 1945 to honor the fallen Red Army soldiers during WWII.
Yes, Berlin was once the lair of history’s ultimate villains and the city has tried to integrate memorials to the Nazi past into its fabric, but that doesn’t mean everything in the city automatically expresses this history. I’m not sure why it’s necessary to point out, as this writer does, that bikini-clad girls in the new park at Tempelhof Airport are "not what the der Führer had in mind," or in another instance, to describe routine snow plowing of Schönefeld Airport runways as being performed "with military precision." Was this especially regimented Prussian snow clearing, perhaps, carried out by a man with a spiked helmet and a cruel mustache?
A city of the edge
The famous kiss between Honecker and Brezhnev in The East Side Gallery - the largest outdoor art gallery in the world on a segment of the Berlin Wall March 10, 2011 in Berlin. ( /Shutterstock)
Type the words "edgy Berlin" into Google and you get 2,380,000 results. If there’s anything the world can agree on – again and again and again – it’s that the German capital has edge. Supposedly a squat-filled city where transgressive things are forever happening in corners, "anything goes" Berlin is a place some see as stricken by an alluring "decadence," a term which sometimes seems to refer to bondage, and sometimes to cakes.
Alas, Berlin doesn’t really have any squats anymore. The German term for such places is Besetztes Haus or occupied house, and while many of these have been closed down, the ones that remain are legally occupied with tenants who pay rent. Hanging a banner on a building and keeping a pot plant-filled shopping cart in its courtyard doesn’t necessarily make it illegal.
As for the city's kinky image, locals get weary of thrill-seeking tourists visiting their favorite bars half hoping to be spanked. There are indeed places in Berlin where such things go on, but as a German friend told me after visiting one recently to find the staff addressed everyone in English, half the guests in Berlin’s sex clubs seem to be tourists, sniffing out a decadence that they actually brought in their luggage.
It’s grim out East
Models wear leather dresses by German designer Rodan during a promotion for the East Side Gallery at the Berlin Wall. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)
For some travel writers, the Berlin Wall never came down. While the fairly low barrier was easily removed after 1989, East Berlin is still not uncommonly presented in travel writing as the ultimate expression of post totalitarian blight. This piece from 2010 insists that it still looks as bleak as ever, while this earlier article describes it as looking "as it was [under communism]: repressive, gray, frightening, a place locked in for 28 years by its own government."
Sure, East Berlin doesn’t look like St. Tropez, but with commentary on the city’s grimness all looking eastwards, you’d be tempted to assume that West Berlin was a dazzlingly gaudy fun palace, populated exclusively by rich people with really expensive teeth. In fact, it’s the dour mirror image of its Eastern neighbor, with endless acres of 1960s housing projects and run-down modernist landmarks whose shine has worn off, all overlooked by a sinister, derelict U.S. spy station sitting atop a pile of old rubble. If this section of the city had an Eastern Bloc past, Western journalists might come here to shudder deliciously at its residual oppressive atmosphere, something they appear blind to because it doesn’t come with ex-communist trappings. In fact, with massive investment in sprucing up the East since 1989, it’s West Berlin that is nowadays often shabbier and cheaper.
Bargain bucket Berlin
Man writes at art work "Peace Wall" by Macedonian artist Nada Prlja erected as part of Berlin Art Biennale art festival. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)
I bet Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, is now kicking himself for describing the city as "poor but sexy" back in 2007. With Berlin’s fortunes slowly on the rise, his most famous quote risks identifying him permanently with the bad old days. For now the city is still drooled over for its low prices (even by me), with beer supposedly cheaper than milk and flats rented out for the price of a packet of breath mints. Certainly, Berlin is a dream after Paris or London – if you’re trying to make your trust fund stretch, that is.
For those living on local wages, it’s not so hot. With 240,000 unemployed residents as of last spring, and many more partially welfare dependent, Berlin is partly cheap-ish because Berliners don’t really have the spending power to push prices up. Even locals in normally well-paid middle class jobs complain of getting short-changed by employers with tight-fisted "good for Berlin" pay deals. So if you’re over here and stumble across what seems like cheap liquor, try not to gloat quite so openly. It’s not a deal for everyone.
Top image: Berlin at evening from the roof of the Hotel Park Inn Berlin, Panoramablick auf Deutschlands Hauptstadt Berlin am Abend vom Dach des Park Inn Hotel Berlin. (/Shutterstock)