July 23rd — July 27th
If I had one word, edgy is how I would describe Berlin. It’s a capital in flux, heavily influenced by its very particular past. But its youth also indicates that Berlin is moving forward. Indeed Berlin is a very young city, simply judging by the people in the streets, museums, restaurants and bars. They appeared diverse and independent, impervious to conformity.
The weight of history. Anhalter Bahnhof, Gedächtniskirche, Berlin Wall, checkpoint Charlie are all recent reminders of important historical events of the not-so-distant past. Usually, cities impress because of the traces of ancient civilizations which they highlight: the Colosseum, the Parthenon, or notre dame de Paris. They are highly evocative of eras past. Berlin achieves this with features a fraction of the age. It's humbling to be reminded that not thirty years ago, the world was divided in such an artificial way and countries that shared a common history, language and culture were egregiously torn apart. The desperation displayed in East Germans’ attempts to escape speak to how meaningful this division was and how strongly it impacted people’s lives. Berlin is a powerful reminder that such insanity is never far away.
Visual atmosphere. If you have an appetite for flavorful neighborhoods and salient buildings, Berlin might leave you wanting. Berlin is a sprawling metropolis, but for all the ground it covers, it's hard to find the juicy spots. Many blocks pass by without any remarkable feature popping out. Of course, this omits the major landmarks known to most, or even lesser known monuments such as the Berlin dome, as well as specific neighborhoods, but it's not the type of city where you can wander about and expect to be delighted at each corner. Rome that way, or Paris, but Berlin requires you to be much more targeted and deliberate in your approach.
An afternoon at the dome. I think that my favorite moment in Berlin might have been our visit to the Berlin dome. Over the course of our trip, I've come to appreciate churches for a particular reason: their sound. Many come equipped with an organ. In Inverness, it dawned on me that organs are a unique instrument in that they are the building and the building is the instrument. Guitars have a chamber to resonate, and organs have the church. They are designed with acoustics in mind, and it's a unique feeling to bask in the humm of an organ. The chords envelop you and the bass rolls through you.
Shortly after stepping into the dome, the organ started and a pastor came out to sermon. My instinct was to feel out of place and leave but Anaïs suggested that we stay for the service. The benches must have been 5% full. We listened to the twenty-minute sermon in German on the topic of coping with terrorism. Despite not believing in God, or being unable to relate to the meaning of this ritual, I found it gripping. The ritual of mass has been perfected for millennia to craft a carefully designed atmosphere. The layout of the altar, the light filtering in, how the pastor’s voice penetrated through the hall’s silence, the singing of the choir and the overbearing tones of the organ conspired to produce a singular experience. I took this for granted as a child raised in a family of classical musicians (who perform in churches, but also attended religious rituals occasionally), but after having been separated from this for my entire adult life, coming back to it allowed me to fully appreciate it.
A grungy demeanor. To say that Berlin is dirty might be pushing it when you've visited so many cities in Asia, but let's just say that Berlin isn't as clean as Oslo or Copenhagen. Parks are not tended to, trash overflows from bins, lawns are not irrigated, vegetation overgrows left and right. It's not tidy, but this also gives the place a bit of an edge. It makes Berlin feel untamed and volatile. Don't let it grow any longer though!
Jazzed in Germany. As far as European jazz scenes go, Berlin is one of the most active I’ve seen, along with Paris. Philippe studied there for a semester and gave us a few pointers. We got to meet a lot of musicians and play on stage a bit. Berlin has at least as many jam sessions as Tokyo, and the folks are as approachable as they are skilled. Having Philippe as a conversation starter was delightfully effective. They praised him as a drummer and a composer and visibly to held fond memories of their time together.
I left Berlin incapable of pinning it down. I would need more time to capture its essence, or at least be better in tune with it.