From an Ex-Pat…With Love: Berlin is Poor, But Sexy

ColumnThe capital city’s own mayor puts it best: “Berlin is poor, but sexy.”

In Scott Roxborough’s How Berlin Became the Coolest City on the Planet, he writes that the 3.45 million-person city is everything Germany is not: spontaneous, open, cosmopolitan and exciting. While Roxborough’s summary dismissal of Deutschland might be ungenerous, his synopsis of its capital is unerring. The metropolis defies easy definition – dynamic and polymorphous, Berlin is in perennial state of becoming.

Pop-up restaurants, shops and galleries are the norm; sprawling former warehouses cum all-night dance clubs featuring pulsating electronic beats are open every day of the week; the city streets are a menagerie of graffiti and street art; and internet start-ups are in such abundance that Berlin has been dubbed Europe’s “Silicon Allee.” Young internationals from the creative sector flock here for the cheap rent in the East, allowing them to set-up studios and storefronts at a low cost in a globally-relevant urban center. From an all-vegan supermarket to a remarkable, Finnish-style sauna that literally floats on the Spree Canal bisecting the city, Berlin is a place where radical, even seemingly preposterous ideas have room to germinate, take root and flourish.

Mayor Klaus Wowereit – who, incidentally, happens to be gay, but whose sexual preference is a complete non-issue in this tolerant locale – provided the city with its unofficial motto when he described Berlin as “poor…but sexy.” And it is so. While the country of Germany’s staid, export-driven economy is propping up the euro zone from collapse, Berlin’s unemployment level exceeds 10-percent. It’s not a place for industry, but rather a cultural capital. Its very financial malaise is what makes it a tenable global destination for artists who might have a slim pocketbook, but whose straits energize their creativity – this is where the sexiness comes into play.

Berlin isn’t for everybody. Of all the European cities, it certainly doesn’t place first as one of the most beautiful. Far from the posh digs of Paris, Rome or London, Germany’s capital isn’t a center of high-end fashion or epicurean eats, which is precisely what makes it so attractive. It’s Berlin’s tenuousness and frayed edges that make it sparkle. After The Wall fell, there was a mass exodus from the former Socialist enclave; derelict, care-worn buildings were abandoned and young, downwardly mobile people sought out the empty shell as a playground of their own imagining.

In two intervening decades, Berlin continues to discover its own vicissitudes, to be carved out by ex-pats and Germans alike. Poor and sexy sure, but also touched with no small dose of both madness and magic. It’s a city of those who are willing to stand on ground that’s not quite solid, but that is rich with the ferment of do-it-yourself derring-do.

Berlin-based Abigail Wick is a contributor to The New York Times and National Public Radio. ‘From an Ex-Pat…with Love’ is her weekly EcoSalon column about cultural dislocation, romantic relationships and lifestyle choices – filtered through the lens of an American woman living and working abroad in Europe.

Berlin Image, Roland Anton Laub; Author Image, Alina Rudya