Berlin is the city I called home from 1999 2000, and which in many ways is the closest I have to a real hometown.
I fell in love with Berlin practically the moment I first set foot on the platform of the Charlottenburg station in December of 1996, although that might have been partially due to the delirium induced by 24 hours without sleep combined with some serious heavy lifting. My first real impression of the city behind the name was from examining the mass transit maps in the station on my way to meet the friend with whom I was going to spend a week at the Osloer Straße station. The city was big. Its transportation network was bigger than the combined mass transit system of Herzogenaurach, Erlangen, Fürth, and Nürnberg) (All of which operated under the umbrella of the Verkehrsgroßraum Nürnberg/VGN). This was a real city.
I'd lived briefly in another major German city, München, earlier that year. There was simply no comparing the two. München a city which I do like a great deal is a neat, clean, urbane, predictable mini-metropolis, with lots of charming cafés and a large student population. München is full of history, neatly packaged in street names and monuments. Berlin is gritty, chaotic, unpredictable, filled with historical loose ends and remnants of past eras.
Berlin confronts you with history everwhere you go. In this, it doesn't differ much from other German cities, all of which are filled with some history or other; what distinguishes Berlin are the constant historical contradictions. The historical markers, monuments, street and place names of Berlin do not tell one unified story, but a tangle of different, competing stories. Platz der Luftbrücke (Square of the Berlin Airlift), Straße des 17. Juni (Street of the 17 June rebellions), and Adenauerplatz take their place alongside Allee der Kosmonauten, Karl-Marx-Straße, Karl-Marx-Platz, Karl-Marx-Allee, and the various Soviet monuments, which must be maintained and cared for pursuant to the Unification Treaties. Streets have been named, renamed, and renamed again. It is possible in Berlin for someone to have lived in Königsplatz 23 in 1900, followed by a stint in Rathenauplatz 23 in 1930, followed by 12 years at Horst-Wessel-Platz 23, returning to Rathenauplatz 23, all without ever having to pack up and move.
This is, in brief, a city in which even giving directions takes on ideological ramifications. For example, members of the Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ) the official youth group of the DDR still call the first cross street by my flat "Wilhelm-Pieck-Straße, even though it's long since been renamed Torstraße. Similarly, one occasionally hears of the now-nonexistent Clara-Zetkin-Straße (Dorotheenstraße) and Marx-Engels-Platz (Hackescher Markt). I often used the old names, too, but mostly just to be contrary.
Contrariness (one might even go so far as to say bloodymindedness) is an important part of the Berliner psyche. Try asking for directions to the Gedächtniskirche (Memorial Church) while in the middle of the Ku'damm. Unless you happen to ask a Bavarian transplant, chances are that the answer will be "Keene Oochen im Kopp, wat?" This charmingly unhelpful rejoinder translates roughly as "What are you, blind?" Failure to have exact change on the bus will almost certainly result in a semi-comprehensible tour de force of the Berliner Dialekt. Berliners have managed to take the fine art of being an asshole one step closer to the perfection that eludes their New York colleagues. Berliners know how to make anyone who doesn't know the entire transit system by heart feel like a waste of everyone's time without the need for gratuitous vulgarity of the "Go fuck yaself" variety. One wonders when the local government will take this into account in the city's signage, and put up "Welcome to Berlin: Read the FAQ" signs at all points of entry. However, as I was recently reminded, in addition to this tendency toward bloodymindedness and fuckwittage ( Wat issen lot? Allet wat nich anjebunden is!), there is also a streak of solidarity and a desire to help:
A sales assistant at a bakery in Bavaria would give you a warm welcome and treat you kindly while you're in the bakery, but she'd leave you to bleed to death if something were to happen to you right in front of the bakery directly before or after your visit. A sales assistant in Berlin would show you exactly how much she enjoys her job: not at all. But she'd help you if something were to happen. A slightly less extreme example (true story): In the bakery, there's still one piece of cherry pie and almost an entire strawberry pie. This raises the question: is the cherry pie so good that it's already almost sold out, or is that piece left over from yesterday? So my girlfriend asks the sales assistant: "I'm not really sure yet whether I should have the cherry or the strawberry." The sales assistant's reply: "I don't give a toss!" short pause "...but I'd go with the cherry."
Luckily for all concerned, Berliners are a diverse lot, and much of the city's population is originally from elsewhere. Prior to the reunification, West Berlin was a beloved refuge for hippies and others who wished to avoid the draft, as Berlin was the only state of West Germany in which the draft laws did not apply. Berlin is also home to immigrants of every nationality imaginable. Two central districts Wedding and Kreuzberg are largely Turkish. There is also a sizeable population from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, as well as people from all over the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Western Europe.
Apart from the obvious advantages of cultural diversity, this guarantees that no one in Berlin ever has to eat German food unless they really, really want to. The Italian food is particularly good, and there is no shortage of sources. Across from my old flat, in Mulackstraße, is a small Italian restaurant and art gallery called Sisal, with some of the best penne all'arrabbiata anywhere. Another of my favourites, Die zwölf Apostel offers excellent pizza in a highly enjoyable atmosphere. Turkish food of all kinds is available in abundance, including some quite interesting examples of fusion cuisine, such as the döner and pizza restaurant at the corner of Wilhelm-Pieck-(Tor)Straße and Rosenthaler Straße or the utterly sublime combination of döner and chicken schnitzel (fried, breaded chicken served in pita bread with salad and hot or garlic yoghurt sauce) available at the Istanbul Grill in Potsdamer Straße.
Berlin has always been known for its innovative entertainment scene. Apart from the practically inexhaustible selection of restaurants purveying foodstuffs from every region of the known world, the City has a very diverse nightlife. There is no shortage of techno and house clubs, as well as jazz and blues clubs, spread throughout the greater Berlin area. Potsdamer Straße, once essentially a no man's land on the border between East and West Berlin, is now home to hundreds of restaurants, clubs, a cinema, art galleries, and sex shops. There is also a sizable GLBT scene in Berlin, mostly centred around Motzstraße, and Berlin is reportedly home to the second-largest gay pride parade in the world (Christopher Street Day Parade).
Berlin's public transportation system is excellent, and includes light rail, tube, bus service (around the clock), trams, and commuter rail. The transit system runs throughout the city, as far as surrounding areas auch as Buch (though it's at least questionable why anyone would want to) and beyond. For a few euros, you can get anywhere in the city.
Berlin also has excellent bookstores. For those looking for rare and out-of-print books, there is no shortage of Antiquariate (used bookstores). Specialised books, untranslated works, and general interest material are also quite easy to come by. In Ernst-Reuter-Platz, near the Straße des 17. Juni, the main Kiepert bookstore is located, with an extensive collection of technical literature, as well as untranslated works and more general interest books. Hugendubel, a national chain (similar to Borders or Barnes & Noble), has a location on the Kurfürstendamm.
For those looking for rather unconventional souvenirs, or simply the occasional curio, Berlin has a large flea market in the Tiergarten district, filled with everything from Soviet and DDR paraphenalia (military uniforms, insignia, boots, binoculars, pocketwatches, flags, old money, etc.). Most of the vendors are from the Eastern Bloc or points beyond, and live to haggle. No price is final. Depending on how experienced you look, it is sometimes possible to get a reduction of over 70%.