У меня, к слову сказать, стойкое ощущение, что в 98-м году я был к каком-то другом, неправильном Берлине.
What Americans could learn about "freedom" from Berlin
[ Alan Nothnagle | OCTOBER 5, 2014 | via OpenSalon ]
THERE'S A MOVEMENT UNDERWAY calling for a complete ban on the consumption of alchoholic beverages in the vehicles and stations of Berlin's far-flung public transport network, the BVG, and I think it's a bad idea. Sure, I understand where the initiative is coming from: Alcohol-fueled violence and vandalism, let alone the inevitable mess they leave behind, have long since reached unacceptable levels, and the city's passenger association, under the leadership of a conservative Christian Democratic suburbanite, wants to put a stop to it. But is banning booze on the bus, as other German cities have done, the solution? No, it isn't. At least, it isn't as long as Berlin doesn't want to become like any other European metropolis - or, God forbid, like any city in the so-called Land of the Free, a.k.a. "The Exceptional Nation."
Berlin is a symbol of freedom on many levels, which is one reason why everyone seems to want to come here. Since reunification, Berlin has heroically defended the wide-open, "Wild East" quality that it earned in the "front city" days of the Cold War and the mad years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. As globalization and the simultaneous consolidation of corporate power endeavor to make our increasingly bland and overheated planet safe for Facebook and Amazon.com, Berlin remains "free" with just a hint of genteel anarchy. You might call it "sin," but we call it "Berliner Luft" (Berlin air). It may not smell very nice, but it sure is refreshing.
Take the city's relationship to alcohol. As things still are today, you can buy any kind of alcoholic drink in any of hundreds of all-night shops and consume them pretty much anywhere in the city. Not only are there sidewalk cafés everywhere around town (without the railings that my own American home town insisted on before it finally legalized such cafés after a decade of controversy), but young people particularly, wary of high bar tabs, increasingly choose to pick up a few bottles of beer or cheap champagne at the local Turkish-owned all-night convenience store and guzzle them in parks or on the famous Admiral Bridge in Kreuzberg. The large, trendy thoroughfare near my flat becomes a sort of mobile saloon every evening as the tourists wander up and down the street clutching half-liter beer bottles in their feverish provincial hands. Booze is still banned in schools, the last I heard, but it is a popular beverage in movie theaters, right alongside Coke and Red Bull. The only restriction on beer in this town is that you have to be at least sixteen years old to buy it.
Berlin's remarkably liberal bar laws go back to West Berlin's no-man's-land status during the Cold War. No matter how late at night I get home, the bar across the street from my flat is doing a booming business. The expression "last call" is unknown in the city's distinctive dialect. At an hour when other German towns are rolling up the sidewalks, Berliners and tourists are just starting to place their orders.
Alcohol is by no means the only symbol of Berlin's special brand of freedom. The city has always prided itself on its sexual tolerance (we've got an openly gay mayor, for heaven's sake), and, unlike other German cities, which are otherwise also extremely liberal when it comes to sex, it has no tradition of red light districts: Throughout most of its history, prostitution has been legal, scantily regulated, and ubiquitous. Hundreds of perfectly legal brothels and massage parlors dot the cityscape, nearly all of them located in ordinary blocks of flats, whereas streetwalkers are only visible at a few prominent locations, such as Kurfürstenstrasse and the popular Oranienburger Strasse. Don't expect painted girls in shop windows à la Amsterdam. Here, prostitution is so normal that Berliners would only scoff at such displays. Bordellos are as unexceptional as hairdressers. For example, the brothel across the street from my flat (in the midst of a genteel neighborhood) is situated directly next door to an elementary school, for crying out loud, and nobody here gives a goddamn. Feel like a quickie on the way home from a long day at the office? Not getting the kind of blowjob you long for from the missus? Stop by one of hundreds of brothels or private addresses and pay your fee. As a Berliner, that is your right and privilege, no questions asked.
Porn is a normal part of life here, with the regular video rental chains advertising their "Erotik" DVDs in very large letters over the entrance. The blue movies are kept in a special section, however, far from the Disney flicks, but are the main source of income. The newspapers are less demure. The supposedly "right-wing" tabloids always contain color photos of naked girls. Soft-core porn is thus part of every worker's morning commute, which just goes to show how differently one can interpret the term "conservative." After midnight, half the stations on TV are broadcasting porn, punctured by recurring callgirl commercials. None of this should imply that people here are "immoral" in any tangible way: Berlin and Germany as a whole are extremely intolerant when it comes to such disgraces as child pornography and particularly pedophilia ever since a massive scandal was uncovered at a Jesuit boarding school here last year. Rapists risk getting their balls chopped off, if you believe the commentaries in the tabloids and in the online forums. But when it comes to homosexuality, or any other harmless behavior between consenting adults: Not so much.
How about drugs? They're not exactly legal - in this respect, Berlin lags behind Amsterdam - but nobody seems to lose any sleep over them. They're one giant non-issue. Sure, I recently saw a rare piece in the paper about a very large marijuana bust somewhere in town, but they sell anything you could possibly want in the park around the corner from my house (or so I hear). Pot smoke is just one of the normal fragrances in my trendy neighborhood. If there's a "war on drugs" in this town, it hasn't reached my ears, and I've lived here for two decades.
Now, imagine you've just finished one or more of the beers you picked up at the all-night Turkish shop on the corner and it's, well, time to return it. What do you do? Now it's not exactly legal, and it certainly isn't good manners, but it's hardly unusual for men to unzip and take care of the matter on a streetcorner or building entrance. A few years back I saw a twelve-year-old boy do the deed against a tree on busy Berliner Strasse in Tegel - not at night, mind you, but in broad daylight. None of the hundreds of passersby paid any attention whatsoever. I've never heard of anyone being prosecuted for public urination. (Now, in my own "liberal" home town back in the US, anyone caught taking a leak in the bushes on the way home from a bar at midnight would get their name in the court column of the local paper alongside the expression "indecent exposure," an offense that would become art of their permanent record.)
A woman choosing to remove her top at a public beach in the allegedly "free" United States will get slapped with a stiff fine. But in Berlin, it is not only perfectly legal but perfectly normal and respectable to take it all off at the beach or even while sunbathing in a municipal park. The East Berliners were once the world's most unabashed nudists, with the West's hippy culture following at a distant second. Public beaches here normally contain a "Textil" (i.e. swimsuit) and a "FKK" ("free body culture") section, but on unsupervised beaches it's your own choice. Entirely nude swimmers regularly mingle with those in swimsuits, and nearly all kids swim and prance around in their birthday suits. In fact, I don't recall ever seeing a child under the age of six or seven wearing anything at all on the beach. This swimsuits-are-optional tradition has nothing to do with lewdness, but rather with a typically German notion that there's a time and place for everything. Sadly, this tradition is fading, as society as a whole grows more conservative and a new generation of immigrant men, most of them from Turkey and other Muslim countries, gawk and make impolite comments to women seeking an even tan.
However, the united Berlin of today is no longer the East and West Berlin I used to know and love (and sometimes fear). The city used to be much wilder than it is now. The S-Bahn commuter train network is a good example of just how open the Berlin of my squandered youth used to be. Back then, in the 80s and early 90s, the BVG still ran S-Bahn cars that had been constructed for the 1936 Olympics, complete with beautiful and remarkably comfortable wooden seats. The sliding doors didn't lock, so it was normal for passengers to flip the latches and roll them back on hot days to let some fresh air in as their train rattled through the city. But after more and more people were literally thrown out of these doors to their deaths, the BVG wised up, installing locks and stationing security personnel. A few years later, the old trains were retired altogether. I'm glad I no longer have to worry about being hurled out into the night, but I do miss the trains and the casual, devil-may-care post-communist culture they represented. By the way, East Berlin's old streetcars dated back to around 1900. The new ones are more comfortable, all right, but lack character.
Berlin's characteristic freedoms are not solely due to the city's live-and-let-live mindset. It is simply not possible to enforce the regulations that still linger in the law books. There is indeed an officious quasi police force called the "Ordnungsamt" ("Order Agency"), which is just as humorless as the name implies. The Ordnungsamt is bad news. Dressed in their black and white uniforms, this squad of heavy-set middle aged women and underachieving men prowls the streets, issuing parking tickets and fining the occasional bicyclist who was unfortunate enough to get caught riding on the sidewalk at the wrong moment. But both they and the transport security force have essentially abandoned the fight. For example, I just learned today that it is theoretically illegal to eat on board the BVG's trains and buses, but so far nobody has bothered to tell that to the scores of licensed mini-snackbars located on train platforms.
(A while back I saw a rather elegant-looking young woman eating a tray of sushi on the S-Bahn, seemingly oblivious to all the noise and bustle surrounding her. There was a certain Zen quality about the sight. The Ordnungsamt would have only gotten in the way.)
But despite its many obvious freedoms, Berlin is hardly a do-it-yourself city. For example, I regret to inform the Tea Partiers among you that the city does not guarantee a "right to bear arms," so don't come here packing heat and expect to stay out of jail. You can't have everything, I guess. But some restrictions on freedom are beneficial, at least for some of us. Not that long ago, you risked a lung infection every time you entered a bar or restaurant - that's how thick the smoke was. Today, there is a smoking ban in place in all restaurants (but, sadly, not in the bars). And the streets are cleaner than ever before. Less than a decade ago, Berlin enjoyed the dubious reputation of being the world's largest open-air dog toilet. I like to joke that I never had an opportunity to admire the architecture of my former neighborhood since I was always too busy practicing the "Neukölln-Blick" ("Neukölln view"), my name for a trick by which you always keep your eyes focused around fifteen feet in front of you in order to sidestep the thousands of "mines" littering the sidewalks. Today, a pooper-scooper law has nearly eliminated that problem everywhere except in Neukölln. Bad for dog owners, but good for the rest of us.
There are plenty of other bad habits the city has finally shaken off. The past really is a different country. Just twenty years ago, at the end of my very own street, just a few hundred yards from where I now sit, border guards used to murder their fellow citizens trying to escape over the Berlin Wall. That is to say, they called it "murder" in West Berlin, whereas on this side of the Wall they gave you a medal for shooting refugees. The names of the victims, and the dates of their death, are engraved on a series of stone slabs that have been inserted into the pavement on Bernauer Strasse. My own street is one of the very few left in the city that concludes in a very narrow, very ugly dead end at a concrete barrier. Seeing that remainder of the Wall makes me think about freedom a lot. What it can mean, and how quickly we can throw it away. Chip away at the small freedoms, and you'll soon be mourning the big ones.
So perhaps now you can see why I regard the drinking ban on the trains, buses, and ships of the BVG as the slippery slope to servitude. I'm not saying that the phenomena I describe in this article are "good" in themselves. But by tolerating our neighbors' foibles, we learn to deal with others without shunning and criminalizing what amounts to fairly normal human behavior.
But not to worry: neither Berlin's Interior Senator, Ehrhart Körting, nor the transit authority itself want to go this route, not wishing to alienate "the construction worker who likes to rinse the dust from his throat with a beer while riding the train home from work." Instead, they're looking to find money for more cleaning and security staff to pick up the slack. Like me, Körting recalls that Berlin is the city of the Kaiser, Hitler, and Honecker. We're all sick to death of pushing other people around, even when it comes to drinking in public. Live-and-let-live keeps us all alive.
By the way, this also applies to immigrants and other minorities that we frequently don't see eye to eye with but have to keep talking to. In fact, it particularly includes them.
As for myself, I don't recall ever drinking a beer on the subway. But I like the idea that I could do so if I ever felt the desire. I want to decide for myself what's best for me and my neighbors, and then bear the consequences of that choice. Take it from a Berliner: That, my fellow Americans, is what freedom is all about.
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