I have spoken before about the joy of places. And I still think that some cities can make you fall in love with them while others reject you, make you feel alien, weak or overwhelmed.
Of the cities I lived in I have loved Aleppo and Abu Dhabi as a child then grew up to fall out of love with them. I was too young to understand sophisticated Vienna, so I ran away from it. I still have deep affection for sleepy East London (South Africa, not the British London), but I was intimidated by the barely suppressed danger and violence of Johannesburg. I despised the arrogance and intrusive urgency of New York, with its constant demand for attention. And after I escaped that difficult city, I willingly accepted Nairobi. My relationship with it is one of quiet understanding. I take from it what I need while I ignore all its problematic sides. Nairobi allows you to create a peaceful bubble around you, where you can listen to birds and bullfrogs, watch the passage of clouds in the blue sky, or feel the cooling touch of tropical rain. New York in contrast encroaches on every aspect of your life, you have to live it, or leave it.
Of the cities I lived in, I only truly loved Cape Town. And although its spectacular views rarely concealed its rough edges and contradictions, my adopted city still owns the biggest part of my heart. My first love, though, was for a city I first visited in my teens, a city that touched my soul with its painful history, as she carried the guilt and scars of the war that ultimately divided its heart.
Berlin was my first city-love. I fell in love with it at seventeen, when a relative took us to visit the wall, and choked back tears at the many memorial plaques of young people who lost their lives as they tried to cross it from East Berlin. Since then I fall in love with it again whenever I visit. I love the waterways, the bridges, the parks, the monuments and the museums. I love the organized transport, the availability of middle eastern food, and the open spaces in the suburbs. It is a big city, but sprawled over a very large area, and surrounded by lakes and waterways. Residents happily ride bikes and walk. The corner stores still operate in many areas, and each of the suburbs has its own commercial centre which give the places their small-town feel even within the big city.
Berlin is proud of its environmental awareness, its cosmopolitan character, and its embrace, sometimes welcoming sometime grudging, of refugees. As I grow older I feel that the city resembles me. It has long left its younger days behind, and still struggles with past separation and pain, and tries to hold on to its conscience despite hard trials.
Some people would cynically point to its dysfunctional politics and ongoing corruption cases, the most glaring example of which is the fiasco of the BER, the Berlin Brandenburg International Airport that was supposed to be completed at least five years ago. The airport complex stands mostly complete if it weren’t for serious safety issues with the building, electronic doors and fire-protection systems that prevent it from meeting safety standards and block its operation indefinitely. It has become a symbol of total German failure where everyone expects German efficiency and exactitude. It proved to be a problem too complex and too expensive to fix. It is passed on like a hot potato from one project manager to the next and from one government mandate to the next, no resolution in sight. This might be seen as one of the city’s many failures, and symptom of its crumbling and corrupt systems. But I can still see many positives elsewhere, in the conscientious and humanist attitudes of its older citizens, especially those who were old enough to remember its divided days. In the availability and abundance of public spaces, and in its honest attempts at embracing diversity.
When I visit my Oma’s city, I let it embrace me like a kindred spirit as I jog in its shaded parks between oaks, birches, chestnuts and elms. As I swim in its lakes, feeling the smooth water glide around my limbs, cooling my skin on these recent scorching days, and warming it on cloudy days when the breeze blows cool and ripples the surface. There is nothing quite like sliding through the silent green-blue water, breathing in its mossy scent, listening to its whispered tinkling against my ears with every gentle stoke, and watching as its surface catches the rays of sunlight, turning them into a scatter of diamonds. Floating alone in the middle of the lake, embraced by the smoothness of its water, the cool forests at its edges and the skies above, is an experience in sensory mediation. I emerged from it baptised in wonder and appreciation. I envy those who do this every day, especially those who let the water caress their naked skin. Germans are not prude, they often swim in their birthday suits.
I have seen families with kids, elderly couples, and women alone or in pair enjoying this public space. They swim, paddle on stand up paddle boards, or just relax by the water. As long as you reserve your space early enough you can enjoy a quiet moment in nature. It is much more soothing than a busy tropical beach. When I visit in winter, I still enjoy the walks in the park or along the waterways, and visits to the museums. There is plenty to do. Berlin to me though means family, my German heritage, where my grandmother was born, and where I might once like to live. If only my heart weren’t already lost in Africa, to someone who still resides there.