My first point of reference for Berlin was of course, the Berlin Wall, World War 2, and the subsequent Cold War. My second point of reference was from the 1998 indie film, Run Lola Run. I loved this movie (and its soundtrack--see sample above) when I first saw it in high school.
After going into the Scandinavian cities with many projections and expectations, as best that I could, I went into thinking about Berlin as a blank canvas.
The morning I left a rather gloomy Copenhagen (quite literally mind you: the bus that I took left in the pouring rain), I was ready to embrace the large city of Berlin with its 4 million inhabitants. Berlin is so big that it has an extensive network of subways, trains, trams, and busses. While Paris is often touted as a walkable city, in Berlin, you need to take public transit to effectively make your way from Point A to Point B.
But in a city like Berlin, that is part of the fun of getting around. For my first week in Berlin, I stayed in the southeastern part of the city in a neighborhood called Neukölln. The apartment was great. High ceilings and wood floors. Just off of a main street where a U (subway) station was located on a quiet tree lined street. Many immigrants and new young hipsters live/work/play in this area.
In this neighborhood, corners are dotted with convenience stores, bars, and Middle Eastern establishments where men are enjoying hookah and playing poker or corners are dotted with hip coffee/bakeries, burger joints, gelato stores and new bar/restaurants such as: Schiller Burger, Mos Eisley Gelateria, and Cafe Lux.
Adjoining Neukölln is the amazing Tempelhofer Feld. A former airport (it closed in 2008), it is now a huge public park. I loved walking on the airstrip with a beer (you can drink beer/wine in public here--on the street and in parks). There is a community p-patch, a bbq area, a dog run, and at least one beer garden (but let's be honest. There are probably more). Bikers, skaters, etc. take to the airstrip and of course there is plenty of grass to lounge on. I loved seeing a green space so enjoyed by everyone.
On my first night in, after the 8 hour bus ride (plus a bonus ferry ride I didn't know about that went from Denmark to Germany), the train ride to the subway line to the apartment, I got a beer, burger & fries and then walked to Tempelhofer. I think it was at Tempelhofer, feeling satiated and welcomed by this new city, in the warm summery evening, that I knew I was going to love Berlin.
And I do! I extended my trip in Berlin a few days later to move at a slower pace and take in different parts of Berlin at my leisure. For the first week, I would often pick a cafe, for example, to go to in the morning. After enjoying a coffee there, I would walk around that neighborhood, finding other things as I went.
Without meaning to, one day I walked across part of the city where I saw the Brandenburg Gate, Tiergarten, and other well-known sites.
Part of the enjoyment I am getting from extended travel is the ability to let go of needing to run around and see as much as possible in a 24 hour period like I did when I was twenty and on a rushed 21 day tour of Europe with a tour company. I remember my friend and I going from site to site in Paris--all in less than 24 hours, mind you! While it was amazing and well-enjoyed (particularly making it to the top of the Arc de Triomphe at sunset!), it would have been so much richer to have lingered in spots for a few days or weeks. As I walk around this city where West and East came together not that long ago, I see Berlin as...whatever it wants to be...whatever you want it to be.
You can be and do and think and act however you want to and no one cares. What I mean is, self-expression and creativity abound in Berlin.
Berlin is a city of vibrancy. It is a place where that small and narrow alley adjacent to a Thai restaurant is going to have the new hip bar. It is a place where you'll find a place to hang out and have a drink on top of a parking garage off of a busy main road (see photo below).
Berlin is a place of the unexpected.