Last week I was in Berlin for my mum’s birthday. It is quite a special place, Berlin. And I’m not just saying this because it is where I was born and raised.
It has changed a lot, of course, since I left in the early 90s, shortly after the Wall came down. And yet, the sensual quality of Berlin in June is still exactly as I remember it.
There is something slightly intoxicating about this scent – especially when it surrounds and envelops you wherever you go. You walk through the town with your head in a bubble of sweet honey fragrance and, after a while, this gives you a permanent high, without any need for drugs.
The “Berlin daze”
A few years ago I came across a Times article entitled “Berlin daze”. I reckon the mellow mood it refers to is partly due to that lime tree blossom high.
There is also a famous song from the late 19th century called “Das ist die Berliner Luft” (“It’s the Berlin air”) – you can listen to it here… Who knows, maybe this, too, was written in June.
Berlin is a very green city. Not just politically, but also in terms of real greenery. Almost every street in Berlin is lined with trees – mostly lime trees (over a third of Berlin’s street trees are lime trees). This is helped by Berlin’s generously designed streets and pavements, which allow enough space for tree planting.
There are also extensive forests and parks, notably the Tiergarten, right in the centre of the city, and the Grunewald, Berlin’s “green lung” and most important recreational space during the time of the Wall, when Berliners had no access to the surrounding countryside.
As a result of all this greenery, Berlin has a thriving population of nightingales. Enough, in fact, to extract some of them every year for research purposes. Scientists call Berlin the “capital of nightingales”.
And this is yet another one of those sensual qualities of the city that haven’t changed one bit: you always hear birdsong.
And not just that: as you walk around the streets of Berlin at night, head hazy with lime blossom scent, you can also hear the odd cricket in the grass that is allowed to grow in the corners of pavements and parking lots. Most local council gardening departments don’t believe in the use of herbicides. And good on them, I say!
This is what Berlin has always been about for me. And it still is. In a way, I think this is also what the author of the “Berlin daze” article is talking about: the freedom and space for unfettered creative expression. “Wildwuchs”: allowing weeds to grow by the kerbsides, leaving long-grass meadows to develop in parks, and tolerating graffiti alongside the railway lines.
When the Wall was still there, Berlin was heavily subsidised. Most of the cultural subsidies went towards “high culture”, of course, but the city’s subculture also benefited. There even was a representative for rock music in the Berlin senate, organising public-funded rock competitions – the annual “Senatsrockwettbewerb”. (The video report is from around the time when it came to an end in 1991.)
But even after the Wall came down and the subsidies subsided, subculture, art and creativity continued to thrive in the city. From techno clubs to the Love Parade, from the Tacheles art centre – forever threatened with eviction, and yet still surviving – to the “Karneval der Kulturen”, from completely off-the-wall and known only to those on the inside track to well-established and widely promoted: new events, venues, places to hang out are constantly emerging and changing.
That is why artists from all over the world flock to the place and stay for a few months or years to soak up the atmosphere, the freedom and spirit of laissez-faire that allows weeds to grow in the cracks so that crickets can sing at night. That allows them to try things out and develop – and get high on lime blossom scent in June.