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Adventures in the New Berlin

Micha Richter Inside Norman Foster's glass-and-steel Reichstag dome.

Photo: Micha Richter

On the other hand, Potsdamer Platz, the new commercial and touristic heart of the city, resembles a rouged-up version of the skyline in Raleigh, North Carolina. Four billion dollars and five years were sunk into the building of this supposed future-scape just so that one of its main squares—Marlene-Dietrich-Platz, mind you—could host a McDonald’s, a Starbucks, a sad-looking casino, and Mamma Mia!, the musical. Arriving at the glassed-in Hauptbahnhof, the central train station and one of the largest in Europe, is like pulling into a mall/office complex from the farthest reaches of suburbia. The task of reassembling a city whose history still has the capacity to make you gasp has led many of the world’s best architects to perform open-heart surgery on Berlin’s center, but along with generous helpings of glass and steel, they have injected a surfeit of anesthesia.

And yet, just a few minutes away from the studied plasticity of Potsdamer Platz lies the postwar Berliner Philharmonie, by architect Hans Scharoun—widely considered one of the best concert halls in the world and still the greatest artistic joy the city has to offer. The audience is seated like the U.N. General Assembly around the warm, glowing orchestra stage, and my favorite way to enjoy the music is not to close my eyes, but to remove my glasses and stare myopically at the golden haze around me, at the hushed and indistinct humanity; in this space, even the soft coughs of those afflicted by the city’s damp air resound with a hidden melody. During the intermissions hordes of Japanese music students rush the stage to feel themselves at the apogee of classical music. Conductor Simon Rattle’s interpretation of Mahler’s majestic and oddly hopeful Ninth Symphony brings the teenage concertgoer next to me to tears, and by the end of the performance she is shouting—shouting, mind you—for Sir Simon to grace us with an encore, which he does. How Berliners love their dandelion-haired British maestro.

And there are more Berliners on the way. The city is a baby-making machine. German parents receive a sizable subsidy for each child, and that child then collects a stipend until the age of 25. Hence, the tony eastern neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg on a Thursday evening becomes a parade of well-dressed women on fancy bicycles with swaddled bundles of joy perched on the backseat, the occasional husband following behind at a respectful distance. The fecundity of these people is astonishing, and one wonders what this generation of new Berliners—born to be mild amidst a landscape of hatha yoga and bio-products—will be like when it comes of age. While the children seem mellow, coddled, and rosy-cheeked, Berlin motherhood is fierce and competitive. Crossing at a red light while a Kind is watching might earn you the reproach “Are you color-blind?” from a mama worried that you are setting a dangerous example.

Prenzlauer Berg, arguably the most attractive of the East’s neighborhoods, used to be the place in which to get pregnant. Now I see Maclaren strollers everywhere. Trying to figure out Berlin’s neighborhood of the moment is like trying to corner an especially smart chicken. But one thing is certain: the trend of colonizing the East seems to have been reversed, with formerly uncool western neighborhoods that were the preserves of punks, draft dodgers, and the Turkish community during the Cold War—often beautiful Kreuzberg, but also the grittier Neukölln, to the south—now attracting the mommies and daddies of the city’s creative class, not to mention a cascade of Americans with juicy Fulbrights.

My favorite stretch of Kreuzberg runs along the banks of the Landwehrkanal. Here, Turkish and bohemian Berlin meet in a way that makes the city feel as multicultural as Paris or London. On a Tuesday or a Friday I start at the Turkish Market, which stretches along the Maybachufer bank of the canal, to sample a smorgasbord of fat navel oranges, hot spinach böreks that flake to nothingness in your grasp, glowing aubergines, piles of octopus glistening in olive oil, every gradient of feta known to the Bosporus. The Anatolian young women in beautiful sequined chadors and men screaming out their prices until their voices break remind you of the greater world beyond the glacial forests and lakes of Brandenburg.

All that produce calls for a terrific meal. I head west along the canal to Defne, a restaurant that is nominally Turkish, but also smartly plays with the flavors of the Mediterranean. In other words, the greasy döner kebab that feeds Berlin’s workers and party people is blessedly absent from the menu. One night I sit next to a German man with a beautiful flowing mullet like the mane of a balding lion, his breast adorned with a necklace of miniature pelts, perhaps an homage to the Navajo people. He is sampling one of my favorite dishes, the Imam Fainted—a zesty mix of aubergines with pine nuts and peppers, in a tomato-herb sauce. Defne also has the spiciest octopus in town, drowning in garlic and white-wine sauce and oven-baked with—I’m not really sure how this works—crumbly feta cheese. The so-called Well Brought Up Lamb skewer is charred but red-centered, and perfectly lives up to its name. Even more shocking, the service, for Berlin, is competent and caring: a waitress, when summoned, may come.

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