Obama in Berlin : "Welcome to Berlin, Mr. President"

Eric T. Hansen is an American writer who has lived in Berlin for 15 years. He wrote a letter to welcome Mr. President in Berlin.- and to explain the town.

Eric T. Hansen

"Dear Mr. President, so you’re back! I knew we’d see you here again. Let me guess: Sitting around in Washington with nothing to do, your mind kept returning to the sound of laughter drifting through the Tiergarten in summer, the lights of Potsdamer Platz at night, the sparkle of sunlight on the Spree and the crowds in front of the Siegessäule screaming your name, am I right? It happens to the best of us: We get addicted.

I know why you like it here so much: You and I, we both grew up in Hawaii. We know something not even most Berliner know – the beating heart of Berlin is Hawaiian.

Berlin is nothing like other major cities, New York or London or Paris. It’s always been the city of the little guy. I often describe Hawaii as a small town surrounded by water – well, Berlin is a small town surrounded by Brandenburg. We Berliners are about as metropolitan as some guy drinking beer on the beach at Kailua, watching the sun set.

Hawaii attracts New Age types, beach bums, surfers and hippies fleeing their jobs on the Mainland. Berlin attracts the same people, they just wear more clothes. No one comes to Berlin to make a lot of money. They come to Berlin to hang out.

You’ll be glad to know that Berlin hasn’t changed much since you last visited. Something has changed: You know those seedy Turkish grocery stores all over town? They have all been renovated. They’re bigger, brighter and newer. And the doner kebab is no longer the only Turkish fast food. All over town, you can buy kumpir and çig köfte, and if I am not mistaken the waffle stands popping up everywhere were also started by young Turkish business people. While white Berlin is still discussing the age-old question of whether Turks are willing to integrate themselves into German society, the Turks themselves are quietly building up a dynamic and powerful middle class.

Someone might have told you that the new airport would be finished by the time you came again. It was probably a non-Berliner who said that. Can you imagine Hawaii building an airport in just four years? Ha! Hawaii wouldn’t be Hawaii and Berlin wouldn’t be Berlin if that were possible.

In Hawaii we call it „Hawaii time“: You always come to a party an hour late and you never finish a building when it’s supposed to be finished. The problem with Berlin is: There is no word for „Berlin time“.

Come to think of it, that’s the problem with Berlin in general: We Hawaiians have all kinds of expressions to tell the world that we are who we are and we’re proud if it: „Hawaii time“, „hang loose“, „shaka“ and more. Berliners don’t have those words. They look at their airport and their s-bahn and their unemployment and they have no alternative but to use words people in other German cities would use: It’s a „disgrace“, it’s an „embarrassment“. We should be saying the same kind of thing we say in Hawaii: „Lucky you live Berlin“ („He – sei froh, du lebst in Berlin“).

But that may be changing.

Berlin was always cool, but only half the world knew it. Now everyone does. Since you gave your speech at the Siegessäule, Berlin has officially become the coolest city in Europe. And everyone wants to come see it: the girl with artistic ambitions stuck in a village in Croatia, the Rumanian looking for a job, the college student in Cincinnati who needs to gather experience abroad. They all come looking for a dream. That’s what made America great: You could dream there. The same thing is making Berlin great right in front of our eyes.

Amazingly, Berlin even attracts business now. Not big companies, but hungry little startups with big ideas. That’s not only new, it’s shocking. Germany doesn’t exactly have the reputation for being innovative, but if there is ever such thing as a European Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, he’s going to start up his company here in Berlin within the next ten years.

Take a walk down the street and you will notice a different vibe. It’s called self-esteem. Just look at the ads. The billboard featuring a waitress in a t-shirt that says „Trinkgeld, sonst Schnauze“ (something like, „Tip or die“) is a portrait of a city that knows it’s cool. The beer commercial song „Berlin, du bist so wunderbar“ is more than just a song, it’s a hymn.

Berlin hasn’t known how to celebrate itself since the Weimarer Republik, when writers like Christopher Isherwood („Cabaret“) and filmmakers Billy Wilder flocked to Berlin to sing its praises. Maybe someday soon, someone will make a really good Berlin movie that goes around the world or write the great Berlin novel of the 21st Century. For the first time since living here – and I’ve been here for fifteen years – I have the feeling that Berlin isn’t only fun, it might even be going somewhere.

That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. What are your plans when you leave office? It’s coming up faster than you think, you know.

Why don’t you move to Berlin? The Berliners would welcome you with open arms. Who knows, maybe you’ll write the great Berlin novel. You don’t even have to learn the language. It’s a sign that Berlin has become international that everyone here speaks English. Of course, you should know a little German. In most places in the world you need to know at least two words: „please“ and „thank you“ – here, I recommend three: „bitte“, „danke“ and „Scheiße“. They’ll welcome you as a native.

I have an extra room in my apartment. I could lay a futon on the floor. The famous Jansen Bar is just down the street – they make a mean White Russian. I have an extra key, and I wouldn’t ask much for rent.

Think about it! You have my number!“

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