It was just a moment, the time it takes to gulp a double espresso, but long enough to persuade me that I had to leave Berlin and reclaim an interrupted life. Too lazy to shop for food, I had breakfast in Kempinski. Two Amis were eating Eggs Benedict at a window table and, as usual, I strained to listen in. They were evidently business men considering investing in Berlin. It was like that old Walter Mehring song: Die Geier sassen beim Petit-Dejeunerwas Geier so frühstücken wenn sie regieren.
Prices are low, said one of the men, thin-faced but with a slight stomach that pushed against the table. I deduced he was talking about property in Berlin. But so are profits, said his colleague, Forget-it the German rental laws are a nightmare. Leave Berlin alone.
Leave Berlin alone! At the neighbouring table, I let out a silent cheer, a muffled Bravo! Who wants foreigners buying up our city? Imposing their alien rules and expectations on us? By all means, visit Berlin, yes; spend your money here, certainly; admire the city. And then, for the love of God--go home.
For me, this was the point of no return. Suddenly I realised that I had mutated into a Berlin micro-chauvinist, a near-native of this Asterix-village that is so determined to resist all that is foreign and strange. After 20 years, I had become a victim of the Spree version of the Stockholm Syndrome. I had slept with the enemy. It was time to go.
Many English people say they love Berlin, of course. The fatuous lifestyle magazine Monocle has just declared Berlin to be the eighth most liveable city in the world, after Helsinki (number one) and Munich (number four) but satisfyingly ahead of Tokyo and Madrid. The judges liked the S-Bahn presumably they did not investigate the city in winter and its value for money, its greenery, its bicycle paths. That's nice. There is a big difference between Berlin and the other winners though: places like Melbourne and Zurich are not just easy to live in but are embracing change. They give a sense that new ideas can be realised, that money can be made and that foreigners are not just something to be tolerated but celebrated as part of the adventure of urban life. That spirit, which I found as a student in West Berlin in the 1970s, has evaporated.