When I moved here in '95, everyone made a point of telling me that I had missed the exciting days of Berlin. The best times were when the Wall was still there. The ineffable magic of partying in a concrete political cage robbed by exigency of responsibility could not be recaptured, alas.
I believed them. Being young means feeling like you've always just missed out, and I had been a freshman in high school when the Wall fell, but somehow it still felt pretty amazing to my 20-year-old self.
Rumbling past the monolithic black Ernst-Thälmann-Denkmal in the streetcar, on the way from my apartment in Weissensee to Humboldt, exceeded anything my American suburban imagination could have conjured. It didn't matter that the temperature reading on the bank sign said minus-18 when there were dance parties with Polish painters and Italian composers in ramshackle buildings in Prenzlauerberg to keep away the cold.
Yet each time I came back, to live or to visit, Berlin was a little less cool. I could nod sagely when people declared to someone: "You missed the good times. The mid-'90s were great." Sometimes-okay, often-I said it myself.
By the time I returned as The New York Times correspondent in 2007, older and much more responsible, it was obvious what had happened to the city. It had lost its spark, its originality, its spontaneity. Prenzlauerberg was filled with Mommies and Amis. The city had passed its peak.
Broken S-bahns, unshoveled sidewalks, Dauerbaustellen-there were so many inconveniences and outright failures to work around. The city had changed and not, it seemed at the time, for the better.
I went on book leave last year and began spending more time in Cairo. The vast network of efficient public transportation we enjoy in Berlin was a fond memory, even with the S-bahn disruptions. The varied cultural life, the safety women usually felt from harassment, the parks and peaceful benches all over-I realized what I had been taking for granted.
I had the misfortune of spending some time during the January 15 revolution as an unwilling guest of the Egyptian secret police. The brown, padded walls of the interrogation cell could just as easily have been in a Stasi facility. All that Ostalgie and East Chic I had bought into as a young man was tinted now by an understanding of feeling powerless before unfettered security services.
Democracy, stability, even the dreaded predictability, started looking pretty good. A cage didn't feel like the best place to party.
I often find myself recalling the evening at the Reichstag in June 2010 when the Bundesversammlung made Christian Wulff president of Germany. It is also the night when I made up with Berlin once and for all.
Between votes I realized that Sir Norman Foster's glass dome was open, with no line and no tourists. It was still sunny and the sky was clear. I quickly grasped why it was such a popular spot. I could see my city, after 16 years I'm not afraid to say it, and the city looked good, Tiergarten, Potsdamer Platz, the Spree, the new government district, all were in good form. Wulff won, Gauck lost and the Deutschlandlied was sung.
It was neither cool nor edgy, but I felt like this city, country even, deserved a nice normal moment, and a boring candidate was not always so bad, when you saw the alternatives. I had spent enough time in the real city, in Lichtenberg and Dahlem, in Wedding and Moabit, to understand Berlin was a larger place and the goings-on of a few thousand expatriates in a small cluster were just a fraction of the city's life.
We as journalists reuse and recycle Mayor Wowereit's "poor but sexy" words time and again, forgetting that a mayor is a city's salesman. And rich and prosperous were not on the table. But Berlin does have something that makes artists like Ai Weiwei and those ennui-fueled writers want to live here.
After I moved back I had an intern. She was 22 and started telling me about these parties and clubs she went to, in abandoned buildings, former swimming pools. They weren't in the middle of the city, more on the edges. I even went to a few.
I realized that Berlin was right where I left it. Generally when we Wahlberliner say that the city is not as cool as it used to be (and I imagine someone on the best night of the Weimar era recalling fondly the more intimate local Wilhelmine scene) that's not what we really mean. What we mean, consciously or not, is that we've changed. We have settled into patterns, are working more and going to concerts less. Rushing to appointments, foiled by the Dauerbaustellen, we pass the city by. And instead of feeling like we're missing it, we tell ourselves it isn't there.