East-West exchange

I’m only on the other side of the river and up the street from where I used to live–maybe a mile and a half away from the old place–of course, twenty some years ago that would have been quite an extreme move.

I’d have had to dig a tunnel out of a fake wall in my cellar, or rig a special compartment under the back seat of an automobile and get an innocent old lady to drive me, or sew together a hot air balloon out of bedsheets, or something.

It would have been epic…if my plot didn’t get exposed and I got shot.

Nowadays, I just hired three Iraqis lads to hump it down the old 4 flights of stairs, load it up in their truck, drive it a few kilometers and hump it up the new 4 flights of stairs.

United Nations Square

Except for the uncomfortable moment after the four of us paused for a break in my courtyard  and I asked the one guy were he was from and he said, “Iraq, I’m from the North and those two are from Baghdad,” and I, not really thinking it through beforehand, just kind of answered, “Oh, funny: I’m from the US,” and we all raised our eyebrows and smiled anxiously for a long breath and I, having practiced this alot in Laos, said “I’m very sorry we bombed your country,” and put out my hand and shook each of theirs, and the older guy said “It’s not that we hate Americans for what you did, we hate the government that did this…” all of which I found quite exciting. Except for that though, the move was uneventful.

Mundane moving stuff.

Hermann Square

Still…

It is kind of a big move for me. Culturally. Socially. Politically.

My marriage, not to mention.

I have moved from the East to the West. Traded the Square of the United Nations for Hermann Square.

Traded Ossis for Wessis. Vietnamese for Turks. Former GDR for the former and present FGR.

I’m no longer a Zonie, “The Zone” being what the Westerners called East Berlin.

Up until a week ago I was another among the proletariat. Now I’m bourgeoisie.

What really concerned me is that I’ve moved to a KiezKiez means neighborhood, but it means more than just neighborhood.

No Kiez

A Kiez is a livable and living area where restaurants, cafes, cornerstores, bakeries, blockbuster stores and every other kind of business pervay on the first floor, and people living on the second floor and up: the way humans naturally build dense communities.

I have moved from an unhip authentic neighborhood between Mitte and Friedrichshain, where ‘real’ Berliners live, to a hip Kiez.The border between Kreuzberg and Neukölln, an area now trendily called “Kreuzkölln” which is largely inhabited by cool kids, musicians, artists.

It’s gotten so bad some are calling it “Little Schwabylon,” refering to the number of Southern Germans who have moved in here, Schwabians being the poster children for the old Berliners hate for the generally well-off Westerners who have moved to the city in the last several years and have helped raise the rent quite drastically.

Prenzlauerberg already claims the name Schwabylon.

Yes Kiez

Living in the working class mostly Ossi neighborhood as I have most of my many years in Berlin without really having anything resembling a Kiez, a certain criticism of the trendy neighborhoods had rubbed off on me.

Nothing but fancypants live in Kiezes.

And it’s true, the few fancy pants here are a bit annoying. It’s really that they just so rarely seem to be having a good time, some of them, so worried as they obviously are with how cool they are coming across. But at least fancy pants walk at a good pace.

It’s the throngs of tourists that are much more annoying, standing always as they do in the way of things.

Maps wide at the mouths of subway.

Overrunning–in groups of three to 13–businesses I frequent and where I usually recieve service in a timely manner. It can be a pain, really.

But Hermann Square ain’t nothing like all of Mitte and most of Prenzl’berg, much of X-berg and the hip parts of F’hain.

Tourists are afraid of Hermann Square.

Trading wide-open spaces.

For all Kreuzköllns hype, I must say–thankfully, Neukölln at least–in contrast to Mitte and Prenzlauer–still has a backbone of immigrants and old Berliners who run the place.

There are whole supposed Kiez in Prenzlauerberg where the butchers and stamp stores and Electric appliance stores have been replaced by yoga studios and gyms where you can work on your abbs and sales salons, where you drink espresso and buy expensive Swedish wooden toys and Japanese strollers for your kiddies.

Parts of Berlin devoid of Berliners, parts where no Berliner has even visited in years. Where the signs are in English and Spanish and Italian.

Even a few streets you can’t find a smoker bar anymore, it’s become so Gentrified (That is nuts for Berlin.) Double-wide strollers as far as the eye can see.

Yuck.

for tree-lined, cobble-stoned streets

That’s not Gentrified, that’s Homogeonized.

You don’t like that.

No, sir.

No, Neukölln still has people living here, not just families and tourists.

The difference between the United Nations Square and Herman square in that sense is not so great. They are both living neighborhoods, full of a mix of hardworking people.

The differences are, first and formost, one of diversity–my new digs are deap in a long-time immigrant end of town, where I belong, really, being an immigrant myself.

And the second biggy is density. On United Nations Square, the hundreds of families living up in the high buildings are simply hidden behind the concrete. Hermann Square is more visually alive. Much less wide-open, much more in your face.

On Hermann Square they’re jostling against you, shoulder to shoulder down the subway stairs, smiling at you as they sauter past, lingering in front of you with their shopping pull carts, running around and playing underfoot, asking you for cigarettes and telling you “hello asshole, move it” when you walk slow.

In my old neighborhood, I was annoyed when someone was in the Bakery when I walked in.

And I traded a few other things.

I traded the sound of hammers on my ceiling and workmen outside my window:

For the sound of a forklift moving vegetables off trucks and into a supermarket all day…but at least no hammers and no scaffolding outside my kitchen window:

And then there is that I’ve traded living with another person and a cat, to living alone.

That’s kind of big.

I’ve always lived either in a house full of people or with a girlfriend or my wife. I haven’t really lived alone for more than a month or so since I was 18 in a studio apartment on 11th and Clarkson for one year until I moved into another house with four friends down on 13th and Lipan.

For the first time in almost 20 years, my apartment is completely my own.

Fucking wierd.

And quiet.

And cold and lonely, by comparison…but not so bad.

I have people all around me, friends not far away and family and friends all around the world…and I have a good friend and a cat who live at the other end of the Special Train to Pankow line, in quiet neighborhood back in the East, and they’ve got a balcony.

It’s almost as romantic as a Udo Lindenberg song.

Except I don’t even have to go through any checkpoints or dig any tunnels to visit them.

That’s good.

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About Andrew Flohr-Spence

Something about the sound and the word. Was a singer/bassist for five years, a German major for five, an English teacher in Germany for another five, then a journalism major in Denver for 5 more, and now I'm back in Berlin (for a while, I intend).
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