Greatest City in the World

The votes are in and it's true: Berlin is the greatest city in the world.

I've lived here so long that it's hard for me to judge anymore, but last night I sat down with a newly immigrated English mother of two by the name of Sarah (well, she's been here a couple of years) and was surprised at the sheer unequivocal-ness of her endorsement. "I can honestly say I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else", she said. "If it were up to me, I would live here all my life."

Her points:

- It's a great place to raise children. Germans themselves will never tell you this, they think all Germans and Germany in general is anti-children, but it's not true. The subways have elevators, the buses have steps that tip down. Other cities don’t have all that. Go to New York or London or Paris. Berlin is an extremely modern city. There are still parts that could be cleaned up a little, but most likely that is only a matter of time.

- Cheap. It's true of course: Berlin is easy to live in money-wise. "For the money we're paying for our four-room apartment on the edge of town," said Guy, her husband, in Paris we'd be living in a place the size of this living room, and that would be generous."

- Not crowded. "It's not like London where everything is completely overcrowded. You can get around. You can take your children everywhere."

- Language-afinity. "When I came here, I assumed everyone was going to be very… well, German. Unfriendly. Rude. Cold. But the exact opposite is true. Everyone is cheerful and helpful. Germans make great neighbors."

- English. She doesn't speak any German, but that doesn't matter. Almost everyone speaks English, and if they don’t, someone within hearing range will, and will offer his or her services. "The down side of that is that I'm not learning the language, which I did when we lived in Paris, because the French refuse to speak English with you. But the Germans are just friendlier."

- Cosmopolitan. Her husband and I were debating whether Berlin is cosmopolitan or not. He said it's not, compared to London, New York and Paris. "You don’t get that electricity, the bustle," he said. He's a correspondent for a major news agency. "When we have a press conference at the Chancellery, we walk over a couple of blocks, go past one guard, through one metal detector, and we're sitting there with the Chancellor. In Washington, it would take hours of frisking and ID-checking. Everything is smaller –too small for a major European capitol. We call it Toy Town."

In favor of cosmopolitanism, his wife mentioned the language: Everyone speaks English. That's more cosmopolitan than Paris. Not to mention that Germany is a major world exporter – that mans most Germans have contact with the outside world, much more even than other countries. That's true, said her husband, but Berlin doesn't act like it. And the world doesn't notice it. "When we write a trans-European piece, with elements in it from different countries, we try our best to put a London dateline on it, to make it look like it's out of London. If it's out of London, the newspapers of the world will pick it up. If it's out of Berlin, they won't."

That may be changing, he said. "Things changed when Berlin hosted the World Cup in 2006," said Guy. "Everyone came to Berlin and war surprised how things had changed. Berlin was much more worldly, much more hospitable, much more modern than it had been before. Of course what they really mean by that is: Berlin is much different than they had thought it was, from cliches and rumors, because most of these people had never been here before and were surprised to find such a modern, hospitable city. Now they have gone home and told people about it and the image is changing."

"You know the English," said Sarah. "You mention Germany to them and they talk about the war. They don't think a single good thing about Germany. We have a good friend who is very much like that: He hates Germany. But he came to the World Cup and now he's completely changed his opinion. He won’t let you say a single bad thing about the Germans."

There you have it. If the English say it, it must true.

And that's exactly what I'm going to tell them in Boston when I speak at the Goethe Institute on April 25 and 26.

And I'll probably end up telling the Berliners that too, when I return about a week later for a reading at the Kreuzberg Book Night on May 5 at about 6pm in the Max and Moritz.

It's a good message. Gotta tell the world.


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