Last night I literally had to wade through throngs of slow-moving pavement-blocking people who were presumably tourists to get to the Freiluftkino Mitte behind Haus Schwarzenberg near Hackescher Markt. There, I watched the South African sci-fi flick District 9 in which prawn-like aliens are dehumanised, oppressed, subjected to brutal medical experiments or just slaughtered at whim. It’s easy to mentally reduce a crowd of slow-moving pavement-blocking human beings to a lesser species. Scheiß Touris, as we Germans love to say, magnificantly ignorant of our standing as the most ubiquitous tourists around the world.
Berlin doesn’t make it easy for the innocent, clueless visitor. Signage is patchy at best. Try getting from the U2 platform at Alexanderplatz to the Airport Express train to Schönefeld or to the bus stop (on Karl-Liebknecht-Straße) for the TXL to Tegel. In the U-Bahn a recorded female voice announces “change here for bus service to Tegel Airport.” No mention of the train to Schönefeld, presumably because it’s a Deutsche Bahn train and not a BVG one.
In the station itself, a few signs pointing the way to “trains to Schönefeld Airport” could be helpful, rather than just a few minimalist aeroplane symbols. Same goes for the TXL. A minor detail, but add that to the slow, semi-functioning BVG ticket machines with overly complicated instructions and which don’t accept credit cards, a lack of explanation that you have to stamp your ticket in those red boxes on the platform, or the lack of clarity about Schönefeld being in zone C and that you can use the Airport Express with a BVG ticket…
Despite record tourist numbers projected for this year – they keep coming although we don’t seem to want them or at least act as if we don’t – the facility to fly ever greater numbers of them in and out efficiently, BER airport, is no closer to completion nor is there even a plan for completion. Last week, the airport corporation announced it couldn’t find a “general planner” in a Europe-wide tender. Yep, a “general planner”, an engineering office to oversee the remaining technical work at the airport. Sounds like somebody you need to complete an airport. But alas, no one wants to come anywhere close to BER – the airport that tarnishes reputations and destroys careers. At least they’re putting the building site to good use with film shoots and jazz concerts.
Despite the bursting infrastructure, the tourists keep coming, packing the stuffy corridors of Schönefeld, or sitting in a patch of dust in the trash-strewn Mauer- and Görlitzer parks, appearing to be grateful they’re allowed to swill cheap beer in public, soaking in that Berlin freedom. Couch-surfers many of them, but many others AirBnB users. Another area where Berlin is making life more restrictive for visitors and those catering to them: a new law stipulated that people offering vacation rentals had to register their flats as holiday apartments with the authorities by the end of July… only a third of the estimated 20,000 flats have been declared.
The great short-term accommodation (black-market) gold rush continues… although it’s riskier than ever. Renting your flat out by the night at hotel prices could land you a €50,000 fine. And there’s a fair chance your annoyed neighbours are going to snitch on you if they’re annoyed enough by the rumble of rolling suitcases and late-night techno. A victory for the hotel and hostel lobby! All you normal folk trying to make an extra euro, please realise you can only milk the tourist cow so much…
So we have all these people, and this pathetic unopened airport – yet Deutsche Bahn has announced it’s terminating night trains to Paris, Amsterdam and Copenhagen in December. Not only is this ridiculous in terms of transport policy (from personal experience, I know that the Paris train is always full) it’s truly a blow to European civilisation. While the Orient Express it is not, the CityNightLine to Paris makes it possible to board a train at Hauptbahnhof at eight in the evening and wake up 12 hours later, relatively rested, at Gare de l’Est, having completely sidestepped the hassle of airport trains, busses, check in, security, the endless waiting, the cattle-car humiliation and bad food of discount airlines. You just step off the train, and there you are, drinking a coffee with a pain au chocolat in a charming cafe in the middle of Paris within minutes. For some reason this mode of travel was deemed not efficient enough – despite its pleasantness, its humanity and its gentler ecological footprint. It’s insane to scale down rail travel when we should be encouraging it. There’s a petition to save the Berlin-Paris night train here.
So, they’ll have to travel here squashed together like sardines in a tin can in the sky. But they will still come. And increasingly, tourists don’t come to discover the city they’re visiting, but to discover themselves. What better place to do so than Berlin, where you can fuck in a club, walk around drunk, do bondage yoga, become a vegan, swim naked in a lake, subject your body to every possible pleasure and pain imaginable – and no one will think anything of it. This is what “be Berlin” really means. This is what “Berliner Luft” – “Berlin air” – has always been about.
But is there enough Berlin for all these searchers? Clubs are closing. Berghain is becoming a parody of itself. The “free spaces” so loved by tourists are being filled by angular beige boxes. The remaining slices of the Wall are being removed or built over. Tourists encounter primarily other tourists…
We love tourists because them bring money and we hate them because their presence makes prices go up. We have to house them and offer them real experiences if we want them to keep coming, but we need our own housing and our own real lives. Too tall an order for Berlin?