Odds & Ends
Here’s some lesser known facts and information on Berlin.
The Bear Pit
Weirdly enough, Berlin keeps a few bears on hand in a bear pit near Nikolaiviertel, the oldest part of the city. Bears have been the symbol of Berlin for centuries despite the fact that the last wild German bears were killed long ago, and it is doubtful whether there ever were many bears in the Brandenburg region to begin with. The whole bear thing actually has a much simpler explanation: the city’s name, which sounds an awful lot like “Bear-lin” (or, auf Deutsch, “Bär-lin,” meaning the same thing). Many people later assumed that Berlin was named after bears, and a popular folk mythology grew up around the Bears of Berlin, which became the symbol of the city. As it turns out, the etymology of the name is much less glamorous, deriving ultimately from a word sounding similar to “Berlin” spoken by the original Slavic inhabitants of the area to denote a wet, swamp-like area.
Completely unrelated to the bear pit where the bears are kept, on Sunday afternoons in the Mauerpark north of Mitte there are regular, well-attended “Bearpit Karaoke” events. It’s a great way to unwind and have a few laughs or display your musical gifts to an impromptu crowd of hundreds.
Some native Berliners might speak in a noticeably different way from German as you might have learned in school or university. The word “ich” acquires more of a “k” sound, “g” (as in gut) acquires more of a “y” sound, and oftentimes a final s in a word becomes a “t.” Besides pronunciation and accent, Berliners have their own vocabulary to boot. A good comparison might be cockney English in London, which, although mostly comprehensible, can sometimes leave another native speaker utterly bewildered.
Ich bin ein Berliner?
The Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) has been the site of numerous historic events since its construction in 1791, but for three reasons it is most closely associated with the struggle between the USSR and the West during the Cold War. This was where some of the most iconic photos of 1989 captured the fall of the wall and with it the zeitgeist of the era. Before that, in 1987, there was Ronald Reagan in front of the gate demanding that Mr. Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” But the most well known (and most lampooned) speech from this exalted podium came from JFK, whose immortal words “Ich bin ein Berliner!” have become something of a slogan for the city.
JFK was lambasted immediately for accidentally proclaiming that he was a “jelly doughnut” (A Berliner is a sugar-coated, jelly-filled confection popular throughout Germany). Although this comical “mistake” has become common currency among the media and academics that should probably know better, in truth the president did not misspeak, as any German speaker could tell you. JFK, speaking metaphorically about his solidarity with the Berliners, was in fact obliged to include the article ein in his statement, although in more literal circumstances a resident wouldn’t need to include it. Unfortunately, in a few places in Germany, but not in Berlin itself, Berliner is also a word for a kind of pastry.
Berlin in Film
Berlin is Germany’s film capital, and does a thriving business starring in German and international films. Directors appreciate the gritty realism on offer in Berlin, which contrasts with the vanilla-flavor of Western German cities, like Cologne, Düsseldorf, and Frankfurt.
In the 1920s Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was a landmark film across the globe. More recently several films have tapped into the concept of “Ostalgie” for inspiration. “Ostalgie” is nostalgia for the old days of communist East Germany and specifically for its material elements like Trabant cars and kitsch of all sorts. The most famous of films in this genre is “Good Bye, Lenin!” in which a boy must convince his mother, who has recently awoke from a coma, that East Germany still exists so she doesn’t have a heart attack and die from shock. For a less comedic (and probably more realistic) take on the East German experience, don’t miss academy award winning Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), which follows a Stasi agent with a conscience and the people he surveils.
Before WWII, Berlin had a population of 4.5 million people. Today it has a population of just over 3.5 million people. As the numbers imply, there are a substantial number of structures that no longer have tenants to fill them. The largest of these is undoubtedly Tempelhof Airport, abandoned in 2008 and converted into a public park. This is also an area of immense historical significance: the airport, which was originally built in the 1920s, was the site of the famous “Berlin Airlift” which sustained the people of West Berlin through the Soviet blockade of the early 1950s. Check out Abandoned Berlin for other interesting abandoned structures around the city: it is a popular pastime to explore the city’s past this way.