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Culture

Berlin, Buenos Aires, and back

When it comes to grace, you might expect Berlin to transcend its littler Latin sister, Buenos Aires. Quite the opposite, says a Berlin native just back from Argentina's capital.

Anyone who has spent time in Berlin knows the city's schlampig look needs some getting used to. Schlampig is a combination of shabby, sloppy, scruffy and unkempt - to downright dirty. As a Berliner, you try not to dwell on the fact that your urban surroundings are full of discarded crap: sofas, big TVs, mattresses, grandma's old rug, soda cans, cigarette butts, beer bottles and so on. Exposed to this daily onslaught of schlampig ugliness, you cheer yourself up with thoughts of all the marvelous things Berlin has to offer. Which it does.

But after two months in Berlin's official sister city, Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, there's no question about which sister is the ugly duckling of the family.

Let's face it: Berlin has some appearance issues. The city is aesthetically challenged. The streets are dirty, but it's deeper than that. What Berlin most lacks, and what our Latin sister has in abundance, is grace. Elegant, beautiful, breathtaking grace.

Sure, Berlin, like Buenos Aires, is full of refined architecture and landscaped parks, plazas and avenues. In Buenos Aires, the grace I most marveled at was that of the society - of the people. It was the artful way folks went about their daily lives, how they interacted with each other, and the dignified way ordinary people carried out their business.

Vanished grace

No classical dance training is needed to execute life's basic tasks with grace and beauty: A baker handing a customer her morning rolls with pride and care, people carrying themselves regally as they walk to work, kids running and playing in parks, nimble as gazelles. The embracing bodies of lovers melting into the other on a bench, friends - women - speaking with animated gestures and tender, laughing faces at a cafe, a man holding a door open with a twinkle in his eye for an older woman…

Berlin!!! What happened? Where has our grace gone?

Today it seems like Berlin almost prides itself on its lack of grace - even markets itself that way: the crude Berlin dialect and typical, hard, artless, sarcastic way of speaking, known at the Berliner Schnauze. For those who don't know it, it is the German equivalent of De Niro in an Italian mafioso role.

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Another example of vanished grace is the city's fashion style, referred to as Berlin Chic, which essentially means anything goes. But the truth is, anything doesn't go. On my street, recently, I saw a man with a permanently-frowning, jowled face (the kind of Berlin face eternalized in Otto Dix paintings), wearing unisex, purple sweatpants, house slippers and socks, out walking his dog.

Well, he wasn't actually walking - he was schlepping - a form of forward motion unique to the city. While bearing similarities to walking, schlepping eliminates entirely the act of picking up ones' feet off the ground. Instead you drag, or rather schlepp your feet, and motion is somehow achieved. When executed with precision (as it is by so many Berliners), schlepping creates an additional side-to-side waddling movement. Some Berliners look like they're trying out their best 1920s Frankenstein imitation, when in fact they are just "walking" down the street. And the artistic expression only gets richer when you add props to the equation: plastic shopping bags filled with crappy fast food. This is the urban animal of the Berlin landscape.

As a longtime Berlin resident, normally I don't notice such visual obscenities, since to survive here one learns to filter them out. But upon returning from Buenos Aires, I was out of practice. Bam! Wham! Ouch! Having gotten used to the eye candy of the stunning, elegant Buenos Aires populous, my eyes were literally attacked by the graceless body carriage of Berlin's Volk. Luckily, I've since readjusted and can walk (not schlepp) down the street without any pending optical danger.

Let's dance

To be fair, Buenos Aires has its downsides too, and not all is eminent grace and beauty. Traffic is insufferable - and is getting worse. The city is expensive, loud, there's no adequate recycling system for the growing metropolis, bus drivers hunt bikers down with true intent to kill, and street crime of all kinds is a problem. My bike was stolen when I turned my head for just a moment. Poof! Gone!

But I guess that could probably happen in Berlin too.

And that's precisely the point: Berliners are not so different than Buenos Aireans. We all share the same basic anatomic make-up and human gene pool. Berlin doesn't have to be the graceless city it is. We also have the capacity to walk with awareness and pride, hold our faces openly, speak instead of bark, and treat each other with overt gentleness and warmth. Berliners do so many things so well, surely we can master these basic societal graces?

I'm not implying all Berliners are cavemen or should enroll in tango classes (though the tango schools here would love that) but rather for Berliners to explore the beauty of ones' simple daily interactions and movements. Make them a dance - discover how wonderful it feels to be gentle and generous in your interactions, and to move fluidly, infusing gestures and movement with music and grace. Make the city your personal dance floor if you dare, and invite others to dance gracefully with you...

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