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Becoming Berlin

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Rachel Au-Yong on 07 Oct 2018

The Straits Times

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Leaving its tragic history behind, the German capital has turned hip, creative and entrepreneurial

 

It is drizzling on a June afternoon, but instead of taking cover, I am pedalling my guts out on 2km of asphalt.

 

Ahead of me is an indistinguishable finishing line, hard to make out as cloudy skies merge with the concrete grey strip into some almost unfathomable vanishing point.

 

I am not one for sweating on vacation, but this is no ordinary path - it was once a runway belonging to the former Tempelhof airport.

 

And so it comes to pass that eight journalists from South-east Asia and their tour guide end up racing on the same road which Allied pilots used to ferry 2.5 million tonnes of food and supplies into West Berlin 70 years ago.

 

In 1948, Stalin blocked land links into West Berlin in an attempt to force the British, French and Americans to withdraw. His goal? To unify Germany under communist rule.

 

Instead, the Western nations turned to the skies to prevent 2.25 million residents from starving. It worked, but not without tragedy - close to 80 air crew died in plane crashes during the year-long operation.

 

Back in the present, I lose the race, coming in seventh. But I relish the chance to have tyres of my own running over the occasional cracks in the concrete, these emblems of time.

 

The last plane took off from Tempelhof in 2008, but it has found a new identity as a sprawling recreational haven for families and fitness enthusiasts. When we visit, we see a trio holding an umbrella over a barbecue, the former terminal in the background.

 

A DARK PAST

 

Like Tempelhof, the rest of Berlin is a palimpsest, the past often peeking out of the present.

 

In some cases, it lives right under one's feet.

 

On another day, I pass up on the sun to go below the surface and into the Berliner Unterwelten-Museum.

 

In this network of underground bunkers, painstakingly preserved by the non-profit group of the same name, visitors get a glimpse of what life was like for Berliners seeking shelter during air raids.

 

The Germans, ill-prepared for the attacks that would besiege their capital, had hastily converted the empty spaces above metro lines into makeshift shelters.

 

Many of the ceilings were, technically, not thick enough to withstand the payload of hundreds of planes flying overhead at all hours of the night.

 

That the Berliners who used these bunkers were largely protected by huge fortresses nearby did not diminish their fear.

 

These shelters, in total, could take in only 1 per cent of the Berlin population. Often, more people than was allowed - thousands - would cram in, trying to take slow breaths and make the limited oxygen supply last as long as they could.

 

Even in a group of just 30, I feel a tightness in my chest as I walk around the tiny rooms.

 

It is hard to ignore the marks where commodes once stood, or the etchings in a wall, against which frightened children must have pressed their faces.

 

While these remain, one bunker no longer exists - Hitler's, where the Fuhrer spent his final days.

 

It was destroyed because "we don't worship a man like that", our guide tells us.

 

A COLOURFUL PRESENT

 

That may be one chapter of Berlin's history closed. But elsewhere, an undeniably hip culture has sprung up in its place.

 

Take the food scene, for example. In recent years, Berlin has built a reputation as the vegan capital of the world.

 

At the ultra-cool restaurant and brewery BRLO, built out of shipping containers stacked in the middle of a park, diners focus on two things: beer and vegetables.

 

That the restaurant, which takes its name from the ancient Slavic word for Berlin, yields a couple of pale ales I like does not surprise me. There are more than 20 beers on the menu and the fact that most of them are unfiltered intrigues me.

 

But that a true-blue meat-lover like me ends up ordering a second helping of pink cabbage is unusual.

 

Our hosts also take us to Tim Raue, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant run by the chef of the same name.

 

When we arrive, staff are pasting a "#37" sticker over a "#48" one - the restaurant climbed 11 spots on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list earlier this year.

 

Three months after that meal, the taste of Raue's salmon still lingers in my mouth - a combination of flavours and freshness, accompanied by the tang of his tomato compote, that left me wanting a second helping.

 

We get to meet the head chef himself. He asks: "You might be wondering why a white man is doing Asian cuisine. Well, this is Berlin. Why the f*** not?"

 

This derring-do courses in every Berliner's blood, even the ones who adopt the city as their home.

 

It is in the daring graffiti in unimaginably hard-to-access places. A good place to check this out is in the hipster district of Kreuzberg, where beautiful and thought-provoking murals adorn various walls and where you will also find many "1UP" signs left by the graffiti gang of the same name.

 

It is in the dogged determination of brewery Brauhaus Lemke am Alex, which is trying to revive the Berliner Weiss, a sour beer once produced by 50 other breweries in the city, but whose popularity dipped by the 20th century.

 

It is in the unadulterated joy as over 300 people sit around an open-air amphitheatre in Mauerpark on a Sunday afternoon, cheering off-key renditions of Abba's Dancing Queen by people they have never met.

 

A CITY OF CHANGE

 

I came here 10 years ago as a student, grateful for the chance to travel and that Berlin was an affordable city compared with Paris.

 

It still is, but while members of the creative class once flocked to it for the low rents, they are now getting priced out as tech start-ups and the attending gentrification seep in.

 

But some are resisting such trends. Take, for example, Markthalle Neun (Market Hall Nine), a food hall that survived World War II. The neighbourhood fought hard against the authorities selling the place to a real-estate bigwig.

 

In 2011, it was bought by three men who turned the historical site into a sustainable urban project.

 

Instead of becoming another franchise, it is now a food hall where young entrepreneurs peddle their new concoctions.

 

The Berlin of today is young - it has been less than 30 years since the wall that divided families came down - and there is a buzz in the air, the hum of energy of people eager to craft a life of their own, not one that is dictated to them.

 

Its history, so deep and rich, is a compass, not an anchor - something to guide them, but not hold them back.

 

As one guide tells us as we cycle past new condominiums coming up: "Berlin is always on the way to 'becoming', but not 'being'."

 

And I think that is a perfect state for a city to be in - always evolving.

 

• This trip was hosted by Scoot, Visit Berlin and the German National Tourist Board.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.