But if I were, I’d opt for the area of the city once run by the former German Democratic Republic. We chose a hotel for our initial stay in Berlin wanting to be close to Museum Island; that led us to Oranienburger Strasse which wikipedia reports is popular for its night life and clubs. The same article also says the street is known for its legal prostitution, though I’ve seen no evidence of that. But then, perhaps I haven’t been out at the right time of the evening. We liked the area, and when we returned for a few days before out flight out, we chose to stay nearby, this time a half block from Oranienburger Strasse.
We visited Cornell colleagues (both teach German) who keep an apartment in a charming West Berlin neighborhood lined with early 19th century apartment buildings. Their area is quiet, low-keyed, residential. To be sure there are shopsand restaurants nearby but the overall tone is defiantly residential. Oranienburger is a bit shabby, areas are being rebuilt and refurbished, much of that work having begun after unification. Around the remnants of the Wall are streets lined with dreary, functional living quarters, concrete blocks of apartments. Even when the buildings have been updated in a more contremporary setting, the results are still plain and functional.
Nearby, we stumbled across what I can only say is a museum dedicated to individual idiosyncrasy: The Surreal Museum of Industrial Objects (http://www.designpanoptikum.de). We walked into a room cluttered with castoff tools, bits of machines, abandoned toys. After a few minutes, the curator suddenly appeared and launched into his talk, explaining this hobbyhorse of his–presenting the detritus of industrial development in an unfamiliar setting. His goal, he claimed, was to make us think about the industrial past and the fragments that we had abandoned. While many objects were familiar, they were no longer commonplace. The room was filled, not with junk, though some might have seen it so, but with objects that were, once upon a time, crucial and important, or more prosaically, simply part of our daily life.
He played with the objects, juxtaposing the mundane with the profound; a photographer, he had camera relics and several industrial strength movie projectors. Most surprising were medical objects, an eerily familiar dentist X-Ray arm and an even more eerie iron lung. The curator was quite proud of that object, and he demanded that we estimate the longest time that a person had lived in an iron lung. When Nancy and I guessed several years, he pounced: 60 years was the correct answer, and our ignorance simply proved his point about our unawares of the objects that surround us. He also filled us in on the person who had lived that long in the iron lung, a women who had gone on to earn a degree in psychology.
The curator was Russian (or former Russian), clearly someone who had found the openness and energy of this part of Berlin to his liking. He also found, I suspect, cheap rent, since his museum was located in four or five rooms of the ground floor of an apartment building. He left the front door open, with a bell on the counter, and would pop in and launch into his voluable accounts of objects abandoned and found.
We also found in this area of Berlin several small cafes and bars that also expressed their owner idiosyncrasies, places that were open and welcoming but also slightly off kilter. A restaurant, Ruben and Carla, whose owners might have been Italian, and offered a pastrami sandwich on their menu. A cafe that called itself a “buchhandler” but had no books on display, only mismatched furniture and cushions, and a bar area called a cantina.