Excerpts From the Notes Folder on my Phone

In The Art of Travel, 5. The Spirit of Place, Berlin by Havana Liu1 Comment

I have been attempting to capture the spirit of Berlin for some time. When a thought comes to me about the overarching vibration or foundation of Berlin I type up the thought into my phone. While I have not been able to reduce Berlin and its spirit to one compact thought, or identify its “genius loci” in any capacity, I have come up with some disjointed thoughts that seem to paint the Berlin vibration I have been exposed to thus far. This list will probably lengthen and flesh out during my coming months in Berlin, however I have decided to share with you these excerpts from the notes folder on my phone:

“Berlin stays private in public space, yet public in private spaces. To expand upon this, Berliners appear reserved. Subways and busses are pristine. Younger people wear a lot of black, look closed off, and definitely do not appreciate singing or dancing in the streets.” (I learned this the hard way when I was working out a harmony by whisper-singing for a moment with a friend on the U-bahn and was asked by a young woman to “please stop singing. Please can you not sing?”—yikes!). “However, as soon as you enter private space, everything changes—they peel off their long black coats to reveal a much more exposed self.”

The club scene for example, is rich in expression.

“A mix of steady and disjointed “tekno” beats creates the framework for experimental dance, for sweat, and for breath. Some clubs cater towards even more public displays of the socially private through creating space for sex parties and more. Even in this club scene though, no matter how pure, stickers can be placed over your phone cameras in order to keep these public displays of self in private.”

This exterior conservatism continues in the architecture.

“Post-war Berlin architecture is mostly grey and bland. Box-like buildings made from concrete line the streets. Few building exteriors act as catalysts for intrigue, however interiors lend a hand to more experimental and artistic definition. For example, many restaurants in Berlin look like culinary black holes from the outside, however inside, these same restaurants sport unique design and succulent treats. Coffee shops have tended toward a similar pattern, the lack of inviting aesthetic outside acting as a misleading mask for the comforting and well-designed interior space.”

However this disparity in difference between the inside and outside of spaces also extends into the population.

“I have rarely spent time with old people. Where are they? I see them every once in a while on the S-bahn and U-bahn, or in the grocery store, however I have rarely sat next to an older Berliner at a coffee shop, or been served by an older person at a restaurant.”

“Just walked past a little dining room with big windows at around 10:00pm and to my surprise saw a large group of old people! I made the people I was walking with pause to look and they thought I was slightly crazy. But—it has been so weird to see so few elderly people living in the same spaces I have been spending time in. This feels like a hole other way in which Berlin is so segmented. Old and young not interacting as often as they might in New York, Ugly exterior of buildings with aesthetically pleasing interiors, and public quiet and conservative culture in contrast with contained and private exposure of self, and grit, and identity.”

The spirit of Berlin is constantly escaping me with all of these contrasting elements at hand. However, I feel as though these snippets of information are the best way of describing the environment and population I am swimming within. As I gather more information and observe more juxtaposing elements of this city, I will be sure to take note.

(Image: the Door of Homogeneity Leads to Something Unique; Source: Havana Rose Liu)


  1. Havana, the title of this post caught my eye right away and made me want to read more! I love this idea, especially because whenever a thought comes to me, I always write it down in my notes too 🙂
    I loved the way you captured the essence of the city through little moments; it almost made me feel like I was there

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