Diary of an Expat, Part 78
Urban engineering, ABS
Disconnected stories.

I've mentioned in the past (naturally I assume that you recall with scrupulous accuracy the details of my existence) that I live in East Berlin. I live in East Berlin, I shop in East Berlin, I work in East Berlin, and I generally spend all of my time over here. The West does not have a whole lot to recommend itself to me, as a general rule.

The two cities retain a profoundly different character, which is not always obvious or logical — it has now been, after all, more than twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, as the Telegraph points out, the cities still look profoundly different, even from space (clearer image from the source here)

Some of this is overplayed, of course. East Berlin uses different lighting. For example, they still use gaslights for most of it. It's also possible, though I don't know for certain, that since the lights have more recently been refurbished here they are designed to create less light pollution. But it's still pretty cool to see the dramatic difference in character. Someone out at night would, needless to say, sharply disagree that the west is more vibrant ;)

In less impressive pictures, I ordered something from within Germany. Deutsche Post delivered it today... sort of. In case you were wondering, it is sort of just barely hanging on in there. Fortunately nothing in the package was fragile!

Last night was interesting because it also contained themes of what I would describe as Apathetic Berliner Shitheadery. ABS is what happens when you live in a city that encourages you to not really care about anything too much, just in case. This is what, for example, causes you to forget that you have seated a couple of restaurant patrons outside until they go in themselves, get a menu, and place an order.

More pressingly, it's what causes you not to look before you enter into the flow of traffic, and then to grumble your irritation at the person who nearly bikes into you rather than watching where you were going. It also leads you to park in the middle of some tram tracks to engage in a spirited argument with your other friends about... something. I didn't stop to see what it was about. The train driver, like Deutsche Post, like you, probably has ABS himself.

Berliner bike culture is somewhat interesting. It's one of those things, like free speech, that is irritating until you realize that it's just what you have to put up with. Yes, we would prefer that Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann shut their goddamned faces, but it's just something you have to deal with. Similarly, not watching where you're going, or swerving out in front of bicyclists.

You can only do that in a culture where you know that you are not going to be plastered by a car. A friend of mine says that it's because Berliners have never had to bike in San Francisco. I could see that argument; I never biked San Francisco myself and to be honest as someone who has biked a few thousand kilometers in Berlin I find the prospect a little terrifying.

The tradeoff in densely populated European cities is generally that drivers are expected to pay more attention, mostly because they have the death machines. This is, incidentally, why cities that do away with traffic signals entirely or make life more difficult for drivers (for example, by adding trees back to sidewalks, which restricts visibility) are safer for everyone: it encourages cautious movement.

I do enjoy this.

Actually, living in Berlin has turned me onto urban engineering in general. I've been thinking about going back to school, eventually, and I'd like to study cities there. Cities are profoundly fascinating — they are maybe our greatest accomplishment, as human beings, and I find urban spaces academically fascinating. I've lived or spent lots of time in terribly planned cities (Denver) and well-planned cities (Portland) and terribly planned cities that somehow make it out okay anyway (Berlin) and I enjoy seeing what it is that makes them tick.

Berlin is a good place to immerse yourself in this, because you can see both what works and what doesn't (as I discussed last time). I go back and forth on the city as a whole, but it at least never ceases to be interesting.
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