Letter from Germany
Berlin on the bike: German migrant returns home with Dutch perspective
Having lived in the Netherlands for more than a quarter century, I moved to Berlin two years ago. Despite having grown up in Germany, going back isn't exactly easy.
My 26 years in the Netherlands have certainly left their trace. I now view my home country from a Dutch perspective, which is only normal after so much time.
The first thing I noticed here is that most people tend to walk a bit more slowly. It helps makes life in the city – which has become more densely populated than Amsterdam – rather pleasant. If you ask someone for directions, they always take the time to help you even if they don't know the way. People just seem to be less hurried and take the time to talk to each other.
Berlin by bike
I like to cycle around Berlin and its surrounding area in my spare time. It took some getting used to, both on my part and that of the locals: bicycles aren't necessarily a common form of transport in this city. Berlin covers an area of just under nine hundred square kilometres, so most people prefer to travel by public transport or car. Still, you do see more and more cyclists on the streets and the city is gradually building more cycling paths. I prefer to use my bike, it's a great way of getting to know the city.
Germans with a Dutch perspective
Berlin is a wonderful place to explore if you're interested in the humanities: every street corner has historic value. Pretty much every location was once the scene of some historic event or the former residence of a famous writer or artist. There's plenty to see here, even for Germans with a Dutch perspective. Take the area around the Humboldt Universität – the Humboldt-Forum – which is currently being rebuilt on a large scale, and the Stadtschloss castle, former residence of Prussian kings and emperors which is also being restored to its former glory. Before the Berlin Wall came down, this was the site of the Palast der Republik, which had come to replace the old Stadtschloss demolished by the DDR government in 1950. The city is still highly divided on the subject of the reconstruction. After all, why build a castle in the twenty-first century? Local residents are also afraid costs could spiral out of control, as they did at Berlin's new airport – a construction project that has been dragging on for years.
Karl Marx's Dutch roots
From here, it's just a short bike ride to a local park featuring statues of Marx and Englels. Although most Germans may not know it, Karl Marx had Dutch roots. His mother, Henriette Presburg, was originally from Nijmegen where she married her husband in the local synagogue. The Marx-Engels Monument was previously located at the former Marx-Engels Forum, site of the future castle and Humboldt-Forum that are now being built.
The two historic figures were forced to move as a part of the redevelopment effort, and have since been silent – and presumably sad – witnesses to the re-emergence of the Stadtschloss. An ironic twist of fate?
A quote by Karl Marx – engraved in the lobby of Humboldt Universität – springs to mind:
‘Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern’
(Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it). Berlin has changed radically since the wall came down and continues to evolve rapidly to this day, as my cycling tour demonstrates. Still, I doubt it's the same kind of change Marx originally had in mind.