Monday, November 06, 2006


Recently Berlin found out it wasn't getting the many millions of dollars of federal aid it had counted on to help bail it out of financial bankruptcy. There is ripple of resentment now in the city's papers which ranges from "how dare the other states not recognize our contributions to the nation" to "well then they'll just have to help out in other ways," the latter including suggestions to finally move the roughly 20% of government offices still in Bonn over to Berlin, as well as create special study fees for students who study in the capital but were not born there. Finance Senator Thilo Sarrazin is even claiming that historically Prussian cultural institutions such as the State Opera ought to receive federal funding rather than local since they were intially created by the state, not the city.

However, Berlin has a lot going for it in the wake of this disappointing news. Like the New York of 1975, whose rejected appeal for federal aid was immortalized by the New York Daily News headline "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD," it has a charismatic leader. Klaus Wowereit is as beloved by the populace as was Ed Koch in his day and some even suggest he should use his popularity to one day run for Chancellor, despite his political reputation of a fear of taking strong positions. It was Wowereit who coined the widely-quoted slogan "Poor, but sexy" ("Arm, aber sexy") to describe Berlin's defiantly Bohemian appeal, which brings me to another advantage Berlin has for dealing with this blow: it is cool to be poor in Berlin.

In contrast to New York, where a recent cover article of the eponymous magazine blared "MONEY" in neon orange letters (Nov. 6, New York), displaying unashamed fascination with making and spending, Berlin has a certain poverty-pride. A recent article in the big daily Der Tagesspiegel lauded Berlin residents for knowing how to live well without shelling out as much money as those errant consumers in Munich do. "Whoever pays 100 Euros for sunglasses is considered cuckoo," explains the author proudly. This rejection of spending doesn't make Berlin particularly less shallow than more consumer societies, just shallow in a different way; here people criticize those who dress "too chic" rather than emulate them.

I encounter this disdain towards cash often as a student, where you're considered foolish if you spend more than the bare minimum on things. If I ask a buddy if they'd like to get a coffee, they will refuse to go to one of those chains with pretentious literary names like Balzac or Starbuck's and suggest we go to bakery to save a Euro. At the bakery we might stand by a plastic table instead of sitting in plush earthtone armchairs and there will be no pleasingly ignorable pop music whining in the background, but the strong coffee we drink out of small plastic cups will be much better because we have not senselessly wasted our money. The pride people get from their spendthrift attitude is worth more than the comfort and convenience money buys. This oughtta serve the city well as the feds tighten their belt.
(Note: Some genuinely can't afford the extra 50 cents, and I apologize for the misrepresentation of lumping them into this category of proud cheapness.)

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