The Yanks are in town. The friendship between Berliners and Americans was renewed during the 1948/49 airlift when US (and British) support of West Berlin prevented Stalin from seizing the city. The relationship didn’t die in 1994 with the departure of American troops. Today around 12,800 US students, artists and business people live in the capital. On top of that a whopping 30,000 American citizens immigrated to Germany last year, according to Destatis, the national statistics office.
Tourists numbers are also increasing due to the weakness of the euro and strength of the dollar. Some 10,000 American visitors are expected to come to Berlin this year. In fact three of them turned up in my part of town earlier this week.
The first encounter was at my local supermarket. A Texan strolled up to the cashier and asked, in English, ‘Where’s the bathroom please, ma'am?’ German supermarkets are not renowned for their attention to customer needs, especially those of a personal nature. In fact the staff at my local Lidl tend to be so highly strung that I’d assumed they were forbidden from attending to their own bodily functions while at work. But the cashier was not without a good heart and, after sharing a joke with the manager about a customer needing a bath, the tourist was ushered towards a discreet, unmarked door.
The second encounter was at our local Bavarian restaurant, a meat-only hostelry which serves vast, heart-stopping platters of sausage, steak and schwein hacksen. A young Californian – again speaking no German – asked the waitress for their ‘vegetarian option’. After much discussion in the kitchen she was served an omelette with sauerkraut on the side.
The third German-American cultural exchange took place at my neighborhood DVD shop. An American customer was returning a rental disk ... two months late. He’d taken out a couple of DVDs in March, and forgotten to return them before embarking on an extended trip around central Europe. The shop assistant took back the DVD and asked for €75 in overdue charges.
‘I told you I’ve been away and forgot,’ explained the American again.
‘I heard you,’ replied the assistant. ‘That will be €75 please.’
‘But I can buy this same DVD for €10. How can you charge me seven times its cost price?’
‘Those are the rules. You will pay €75 please.’
The angry American slapped the notes onto the counter. ‘That’s a lousy way to treat a customer,’ he said. ‘You tell your boss that I won’t be coming here again.’
‘OK,’ said the assistant.
‘Do you understand me? You’re losing a customer.’
‘OK,’ said the assistant. ‘But please bring back the second DVD soon or you’ll have to pay even more on it.’
There are also Americans who are in town for more than beer and movies. In suburban Wannsee, the American Academy in Berlin is ‘the world’s most important centre for American intellectual life outside the US’, according to Der Spiegel. The Academy was founded in 1994 on the initiative of Richard Holbrooke, Henry Kissenger, Richard von Weizsäcker and others committed to strengthening the transatlantic relationship.
Last night I dropped in to hear Jürgen Osterhammel – professor of modern and contemporary history at the Universität Konstanz – deliver a fascinating and provoking lecture on the 1920s as a global watershed. Dr. Osterhammel’s talk was one of the highlights of the Academy’s remarkable spring programme, which also includes discussions on Obama’s foreign policy, the future of Russia and the transmission of German-Jewish culture. Its musical events include a concert of new music by Andrew Norman, Morton Subotnick and the birth of electronic music as well as master classes in viola, opera and violin with the Curtis Institute of Music. Almost all of the Academy’s events are open to the general public and can be attended without charge.
Once most Americans flocked to Paris, following in the literary footsteps of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Hemmingway and Scott Fitzgerald. But today Americans are most curious about Berlin, with which the US has unique cultural, social, political, and historical links. The Academy – which is funded entirely by private donations -- strengthens those links by offering residential fellowships to American scholars, writers, policymakers, and artists, as well as by bringing leading American and German thinkers together for talks and conferences that facilitate an exchange of views. It’s also a most welcoming place that’s likely to be a little more forgiving to folks who fail to return borrowed DVDs on time.