Reflections on Berlin

I spent just under a month in Berlin at the end of 2023 and found the city to be incredibly special. Berlin has been a globally important city for hundreds of years and will continue to be so. However, I believe its current iteration may be currently experiencing its peak.

In short, Berlin is a city with an incredible orientation towards fun, living a socially minded life filled with arts and culture, and being cosmopolitan in a way that I haven’t experienced elsewhere. It’s not just the techno clubs; Berlin has a clear vibe. People in Berlin really care about enjoying their lives, are hyper-social, and the median person’s passion for weird art/niche lifestyles, whatever the form, is noticeably higher than anywhere else I’ve been.

One question I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating is why only five countries in the world have a meaningfully growing Jewish population: Israel, the USA, Canada, Australia, and Germany. Israel, for obvious reasons. The USA, Canada, and Australia also make sense as rich, post-national, cosmopolitan countries. But why Germany? There are several other rich, highly developed countries like the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Austria, where Jews used to live, but none of these places are seen as attractive destinations for Jewish migration today.

After arriving in Berlin, the reason became incredibly clear.

I’ve spent time in nearly every major global city, and among the non-Anglophone ones, no city is as neutral or indifferent towards its own language and culture as Berlin. In other countries, people often speak English or engage with Anglo culture either to distinguish themselves (typical in poorer countries) or to accommodate others but with some friction (most cosmopolitan Western countries). But in Berlin, English feels almost like a local language. It was common to observe Germans interacting with other Germans in English, and for many group environments to be entirely in English, without it feeling like a forced accommodation.

Most countries can’t compete with Canada, Australia, and the USA in terms of being welcoming, not because they are especially intolerant, but because their local culture is put on a pedestal. In Canada, Australia, the USA, and apparently Berlin too, the local culture is made up of whoever wants to partake in it, with no preference towards one way of being, aside from being a nice person who contributes to society.

For reasons beyond my comprehension, it seems like this level of openness does to extend to all ethnic and cultural groups. From what I read, what people told me while in Berlin, and from my personal observations, there seems to be significantly more friction towards embracing and accommodating non-Europeans into the cultural landscape. 

For the same reason that Toronto is the greatest food city in the world, Berlin, due to its openness to other cultures and a lack of focus on German food, is a much better food city than most large cities in Europe.

Unfortunately, the food seems to have integrated better than the non-European people did. Almost all restaurants modify their food to suit the local taste. Unlike in true international anglo cities like Toronto, New York and Sydney, where restaurants serve food largely with the local audience in mind, ethnic restaurants in Berlin clearly try to cater to Germans. Doner, the signature Berlin dish filled with halloumi cheese and fladenbrot, is quintessentially Berlin and not Turkish.

I’ve eaten Lebanese food all over the Americas and Africa in cities with large Lebanese diasporas. I was shocked at how bad the Lebanese food is in Berlin because it’s essentially all made for non-Lebanese people. Sichuan food is served without Sichuan pepper, while the Uzbek named and styled restaurant served Russian food—despite the huge availability of many cultures’ food, nearly everything I ate was a very good but German-modified version of the original.

This is what I’ve heard referred to as the ethnic food trap. You need a place in a city that has a sufficient critical mass of one particular ethnicity to make it sustainable to serve food that caters exclusively to that ethnicity. If you have this critical mass, and this group is integrated into the broader community in such a way that other residents develop a taste and standards for that type of food, they will demand this quality elsewhere. If you fail to reach this threshold and a local taste never develops, the restaurants simply settle into offering the easiest and most broadly appealing dishes (shwarma, kung pao chicken, butter chicken, pizza etc).

So, if Berlin is so great, why do I think it’s already “over”?

My framework for understanding what made Berlin special essentially involves its historical glory and cheap housing costs, serving as a vehicle for the development of great culture.

After the unification of Germany, Berlin was severely underpopulated with an abundance of cheap housing. This afforded the opportunity for Germans (+ lots of international people) to move to Berlin, with essentially no real need to have a stable career, or to even really succeed in one’s passion projects. Given the culture that blossomed during the Cold War in West Berlin, combined with the cheap cost of living, artsy and high in passion people moved to Berlin to experiment and just generally enjoy their lives. The byproduct of this is the development of a tremendous culture scene over the ensuing 30 years.

Unfortunately, during this period, Berlin did not build enough housing, causing the cost of rent and the general cost of living to skyrocket. From 1977 to 2010, Berlin apartments only increased in price by 25%, in comparison, Munich apartments rose by 135%.

This means that the new crop of young people moving to Berlin, who are going to be the heart of the future culture, are going to be largely people who have semi-lucrative careers and don’t have time to engage in social and culture in the same way. Similarly, many of those who are the likely to be vanguards of the cultural scene will be forced to move elsewhere.

But can’t Berlin change and begin building more housing? I don’t think this will happen.

One fact Berliners commonly cited to me is that Berlin is the only capital/major city that is actually poorer than the rest of the country. Berliners highlight this as a way of saying, “We are going to catch up soon!” What’s being missed is that Berlin is by far the wealthiest former GDR city, which as a class of cities, all basically failed to develop strong economies. To me, this reads that Berlin is already over-performing its base line.

Berlin never had to make any tough infrastructure decisions after German reunification because it constantly attracted more and more people, as well as state funding, while never actually developing any industry to be sustainable. It’s simply too hard for governments to go from making easy but bad decisions to making hard but good decisions. It’s not that I think Berlin will become a failed city, just that it will lose its current specialness and be on a tier with other expensive but sterile world-class cities like Amsterdam and Stockholm.

To understand this, all one has to do is look at the Berlin airports.

In 2015, Berlin held a referendum on building housing on a small part of a very large closed-down airport, currently being used as a park, and the city overwhelmingly rejected this. The new Berlin airport became a globally famous case of mismanagement, taking nearly three times as long to complete (from 2006 to 2020 instead of the planned 2011) and costing more than three times its original budget (escalating from an estimated €2 billion to over €7 billion). Walking around Berlin, there are many signs of a city that struggles with good policy and decision-making.


Despite the general openness and tolerance, Berlin somehow manages to still be a conformist city in many ways. Most people dress incredibly similarly; looking a little homeless or non-polished is seen as a virtue, and if you dress in non-conformance with the Berlin uniform, you will stand out. Locals shared that judgment is often cast based on one’s outward appearance rather than who they actually are. A quirky and unpleasant way this materializes is how much Berliners enjoy waiting in lines, viewing them as a point in favour of the coolness of wherever they are going.

German bread is exceptionally good, but I was surprised at how few bakeries I saw and how minimal a role it plays in the culture.

People kept asking me if I was spending time in East or West Berlin, and even though I knew the answer, I could never feel any difference. People say they can notice the difference in roads/sidewalks and things like lightbulbs, but I could never tell.