Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A little village called Berlin...

I'm sitting in the parklet in front of one of the most amazing cafes that I've ever been to, in the Prakrow neighborhood of Berlin, just a couple of blue streaks in a gray sky.  It feels right, somehow, to have gray Berlin skies.  And it doesn't dampen the magic for me at all.

It's not simply that I'm enjoying quite a delicious latte that I find this cafe so fabulous.  Next to the white picket fence that encloses the parklet I'm sitting in, a tiny girl with cocoa skin and an orangey-pink ice cream cone sits next to a slightly overweight German woman wearing a sweatshirt that matches the girl's ice cream exactly.  I doubt either of them planned it.  Between them is a white metal tables with a tin bucket on it planted with bright, spritely flowers -- I think they might be dahlias.  In the back of one of the three strollers parked in my immediate eyesight, a bouquet of dandelions (the German's call them "Lions Teeth,") wilts out of a netted pocket.  They were probably quite a bit more attractive when they were picked some hours back, but they manage to retain their cheer, probably because seeing them where they are, as they are, captures a sense of the exuberance with which they were picked by little hands.

Another young woman pulls up with a stroller, this one empty: it's white-capped inhabitant walks on unsteady little feet next to her mother, her face lighting up with joy as she spots two notably more sure-footed toddlers in the boat-shaped sandbox at the other end of the parklet.  I actually don't know if they call them that here -- that's what we call these small communal spaces in San Francisco, which are popping up with more frequency but are still uncommon enough to seem unique, even sometimes slightly mystifying.  I've walked past several, with seating and other features that seem very cleverly designed and yet not very comfortable looking, where once there was a spot to park a car.  In spite of the fact that they are far from cozy, they are almost always full. 

In Berlin, these parklets or small patios are not a rare sight -- they seem to be in front of every single store on the street.  Some have tables and chairs for eating and drinking; others have unordained raised garden beds dotted with blooming flowering plants or small trees -- still others are bare, like blank canvases, awaiting a gathering of some type.  I have often heard that in America our cities aren't designed for people and become less so with every passing year -- they are designed for cars and consumers.  (Consumers bear some resemblance to people but aren't, actually -- not in what their needs or desires are, and certainly not what the spaces designed to accomodate those desires would look like).  

Sure, I had heard that, but I didn't get it until coming here and seeing what it is actually like to have spaces that are designed to be community- and people-oriented, and to see what that does to the daily life of folks who live in such spaces.  It's a powerful thing for an American girl to see. 

I once had a French roommate who told me that in France, everyone has what they call, "the Third Place."  The Third Place is that place that you go, and maybe even belong to in some way, that is not your home or your work.  It's often a bar or cafe, where like Cheers, everybody knows your name.  I'm not sure if it's the same in Germany but I can see the shared thinking beneath both the Third Place in France and the many parklets here in Berlin -- people need places to gather and be together, as people.  When people have places like that, they come to use them and even depend on them.  They become an integral part life.  

I've noticed that people act differently on the buses and trains that we take to get around the city, too.  I hardly see anyone with their eyes glazed over, immersed in iPhone or Android business -- there are some, but it's not very common.  There are people with books, and people talking, and many standing around, simply being.  Being, but not immersed in the process of being anywhere but where they are now, as I so often am when I'm on BART or muni.  I like the presence.  It reminds me of when I was younger...actually, being here, I think I actually act the way I did when I was younger, instead of the stressed-out oblivious adult that I so often am now.  I notice what people are wearing and watch them talking to each other, even though I don't understand more than a couple of words in any given conversation, with curiosity and a feeling of easy contentment. 

One of my teachers, Matthew Fox, always talked about how we needed to reclaim Wonder as part of our spiritual processes and philosophies.  Wonder is an integral part of gratitude and humility, but it's also really enjoyable.  When we allow ourselves to be curious, and to wonder, and imagine, we stop thinking we know everything, and stop believing that everything and everyone else is ours to exploit, and a kind of sweet sense of mystery and even optimism infuses our lives.  I feel that in myself again, being here. 

Maybe that's because I'm on vacation, away from the pressures of my daily life, but it might also be because it's simply not as buzzy and hectic here.  The static energy that saturates the air in the nearer Bay Area, zinging with EMFs and anxiety and overarching 3G networks from five different service providers at any given point, simply isn't present.   I mean, I'm sure there's plenty of wireless internet all around me and that every one of these stroller-wielding mamas has a cell phone.  This is a major metropolitan city, after all, not some little village in Bavaria.  But nonetheless, I do not feel that same charged atmosphere.

Speaking of being present, here in the parklet, an apparently major dispute has just broken out between a little brunette boy with rosy cheeks and a dark-haired German woman who responds with firm yet gentle words.  The woman goes inside into the cafe and the boy, clearly deciding that the best solution is to try and worry her into acquessing to his wishes, batters at the latch of the white picket gate until he manages to get it open.   Uh-oh.  I rise to sweep him back into the parklet, but I'm too late.  Someone's dad is already there, ushering him back with a forced look of disapproval.

I was at the birth of Leonie, who is the daughter of Sabine, our German friend who's hostessing us here.  Sabine told me the other day that in San Francisco, she felt like it was expected and necessary to watch your children at all times when you're out in public, but here in Berlin it's just different.  As I watch the rosy-cheeked little boy start shoveling sand in a boat-shaped sandbox, I realize that not only do these Berlinians have a much different lived experience of spaces designed for people, they also have a whole different orientation towards what it means to be kid-friendly -- and as I watch the kids and their mothers in this relaxed, easy space, I feel a sharp pang of jealousy.  

If I ever have kids, it won't be like this.  I mean, maybe I will be able to find one great place to go where I can write and drink a latte while my little one plays with some random kids their own age and be delighted and well cared for, possibly, but it would just be that one special place.  That's just not the same as a whole culture that nurtures and honors families.

To be totally honest, before being here I never desired my neighborhood, cafe, home, or anything else be more "family friendly" -- there's something about the way that phrase is used in American culture that kind of makes me nauseous.  When people say "family friendly," I think of stepford wives pushing BMW-sized strollers.  No, it's beyond that.  I think of people trying to restrict my sexuality, sometimes with rules and other times with frowns.  I think of garishly colored packaging that masks the chemical-filled "food" that my own stepchildren are clearly addicted to, something that inevitably leads to a fight whenever they visit, as I turn my nose up at even one Taco Bell meal and they complain of starvation in the face of my organic vegetables and wheat-free pasta.  I think of the $30 that Jason and I  pay per person to hang out with them at indoor play parks in Indiana, which are little more than kiddy-casinos: titilating, over-stimulating, and filled with uninspiring games that award tickets but lack any significant intellectual or physical challenge.  I think of the hotel we stayed at once with an indoor swimming park where even the bedding in our room reeked of chlorine, happy meals, Disneyworld, and movies like Scooby Doo whih lack any artistic merit whatsoever -- or even a remotely interesting plot to anyone over three feet tall.  Which is to say, that even though I've always wanted a baby of my own, I've never been remotely inclined towards anything "family friendly" -- but without an alternative in mind, it's been worrisome to me. What could our lives -- mine, Jason's, the baby -- look like if we eschew the saccharine consumerism that comprises "family friendly" in America but don't have something else to replace it?

In Berlin, I can catch a glimpse of what that alternative could look like.  Here, I can see what a truly friendly neighborhood looks like -- one that integrates children and adults and creates spaces for everyone to feel satisfied and their needs honored -- instead of the cloying shmaltziness that for some reason we Americans seem to think our kids want and which is a complete turnoff to any adult with intellectual, political, or artistic sensibilities.  Sabine's street is lined with beautiful stone and brick apartment buildings, tall and stately, with playgrounds in every backyard, bike stands in the front, and stroller parking in the foyer.  The cafe we are at, which gurgles with the happy laughter of children playing, serves quiche, gelato, and the fine latte I'm enjoying at the moment.  Yes, the ice cream cones are geared towards the kids, and the kids love them.  But that doesn't mean that their espresso comes pre-sweetened from powder, or that there are plastic flowers hanging off the walls, or that you can't also get yourself a bagel with arugula, brie, and plum jam.

It's so very inspiring.  Yes, a moment ago I did have that one pang of jealousy, a fleeting sense of defeatism.  But immediately following that, a warm surge of excitement and possibility comes.  Because this is possible where I live, in North Berkeley, where we already have Totland and Adventureland and many places that serve quality espresso.  We just need to figure out how to integrate the worlds -- not just of kids and adults, but of single people and families, artists and musicians and mothers and fathers, gardeners who cultivate rare irises and playground designers.  In doing so, we can create a culture where having kids is seen as something that enhances your life rather than apparently ending every aspect of it which is sexy and avante-garde, and also where people who don't have kids are happily exposed to them in ways that incorporates the entirety of our community into the raising of children (it takes a village, they say).  I know that in doing so, we'll create a better culture for both our kids to grow up in and for adults of every walk of life. 

And that excites me quite a bit.