Germans can be prone to catastrophising. Walk down the average street with untied shoelaces and someone may come up to you and inform you that you risk tripping over. And from that, they may well add, you could die.
But Berlin is different. It has been through it all – imperialism, defeat, depression, fascism, war, airlift, division, communism, capitalism, reunification – and so where the rest of Germany can be neurotic, the capital is defiantly laid-back. Where others panic it offers Schnauze, or “snout” – the sardonically dry humour of a big city. A man in my lift yesterday tapped his bike helmet and said: “It’s protection against the coronavirus.” Then he went on his way.
Berlin is behind the curve. At the time of writing, 48 people here are confirmed to have the virus and the city remains relaxed. I have seen no one wearing a face mask. And although the German language has, inevitably, the perfect term for panic buying – Hamsterkäufe or “hamster purchases”; invoking a rodent filling its cheeks – there have been only limited signs of it at my local shops in the district of Kreuzberg.
Last weekend the street market was full of people merrily grazing their way between stands selling open drinks and food. Der Tagesspiegel, Berlin’s main broadsheet, even informed readers that they need not skip their constitutional sauna visits – crucial appointments in this city of long, cold winters.
The authorities seem similarly unfussed. There are now more than 1,200 cases of coronavirus in Germany but most are in the western states such as North Rhine-Westphalia, with eastern states like Berlin relatively unaffected. So a call by the federal health minister for gatherings with more than 1,000 participants to be cancelled has been only slowly heeded by Berlin’s mayor Michael Müller. On 10 March the city finally announced the closure of theatres, concert halls and opera houses. Testing centres for those who think they might have coronavirus have been slow to open.
It is hard not to feel a little pride in my adopted city for its allergy to panic. Berlin is an odd, sprawling place with an above-average quota of happily esoteric misfits.
The German capital’s rush hour, for example, is later and less pronounced than in many other European cities. It is hard to gauge the mood here, and so the party continues. The KitKat Club, a fetish venue, cancelled one event due to a DJ who had spent time in northern Italy, but otherwise continues its programme. Berghain, the legendary nightclub, has not changed its famously unfathomable door policy: “It doesn’t depend on how full it is,” huffs a spokesperson for the city’s nightclubs: “It [still] depends on whether you fit.”
And so normality, or the Berlin version of it, goes on. But for how long? The numbers will rise. The hospitals will fill up. And at some point this confidently weird city will have to succumb to epidemiological reality. Whisper it softly, but even seen-it-all Berlin may, for a while, have to move with the rest of the world.
This article appears in the 11 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down