Berlin's salon society prepares a refined welcome

European Times BERLIN
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The Independent Online
EVERY ONCE in a while, a luxury hotel, shop or opulent restaurant opens in this distinctly proletarian metropolis, claiming direct descent from some famous institution of the golden age between the wars.

At great cost, the building would have been assembled, after a painstaking search for the authentic bricks of the original and exact replicas of chandeliers and marble cherubs. The locals turn up in their thousands to gape, and the owners wait for the real customers. Many are still waiting. Berlin is vibrant, cosmopolitan, in parts loaded and full of scorn for the provinces. But what it lacks is people with a sense of style.

Post-war construction in both halves of the city has been hideous: featureless concrete housing estates facing off across the line of the Wall. There was no great demand for anything else - not many connoisseurs of any kind were left. The Nazis took care of the Roaring Twenties set. The haute bourgeoisie had been largely Jewish. The decadent aristocracy were driven out and the Communist lords of the East mopped up the remnants, or drove them into the West.Only the occupying powers kept the old order's flag flying."The British led very elegant households," remembered Countess Isa von Hardenberg, who arrived in Berlin from Hamburg 14 years ago. And then the occupiers left, too.

Countess von Hardenberg, whose husband hails from a great Berlin family, felt lonely. She set about recreating the society of old, or at least the appearance of one for clients. "At first it was difficult to meet their expectations," she said.

An international company would ask her to organise a reception, but all she could find was potato salad and sour plonk. But when the Prince of Wales came to visit in 1991, she got the contract to organise the royal dinner party. And slowly, the society she craves is beginning to emerge. In the past three years, Berlin has witnessed an influx of blue blood - there is once again a Hohenzollern in residence and the nearby Brandenburg forests echo with the sound of the bugle, as hunts give chase.

Berlin is becoming a city of salons, with the drawing room of the countess's villa in the posh district of Nickolassee serving as the central meeting point. She holds open house every month, to welcome promising new residents.

As Berlin's foremost society hostess, she has now diversified her business interests. For a (discreetly undisclosed) fee the countess will get you connected. A limousine service will take a customer around Berlin to find the most desirable addresses. For despite the pretensions, this is a circuit for which one can buy an entrance ticket. There are no balls, no debutants, only "interesting people" and the common denominator of cultural snobbery. "This is a totally new society," the countess says. "The old society is dead."

Elegance is still in short supply, but help is at hand with the imminent move of the federal capital from Bonn to Berlin.

"I think the diplomats will provide a new impulse to social life," the countess says. On whether the politicians might raise the tone, she would rather not comment.

Imre Karacs