Out of Germany:Goodbye to Berlin and all that angst

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The Independent Online
It was that tap on the forehead that finally convinced me. It had been one of those miserable grey days that follow on in never-ending succession during the interminable Berlin winter.

Night had fallen and the rush-hour scramble for home was on. A car in front of me was blocking my path. In my fury I hooted, pulled out and, as I passed the offending driver, I hit my forehead several times with the palm of my hand - a well-known rude gesture to anyone familiar with the Berlin highway code.

It was then I noticed that the poor woman on whom I was venting such rage was simply trying to manoeuvre her car into a vacant parking spot. But there was hardly time for an apology.

I don't think that I used to drive in that way. When I moved to Berlin five years ago, I had had plenty of experience of city driving. Although far from being the pushiest, I was certainly not above cutting people up when the need arose, or cursing alongwith the best of them.

But nothing prepared me for Berlin: for the breath-taking selfishness that seemed to be the number-one rule of the road; for the incredible impatience displayed at every set of traffic lights; for the intensity of anger directed towards fellow drivers deemed to have dawdled; and for the depressing discovery that many of these traits manifested themselves in other walks of the city's life.

At first I was shocked. Then I felt offended. Later, I felt dismay - and anger. And no matter how long I stayed, I never got used to it, or felt comfortable with it.

According to some Berliners, the rot set in on 9 November 1989, the night the Berlin Wall fell. Suddenly the divided city had to start functioning as a real city again. It meant more people, more cars, more haste, and more hassle all round. Many didn't like it: they preferred the quiet life of old. Hence the short tempers.

Coming from London, which has a population roughly twice the size of Berlin and infinitely greater traffic problems, that argument never really washed for me. I found many Germans who had moved to the city from other parts of the country were similarly sceptical. They tended to put it down to an innate abrasiveness in the Berlin/Prussian character which, they liked to point out, was totally alien to that to be found in Baden-Wurttemberg or Bavaria or whichever was their home state.

I suppose by any standards, Berlin has had a chequered history and its people could perhaps be forgiven for feeling they have borne more of the world's problems than most. Uncomfortable with their past, they are uncertain about their future. But in the current rush to get somewhere else, many are inevitably hurt along the way.

"I love a lot of things about this city: great cafes and bars, a great night life, a public-transport system that works," explained one veteran English resident of the city when the inevitable subject of Berlin came up at a party. "I can accept everything about Berliners too - except for one thing: the way they relate to one another on a day-to-day basis."

That statement, delivered in an off-the-cuff, almost inconsequential manner, knocked the wind out of me. It was so true. Berlin is a great city. It has an almost unique fascination.

Past and future home of the German government, it has enormous potential. Individually, its people can be creative and welcoming. Undoubtedly they are talented.

I have a lot to thank Berlin for: professionally, for the excitement of watching the Berlin Wall come down and the subsequent race towards German unification; personally, for my wife (whose father was originally an east Berliner) and two children, both born and well-cared-for in the city; socially, for some lovely friends - and, last but not least, for some of the best beer in the world.

But it has been hard work living here at times. I think back to the forehead-tapping incident and that inexplicable moment of rage. It was then that I realised it was time to say my goodbyes.