My reaction to Jerome K. Jerome's novel
For my second book, I’ve decided to read Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome. There is a lot of commentary on German culture in general, and while much of it seems trite, I realise that it’s unfair to be so judgmental considering the book was written over a century ago. Many of these jokes are amusing, even if they do rely heavily on cliches, but it being written in 1900 could mean that at the time, they weren’t cliches at all. Maybe it’s only the fact that I am reading this in 2014 that allows me to scoff at the jokes about Germans’ love of order, their tendency towards tidiness, their supposed lack of humour, etc.
When our narrator (“J.”) goes to Berlin, on the other hand, I found myself very intrigued by the way he describes it. He finds the city disappointing, “its centre over-crowded, its outlying parts lifeless.” This is still more or less true. After the fall of the wall, property was very cheap, and in the last ten or so years, the huge interest in Berlin’s creative culture and ultimately in developing its real estate is something that I don’t think J. could have possibly foreseen. A lot of Berliners – mostly the young and creative ones, often the ones who aren’t German – will say that they don’t like to go “outside the ring.” They’re referring to the Ringbahn, two circular lines on the S-bahn which go in opposite directions. I’ve even seen a hashtag, #lifeoutsidethering (which is ridiculous.) It reminds me a bit of the way some people at NYU would joke that they didn’t go above 14th Street. It’s different in Berlin, because there really isn’t much going on outside the ring. The centre is over-crowded in comparison to the city’s outlying parts. They are lifeless.
“In the Berlin cafes and restaurants, the busy time is from midnight on till three. Yet most of the people who frequent them are up again at seven. Either the Berliner has solved the great problem of modern life, how to do without sleep, or, with Carlyle, he must be looking forward to eternity.” Cafe culture is no longer a thing in Berlin, at least not since I’ve been living here, but it is very true that things don’t get going until midnight. The thought of going out any earlier is unthinkable for most people. While Berliners are not hanging out as much in cafes, perhaps the modern-day equivalent would be clubs, which often don’t open until midnight – and peak time isn’t until 5am or so. People here really are going without sleep. They lose entire weekends to clubbing, often with some combination of Club Mate, alcohol, and amphetamines or other club drugs. How they managed to stay in cafes and restaurants until 3am 100 years ago is a mystery to me.
One thing that I didn’t find particularly accurate about J.’s description of Berlin: “Most that Berlin has to show can be seen better elsewhere.” To this end, George, and Harris decide to hire a driver to show them around and point out the noteworthy sights. I think that tourists today are often doing something similar, with the “hop on, hop off” buses, for example. This seems crazy to me, because part of the reason that I love this city as much as I do is that it feels so very unique to me. It’s not merely a place with some nice museums and historical buildings, it’s a place with amazing street art and great Vietnamese restaurants and an honest-to-goodness energy in the streets. I guess maybe that’s where the Berlin of today differs from J.’s.