Berlin is eight times larger the size of Paris, but in part this is a technicality: the city limits of Berlin contain a lot of regions, such as Spandau, that in Paris would be considered suburbs. There's no doubt though that Berlin is large and that Paris is small.
The traditional geographic distinction in Paris is between north and south --- right bank and left bank. But I find that for me, the east-west distinction is more relevant. The Western part of Paris is where the Eiffel Tower and most of the other major sights are, and also where all the expensive places to live are. (By definition, Notre Dame is exactly in the center.) The eastern part is where, as I see it, there's more real life. The places where the working class and the young are found.
Admittedly, though, this distinction works less well in the Left Bank. St. Germaine de Prés is only slightly west, but has lots of very upscale shops and is one of the most upscale places to live in the city.
There's also the distance-from-the-Seine consideration. Being close to the river is definitely more desirable, whether one is in the east or the west. One shouldn't take these classifications too seriously.
I was talking to a French woman about Berlin at the French-English conversation group I go to, and she said she'd never been there. By Berlin, I explained, I mean East Berlin. My impression of West Berlin (three-quarters of the city) is that although it does have a lot of interesting sights, on the whole it's not much more than a big shopping center. During the communist era, America poured money into West Berlin to make it a showcase for democracy, i.e. for western consumerism. (In the past few years, though, as East Berlin has become the hip place for young tourists to visit, West Berlin has started to become a bit run down. Or so I've been told.)
Paris, I told this woman, is a very old city. A historic city. And everywhere in the city, one is inundated with history. All over the city one sees references to Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani. In Rue Mouffetard, people are quick to point to the area where Hemingway lived. And of course the St. Germaine des Prés area is saturated with references to Sartre and de Beauvoir. But neither of the two would choose to set foot in the district as it is today.
In Montmartre one afternoon, I heard a singer doing a very good Edith Piaf imitation. And later on that evening, in a bar not that far away, a singer was doing a very good George Brassens imitation.
On the whole, tourists come to Paris looking for the past, whether it's fifty years old or four hundred years old.
Yes, there is a young part of Paris. One can find French rap and French hip hop. The best place to find the young Paris is in the Rue Oberkampf area (between say Avenue Parmentier and Blvd Menilmontant). The old garment district. The Café Charbon, on Rue Oberkampf, has become extremely trendy for young people, as well as a few other cafés close by on Rue St. Maur. The area just north of the Place de la Bastille, along Rue Charonne, still attracts young people. I had dinner at the Pause Café, the Bastille equivalent of the Café Charbon, and the place was packed and I was the only diner over age forty. A more rowdy crowd can be found along Rue Roquette, a few blocks over.
And now I've been told that the artists and musicians are beginning to move into the 19th and 20th Arrondisements.
But these are small parts of Paris and I've talked to even Americans living here who are unaware of them.
Berlin, on the other hand (which is to say the Eastern sector) is a young city. I didn't find any singers doing Lotte Lenya or Marlene Dietrich imitations. The Nazi past has been pretty well covered over, in contrast to Paris, where resistance fighters are commemorated in dozens of names of streets and metro stations. And the communist past is certainly interesting, definitely so for tourists, but has been after all officially repudiated. (Except for the "Ampoule Man," the jaunty little guy with the hat and an attitude who you see in the traffic lights as the signal that it's now okay to walk. You can even buy postcards of him, one with the slogan in English, "Keep on Walking!")
The part of Berlin where you find the greatest young energy is the farthest east: Friedrichshain. (In pronouncing it, think of it as written as Friedrichs hain, with the "s" somewhat drawn out and separated a bit from the "h" that follows it. And the "ie", pronounced as the "ee" in the English word "seed," also drawn out.) Mitte and Prenzlauerberg are quite lively centers for alternative music and film in places like Dock 11 and the "Cultural Brewhouse" (sorry, I can't remember quite how to spell this in German), an old brewery that has been transformated into a performance hall.
I love Paris. I've been here six weeks this time, and stayed in six hotels this time in different parts of the city (althoughly admittedly three of them were in the 11th Arrondisement, but in very different parts of it). I'm an old guy after all, and Sartre and de Beauvoir and Hemingway and Piaf and Juliette Greco are still magic for me.
But, for me at least, Berlin is very exciting. I wouldn't want to have to choose between the two.
Love & kisses to all,