On a recent spring night in the Neukölln neighborhood of Berlin, a friend and I rode bikes and sipped beers—you can do this in Berlin—along the darkened canal. We passed playgrounds and public squares, where Berliners of various ages and both genders congregated in small groups, enjoying each other’s company and the warm air. Many people were themselves drinking beer (or something harder) while relaxing on public benches and under the trees that lined the sidewalks. When we passed a group of three teenage girls drinking and listening to techno in an otherwise abandoned playground, I asked my friend, who married a German and moved to Berlin from New York several years ago, if the sight of so many young people publicly drinking—vulnerably but also responsibly—seemed at all odd to him.
What I really wanted to know, I suppose, is why Americans can’t do the same thing in New York. He didn’t have an answer, but likened it to another cultural difference: here in Berlin, like many other parents, he lets his children run wild around the playground totally naked on a warm summer day. No one seems troubled that a pedophile might be lurking somewhere ready to pounce. It’s not that crime and pedophilia do not exist in Germany; it’s that the Germans do not seem to order their lives around fear.
I think he is right, but there’s something else at work, as well. I suspect that three attractive young women can’t get drunk without a care in an unlit park in the middle of a major American city for the simple reason that they would run a far greater risk of being assaulted. I suspect, too, that this difference has much to do with the absurd and distinctly American sickness of too many guns and too much repression—the same ever-present undercurrent of violence that leads a man to walk naked into a Waffle House and start murdering everyone in sight. The Germans aren’t perfect, but I wonder how many of us know how many small but important freedoms we are missing out on.