Crossing the street in Berlin is trickier than it looks. “Walk” is denoted by a behatted green man mid-stride, but just as I make it halfway across, he goes black and a red man stops me. Like the green man, he is wearing a hat too, but he faces me head on, outstretched hands imploring you to freeze. These are the “ampel men”, remnants of East Germany that have been adopted—lovingly—into contemporary German culture. The Ampelmännchen, which translates literally in German to “male traffic light”, was designed by Karl Peglau and introduced in East Germany on October 13, 1961, exactly two months after the Wall was erected. After the two Germanys were united, these symbols were systematically removed from the city, along with all other East Germany motifs. Like the graffiti murals that cover much of Berlin’s surfaces today, from the Wall to building façades, the idea was to accessorise Berlin in fresh colours and shapes; nothing that evoked the boundaries of East and West.

But the Ampelmännchen nagged at the minds of Berliners who survived the Wall in some form or another: its construction, its tenure, its demolition. The man in the hat had said “pass” when walls and soldiers had said they could not. Those arms, spread wide, saying “stop”, could just as easily have been asking for a hug in a universe that forbade contact with the other side. Once the Wall came down, memorabilia from East Germany resurfaced in flea markets and in the hands of collectors and tourists. Ostalgie, made up of ost, meaning east, and nostalgia, grew into something serious.

People argued that East German daily life should be erased neither from memory nor history. The Committee for the Preservation of Ampel Men was founded, and by 2005, the Ampelmännchen were back on all pedestrian lights in Berlin, allowing people to walk with ease as well as pride. With typical European flair, they remind locals and tourists alike that a past that is still recent, still raw, need not be ugly.

Berlin embraces history with such candor that it is endearing and curious. Numerous monuments and memorials scattered throughout the city hark back as far as two centuries ago, and as near as 25 years ago. But like the Ampelmännchen, these symbols carry a special weight on their shoulders: they ask that I look at them—and then that I keep walking. Outside Friedrichstraße station, one of Berlin’s busiest metro stations, and located squarely in Mitte, the city centre, is a large bronze statue entitled “Trains to Life—Trains to Death.”

The statue tells the story of Jewish children facing opposing fates: the lucky few made it to England in the 1930s via Kindertransport and escaped death; the majority ended up at concentration camps and were swiftly killed.

The children are near life-sized, placed on a pedestal on a perennially busy sidewalk, such that I have to make eye contact with them. Ten feet away on the building façade are large boards explaining the statue and its context. At rush hour, the toy-holding, case-carrying statues could well blend into the streams of people walking to and fro.

“To celebrate the reunification of East and West Berlin, 3,000 dogs were shot.” A paradox? Not to George, a Kenyan-German, who gives bicycle tours of Berlin and describes this moment with a queer smile on his face. At Mauerpark—mauer means wall in German—he shows us two lines of wall running parallel to each other, one at the top of a grassy hill, the other down below. The space in between was known as der Todesstreifen, or the death strip, a stretch of land in between East and West Germany that was heavily patrolled by guards and dogs.

After 28 years of escape attempts, numbering in the thousands, the dogs had turned into monsters and could not be rehabilitated into society. When the Wall came down, the dogs had to go. Like the men and women who had been punished for trespassing through der Todesstreifen, they, too, met a fatal end.

Mauerpark today invites picnickers, musicians, flea market vendors, children—and dogs—to celebrate life instead of death.

And the behatted, bespectacled and be-tailed of Berlin respond with enthusiasm.

Jens, an English and history teacher at a Berlin public school, meets me in Charlottenburg where he can practice his English and I can practice my history. The Schloss Charlottenburg was built in the 17th century, a summer palace for the Prussian king Friedrich I and his wife Sophie Charlotte. To harmonise the surroundings to this imposing structure, the king commissioned two structures opposite the Schloss, stylistic officer barracks and stables. They are now the Museum Berggruen, famous for its modern art collections.

So many museums, I say. Which ones should I visit?

Jens smiles and shrugs. “There are probably 10,000 museums in Berlin,” he says, and he is not entirely joking. Art is everywhere in this young city, which seems impatient to catch up with to other metropolises that boast a culturally astute, aesthetically assertive reputation.

Berlin’s art and architecture, of course, has had a reset, so much of it having been lost to Nazi rule and World War II bombings. Starting afresh was to assign Leonardo da Vinci to the city’s ceilings, Jackson Pollock to the building façades, Britain’s Norman Foster to the Reichstag, and local artists to the railway cars and tracks.

Today the art scene is a mix of bomb residue, Wall crumbs and the city’s restless energy. It bubbles up in a cocktail of rebellion and reverence that first protested the Wall and then claimed it; that first found anonymous freedom in graffiti and then galvanised an entire community to work on a mile-long art project that rolls down Oberbaumbrücke every summer.

Surfaces and spaces that were cordoned off, forms of expression that were hidden, now bask in Berlin’s sunshine and cool off in sunsets that nearly touch 10 p.m. The art moves with you along the main road. The sections of the Wall that have been erected along the River Spree require that you move with the water, first one way, then another, to catch all the messages and colours sprayed and painted onto them. Fulvio Pinna, an Italian artist who moved to West Berlin in 1987, has painted murals and written these words:

“I painted over the wall of shame
So freedom is ashamed no more.
Inferno ruled too many years
Until the people chose the light.
I put my faith in you Berlin,
And give to you my colors bright.”

Movement, formerly restricted, is now second nature. The sectored city has steadily united all of its quadrants, and the metro and urban rail connect Berlin precisely and efficiently. But—and here Jens glances at his watch—the ring road around Berlin, the A100, is the most crowded motorway in all of Europe, and is incomplete. Two kilometres are still to be built, and until then Berlin’s roads will be the least effective way to get between former East and West. Jens and I finish our fizzy drinks—soda mixed with Göbber Waldmeister Sirup (a green syrup made from a German herb)—so that he can beat the traffic to get home.

Like the Ampelmännchen, some vestiges of segregation take longer to update than others.

Berlin is punctuated by its history, built on memories, memorials, words, and symbols. The city does not standardise, it stacks. Eras of architecture pile one on top of the other, and the same happens with the language: words are concatenations of smaller ones, running many consonants at a time. The word for photograph, for example, is “momentaufnahme”, which breaks down to “moment” (moment) + “auf” (of) + “nahme” (from the verb “nehmen;” to take). A photograph is the literal act of taking a moment.

A ramp marked for wheelchair access is labelled “Behindertenzufahrt” which splits into “Behinder” (disability) + “zu” (to) + “fahrt” (ride), where “zufahrt” join together to make driveway. Jens complains that the logic in German makes English impossible to learn: “It’s all new words, instead of words built on top of one another.”

As if to demonstrate his point, the Berlin Wall—formerly a 43-kilometere run-on sentence that leaves you breathless from its meaning, its expression—is now broken into digestible chunks spread all over the city, ever-ready for “momentaufnahme” and to “behinderterzufahrt”. Where the city has not re-erected the Wall, they have left behind a souvenir: rusted steel rods that today make a dance of light and shadow, and give the Wall a porous, albeit stern, feel.

Jens’s recommendations lead me to Museum Island, a complex of five museums in the city centre that house several world-famous items, including the bust of Queen Nefertiti. The five museums date back to the 1830s, and create a serene skyscape in a city that lacks the steel-and-glass skyscrapers of a commercial hub. If Berlin was once a hive of prison cells with walls for bars, it is now its own museum—its own temple, and Museum Island has the feel of the sanctum sanctorum where devotees gather and gaze.

But I end up on the other side of the river, facing the back of the Island, because of a half-remembered word that a woman mentioned to me while we crossed the street together. She was mid-cigarette roll (ubiquitous in the city but missing from Ampelmännchen images) and promoting her fire art show in Hackesher-something-or-other to me. The next day, on a train headed home, I hear “Hackescher Markt” as we pull into a station and get off, wondering if I might bump into the cigarette-smoking fire artist from the day before. Instead I end up in a park facing Museum Island. A little research reveals that it is James Simon Park, where I lounge with food and drink and watch the waning sunlight dance across the building’s domes across the river. The park is another homage to history: James Simon was a respected, successful and generous patron of the arts in the early 20th century who sponsored the German archeological team that discovered the bust of Nefertiti in Eygpt in 1912. It was brought to Germany in 1913 and has been under its protection ever since, even under Hitler, who admired the bust. Not surprisingly, Hitler gave Simon absolutely no credit, but Berlin reminds everyone of the Jewish philanthropist’s name and legacy with the park opposite the very museums he helped fill. Is Simon pleased at being reunited with his beloved art?

That particular summer evening, the answer might be on the lips of the musician in James Simon Park rendering an acoustic version of Happy by Pharrell Williams on his guitar.

Once a walled-off fortress, Berlin has become permeable. Its art starts on the ground, climbs up the walls like ivy, and reaches rooftops, like the birds. Some buildings force me to do a double take because only the top floors have been painted or decorated with graffiti, like the lace of a bridal veil. How did the artist—or artists—get up there? Why did they do just the top? Does it matter?

In a city where plaques on the road mark where former East Berlin meets former West Berlin, the outdoors can easily and quickly be confused with the indoors. A flea market is a maze of vendors, warehouses and seating areas, but one look inside a warehouse reveals a yoga class in session, and another is in fact a fully functioning gym. Its rainbow of clothing, food, and antique items blend in with the graffiti of faces and cityscapes painted behind them, and I observe a woman take on the expression of one of the surprised cartoons behind her. She stares at the items on sale, looks at her daughter and exclaims, “People buy these? We have these at home back in Leipzig!”, which was formerly East Germany.

Like the Photo Clash event where Berlin’s street artists mash their own work with photographs, the city is a reality clash of artistic attitudes. Sectors of Berlin resurface and collide, only happily. The Craft Bier festival bustles with flea market wares (American); electronic/lounge music helps me lose count of my drinks (British); workouts are in full swing in the shadows of musical instruments on sale (Soviet); and adjacent music venues promise the latest in hip hop and spoken word (French).

In a quieter neighborhood, SchwuZ, a warehouse-turned-party-venue is very careful about disturbing the residents. I have to walk through several empty rooms and down stairs before I find the coat check, and only then the bouncer who stamps the back of my hand. The bar is through a few more doorways and the DJs are at the end of the dance floor with a crowd that is still warming up. A few brave souls have made it onto the floor but several hang back in the dark corners, one hand holding a beer, the other shoved in a pocket. DJ Äimi Weinhaus and her partner Valentina are the tallest and most made-up pair in the club; I can’t take my eyes off them.

Adjusting breast pads and sequined bras, applying hair spray and practising their catwalk on the dance floor, they stand out among the skinny, short-haired women serving drinks and the combed and ironed gay men ordering them. When I walk over to speak to them, I realise why they are so striking: both are in drag. Weinhaus dressed up like Amy Winehouse one Halloween and has used the party trick ever since; cross-dressing makes her more money as a DJ, and she’s not apologetic about it.

“It’s like heroin: it’s bad but you do it anyway,” she says with a laugh. Valentina seems shyer, and Weinhaus nudges her in the ribs through her denim overalls. “It’s my first time in drag,” Valentina admits. “But doesn’t she look great?” Weinhaus retorts. She turns to her computer to set up the next song. Within moments everyone is mouthing Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, and a stilettoed silhouette in overalls is letting loose on the dance floor.

I walk home from SchwuZ, an easy walk along the main road, where a few cars and bicycles zip past. I found my lodgings on, the increasingly popular accommodation option, which allows tourists of all wallet sizes to live like a Berliner. Being such an ethnically diverse city, Berlin’s tourists are treated to multilingual roommates who may have come to Berlin as tourists not too long ago themselves. French artists Billy and Amandine regularly rent out one of their two bedrooms in Hermanstraße for less than Rs.2,400 per day, and they are often out of the house while their foreign guests share their space.

A city that was once so carefully and antagonistically divided is now a casual coherence of identities, what Simon describes as a “new, hip, international, and very dynamic Berlin.” Passports are a technicality; the new currency is trust.

Down the street from their house is a cafe run by a 20-something Frenchman named Simon who moved to Berlin from Paris five years ago. The neighbourhood, Neukölln, is replete with Turkish kebab stands and Vietnamese restaurants—the typical immigrant stamp in Berlin, due to guest worker recruitment post World War II—and the French cafe stands out, along with a few other artisanal restaurants dotting the main road. Foreigners are not unusual, nor are they unwelcome. Says Simon about Neukölln, “The new people moving here are not Berliners. The demographic is pushing the typical image of what people see in Berlin.”

A city that was once so carefully and antagonistically divided is now a casual coherence of identities, what Simon describes as a “new, hip, international, and very dynamic Berlin.” Passports are a technicality; the new currency is trust.

I come across an unobtrusive tombstone on Invalidenstraße (which translates, aptly, to Invalids Road, due to the hospital on one side). The first line of the inscription is clear, candid: “Hier starb als erstes opfer der Mauer: GÜNTER LITFIN”.

Here died the first victim of the Berlin Wall: Günter Litfin.

Litfin was the first man to try to flee from East to West, and fail. In Berliner fashion, there is a former watchtower named after him, couched in a modern apartment complex (which landlords pay for handsomely every month for upkeep). His brother, Jürgen Litfin, is a regular at the watchtower, taking questions from tour groups and leading them through the site. The tombstone is on the other side of the city, and is not nearly as well-marked, nor is it part of any bicycle tour along the “Wall Trail”, but Berlin remembers him on the way to the Hamburger Bahnhof Art Museum, or Metaxa Bay for a beer. Read me, says the inscription. And then keep walking.

I double check the location for the Jewish Memorial, worried I may mix it up with the Jewish Museum, but Berlin has thought ahead. Officially titled, in no uncertain terms, the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” it is where many of Berlin’s walls and boundaries seem to have collected for maximum effect.

The memorial is a grid of tall concrete blocks (2,711 in total) erected at slight angles on an undulating platform. This creates the effect of a mass grave from afar, and a tall, menacing ghetto within which one can get lost. Walking in between the blocks is to feel very small, and easily separated from others.

Gaining ground and coming head to head with the blocks, I feel like I have swum back to shore, and can breathe, and speak, and hear again; only then does noise and activity from the street penetrate the senses. But they do swiftly, as eager hosts outside restaurants call to the tourists and impatient drivers accelerate to avoid a red light. Berlin seems to have taken care to bring visitors to the memorial back onto level ground again, and tempt them with quotidian cravings for food and beer. At any rate, the walls have disappeared again.

It’s not surprising that a city with so many genres of history and activism, speaking a language of foundation, would find a unique way to articulate how it views freedom of space and of speech. The Reichstag, or Bundestag, or Parliament Building, is an enormous castle-looking stone structure with four turrets and the German words “Dem Deutschen Volke” (To the German People) engraved above the main entrance. Everything about it seems stolid, stoic. But an online appointment and sufficient ID gets me through the (heavily guarded) doors and up the elevator to the glass dome on the roof of the 120-year-old structure.

The dome is 24 years old, and was designed by a British architect. I can hear the British wit from the top—you want political openness, here it is. I can smell the German ambition as you gaze upon the entire city—and then taste it in the form of a three-course meal at the restaurant next to the dome. If the top floors of buildings are its lacy veil, then the Bundestag naturally needs to be exceptionally adorned. The dome meets these standards: the column of mirrors inside it scatter a Berlin sunset all across the city; the hole in the dome allows fresh air to commute into the chambers below; and the glass structure turns the center of the city into a two-way peephole. The saying goes that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and the dome is Foster’s pithy punchline—in addition to another example of Berlin’s transparency with locals and tourists.

Where else can a government building that has seen arson, Nazis and foreign rule now be a fancy restaurant? Only in a city that understands the transience of its own spaces, and does its best to eliminate all formal boundaries between them.

This does not mean that Berlin does not respect its disparate neighbourhoods and districts: the elaborate Turkish markets are intrinsic to Kreuzberg, not Wedding. Potsdam’s 18th century castles and palaces belong in the south, and the concentration camps in Spandau exist in the north.

“If you look different, it’s not in the culture to perceive you as German,” says Jens. But the point is that you need not be German, you need not be a local, to experience Berlin the way they do. In order to see through German identity, you have to know what is the German identity: one that is unapologetic and unflinching about its past. Once you have seen the Berlin Wall, you can always see through it.

2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. Part of the festivities in October include releasing hundreds of helium balloons into the sky. The symbolism is apt: the balloons will stretch impossibly high, as the Wall once did; they will also eventually pop and disappear, as if they, like the Wall, were made of air. I wonder if they will be better identified by the rest of the world if they have Ampelmännchen hats on.