Ah, Berlin the beautiful, the bold, the brutal, the bizarre….
Everyone told me that Berlin was a great city to visit and they weren’t wrong. If only Australian cities were more like Berlin (or indeed other cities in Europe). Bike paths everywhere, masses of green open space, street art, rivers and canals, great museums, car drivers that are courteous and watchful, great public transport.
Of course, not everything is great and Australian cities have some parts of all of these things, quite apart from infinitely better weather. The Germans are maddeningly, annoyingly law abiding and conformist (though not so much in Berlin). Even the countryside is neat and well ordered, such that even the cows have specially assigned spaces in which they may sit down, neatly numbered and with clear instructions (in several languages) forbidding them to sit in any other space.
Germans don’t have as many ridiculous laws as Australians but the ones they do have they obey as if they are tablets from heaven. In my humble opinion there is few things (Peter Dutton, Joe Hockey etc aside) so ridiculous as two large groups of automatons poised expectantly at either side of an entirely empty road waiting for a little green electronic man to tell them they may cross the road. It gave me great delight to blithely cross against every possible red light, knowing that this would annoy the assembled automatons no end.
I arrive in Berlin late on a Friday afternoon, from Amsterdam. The train ride takes 6 hours and arrives neither a minute early, nor late. I am yet again travelling first class, courtesy of Eurail which, apparently, believes that anyone either rich or old, or both, is unable to endure the discomfort of second class or, alternatively, needs to return some of the ill-gotten gains of the baby boomers to the poor of Europe via first class rail fares. I shall raid my Panama account again. I am staying with Bill Hare, partner Ursula Fuentes and family having decided to grace them with my presence some 15 years after I last saw Bill, in Amsterdam.
I have picked up some annoying French lurgi which I am, no doubt, giving to everyone with whom I come in contact. It works a bit like the French bureaucracy; it’s incredibly annoying, makes the host body very inefficient but is not deadly enough to actually stop it functioning. Hence I continue to drag myself around, occasionally feeling better and then doing just sufficiently too much to feel completely crap the next day. This means I am unable to do anything but either sleep or sit in cafés drinking coffee and reading a book. I think I shall call it the enforced relaxation lurgi, the one drawback being that it creates a host of little spiders in my scalp who alternately pull it tight and/or hit it with miniature hammers and when they get bored with that they squeeze my left eyeball.
Berlin, is in some senses, the personification (if a city can be a person) of the history of the last 150 years. It is here that many of the great events of Europe, at least, are written in the flesh of the city. Intuitively, if you have studied history, you know that, but visiting Berlin makes it much clearer.
That history is encapsulated in the short walk from the Brandenburg gate, celebrating Prussia’s victory over France in 1870 – and itself a symbol of the dominance of the military in that part of German history – which led to both WW1 and WW2, to the the Reichstag building where the German Bundestag (Parliament) sits.
The latter you can view as a symbol of the reunification of Berlin and Germany, and the creation of a relatively unified Europe, symbolised, more than anything by the giant EU flag flying over the now reconstructed Reichstag. The reconstructed Reichstag building, itself a symbol of German power , lay abandoned and empty from 1945 until 1990 when reconstruction started after reunification. It’s somewhat ironic that the giant glass dome was a designed by British architect, Lord Norman Foster, and sits just a few hundred metres from the embassy of the Brexits.
I have decided my entire trip around Europe shall be by train, in between cities, and largely on foot within cities. This poses somewhat of a challenge, since apart from the French Lurgi (which in my mind has now become a proper noun), my body has adopted a policy of rotational notification of early degeneration and approaching death. When my ski damaged right knee is working properly, my right ankle is not. Or my left. And when all three of those problematic joints decide to have a day off from giving me the complete shits, some other random part of the body decides that it will annoy the crap out of me.
Nevertheless being descended from good Welsh mining stock (or at least those bits of Welsh mining stock that worked in offices) I ignore these travails in order to make certain that I die fully informed on European history.
I’ve arrived on a weekend so there is time to socialise with my hosts. As befits all well balanced individuals this includes a mixture of cultural activities from the low brow – jazz in a small well-hidden enclave off the backstreets, where our fellow audience members are a cross between residual unreconstructed hippies, bikies, hipsters and a minority of baby boomers who appear to have accidentally stumbled on somewhere they don’t really belong. Following this we go upmarket for the quarter-final of the Euros (soccer) between Germany and Italy. This takes place in one of the unreconstructed remnants of East Germany, where you can sit on a deck chair and peer around the pole blocking ones view of anything other than the outside quarter of the screen.
On Sunday Bill and Ursula take me on a guided tour around Berlin following the route of the Berlin Wall. It’s four of us, including son, Max (actually probably not Max but I can’t remember), since Elsa is otherwise engaged. The Hare/Fuentes clan live close to the centre of Berlin and it’s just a short ride to the East Side Gallery the longest preserved part of the wall. Beyond this the wall is marked randomly and irregularly by twin lines of cobblestones in the road.
The wall is hard to follow in places disappearing, as it does, under footpaths and buildings and only sporadically signposted. “That’s Berlin for you” my cycling companions comment. That attitude is fairly widespread in Germany, even in Berlin, and reflects a view that Berlin is poor (well everything is relative), somewhat inefficient and haphazard. It’s a bit the same attitude that many Romans and other Italians have about Rome. This apparently explains the fact that the Spree which flows through Berlin, is more like a a sewer line with a bit of added water than the other way around. Ursula explains that there have been plans to clean the Spree for years but Berlin has never had the money.
The enormous exertions of the weekend, 45 kilometres around Berlin lead to the “Return of the Lurgi, Part 3” and I spend Monday morning lying in bed squeezing that part of my head that feels like an over-tensioned steel drum. By lunchtime aided by Mother’s little Helper I creep out of my bed and head for the Berlin Wall. My visit was intended to let me look at the art work on Eastside Gallery which is a 1.3 kilometre long gallery of art panels relating to the wall and contemporary German and world history (see images here). But while the artwork on the wall is sometimes startling and always interesting, the back of the wall was the bit that absorbed my attention.
Here photographer, Kai Wiedenhöfer, assembled an exhibition called “WARonWALL“. The exhibition focuses on the legacy of the war for the individuals maimed by it. As Wiedenhöfer says “It is a paradox of war that the injury of a single person makes the biggest impression on us; the one whose face we can see, the one whose name and fate we can actually recall. The bigger the number of the victims the less we are touched emotionally. Instead of increasing our consternation, large numbers somehow numb the reality of it. Numbers are abstract – people are not.”
The exhibition documents the story of families and individuals whose lives have been uprooted by the war and the complete and utter destruction of towns such as Kobane that are now little more than rubble. You can see some of Wiedenhöfer’s images here including the accompanying stories and here you can see some images of Kobane before, during and after the siege.
The reality in Berlin, is that everywhere you look the city is touched by the history of conflict, the Wall, the still deserted empty spaces either wide of the wall known as “No Man’s Land”, which escapees had to cross to get into West Berlin, the still abandoned buildings and factories, the Jewish Museum, the recreated Checkpoint Charlie, the memorials to those who died trying to escape, the Russian War Memorial, the museum of the former home of the SS, documented in the Museum, The Topography of Terror.
The following morning I take another run past the East Side Gallery into downtown Berlin. I pass the Springer Building where Die Bild is published, Germany’s somewhat feeble attempt to imitate “The Australian”. It is right wing, broadsheet in size but tabloid in size and content. Just like the Australian, in fact. Bild has been described as “notorious for its mix of gossip, inflammatory language, and sensationalism” and as having a huge influence on German politicians.
From here I pass onto the Jewish museum. I find the Museum somewhat disappointing except for a startling installation which features thousands of faces cut out from steel plate and lying on the floor. Walking on these thousands of faces the sightless eyes stare up like something out of Munch’s “The Scream“. Eerie and evocative.
On my way back my unplanned cycle trip takes me back along one of Berlin’s surprise canals which pop up where you least expect them and onto Museum Island where there are five of Berlin’s major museums. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Berlin is the 190 kilometres of canals which one can stumble across in the most unexpected places and by following them get yourself completely bushwacked. Still no problem; as you push your bike through someone’s backyard and they give you a strange look, you just make certain that it appears that you always intended to go that way, smile nicely and move on.
One of Berlin’s abandoned places is SpreePark the former East German amusement park which lies just across the river from Bill and Ursula’s place. Today it stands shuttered, fenced and theoretically protected by guards and dogs. Every two metres a sign warns of the risks of entering, “Danger of Death”. It’s one of those must-see destinations, screened and warned off, it is like a beacon. So armed with camera, backpack and water I make my way there. Aside from a fascinating history of fraud, escape, opening, closure, fire and fun it, like most deserted places it has a magnetism emanating from the way nature reclaims the derelict spaces of humans, the ability to have such places entirely to oneself, the risk and the fact that entry is illegal. I crawl under the fence around 11 am having parked my bike by the river.
Entry involves sticking ones head under the fence and then levering ones body underneath by pulling on the fence above. Usually at this point I would manage to injure something, tear my clothes or have my wallet slip, un-noticed into the dirt. But for once I escape my own incompetence. Once in your pull your pack behind you. To all intents and purposes the park is completely deserted. There is no sound except the wind and the odd door moving in the wind. And the quietly revolving Ferris Wheel which spins on and on, with a grinding, whimpering sound, empty and forlorn, awaiting its next passenger. Today little remains of the park which has been progressively emptied of its sights, damaged by fire, and vandalised.
The Government has increased security to ensure no repeats of the scandalous incident from summer 2013, when a 90-year-old woman broke into SpreePark and had to be rescued from the Ferris wheel after the wind carried her up but not back down again. “It used to be so nice here,” she said. “I simply wanted another go.”
If you stayed off the main tracks and kept your eyes open you could stay for hours in the haven of the park, poking around. For me, my tenure ended after an hour when, expecting security to be on foot, I was taken by surprise by fast arriving men on mountain bikes. A quick-fire interrogation took place. Where was I from? Hadn’t I seen the signs? Every two metres? How could I miss them? Signs in English too!!
Now comes the point of double bluff. “Have you taken any photos? You must cut them”. He knows he has no authority to demand I do this. But I don’t want to antagonise him. This demand is repeated three times. I go the double-feint. “Why don’t you just let people in and give tours. The Government could make money.” Sure enough that distraction is enough and he launches into a dissertation of dangers; drowning in the water train, falling off the ferris wheel etc I.D is demanded. I produce my Australian passport. “Australian? We capture many Australians here but you are the first that carries a passport. My passport is taken away to have its details transcribed. Then: “How did you get in?”. I indicate the direction. “The big hole?”. Yes that one. “You come under the fence? Are you a dog?” I’m not quite sure of the corollary between the two statements but figure that non-smartassery is the order of the day.
“What happens now?” I ask “We send your details to the Police”. Hmm. “And then?” I ask. “They do nothing because they are too busy…now we go”. I’m escorted to the main gate. The two of them shake my hand; “Have a nice holiday in Berlin.”
On my way back I visit the Russian War Memorial. Before the Soviet Union built the Stalingrad memorial this was the world’s
largest Russian memorial. It’s massive and very Russian and masculine in its glorification of heroic figures and with the single weeping woman. But impressive also. 80,000 Russians died during the Battle for Berlin and 2000 are buried there. My day is run. My French lurgi has returned to cast me back to bed.
The Russian memorial turns out to be my last bit of Berlin other than dinner with the Hare/Fuentes. My final day is also laid waste by French lurgi and I abandon ideas of extensive tours of unseen bits of the city. Dinner is however worth waiting for and disproves a theory that anyone who once drank cask wine cannot appreciate good wine. Visiting Jonathan West, once, in Canberra, he refused to serve me anything better than a mediocre wine on the basis that if I was prepared to drink cask wine then offering anything more than a mediocre wine was like casting pearls before swine.
Berlin passes…at 9 am, next morning, I am on my way to Prague
This is Part 10 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:
Part 1 – Leaving on a Jet Plane to Bologna
Part 2 – Of Maddening Brits and Mad Families
Part 3 – Travelling Idiot Style
Part 4 – Explaining Manspreading
Part 6 – Travelling South
Part 7 – Scribblings from a Trip
Part 8 – Blackfeet, Red Faces (Aix and Nîmes)
Images from this post can be found on the Flickr archive as follows:
- Berlin Spreepark
- Berlin Wall – art
- Russian War Memorial
- Berlin Wall – Syrian War exhibition
- Berlin Jewish Museum
- Berlin General