Berlin Past and Present

Approx tbc words
© Joel Seath (2015)

March 2015


It has been a while. Notes to future self: this travelling business is not without its anxieties — more so this time with the news, yesterday, of the Germanwings airline crash in the French Alps. I’m flying Germanwings. The flight is delayed. This delay does, at least, give a little time for breathing, meditative calm, just looking around Heathrow departures lounge to ‘be’ in this space, find this place.

I drove in, seeing the rising blood orange sun through the dark sticks of trees, and then there were the traffic jams. Note to future self, now that I’m sat in the quiet burble of Heathrow: things work out, somehow. I left my writer’s website up on the twenty minute free online access screens then walked away, idling time: free advertising for a short while, I guessed. I may do it again shortly, just to pass the time . . . Just past that passing of time: well, two minutes of free advertising before the screen defaults is better than none at all.

The board has silently slipped to show a further delay. Maybe I’ll be here all day, watching stillnesses and very slownesses, readers and starers, these in-betweeners: us all in our limbo-land . . .

Berlin-Tegel airport proves to be a logical place laid out easily. I slip around its peripheral spin after pausing for a few minutes, taking stock. I ask, in English, for directions to the bus stop: I read, earlier on the plane, in the mostly unrelated book I have, that cities allow roles to be played out. So, this helps. I play a role. I see two men who look like they’re selling bus tickets, so I buy from them rather than from the machine. I take a chance, I soon realise, but I’m playing a role. The bus comes and all is fine. I stamp my ticket on-board, despite the men saying not to bother, just to be sure, and I settle for the journey. All is fine. No travel anxieties. Even the madman at the back, who blathers happily to himself, causes only amusement. I see one of our airline stewardesses on the bus. Her fixed smile has gone. She looks sad and lonely and relieved not to be working now. She’s plugged into earphones, eating sad lonely food. She doesn’t look up. The bus deposits me at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, massive glass structure as it is. I feel fine to have achieved independence. I take a look inside, just, but it is somewhat overwhelming. I look down over the edge to see the U-Bahn trains far below. I go out to wait for J. and the boys in the plaza.

When they come, I’m at ease. We walk over to the Bundestag, former Reichstag, and immediately here is history. They see it as the modern parliament building; I see it as the pictures from the war. Just around the corner, we find, is the Brandenburg Gate. I think of the Wall near here. Where did it go? Where was it positioned? I don’t know it at the time, only a little later, but we pass from the former West to the former East, and I look down the long avenue that’s now Strasse des 17 Juni and which used to be Charlottenburger Chaussee. There’s a history lesson on large memorial placards in the square on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate: it shows Hitler’s tanks and the procession of soldiers down the avenue. It is with a small feeling of being ill-at-ease that I stand there: it is a little surreal.

The U-Bahn and the S-Bahn are complicated to our unsure eyes. The map lines, all overlaid, are all in shades of brown or red, or they seem to be, and it takes us a while to work out that the lines (e.g. S7) are not the same thing as the platform numbers. After travel farther out to the east at Warschauer-Str., we find ourselves then back at the Hauptbahnhof. Inside the station and its multi-layers is like being in the Futurists’ city of vertically stacked transportation lines shearing out in all directions.

At Schöneberg, where we have our accommodation, there is quiet: though Berlin isn’t anywhere near as busy as London, on the whole. There are, I notice, hardly any black faces here either. This is unusual. There are various nationalities, for sure, Turkish for example, but very few people of other coloured skin, irrespective of nationality.

A girl on the U-Bahn notes that Ja. and me speak English and she starts to talk with us. She’s South African, it transpires, and quietly spoken. She smiles and I think she wants to speak more, but we come to Nollendorfplatz, our stop, and we have to say goodbye.

Late this next morning, after we’ve all caught up on sleep, we travel out east to Hackescher Markt and then out to Alexanderplatz, where musicians play under the railway line and I think of the early days of the Beatles in Hamburg. The east of the city here is drab and grey with functional square concrete blocks of buildings. Alexanderplatz is fast food and the rattle of the train lines overhead. J. and the boys eat kebab but it’s the wrong time of the day, and place, for me for this. After coffee we take a bus back west to Zoologischer Garten, along Unter den Linden and through the Tiergarten. We go department store shopping and Ja. and me sit at the very top of KaDeWe talking travel whilst his younger brother and mother shop. Soon enough, evening has fallen and we find that Nollendorfplatz and Eisenacher-Str., where we’re staying, are not too far away to walk to.

Modernity prevails in Berlin and, it seems, the city and the people have swept its past away with the destruction of the Wall and all other paraphernalia of the era and the Nazis earlier. This is the Berlin, underneath, that I need to see more of though.

We find ourselves at Kreuzberg, by the canal, and there is a palpable Turkish feel to it all. There is the usual market paraphernalia of stalls along the bank (the fruit and vegetables, the cotton rolls, the cheese and fish) and then they repeat. The boys want to shop for clothes so we travel north to Schönhauser Allee, alighting down and out beneath the S-Bahn line that runs above street level, down the stairs, exiting straight onto the road. There are no ticket barriers on the U- and S-Bahns and the system relies on honesty, I think. Maybe there are ticket inspectors but we haven’t seen any yet. This system couldn’t work in London.

We spend so long in the department store, and this I can get anywhere. I need to see and feel I’m in Berlin. After lunch on Wichert-Str., a friend of the boys’ father comes to meet us at the pizza place. Olaf becomes our tour guide. He takes us out towards the last remaining parts of the Wall, a short walk away: through the park and along the edges of the stadium there, then on a road called Mauerweg (Wall Way), which, says Olaf, was used by the East German soldiers. On the hill here, along the edge of the stadium, is a stretch of Wall. We don’t stop to see. Are we still on the former East side? I lose my bearings. There is the thick fug of weed as we walk on towards the corner of Bernauer-Str. and Schwedter-Str. It takes me a while to work out but here, at this corner, is where our tour proper starts. Along Bernauer-Str. is where the Wall was, though there’s very little trace left in the street: there are small circular metal plaques laid into the paving, here and there, which depict an unsuccessful or successful escape attempt (J. translates the ‘unsuccessful’ plaques as reading ‘escape attempt and caught’, which strikes me as somewhat unnerving); there is a small metal strip inlaid beneath the feet as to where the Wall was.

Soon, later, as we pass quiet information points along the alley that runs parallel to Bernauer-Str., I gradually appreciate that we’re walking between the East German Inner Wall and the Wall perimeter, beyond which was the former West: we’re in the Death Strip. At the point where I see the plaques and the inlaid street marking for the first time, I feel a shiver of significance. We pass the point where Conrad Schumann, an East German soldier, jumped the barricade, and then we’re on to where the remaining, unremarkable grey slabs, which could be any wall, but which are this Wall, stand. They give way to parts of Wall with reinforcing bars still showing, and then to the vertical brown poles that lead up to and lead from here, and which mark the route. At Nordbahnhof on the corner of Garten-Str., the Wall takes a turn to the north. We carry on south back into the former East from the former West.

Berlin, and Germany, seems to have closed its eyes, turned its back, and eschewed this Wall and its notoriety of times, for reasons that can be appreciated: only a quiet mark of its former existence still remains. The former East is still drab and blocky, grey and industrial in its housing, parks, railway lines, and so on. History permeates, whether the city and the country wants it to or not.

We spend time around the intersection of Zimmer-Str. and Friedrich-Str.: Checkpoint Charlie. It is ironic that the meeting of the American and the Soviet sectors, the most famous gateway between the former West and East Berlin, is now somewhat commercialised with its obligatory tourist paraphernalia. Nevertheless, we stand and I take the photos because I must. What I try to capture is the intersection. Beyond the sombre exhibition, beyond the Checkpoint and a short way up Friedrich-Str., is a quiet line of stones laid into the paving: this I take to be the line of the Wall, though the map suggests the line to be a little farther towards the intersection than this. There is a little blur between the streets and the representation of them. Nevertheless, here is a symbol. After just standing at the exhibition panels, trying to get a grasp of just what has happened here, I cross the line again (as I have done almost every day on the U- or S-Bahn): I’m still a little unnerved by the blasé way that people cross or stand at such significances of cities.

So, we leave the checkpoint intersection of Zimmer-Str and Friedrich-Str. and head up to Unter den Linden because the boys are bored. The trip is already winding down. I would like to go back and stand at the Brandenburg Gate because I was too tired to fully appreciate where I was standing, days ago, when we buzzed by there as soon as I got off the bus from the airport. I would like to appreciate Berlin again.

In the evening, I promise Ja. that we’ll go for a beer, now that he’s old enough. We don’t leave till late though, and it takes all my energy to leave the flat at something close to 10pm. Ja. has already said he wants to see Berlin by night and I realise now that he means this literally. We get on the S-Bahn and head back to Warschauer-Str., where we were the first afternoon here. Kreuzberg is alive with people, young and awake, as we get off the train and join the throng that floods down the street and Ja. knows where he is but I don’t. We walk around whilst he finishes the two bottles of lager he’s brought with him and I feel conspicuously not young any more. We look for a pub to go into, but there are only cocktail bars with seats free. I can’t stay out all night any more. Eventually we decide to go into the pub we went into earlier in the week. I give him the money and he buys the beers. We find a seat and talk. It feels a little odd to be here, in a bar, talking like this with the son of the woman I ran away from home for all those years ago. Life has its circles and cycles.

After time in the bar, I say let’s go, and we catch the S-Bahn back to Schöneberg: it’s a motley array of night-people in the boxy, trundling, short carriage. Berlin has its lenses, its ways of being, as other cities do.

Sunday is largely wasted by us. J. and me go to the antiques market at the Tiergarten S-Bahn stop whilst the boys spend time at the swimming pool in Schöneberg. We ride the S-Bahn circle line, which skirts the industrial and residential wastelands. Eventually, after the rain-threatened market (and after avoiding the earlier Berlin half-marathon down Strasse des 17 Juni), we take the S-Bahn back to Hackescher Markt, again where we were earlier in the week, and we eat lunch/dinner there at two in the afternoon. We move in cycles in the week, and trips to Germany and elsewhere with J. and the boys often start to fall away a day or two before departures: this is no different here in Berlin — I’m thinking of home.

One day I may come back to Berlin because the transport system has been worked out and mostly mastered, the feel of the place has been ascertained, a sense of history has been hinted at. One day I might, or I may not. I can’t know yet. Home calls tonight.


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