Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Travels in 2007: Part 1: Berlin

Greetings comrades!

And thanks to all of you who visited the last post and sent me all the comments on it. Thanks also to Galena Panayotova for following this blog, it's nice to know that people are finding it interesting. I wanted to send you a message to say thanks personally but I can't work out how to do it on Blogspot so this public one shall have to do.

This week's post is inspired by two friends. The first, Dzhilbert, (yes, he whose family I met in the last post), who told me that he has moved to Berlin and the second, Carys, who has told me she is going to Berlin. So, this week's post is about... Berlin! I went there during 2007 and had a great time and this is the first part of a longer travelogue detailing my time there as well as a trip I made to Spain and Morocco with the Sibling. And if you want to know more about him, click on the BigRed Blog, (in the 'Blogs I follow' section). As you can tell from this travelogue, I found Berlin to be a brilliant city to visit. It is not pretty, certainly in contrast to many other European capitals, but it is fascinating and loaded with historical interest. I had a great time there and can't wait to go back one day. So Dzhilbert, if you have a free bed in your apartment... ;-)

As always comments and suggestions welcome. Loads of people have been sending me comments via Facebook but did you know that you can also do it on this page and if you do, everyone else will be able to read them?

Oh well, all the best and keep travelling!


Uncle Travelling Matt
Links to all the parts of this travelogue:

Travels in 2007: Part 1: Berlin

Travels in 2007: Part 2: Andalucia

Travels in 2007: Part 3: Tangiers and Fez

Travels in 2007: Part 4: Merzouga and Demnate

Travels in 2007: Part 5: Casablanca and Marrakech




Copyright © 2007, Matthew E. Pointon


3 Cities, 1 Airport. I was disappointed. Not even East Midlands Airport wanted to claim Stoke-on-Trent as its own even though, according to the Sibling, (and he should know because he works for them), it is the Official Airport of Stoke City. Quite why Stoke City need an airport, official or otherwise, is beyond me. They haven’t played any further away than Plymouth for years, and the planes in East Midlands fly to very few places that aren’t in the Thomson’s Summer Sun brochure, but that’s besides the point, the whole conversation is besides the point, even humble East Midlands is besides the point, as it is after all, but the gateway and not the goal. No, the point is that we were off, the Sibling and I, off on our travels for the first time in, well… a very long time.

Ever since reaching adulthood and breaking-out of the red-brick and grey-tarmac confines of the city of my birth, I have defined my life through the travelling that I have done with it. Over forty countries, five of which I actually lived in, and innumerable towns, cities and villages have made me who I am today. By plane, train and even automobile, I have scoured the globe in search of culture, cash and kicks seemingly non-stop until that is, until the monumental event of April 2005.

In April 2005 I did what no traveller should do – I came home. I don’t mean for a visit, the Traveller’s Code allows that, but permanently. And I don’t mean home as in merely my homeland, but home as in fact the very same city from whence I came, warts and all. It was hard. It was possibly the hardest thing that I have ever done; certainly harder than getting married, perhaps even harder than watching England lose on penalties in the semi-finals of the 1996 European Championships[1] Yes, it was hard, but at the same time I felt it to be necessary. I was losing touch with my roots, the very essence of my being, and it is well known that a man without roots is a man lost indeed.

All things however, come at a cost and roots are no exception, and the initial cost of returning home for me was financial. In short, settling back is hard on the pocket and very soon we were skint. And skint people cannot afford foreign holidays. For a while at least, whilst a home and a career were built, travel had to take a backseat. From April 2005 to January 2007 we only left the country once, and that was for a few days in nearby Netherlands with my old friend the Lowlander, a social call more than a voyage of exploration. It may seem not such a long nor particularly arid drought to bear, but trust me, for one so accustomed to being on the move, it was not easy.

The problem lies of course, in how one views travel. If it is merely to get away for a while or ‘enjoy a well-earned break’ then whilst difficult, such droughts are bearable. For me though, travel is so much more and indeed, as this record will show, the word ‘break’ hardly comes into it. To me you see, travel means knowledge, experience and even spirituality. It is true that all three can be found in other ways; one can gain knowledge by reading, experience comes wherever one is and spirituality is to be sought mainly within, but somehow for me – and I do not doubt that for others it is different – all three are only fully-realised when in an alien environment.

‘Alien’ is of course, the keyword. The essence of travel is to seek out the different. One can wander and wonder within one’s own shores, (and indeed, I often do), but no matter how great the sights are that one sees, or how fascinating the people that one meets, something is always missing, for the strength of travel is that it is a reminder that your way of life is not the norm, that in fact, there is no norm, that different is real and without this reminder we forget and so stagnate in our pool of familiarity.

That is why I was so glad to be getting away.

In fact though, I lie, for when I boarded that plane at East Midlands, I was not starved of the different and not immured in routine. Far from it in fact, for less than a fortnight previously, I had flown into that very same airport from Berlin and so, if we are to be totally truthful, this account should be starting from then…

The decision to go to Berlin was a spur of the moment thing and I am very proud about that. About a month before the TV news had told me that Gordon Brown, our esteemed Chancellor, had decided to double the tax on flying. This new tax was going to come into effect on February 1st so, for those who choose to read between the lines, the message was clear: sneak a trip in before then! I was desperate to go just about anywhere abroad and She Who Must Be Obeyed would be away in her Beloved Homeland at that time, so what was stopping me? When She Who Must Be Obeyed departs for that Earthly Paradise, (as she does every year about this time), it is a mixed blessing. Freedom is always enjoyable of course, but loneliness most definitely is not. Thus, is not the ideal solution to exercise one’s freedom and stave off the loneliness by booking a cheap flight somewhere? Without Her there to remind me of the financial implications, my choice was made. I would be booking a trip; the only question is to where?

And indeed, that was a tricky one. There were lots of places that I’d have liked to have gone to, but how many were possible? Rule out Spain for starters as I was off there the following month, but also rule out anywhere too far north or east because of the cold. Then there is the nature of the Long Weekend; too short for any serious touring about or for any city with too much to see. It had to be somewhere that could keep me interested for three days, (bye bye Dublin), but not so interesting as I would feel that I had seen nothing at the end (au revoir Paris). In the end, after some humming and erring over Warsaw and Stockholm, I settled on Berlin which, at £50 there and back, was at least within my price range.

Berlin however, was not entirely virgin territory for me. Some three and a half years previously, the Sibling and I had passed through the city on our Grand Trans-Europe Trip from Varna to Amsterdam. The intention had been to do much more than just pass through, but instead to get off and spend a day or two sightseeing. As it was, we did manage the former, at the Zoologischer Garten station, but only to board a Rotterdam-bound train some fifteen minutes later that would whisk us safely out of the country. After sampling the delights of Bucharest, Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Prague in less than a fortnight, the fact was that neither of us could face another European capital city, particularly one as expensive as Berlin.[2] So it was that I had some unfinished business to complete.

And it truly was business that I wanted completing. As this travelogue will demonstrate, cultural transitions are something that have long fascinated me. The thinking behind the Trans-Europe trip had partially been to experience how and when Eastern Europe becomes Western, whilst the Trans-Asia trip the year before had been largely to see how and where the Oriental cultures blend with those of the Occident. Furthermore, the main purpose of tagging Spain onto our Morocco trip was to look into the Muslim influences in Spain and the European factors at work in Morocco and thus see where Europe meets Africa.

But if one is talking of a clash of cultures, or at least, one is talking about such things in a 20th century context, then one city stands out above all others as being both unique and influential. During the Cold War, east did not meet West in Berlin. Instead, they were forcibly kept apart by a 45km long concrete wall that encircled the Western enclave in the city. Between 1961 and 1989, the Berlin Wall was the Cold War’s most visible frontline. It was also its most important flashpoint, a view proved beyond all doubt on that immortal day, November 9th, 1989 when people power punched holes in it. That was the one shake of the hand that caused the whole house of cards to collapse. When the Wall fell, the Cold War was effectively over, and for someone who has a long-held fascination with both communism and the Cold War, and who in fact, has written novels both about the real wall and a fictitious one dividing England into two halves, then sooner or later, Berlin was always going to be on the agenda.


At the Berlin Wall
The airport that I flew into – Schönefeld – was in the former Eastern Bloc, but there was nothing interesting about it. I arrived at four in the afternoon, just as the sun was setting and found it to be a rather mundane collection of tin sheds. It was if anything, a profound disappointment, considering that it is perhaps the main airport for one of the largest cities in the most financially and technologically advanced continent on earth. Liverpool’s John Lennon that I had just flown from, was only slightly smaller.

But of course, I was forgetting the past and Germany’s Cold War division is in many respects, still with us. When West Germany underwent its economic miracle, Berlin was by-passed and the air hub for the new Germany became Frankfurt, with Munich running a distant second. Furthermore, as Berlin was divided, then so was its air traffic, between three airports, Schönefeld being for the East along with Tempelhof, whilst Tegel served the West. I later read that there are plans to combine them all into one new airport named Berlin-Brandenburg on the site of Schönefeld, but even so, the traffic that it will carry, is far below what a city the size and importance of Berlin should carry. According to Wikipedia, the new airport hopes to carry around 17.5 million passengers per annum. Compare that with the 28.5 million that passed through Munich in 2005 and the 52.2 million that used Frankfurt, and one wonders that if in the long run, being out of the loop of major air routes may seriously hamper Berlin’s aspirations?

To be fair though, on a more personal note, I was rather disappointed about flying into Schönefeld full-stop. A year or so back I had read an article on the BBC website about how Hitler’s grandest remaining edifice, Tempelhof Airport, which was to be the Third Reich’s Gateway to Europe, had been scheduled for closure due to a lack of flights as the runway was too short to host modern jets, only for Easyjet to stave off the execution by using the airport as its Berlin hub. I had booked with Easyjet and so was expecting to fly into there and walk out of the grand Nazi terminal buildings, but it seemed as if Easyjet too had no abandoned Hitler’s airport. Closure could not be far away; perhaps a necessity in today’s world, but nonetheless a trifle sad as it would mean the loss of one of the few monumental reminders to a system of political thought that once had Europe teetering on the brink.

But Tempelhof it was not to be, and Schönefeld it was that I walked through in record speed, (I had only hand-luggage after all – another benefit of the long weekend), and onto the adjacent railway station where I bought a 72 hour pass for all Berlin’s trains and buses for a very reasonable €19-90 and then settled down in the waiting S-Bahn train to be whisked into the heart of the German capital.

It was on that train that I learnt my first cultural lesson. As soon as we pulled out of the station, I glued myself to the window, eager to catch a glimpse of that alien world outside. Within minutes however, I felt a headache and disturbing queasiness coming on and so had to desist. Now, to be fair, I hadn’t enjoyed the best of flights on the way over, and furthermore, I was a tad hungry, but even so, these were not the causes of my disquiet. Instead, the problem lay in the fact that my eyes had trouble focusing and the reason that they could not focus was because whilst they wanted to gaze at the dim outlines of the black world outside, they were constantly being drawn instead to something a lot closer to home – the etchings on the window.

In the end I gave up and sat back, and in doing so I realised that every window in the carriage had some sort of graffiti – usually large-scale – scratched into the surface, presumably with some sort of diamond (rings?). The result was an unsightly mess, but during my three-day stay in Deutschland, I began to realise that that S-Bahn carriage had not been a one-off and in fact every window on every train had some sort of graffiti scratched onto it. And it wasn’t just the windows either. Some windows were in fact entirely blocked out by the spray-paint that had been used to cover the outside of the carriage in images, whilst away from the trains this art (or just vandalism) seemed to cover every available surface. Graffiti in Germany is a plague such as I have never seen elsewhere. The only question remains as to why? I recall when I was living in Bulgaria – a country itself no stranger to the scribbled-upon wall – that a friend of mine, Plamen Atanasov, lament the fact that unlike in the United States where he had once lived, there was no sense of civic pride in his homeland and that public property was neither maintained nor respected, an attitude that he blamed firmly on decades of communist rule. Is all this graffiti in Berlin part of the Eastern Bloc factor then? Undoubtedly, that must be part of the answer, but I suspect not the whole. After all, the graffiti was just as omni-present in the Western part of the city as in the East and when all is said and done, weren’t the old West Berliners famous for turning their side of the Wall into a graffiti canvas extraordinaire? Perhaps the volatile mix of an ex-communist past coupled with the Mitteleuropean passionate love of and defence of freedom and personal expression, has resulted in Germany’s capital city being turned into one gigantic 900km² whiteboard of personal expression? Whatever the reasons, personal expression, freedom or not, it is a mess and this Englishman at least, does not approve.

My train took me through all of Berlin’s grand old stations – the Ostbahnhof, Alexanderplatz, the brand-new Hauptbahnhof, Zoologischer Garten to Charlottenburg, the non-descript area of old West Berlin filled with strip joints and kebab houses in which my hotel was located. I found that hotel – the Berolina Backpacker – without any difficulty (it faced the railway station) and booked in, the girl at the reception desk presenting me with the keys to a third floor room. That room was clean, larger than I had expected and boasted French windows that opened onto a balcony that commanded a stunning view of the railway station that I had just left. The lover of trains and economy in me (for the room was costing but €30 per night) was well satisfied, but this was no time to linger, so dumping my bag and picking up the copy of the Rough Guide to Berlin that I’d borrowed from the local library, I headed straight back out and within minutes was onboard another S-Bahn train.

My destination was the Zoologischer Garten station, partially because that was symbolic, (being the only place where the Sibling and I had set foot in Berlin three and a half years before), but also partially practical. Zoologischer Garten was once the main railway station for West Berlin and around it lies the commercial heart of the one-time capitalist enclave. That night I intended to walk from West to East, terminating just beyond the old Wall at the Brandenburg Gate, but before then, a far more pressing need had to be taken care of and a commercial district was just the place to satisfy it.

The tourist, like all human beings, needs some sustenance in life, for tourist cannot live on sights alone, particularly such a rounded tourist as myself and I figured that the old centre of West Berlin would be as good a place as any in which to find some tasty Teutonic treats. How right I was! I had but descended the stairs from the platform at the station when I was confronted by a supermarket complete with a café. Experience in Switzerland has taught me that in expensive countries that love long Germanic food names, that supermarket cafés are a Godsend as they are a). cheap and b). you can point at what you want. And so it was that I tried the local speciality, currywurst (big sausage with a mild curry sauce dumped over it), a delicious side-salad with pickles and some strange collection of fried potatoes with bits of meat and onions mixed in, all washed down with a coffee, all delicious and all costing less than €5. Thus refuelled, I was ready to tackle the German capital head on.

Kurfürstendamm, or so the Western centre is named, was outside the supermarket in all its neon-lit glory. It was not much. The buildings were uniformly ugly, of the worst 1960s concrete-slab style and I immediately began to worry if I’d come to the wrong city, for this was meant to be one of the better areas and it was doing nothing for me. In the centre of it all is the ruined Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm I Memorial Church), left poignantly in the state that the RAF left it in 1945, save for two monumentally ugly additions of blue steel and abstract stained-glass which now constitute the modern church. It’s an icon of Berlin, but it was shut and there was nothing much else to look at, so I walked on, past the wonderful Orientalist gateway to the Zoologischer Garten and eastwards towards the ‘real’ Berlin. My walk took me along the south side of the famous Tiergarten Park, through an area dominated by ‘adventurous’ modern architecture and foreign embassies.

To be honest, the embassies were a lot more interesting than you would imagine. They told me more than just a little about the countries that they represented. The South Korean Embassy was modern, yet vaguely reminiscent of that country’s native style whilst the brand-new Saudi Arabian Embassy was an explosion of modernist angles that hinted at a lack of architectural tradition in a country that has traditionally been nomadic. The Japanese Embassy was new yet solid, traditional in style and very low-key whilst the Italian Embassy next-door was a classical 19th century edifice with faux Roman urns outside, all its stones pockmarked from bullets fired sixty years before. Prize place however, has to go to the South African Embassy, a steel and glass concoction with a jagged yet artistic stainless steel fence around its perimeter and a rock garden of native plants in front of the building.[3] So many of these embassies were new of course, since Berlin has only recently become the capital of a unified Germany again, (although it was always the capital of the DDR), and as I walked along I wondered just how much it had cost Germany’s allies and business partners to relocate from Bonn. The costs, I imagine, must run into billions of euros.

At the end of Embassy Alley, just past some strangely-shaped museums dedicated, according to my guidebook, to musical instruments, I came to the second of the city’s sights that I’d made an especial point to see – Potsdamer Platz.

Potsdamer Platz, before the Second World War, was, my guidebook informed me, ‘Berlin’s Piccadilly Circus’. Then came the bombing which reduced everything to rubble, the invasion and the Cold War with its Wall which just happened to run smack down the middle of the famous old square, turning the one-time Piccadilly Circus into a vast tarmaced wasteland, devoid of people or businesses. For forty-five years all development was halted and then in 1989 the Wall came down and in doing so an area was opened up suitable for the largest commercial real-estate development in Europe. Now completed, Potsdamer Platz is once again Berlin’s Piccadilly Circus. What I wanted to know however, was whether they had made a good job of it?

The development has been done in two main parts; the first by the Daimler-Chrysler Corporation and the second by Sony. Daimler’s buildings are bold, modern and innovative, and for being such I suspect that the Germans probably like them. I however, preferred Sony’s offering. Whilst the actually buildings themselves are nothing to write home about, they have been arranged around a large circular court with a vast faux roof above it. Around that court, in addition to the obligatory offices, are bars, restaurants and a cinema complex, all of which cause it to be bustling with people, and together with the enclosed feel, a rather nice communal atmosphere has been created. Furthermore, there are some interesting touches to be found; I particularly liked a glass box that housed a haute cuisine restaurant. Some of the glass panels however, had been replaced with genuine 18th century windows giving the place a modern – yet historical – feel to it. It was a strange yet appealing juxtaposition.

In the Platz itself, a section of the Wall had been retained for tourists to photograph themselves alongside, (yes, I later did so), and its former route is marked out by a row of cobbles.

I pressed on through, towards the famous gate of Brandenburg, past the vast and still undeveloped piece of real estate upon which Hitler’s monolithic Reich Chancellery and a souvenir shop which I popped into for some postcards to send home. Then, on my right, I spotted something very strange; a whole block, half a kilometre square of what looked like rectangular granite tombstones. I was immediately reminded of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem where thousands of bare stone tombs cover the hillside. The only question was, what was a cemetery doing in the heart of Berlin, particularly since closer inspection had revealed the slabs to be brand new and with no names inscribed upon them? Dipping into the guidebook to make sense of this curious site, I then learnt that my intuition was better than I had realised. This was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and its architect had been inspired by the Jewish graveyard in Prague. The monument intrigued me. Normally such representative art does little to get the juices flowing, but this truly was an exception. It was clever. The slabs of granite, (or granite-coloured concrete to be more exact), whilst looking like tombs, were of course, not tombs and they had a dark, forbidding quality about them. As I walked along, I noticed that near to the edge of the site, the lower they were in height, so that a few on the very extremities were actually embedded into the pavement. Looking into the monument though, I could see the slabs getting higher and higher until in the middle they were well over the height of a man. This was all achieved through a clever optical illusion. Looking out across the monument, it appears that the plot rises slightly in the centre, when in fact the ground dips down. When I later walked through it, I got the feeling of walking almost accidentally into a nightmare, from the pleasant low tombs, that one could sit on as a park bench, to blocks over three metres high that bear down on you from all sides, causing a stifling feeling, almost claustrophobic. So far, Berlin’s most impressive site had been one that had not even been on my agenda.[4]

My next stop, virtually adjacent to the Murdered Jews Memorial was the Brandenburg Gate itself, the symbol not only of Berlin, but indeed the whole of Germany. I walked through it, photographed it and found it pleasant, if somewhat smaller than I’d imagined it to be. My goal reached and my feet aching, I then sought out a suitably Teutonic place for a coffee overlooking the gate, but as there were not I had to settle for that most un-German of establishments instead – Mr. Donuts – for a cup of tea.

Refuelled and refreshed, it was time to move on and whilst the feet were unwilling, the rest of my body was eager to see more, (after all, this was the first new city that I’d been to for over a year), so I hobbled back through the gate, past a humble yet touching memorial to those who’d been killed trying to scale the Wall which once ran right in front of the Brandenburg Gate, to the Reichstag, home to the Bundestag, the parliament of the Reunified Germany.

The Reichstag is of course, something that I knew all about. It was built in 1894 to serve as a home for the parliament of the first unified Germany in the time of Bismarck, a role that it continued to fulfil until it was burnt down on February 27th, 1933 by an arsonist, who may well have been one of Hitler’s cronies but at the time the blame was put on one Georgi Dimitrov, a Bulgarian communist who later became that country’s first socialist president. It then stayed as a sort-of shell until it was reconstructed during the 1960s, albeit without its famous dome, but that reconstruction was not looked on particularly favourably by most and so when reunification came, it was decided to reconstruct it again, before the new German Bundestag moved back into its old home. In the meantime though, a Bulgarian named Hristo and his French wife Jeanne-Claude wrapped it in silver foil in a rather silly attempt at being artistic that was unsurprisingly well-received in the city and once that was done an Englishman – Norman Foster no less – put a dome on the top. Thus completed, the Bundestag moved in and have lived there happily ever since. More importantly for me though, according to the guidebook, it was possible to go up into the dome and best of all, it was also free to do so!

Never one to look a gift horse in mouth, particularly if that horse be a foreign government, I went up. After standing in a multilingual and multicultural line of dome-goers, we ascended in a glass lift to the top and despite not being ol’ Normie Foster’s biggest fan, one has to admit that one was impressed. The views across the city made the visit worthwhile on their own; I could now work out where everything was and indeed, where I had walked that evening. Furthermore, I could also see a lot of the things that I hadn’t experienced yet. To the north-west there was a very impressive building of glass with a beam of light shooting upwards from it. That, according to the leaflet given to me at the Reichstag door, was the new Hauptbahnhof or, in English, Central Station, that I had passed through earlier. I had noticed the building then and thought it pretty good but viewed from a distance, in the black of night, it was something else. I knew there and then which station I would be taking a train back to Charlottenburg from when I had finished. To the east I saw the sites of the old DDR Berlin, including the colossal Fernseturm, the 368m high TV tower built by the East Germans to prove to the west just how modern they were. Still, that could wait; East Berlin was the agenda for the following day.

I then went and read the interesting exhibit in the base of the dome which detailed the history of the Reichstag, though I was most annoyed to find that old Georgi Dimitrov was not even mentioned and instead the fire was attributed to some Dutch bloke named van der Lubbe, (I later learnt by checking on Wikipedia, that Dimitrov has been on trial with van der Lubbe and had in deed refused a lawyer and pleaded his own case, incredibly successfully too, thus getting off. Van der Lubbe on the other hand, was convicted and hanged for the crime), which made me a assume that it was all some conspiracy against the Bulgarians, for mad Hristo the artist who wrapped the building up was described as being French in the exhibition also!

Leaving the Reichstag, I decided to walk along the banks of the River Spree to the Hauptbahnhof. To be honest, it was probably a bad idea as the place was lonely, the lighting poor and a dastardly deed could quite easily have been committed there, but as it was Lady Luck was on my side and I emerged unscathed. On either side of the river were some vast and strange-looking new buildings, constructed out of the obligatory glass and concrete (particularly the former). They did not do anything for me aesthetically, but what was intriguing was that through the vast plates of glass, debating halls, (or were they lecture theatres?) could be viewed. I wondered what sort of business was conducted in those places and later I found out. They were the Paul Löbe Haus and the Marie Elisabeth Lüders Haus, government buildings where parliamentary sub-committees sit. The silly amounts of glass are to symbolise transparent government, a laudable ideal after years of Fascism and Communism. However, to me the architect had not got it right. Transparent they might be, but beauty was sadly absent, and most crucially of all can a building that is so inhuman in scale ever represent truly any government other than a totalitarian one?

Walking along the banks of the Spree, I began to realise just how far Berlin still has to go in its rebuilding. On either side of the river and all around the Hauptbahnhof were huge tracts of wasteland just waiting to be built upon – over sixty years after its destruction and almost twenty since its reunification and the German capital is still far from finished.

One piece that has been finished though, and spectacularly so, is the new central station. A long time lover of railways and stations with a celebratory, almost arrogant style, this was a feast for the eyes. The vast glass train shed evoked memories of the great 19th century termini, yet this was entirely modern. The great arched roof was trans-sected by an even larger cuboid of – yes, you’ve guessed it, glass – in which the foyer, ticket offices and countless retail outlets essential to the 21st century railway station are housed. What I liked most though, was the fact that below the level of the tracks, were two more levels, all visible through the foyer, so that the effect was almost like being in a tower of trains, a veritable knot of railways. Wikipedia describes the Hauptbahnhof as Europe’s largest train station and whilst I for one doubt that – some of London’s termini seem bigger for starters – it is huge and it is a showpiece gateway for the new city.

I took the S-Bahn back to Charlottenburg a tired man, but excited with all that I had seen and eager to attack it all again on the morrow. Entering the Berolina Backpacker though, and climbing up the stairs to my room, all was forgotten in an instant, for there on the staircase I spied a bundle of paper.

I bent down and picked it up. It was money, a lot of money, all wrapped up in an elastic band. The outside note was a €200 so at a rough estimate I guessed that there was around £1000 there at least. A fleeting thought went through my mind of how much fun spending that amount of cash could be, but then that boring old stick-in-the-mud called conscience intervened and I reluctantly headed back down the stairs and handed it in to a very shocked receptionist who was of the mind that it had been put in a safe earlier that day. Good deed for the day done, I once again climbed up the wooden hills to bed where, after completing a very cheesy novel  in which a New York Times reporter and a group of Hasidic Jews battled to save the world from a saint-murdering Evangelical Christian who wanted to bring about the Second Coming. As I said, not great literature, but it did the job. Very soon I was fast asleep whilst the night trains to Warsaw, Amsterdam, Munich and Vienna clattered past my window.

I woke around 9:30, a little later than I had planned to, (but not bad at all considering that I’d been so stupid as to forget to pack an alarm clock), and breakfasted on a salami sandwich and coffee from a booth at the station (how glorious European coffee is compared with its Britannic equivalent!), and then boarded a westbound S-Bahn train, my destination Hackescher Markt, or to be more exact, a large round building just south of the station: the Berliner Dom.

The day of course, was a Sunday, and the time of day, morning, and there is nothing that I enjoy doing more on a Sunday morning than going to some church or other for a prayer and a sing-song. The religious call it devotion to God, the Sibling refers to it as Christian Karaoke; the verdict is in your hands. Now to be honest, although being a Confirmed protestant myself, when away from the green fields of my native land, I do usually prefer to attend Catholic services. Roman Catholicism you see, is what I call the ‘McDonalds of Religion’; no matter where you are in the world, it is there, and what’s more, it’s always the same. You know the format, and even if you don’t speak the local lingo, you can usually follow what’s happening. In short, you know what you’re going to get, whilst with the Protestants on the other hand, well, let me just say that that tradition is a most complex animal indeed. Are there any services more uplifting than a High Anglican Mass, or perhaps a peaceful Evensong in some ancient cathedral, yet one can just as easily stumble into some Evangelical concertesque affair, with hand-waving, clapping, hell-fire sermons and lashings of homophobia. One shudders at the thought.

Despite these dangers though, I was in the homeland of Luther and the Berliner Dom is the city’s largest and most exuberant cathedral, so I decided to take the risk and for once I went Proddy. The Dom was built at the turn of the 20th century when the newly-unified Germany was omnipotent and triumphalist and this is clearly reflected in its boastful architecture. Inside, it was a glorious riot of Baroque art, filled to the rafters with worshippers. Whilst hymns were sung by a heavenly choir, and Luther, Calvin and the Four Apostles looked down in satisfaction, I got the whole thing translated through a set of headphones provided to everyone sat in the foreigner’s gallery. It was a beautiful service with not a hint of clapping or Creationism, one of the most uplifting that I have ever attended, (perhaps because I was feeling extra-holy after my good deed of the night before?!), and after filling up on bread and wine, I re-entered the daylight world a spiritually-refreshed man indeed.

The Berliner Dom is in a completely different part of town to that which I had walked through the previous evening. It sits on a small banana-shaped plot of landing the middle of the River Spree that is commonly referred to as the ‘Museum Island’, because several of Germany’s major museums sit with the cathedral on it. Some of those I perhaps wanted to visit later, but first I was eager to head further east into the heart of the old DDR capital. Right by the cathedral stood one of that main monuments of that now-defunct state, the Palast de Republik which once housed the East German Parliament. This building, a typical communist colossus, was nicknamed ‘Erich’s Lampenladen’ (‘Erich’s Lamp House’) by Berliners after Erich Honecker, the former East German Leader and the fact that it had 1001 rather ugly lamps hanging in the foyer. Sadly though, it was immediately apparent that I would be viewing no lamp house that day, as the building was but a shell and even that too was disappearing as it was swiftly being demolished so that the land can be put to a new role in a city that already has one perfectly-good parliament building in the Reichstag, but more importantly, wishes I suspect, to forget that the old DDR never existed.

Looking in the opposite direction across the Spree however, the Berliner Dom and museums created a scene reminiscent of the grand old European capital that Berlin had once been before the RAF and Red Army reduced the whole thing to rubble. As I gazed across at all that classical grandeur however, one particular building caught my eye; a large and pristine Moorish dome which lay beyond the river. At the time I wondered if it was perhaps a new mosque, built for the city’s Turkish immigrant population, but later reading in the guidebook revealed it to be the restored Neue Synagogue, spiritual home of the city’s once-sizable Jewish community. I vowed there and then to give it a closer look later on.

In the meantime though, something else had caught my eye. Down by the river was a row of shops with ‘Ampelmann’ emblazoned across the front of one and ‘DDR Museum’ across another. I knew there and then that this was to be the next port-of-call in my grand tour of Berliner culture, and so with a spring in my step, I walked on into the museum.

The DDR to be honest, was always going to struggle. It was born solely because the Soviet Union did not wish to relinquish their allotted zone of Germany, or at least, they wanted to ensure that it had a government that they could control. The Soviets suffered more than any other nation during World War II and they wanted some revenge. Consequently, East Germany’s problems started even before the Red Army got there. According to Anthony Beevor in his book Berlin: 1945 The Downfall, the Germans, both military and otherwise, were inclined to run westwards from the Red Army fearing (quite correctly) that the invading Russians would be far less kind to them than the Americans and British in the west. In the end, in fact, when Berlin’s defence was left largely in the hands of Hitler Youth members and dedicated remnants of the SS, (who knew that they would find no mercy whichever direction they turned), even Hitler was half-hoping that the Western Allies would join with him to fight the ‘Bolsheviks’. They did not, and the Russians gained Berlin and the East and then duly began an orgy of raping and pillaging more suitable to the Middle Ages than the Modern Age, (though little different to what the Germans had done in their country but a couple of years previously). Much was destroyed and that which wasn’t was carted off to the USSR. Thus the DDR began life defeated, defiled, broken, stripped bare and firmly under the thumb of a regime detested by virtually all Germans regardless of their political affiliation, and espousing an ideology that was the mortal foe of that which most Germans had been brought up to believe in.

Oh yes, and they were cut off from the larger part of their country which subsequently went through one of the most incredible economic miracles in world history, transforming itself from defeated pariah to world-beater in forty short years. Only the similarly-defeated Japan could boast of better.

The DDR Museum however, did not tell me all of this. Aside from a section on the infamous Wall, (built to prevent Easterners escaping to the paradise in the West), it told me very little about the history or politics of the country that it claimed to represent. Instead, it concentrated on the social history of the republic. There was a Trabant – the DDR’s infamous standard car, made out of cardboard – that you could sit in, a reproduction of a typical Ost Berliner’s apartment and sections on education, industry, the secret police, sporting achievements and holidays.

All in all, despite the lamentable lack of politics, I rather enjoyed it. The Trabant is a cool car be it made out of cardboard or not, and I still consider it hilarious that East Germany beat West Germany in the 1974 World Cup, (in West Germany)! Furthermore, after having resided in Eastern Europe myself, whilst I cannot honestly say that I have ‘lived’ most of what was presented, I did recognise much of what was on show. The mock apartment reminded me of countless similar apartments in Bulgaria, with their cheap beige wallpaper and a collection of World Classics on the shelves of a nasty mass-produced wooden bookshelf-cum-display cabinet. The section on travel and holidays too, with its postcards from Moscow, Yugoslavia, Poland and Bulgaria itself, also reminded me that our Western perceptions of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain were often skewed if not plainly wrong. I recall the general impression during the early 1990s being that ‘we’ could travel, whilst ‘they’ could not, yet this was quite far off the mark. The Easterners did travel, often quite extensively, (and remember, our travels were so particularly extensive at all then), but only on their side of the Curtain, (whilst we stuck to ours). I met Bulgarians who had been to Moscow, Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Libya and the DDR whilst my family struggled to make it further than Wales. The DDR undoubtedly was a failure compared to its Western brother, but considering its birth, did it do so badly after all? That’s for the historians to discuss I suppose, but I for one enjoyed its museum if naught else.

Museum done I then went into the shop next door, the quirky emporium dedicated to Ampelmann. I like Ampelmann you see, he’s a jolly fellow yet somehow he does not seem at home in the country that invented him. The Germans are renowned for their seriousity, yet he is pure, unabashed, unnecessary fun. Who knows, perhaps our Teutonic cousins do have a sense of humour after all?

As we enter the 21st century, almost every city in the world it seems, is blessed with traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. And on those said crossings one generally finds a little man, (or sexless humanoid), in two positions and colours. Stood still and illuminated in red means ‘Stop!’ whilst green and striding forward denotes ‘Go!’[5] In the old DDR however, they had Ampelmann. The name means ‘Little traffic light man’ and he was created in 1961 by a traffic psychologist named Karl Peglau and in comes in both red and green. He wears a dapper hat, has an oh-so-slight paunch and when he walks, he really does it with some panache. It is when he is stopped however, that Ampelmann really comes into his own, for then he stands, his arms stretched out horizontally, a la Jesus on the cross. Ok, so it’s a small thing is a little traffic light man, but small things amuse small minds (or so they say) and judging by the fact that there is a whole shop dedicated to him, selling any kind of tack from Ampelmann key rings to Ampelmann bags, Ampelmann bookends to Ampelmann baby clothes, then I guess that there must be more than a few small minds living in or visiting Berlin. And I, naturally, am one of them, so I indulged in the tackiest Ampelmann souvenir of them all, a snow dome with the ‘Go!’ Ampelmann crossing a pedestrian crossing whilst glitter and snowflakes plus (and this is the best bit!) mini Trabants, cascade down around him. Classic! Not just kitsch, but communist kitsch of the first order. My day was made.

Just outside the Ampelmann Shop and the DDR Museum, the now defunct nation that they celebrate can still be visualised to a certain extent, for beyond Erich’s Lamp House lies the vast Marx Engels Platz, the heart of the old DDR and the place where its soul still lingers. Once the stage for the great May Day Rallies where red banners flew a-plenty and tanks and missiles rolled down in all their glory, it is now a somewhat scruffy expanse of grass and tarmac that the new regime does not seem sure of what to do with. Perhaps because of that, it has simply been left alone with the grand bronze statues of the semi-divine – and wholly German – Marx and Engels still standing proudly centre stage amidst the wreckage of their dreams.

I had my photo taken with the two gurus and then crossed the square, admiring the great buildings that surround it; Berlin’s oldest church, St. Nicholas’ and the Rotes Rathaus, a proud 19th century brick edifice that serves as the City Hall. It is neither of these however, that grabs the visitor’s attentions, but instead the colossus at the far end of the square, the gigantic Fernseturm, an alien spacecraft landed in the heart of Berlin.

The old communist regimes, I have noticed, had a habit of building ridiculously large TV towers. Quite why, I am not sure, but trust, they did. When we were in Tashkent, the Lowlander and I went up one that was apparently the 10th highest in the world and like the Fernseturm, much akin to a piece of equipment out of Star Wars. In Moscow we found an even taller one. Throughout Bulgaria, in the most non-descript provincial towns, concrete TV towers with revolving restaurants that served bad food were erected all through the sixties and seventies. Quite what it was in Das Kapital that inspired the successors to Marx and Engels to build TV towers willy-nilly across the portion of the globe allotted to them I do not know, (well, except the need to transmit TV signals I suppose), but build them they did and if you’re interested, most are still standing if not functioning.

To be fair, aside form the TV transmitting aspect, there was one good reason for the Osters to build their Fernseturm. During the dark days of the Cold War, the Fernseturm loomed over the city reminding the West that the East could build ugly shit too, only they could build it BIGGER! Sadly for Erich and Co. though, the joke was eventually on them. When the sun shone, a gigantic cross formed on the stainless steel tiles of the ball at the tower’s top. Within no time at all, this was dubbed the ‘Pope’s Revenge’. One can almost hear the chuckles from the Vatican now.

When I visited though, there was no sun, only drizzle and cloud. The asking price to go up was a hefty €7 and yet on such a day as that, what could one see from the top anyhow? I decided against shelling out, or at least, postponing it until better weather. Needless to say, going up the Fernseturm still remains unticked on my life’s list of things to do.

Beyond the Marx Engels Platz was the Alexanderplatz, another vast plaza that the guidebook described as ‘a dreary socialist expanse’. It is an apt description. The place is huge and soulless and is an exercise in the worst of 1960s socialist architecture just as the square around the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche exemplifies the worst in the capitalist. I was reminded of the horrifically ugly square in Dobrich which displays the same bad planning and taste, albeit on a much smaller scale. Bucharest’s Piata Unirii is more akin in size, but that is much better, a shame in a way since the regime that dreamt it up was far worse.

The only highlight was a great socialist realist mural that adorned a building to the far south of the square, alongside a vast avenue that disappeared, ramrod-straight, into the eastern drizzle, lined with the blocks of flats typical of the once-red East. What the building was, I could not fathom out, but the mural, depicting technical and scientific progress, I liked. It was colorful, a much welcome commodity amidst the greys that make up its surroundings, but more than that, it was hopeful and positive. Western Art is rarely hopeful or positive, and in Berlin, a city with too many painful memories, positivity is a rare and much-missed outlook.

It was in the Alexanderplatz that both the real rain and real hunger caught up with me, so I ducked into a kind of self-service restaurant where I enjoyed a feast of salad, chicken and potatoes washed down with a cup of tea, all for less than €10. Hunger thus solved, I then ventured outside again, only to find that the rain was still pouring, so instead of walking in it, I headed for the U-Bahn station and caught a train to Potsdamer Platz, near which there were some more sights that I wanted to see.

Berlin’s U-Bahn has a history that almost matches those of its erstwhile brothers in London and Moscow. During the latter years of the war it served as one vast air-raid shelter with virtually the entire city population living in its tunnels. However, whilst it undoubtedly did save many, tragedy was to occur right at the end of the conflict. On 2nd May, 1945 to slow the advancing Soviets, Nazi command ordered SS Units to blow holes in the U-Bahn tunnels at strategic points causing the flooding of the Berlin underground. The order resulted in the drowning of thousands, 15,000 is the Soviet estimate, a tragedy of an immense scale yet one completely forgotten due to its occurrence during days when immense tragedy was an everyday occurrence.

The U-Bahn line that I travelled on bore no scars from its horrific past and indeed, it was hard to imagine that anything important had ever happened down there, let alone the fact that it was running from East to West, a route untravellable but twenty years before. Its stations in fact, were most elegant. Built in that period when the 19th century was drawing to its close and the 20th was just awakening, like the Reichstag and the Berliner Dom, they were symbols of past German glories. Their girders of riveted iron and smart tiled station names had an elegance surpassed only by the Moscow system, although for quirky character, I still believe that London comes out tops.

Alighting at Potsdamer Platz, I walked to the Topography of Terror, a permanent exhibition on the Gestapo set in the cellars of that organisation’s old headquarters. On the way I passed another reminder of the Nazi regime, Hermann Göring’s monumental Air Ministry from which Stukas were sent over France and Russia and Messerschmitts over the skies of my own land. The building is still in government hands although all traces of its Nazi past have now been carefully removed. Fortunately though, not all traces of its post-Nazi past have disappeared. Along one wall is a magnificent mural depicting the glories of the DDR, another example of the hopeful socialist style that so appeals to me, although I can think of no greater insult to the memories of the fascists who erected the building. Hermann must be turning in his grave!

The Topography of Terror was profoundly disappointing. Whilst its setting, in the ruined arches of the Gestapo HQ’s cellars, alongside one of the few extant sections of the Berlin Wall, was moving, and its subject matter interesting, it was all in German and furthermore, in the rain you got wet quick. Unable to understand much, I swiftly moved on to the famous Checkpoint Charlie which is but a couple of streets away. This is perhaps one of Berlin’s most famous places, but there is little to hold you here now that the Wall has gone, only a sentry box in the middle of the road and some old Soviet and American flags so I moved on again, my destination now the Jewish Museum Berlin.

Berlin’s Jewish Museum is world-renowned. As Germany’s main memorial to its murdered Hebrews, (and thus a very public admittance of guilt and act of reconciliation), it was always going to be famous, but when the Polish-born Jewish-American architect Daniel Libeskind was commissioned to design the building that would house the exhibits, well, then worldwide attention was guaranteed.

Libeskind, who amongst other commissions has been awarded with the rebuilding of New York’s World Trade Centre, is a post-modernist of the purest type. Whatever he designs, he deconstructs and makes it all symbolise… something. The results are much lauded and, well… unique. The Jewish Museum is famously in the shape of a bolt of lightning, (to symbolise the suffering that struck the Jews one supposes), but that lightning bolt is also a deconstructed Star of David (clever, eh?). It is all made out of Berlin’s favourite material – concrete – clad in zinc plating. The result is not pretty, but there again, the history of German Jewry has hardly been pretty either.

Just before reaching the museum, which is in a rather non-descript residential area, I passed a group of Turkish children, several of the girls in headscarves, playing outside a Turkish barber’s shop. With the Jews largely gone, the Muslims and in particular the Turks, have taken on the mantle of most significant minority in Germany today, and alas, like the Jews before them, they do not seem to be viewed favourably by a significant minority of German Christians.[6]

The museum itself was excellent and it took me several hours to go round. It covered the entire Jewish history of the country, not just Berlin and not just the Holocaust, though inevitably the latter took centre stage. Having been to several Holocaust museums/memorials over the years, I had thought myself to be hardened to a certain degree, but the Berlin museum’s approach, which focused on the stories of individuals and artefacts pertaining to those lives, had me close to tears. There were the diaries of a schoolgirl, cabaret cards of a singer who perished in the camps and family photographs and postcards from one girl who had fled to France from the Nazis yet still perished when the war came to her place of sanctuary.

Another salient feature was Libeskind’s building which included several ‘Memory Voids’, strange spaces that were meant to make one think about the enormity of the tragedy. To be fair, most of them did little for me, but one was very chilling. In consisted of a vast, dimly-lit triangular space, some three or four storeys high, whose floor was filled with roughly-made cast-iron faces. The idea was to walk across the floor, on the faces, which make a haunting clanking sound as you step on them, which echoes around the vast void. The faces are all unique; some large, some small; some happy, some sad, and as one strides across the void, one gets the feeling that one is walking over humanity. A quote from George Orwell’s 1984 came to my mind, “Imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” It was not a pleasant experience.

However, as I have already said, the museum was about far more than just the Holocaust and that to me was its great strength. It showed not only the destruction of a community, but also exactly what that community was that had been destroyed and how it had evolved over the years. My personal favourite was a 3D computer presentation of the Jewish community in the Mediaeval city of Worms. Through state-of-the-art graphics, the synagogue, bath house and streets were explored and explained. Also of interest was a photo exhibition of the present-day Jewish community in Germany which (surprisingly) numbers more than the amount killed during the Holocaust. The subject of Jews in Germany is an interesting and difficult one. My Jewish friend in Stoke-on-Trent says that he cannot understand why any Jew would choose to live in such a place after what happened, yet at the same time he admits that his attitude is defeatist and perhaps not the right one.

After the intensity of the Jewish Museum, I was both mentally and physically shattered. I retired to a café by Checkpoint Charlie for some currywurst and chips, after which I returned to my hotel for a wash, change of clothes and general recharge before hitting the town for a night out. At the reception desk, the girl asked if I had met the guy whose money I had found. I replied that I had not, but since I’d been away all day, it would have been difficult for him to get hold of me. She was not pleased. “It was €2000 you know,” she said, “and the rule in Germany is that you ten percent of any money that is found and handed in.” I defended him by saying that he had probably called when I was out, but her face frowned further and German exactness she stated, “No, that is not an excuse. The word in English that I was looking for was not ‘rule’, it is a stronger word than that…”
“Law?” I suggested.
“Yes, ‘law’, that is the word. It is the law in Germany that you give ten percent and he has not done that. It is very bad.”
“Perhaps he will later,” I said, thinking that €200 would come in very handy indeed.

I took the S-Bahn out to Hackescher Markt with a very specific purpose indeed. Way back when I was living in Vietnam, I had sung in a cathedral choir under the auspices of a gentleman named David Hope who had lived in the German city of Gelsenkirchen for many years and who did not cease in his recommendations of Germany as a place to visit. So insistent was he in fact, that I borrowed his Lonely Planet Germany for a while and indeed, reading through it had undoubtedly helped inspire my decision of Berlin as destination of choice this January. One thing that I had picked up on in particular was a certain restaurant in the capital named the Unsicht Bar that operated using a very unusual principle. All the meals were served and consumed in darkness. Yes, that’s right, in the pitch black, not a thing to be seen! Cool, huh? One orders first in the reception area and then is shown through to the lightless dining room by a waiter or waitress, all of whom are blind or visually-impaired. Then one eats, and apparently the taste of the food is enhanced by the fact that one isn’t distracted by any feasts for the eyes. This was definitely a place to visit!

Deciding to visit is one thing, actually finding the place is quite another. Unlike the Lonely Planet, it wasn’t in the Rough Guide, so I had to go to an internet café and get the address off the Unsicht Bar’s website. I then put that address into Multimap and got a red circle near to the Hackescher Markt S-Bahn station.

Coming out of that station however, the eyes that were hoping for a rest that evening, were forced into overload instead. Almost as soon as I had left the building, I was accosted by a young lady, a very attractive young lady in fact, who wanted to know if I would follow her. Now to be fair, I did quite fancy the idea of following her, (most red-blooded males would), but I do have a fear of touts of all types, impressive cleavage or not. And besides, there was something strange about this lady, the way that she moved, her bearing…

Then I realised, a corset! She was wearing a corset! And a very tightly-laced one at that. Now corsets have long been a fascination of mine. Is there anything so divinely elegant and strikingly beautiful as a lady with a tightly-laced waist and yet at the same time, so sexy in a raw, almost animal kind of way? Unfortunately though, I was born one and a half centuries too later and one rarely sees corsets worn in public today. The effect of them on the wearer however, is interesting. Not only do they squeeze the waist, but they also force the body into a whole new position – breasts out, bottom back – that is probably not altogether that healthy, but is definitely engaging to look at, for squeezed into this new stance, the wearer is forced to walk differently, in a more erotically-alluring manner, hips swaying from side to side…

I forced myself away from the corseted lady and walked on in the direction of the Unsicht Bar. As I walked, I noticed that she was not alone. Every few metres, laced lovelies stood accosting passers by. I assumed that they were all touts for some fetish or BDSM club, (apparently Germany is famous for such things). It was only later when I was talking to the girl on the hotel reception desk, that I learnt that they were in fact, all prostitutes.

The further that I walked from Hackescher Markt, the less ladies of the night there were until I found myself quite alone on the streets in the residential district that houses the Unsicht Bar. Finding the district however, and finding the bar, are two quite different things and it took a further half an hour of aimless wandering through blocks of graffiti-covered apartments until I actually reached its door. Once there though, my woes were not finished. I was in for a disappointment. “We are fully booked tonight, sir,” said the gentleman at the desk.
“Can I book for tomorrow then?” I asked.
“No sir, we are closed on Mondays. We can perhaps fit you in on Tuesday if you like?”
But on Tuesday I would be back in Britain. Alas, it was not meant to be.

I walked back through the streets a dejected and hungry man, the only consolation being that I had saved some money, (courses started at over €30 according to the menu). I decided to pop into an inviting-looking corner café for a beer and a bite to eat. Once inside though, I learnt that they had stopped serving food for the night, but the beer, naturally, was still on. I decided to stay, as I was thirsty, desperate for a sit down and the décor was pleasant. Besides, there was an array of beers on tap and I had so far not sampled one Berliner brau, so I got out the Rough Guide and read the entire section on Berlin’s History whilst working through the taps.

The three beers tried were Wernesgriiner, Veltins and Schneider Weisse of which the latter I detested and the middle I enjoyed most, so at the end, I had another. At the end of the session, much of what I had seen over the past two days made more sense historically, the joyful intoxication that only alcohol can provide had taken over my body, I was only €10-50 lighter in pocket and I was still very hungry.

I moved onto a wurst place where I tried a ‘Rostbratwurst in Brood’ (fat roasted sausage in a piece of bread) with bottle of Berliner Pilsner (so-so), before moving on again to a bar by the railway station where I continued my exploratory voyage of the beers of Berlin, this time sampling a Weihenstephan.[7] Usually I do not agree with drinking alone, it reeks of sadness, but now and again it can be a good thing. The alcohol helps a new environment seep into your veins, lets you view things from a different perspective whilst a lack of companions makes you far more observant. However, quite how useful these different perspectives are afterwards is another matter. In this bar by the station, I started to make notes on the back of the now useless Unsicht Bar brochure, yet few of them make any sense to a sober man. In one corner I wrote down ‘Leonard Cohen - Suzanne’ which I assume was the music that was playing, whilst in another corner the bizarre ‘Bubbles rise up… Weihenstephan’ can be found! One useful piece, which I shall transcribe word for word here, relates to some issues that I was turning over in my mind at the time:

‘Unconsciously I had equated the Germans with the Dutch but this was false. They are much more Ost-European perhaps even. Less taste and particularity?! And the graffiti!! It is a plague! Freedom of expression is one thing, but the mindless desecration of… anything is quite another.’

After I had finished my Weihenstephan, (yes, the one with the rising bubbles), I moved on, backed to Charlottenburg where I got a kebab from one of the many kebab houses there. Whilst ordering I did something that I only ever do when drunk – spoke to the vendor in Bulgarian, which was much to his amusement as he did not speak the tongue, but not entirely impractical as we shared no common language and most of the key words relating to kebabs in Bulgarian are taken directly from Turkish. Thus full and multilingual, I returned to the hotel where the girl on the reception desk asked me again if the man whose money I had returned – a stall-holder at some travelling speciality food market apparently – had been in touch.

I went up to my room and sat on the balcony watching the trains clank to and fro. The scene reminded me of one over four years before when the Lowlander and I were booked into a very similar standard hotel in Ürümqi in China which commanded a very similar view over a railway station which I personally had enjoyed at great length. The memories evoked however, and the beer and banitsa that I was consuming, were failing to be of any comfort though, and I realised that the time for drinking alone had ceased. What I needed now was what I had not had since arriving in the country, some company, and besides there was something playing on my mind which I needed to offload and there was only one person really, that I could talk to about it. I went back downstairs and made the cheesiest excuse imaginable.

“Excuse me, do you know of somewhere near to here where I may purchase a cup of coffee?” (Alas, as you can see, the Teutonic correctness of language had by this stage rubbed off on me also. To go entirely native, all that was now required was a mullet).
“Everywhere is closed, but I can make you one if you would like this?”
“What would the cost be?”
“It is free, but if you take the cup to your room then you must leave €1 deposit here.”
“Then I shall drink it here.”

And so, as I had hoped, I fell into conversation with the hotel receptionist. She was a dark-haired girl, in her early twenties, neither pretty nor ugly, whom I had at first thought may have come from Turkish stock but in fact, I later learnt, was wholly Berliner. Indeed, the blond-haired, blue-eyed stereotype of the Aryan German is most wide-of-the-mark in that country’s capital. Further west I do not know, (in the Netherlands they are pretty blond on the whole), but in Berlin people took more after Hitler in looks than Claudia Schiffer. Alas, however, whilst I discovered her heritage, I never learnt the girl’s name, or at least, if I did ask it, I have since forgotten.

The conversation naturally soon turned to the €2000 which, perverse as this may sound, was exactly what I had wanted. Ever since I had handed that money in, I’d been racked by doubts and moral questions that not even the sublime communion service had managed to dispel. Was it a good deed that I had done? On the surface, yes, very good indeed, but had I really been tempted? No once you see, had I seriously entertained the notion of actually keeping the money or even peeling off a note for myself. Instead my actions had been almost mechanical and so where was the good in that? Furthermore, the prospect of a reward, €200 or less, did appeal to me, in fact I almost felt it to be my right, yet shouldn’t we do these things without any hope of gratification? I am reminded of the story of a Sufi Master who never thanked anyone who helped him. When one of his disciples asked him why he was so rude he replied, “If a man does a good deed expecting thanks, then thanks is all that he shall receive, but when I do not thank people, then instead they may receive a far greater recompense from an unexpected source.” Now that may be true, or it may not; I for one was resolved not to expect any reward, but let me tell you, trying to think in such a manner did not come naturally and was oh so hard!

“Do you regret handing that money in?” asked the girl with a face that dictated that I should.
“No, not at all,” I replied. “He may give me the €200 yet and even if he does not, it was the right thing to do.”
“You did a good thing.”
“Did I? I’m not sure…”
“Well you see, if it had been only €10 then I had found, I would have put it in my pocket and said nothing, but with €2000 I did not. If I was such a great guy, then I would hand the €10 in as well.”
“I suppose so.”
“And there is more. Last month, in England, I got on a train with my friend and we did not buy tickets because the machine in the station was broken, and when we got off at the other end, having travelled for free, I felt pleased. However, then my friend went to the ticket office in the other station and bought a ticket when he did not have to and I felt like a piece of shit for feeling pleased about getting a free ride. A good guy wouldn’t do that, would he? How can the same guy hand in the big money yet rob the small money?”
She cocked her head to one side and thought. “I would probably also take the €10,” she said, “because it doesn’t really hurt anyone to take that.” She paused. “It still does not make it right though.”
“I shall tell you another story as well,” I continued, now in full flow, the alcohol causing my Dutch courage levels to rise. “Now I am not a particularly religious person, [a lie] but coming here on the plane I prayed. [The truth] I don’t know why I did it, but I prayed that God would let me do some good here in Germany and help someone. [Also the truth] Now I have never prayed that before on a plane [truth again] but I did then and now look what has happened. It’s all too weird for me, that’s all that I know!” [Definitely the truth!]
“It is strange,” she said after some thought, also at a loss for answers.

After such issues of high morality, we moved onto more trivial matters. She told me about the hotel and its customers. Yes, there were lots of backpackers, from all over actually though not many British, but at the same time they had many small-time businessmen, (like the guy whose money I’d found), and also school parties. That surprised me. “From all over Germany?” I asked.
“Yes, and Denmark also.”
Denmark! Why would Danish children come to learn about Berlin? I asked her as much but she could provide no answer save that they came.

I then asked if she had travelled much, at which point her face lit up. Yes, last summer she had spent on a kibbutz in Israel, it was incredible! I told her about my time on Revivim ten years ago and we swapped reminiscences of places and the kibbutz experience. Then I decided to broach an issue that had been brewing in my mind ever since I had stumbled across the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. “Excuse me for asking,” I said tentatively, “and please do not answer this if you do not want to, but as a German who has been to Israel, what is your opinion of the Jews?”

Her reply was plain. “I like them, a lot. They are a hard-working, civilised and progressive people. They have built a modern country out of nothing. In the Middle East, no one else has done that.”
“Some people would say that they did all that by stealing from and exploiting the Palestinians…?” I said, playing Devil’s Advocate.
“They are wrong. The Arabs are backward and the Jews look forward. That is all. What happened with Hitler was a mistake, the Jews are progressive people. It is the Muslims that I don’t like. Look at how they treat their women. They are backward!”

Progressive = good, backward = bad. Mistakes have been made, the Muslims are the problem now. Her opinions, did they reflect those of a majority of Germans? If they did then they were a real insight into the German mindset, a mindset capable of such heights and conversely, such depths. I thought of the Turkish children playing near the Jewish Museum as I went to bed that night and wondered.

I awoke rather early considering the excesses of the previous evening and went down to the railway station to catch a train, this time though, a westbound one to the suburbs as opposed to the usual city centre headed eastbounds. All the westbound trains terminated at a place called ‘Spandau’ which from the first time that I saw the name on the sign, had caused me to think of the ’80s pop sensation, Spandau Ballet to such an extent that I was half-tempted to get a thick black marker and write ‘Ballet’ underneath. In fact, as I waited, I wondered as to why no one else had done just that, (after all, they’d written on more or less every other surface in the city in black marker), but then I realised that the inscribing of ‘Ballet’ would perhaps require a sense of humour, something of a rarer commodity in Berlin than black markers are. Oh well, with Spandau Ballet on my mind, I decided to sing one of their hits as I waited, until I realised that like several other huge ’80s bands – Depeche Mode, Echo and the Bunnymen, Curiosity Killed The Cat – you remember the silly name but never the songs. In the end I settled on Feargal Sharkey’s ‘A Good Heart’, very ’80s at least, even if it has nothing to do with either Spandau or the Ballet.[8]

The train to Spandau was packed to the rafters, but at a station called Westkreuz, everyone decided to get off, leaving I and a middle-aged housewife alone in the carriage. I wondered quite what attractions the nondescript-looking Westkreuz had to offer that could entice so many to alight there, but my guidebook only mentioned the Funkturm, a radio tower built in 1926 from which Hitler had broadcasted his propaganda and which tourists were now allowed to climb up. Interesting as that was, I doubted that it was the reason behind the mass exodus from the train and later reading proved me right. Westkreuz is also the home to Berlin’s International Convention Centre. Evidently there was a very important conference or two on that day.

Three stops later and it was my turn to alight, leaving the lady alone on her trip to Spandau. Unlike Westkreuz, the station that I had chosen shouted out the fact that there was something very important to see here. Olympia Stadion S-Bahn station was row after row of platforms, empty now but doubtless packed on matchdays and other sporting occasions.

I wanted to see Berlin’s Olympic Stadium for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I like big stadiums and this is one of the largest in Europe. What’s more, in addition to the 1936 Summer Olympics for which it was built, it had also hosted the previous year’s World Cup Final between France and Italy. More than all of that though, the stadium is a monument, one of the few left, to Nazism and its vision. Here Hitler held rallies and orchestrated his Aryan Olympics that went well until Jesse Owens started winning everything. The Fuhrer had a personal say in the design of it, and it was here, just before the final Battle for Berlin, that old men and children were trained to use guns so that they could die in a futile attempt to stop the Red Army. The Olympic Stadium may not be the biggest stadium in Europe, but it does have the most controversial history and stunning design.

I walked down Jesse Owens Allee and paid a measly €3 for the privilege of wandering around the site unrestricted, (oh, for Wembley or Old Trafford to charge the same amount!). The architect, Werner march’s vision truly was something. A gigantic bell-tower; the Marathon Arch; pillars of limestone encircling and holding up the structure; statues of Aryan athletes and the famous gap at one end where the mythical Olympic flame once burned. It was like some spectacular cross between the Colosseum, a pagan forest arena and Wembley. The Nazis, evil regime or not, one has to admit had style and it is quite easy to see how so many were drawn in by it all. The unnerving feeling that I got was that if I had been a German from the provinces visiting the stadium during the Olympic Games, then I think that I’d have become a Nazi too. Yes, architecture can be that powerful.

But the Olympic Stadium site is far more than just the stadium itself, for virtually the entire Games were played out here. There were tennis courts, gymnastics halls, a hockey stadium, swimming pools, a riding arena and the enormous Maifeld where marches and parades were held. Not all of it is still extant today, but the swimming pool and several other features are still in use and open to the visitor. I wandered around casually, before heading into the Hertha Berlin shop to buy some presents for home,[9] and then back to the station.

My nest port-of-call was Zoologischer Garten, for by now I was hungry and that supermarket café called to me. Once filled, I took the opportunity to have a look inside the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche which contained an interesting exhibition of Christian art and some scale models of what the church had once looked like and also some of the different redevelopment ideas, (most of them as bad as the one adopted). That done, I headed back onto the S-Bahn and up to Hackescher Markt.

There were no corseted working ladies around now, but they were not what I had come to see. Instead, I had come to sate my curiosity regarding the large Moorish dome that I had seen from the bridge over the River Spree before.

The Neue Synagogue on Oranienburger Straße was once the spiritual home of the city’s Jewish community. It was built between 1859-66 at great cost and was inaugurated in the presence of no less a personage than Chancellor Otto von Bismarck at a time when, after centuries spent as outsiders, Berlin’s Hebrews finally felt that they were being accepted as part of German society.

The synagogue unconsciously tells us a lot about the history of the people that built it. Its striking Moorish design, with hints of Byzantium, betrays something of the identity problem that Europe’s Jews have always had and to some extent, still suffer from. The design provoked fierce debate, (something else that the Jews excel at), within the community. In those more racially-homogenous times, the Jews were seen by most Germans as being the very epitome of the exotic and architecturally, that exoticism was expressed in a Moorish style more akin to the Alhambra Palace than a Prussian church or the ancient temples of Zion. Some Jews – predominantly the more religious – revelled in that otherness, they were the Chosen People after all, whilst others – generally speaking, the liberals – detested it, seeing it as the ultimate barrier to their ambitions. They wanted to fit in and be accepted. The Neue Synagogue is a testament to the former viewpoint. Some would argue that the veracity of the latter was tragically proved beyond all doubt, less than a century later.

To be fair though, Moorish architecture or not, Berlin was always one of Germany’s more liberal cities and perhaps the least responsive to Nazi ideology, much to Hitler’s chagrin. This is born out by the fact that we probably wouldn’t have the building with us today if it were not for the efforts of the local police chief, Wilhelm Krützfeld, who, on the infamous night of the 9th November, 1938 – Kristalnacht – ordered the synagogue to be protected so that only minor damage was sustained. Ironically, it was the bombs of the liberating Allies that almost obliterated it.

Lying in ruins until 1988, a process of restoration was begun which lasted until 1993. In May 1995 it was opened to the public. Looking around, I was taken aback by the magnificence of the building, but surprised to discover that it no longer functions as a synagogue. The vast majority of it, (including the prayer hall), still being in ruins. Like the Jewish community of Berlin in general, it had only been partially resurrected and even that is precarious. Armed police guarded the entrance, as they also do outside the Jewish Museum, a reminder that not all Germans are as pro-Juden as the government would like them to be. Furthermore, the restorations that had been done, had been completed in a simpler style to the original structure so that visitors could clearly see the extent of the destruction. I personally felt that this was a mistake and would have restored the building just as it once had been so that the full beauty of the architect’s vision could be enjoyed once more, a far more hopeful approach I feel, than being surrounded by reminders of destruction.

I took a U-Bahn train to the Unter den Linden (‘Under the Limes’); Berlin’s main ceremonial avenue which stretches from the Tiergarten, through the Brandenburg Gate and then onto the Berliner Dom and the River Spree. From the U-Bahn station I walked around the very centre of the city, past the bland British Embassy and the boastful Russian one, to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I then moved onto a free museum about the Stasi – the old east German secret police – but whilst it looked interesting, I could understand little as it was all in Deutsch. One thing that I did gather however, was that the Stasi seemed to cut off the stamps of virtually every letter and postcard that was sent to DDR from abroad. Who knows, perhaps the organisation was not intrinsically evil, but instead it was just that its chief was a budding philatelist?

I then continued my walk down the city’s main drag, strolling past embassies and government ministries until, as I neared its eastern end, the buildings changed and a different atmosphere began to take over. Gone were the 20th and 21st centuries and instead the buildings began to get older, 18th and 19th century, (or replicas of them at any rate), and more grandiose. I was now no longer in Germany, unified or divided, but instead Prussia, its illustrious precursor, with palaces, libraries and museums lining the street. I half-expected Fredrick the Great to coming cantering down the Unter on his horse, or perhaps even the great Napoleon, head held high in triumph following his 1806 capture of the city.

I was now back where I had started the day before, by the Museum Island and the Berliner Dom, and so it was logically that I sample what that island is famous for. However, I had but the time – and money! – the see just one of the great treasure houses on offer, so after a consultation of the Rough Guide and some deliberation, I opted for the Pergamon Museum, the repository of an incredible collection of relics from the Ancient World. To celebrate that decision – and to gather my strength for the forthcoming cultural onslaught – I then had a cup of tea in the museum café.

The Pergamon is named after an Ancient Greek city now in modern-day Turkey from which the Germans had nicked a preposterous amount of stuff. During the 19th century, whilst we Brits were busy stripping the Parthenon and Thebes of anything sculpted, the Germans were doing much the same to sites in Turkey and Persia. Still, it’s nice to know that we weren’t alone.

And it’s even nicer to be able to see the fruits of their labours now. Nicked or not, no one can fault the Germans on their presentation of the loot. The centrepiece of the Pergamon is a completely reconstructed Greek temple, the Pergamon Altar, whilst next door, (alas, under repair and thus scaffolding when I visited), the entire Market Gate of Miletus, all three storeys of it! The highlight for me though, (not being a particular fan of Greek and Roman art, heathen that I am), was the Ishtar Gate, one of the gates to the ancient city of Babylon, (where we sat down and wept), and built by the none other than King Nebuchadnezzar of beard and Biblical renown. That was not all though, for leading away from the great gate with its blue tiles and reliefs of animals, was the entire
Procession Street
of Ancient Babylon. I was in awe! Even the British Museum, by far the best museum that I have ever visited, struggled to match treasures such as these!

In addition to these grand centrepieces, the mammoth museum had oodles of Roman and Greek statuary, a vast section on Ancient Middle-Eastern Cultures, (you know, people like the Sumerians), and then upstairs, an excellent Museum of Islamic Art that whetted my appetite for the forthcoming trip to Andalusia and Morocco.

Darkness had now fallen and I truly was shattered, my abused feet complaining with every step. Further sight-seeing was out of the question, so I retired to Kurfürstendamm and (Shame on me!) ate in McDonalds. Whilst I was eating, some police came into the restaurant (?) and demanded to see the papers of some dining Turks, whilst one of their number was handcuffed. The Turks seemed adamant that they were innocent of whatever it was that they were accused of, whilst the police appeared sure that right was on their side. After some twenty minutes or so of some very public interrogation and checking, the police seemed to come round to the Turks’ viewpoint, released the handcuffed youth, smiled, shook hands and left. One knows that the law must be upheld and that no chances can be taken, but I did wonder that if the accused had been white, would it have perhaps been upheld far more privately?

After reading some of my book and finishing my meal, I went on a short walk around the Kurfürstendamm District, gazing in at the shops of the glitzy new developments. There were several sex shops, something else that Germany apparently excels in, so, thinking of the corseted ladies the night before, I went in one and found a bewildering array of lingerie, dildos, blow-up dolls, imitation vaginas, magazines and videos being perused by folk of both sexes and all ages, (well, all adult ages). The bondage department upstairs however, was a disappointment.

Nearby was a building that had caught my eye earlier when I had passed it on the train. It was evidently Jewish, perhaps a synagogue or community centre, and whilst bland and modern on the whole, it incorporated elements from an earlier, probably destroyed predecessor – an archway, stone pillars and a Lion of Judah. It was a fascinating, if not harmonious mix.[10]

But it was now time to go, and tired as I was, I was glad. I could cope with no more new culture, sights or experiences. I had had my fill of the alien and as I rode on the S-Bahn back to Schönefeld, I knew that I would need that fortnight to recuperate before flying out to Spain with the Sibling for my next dose of the other.

Looking back now though, with that trip also in the past, writing up these memoirs in the peace of my study, with Beethoven’s Ninth playing in the background, I still do not quite know what to make of Berlin. My early fears were not sustained, I had chosen the right place to visit. I had enjoyed the trip immensely and gained a lot from it, yet I do not think that I have ever been to an uglier, more disastrously rebuilt city in all my life, (well not in Europe anyhow). Its architecture is clever, innovative and forward-looking, yet they do not seem to have learnt one of the main lessons of both the fascist and communist experiences, that humanity should be central to design. The New Berlin is neither human in scale nor organic and that must surely affect the people that live and work in it. Berliners seem unwilling to look back to their history for hope and inspiration – and one can clearly understand why – yet there is far more to their story than division, death and defeat. The achievements of Prussia, the sense of justice, the sense of survival and the noble public acceptance of guilt, (an achievement unmatched by the other defeated nations, particularly the Japanese), are all things to be celebrated.

This for me is the German paradox: How can a country that has reached such cultural, technological and social heights, also have plunged to such depths in the same fields? Is it because they detach themselves from their history, are always beginning afresh, in 1870, 1918, 1945 and 1989, and see things in such a black and white manner – progressive = good, backward = bad? The Jews are now accepted, but has the lesson of the Holocaust really been learnt, or instead has the mantle of the backward other simply been passed onto the Turks and other Muslims? I for one, hope to God that such is not the case, for there is something very likable about Berlin and her people, and it would be a shame to spoil that… again.

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!          Oh friends, not these notes!
Sondern lasst uns angenehmere     Rather let us sing more
anstimmen und freudenvollere.        cheerful and more joyful ones.
Freude! Freude!                                  Joy! Joy!
                                                                           Friedrich Schiller

Three Great Socialists: Me, Marx and Engels

Next part:

Travels in 2007: Part 2: Andalucia

[1] I am not sure about that, mind.
[2] I should point out here that prior to my arrival in Berlin I had great fears about the costs of things, largely due to words spoken to me by the Lowlander who had visited soon after the Wall fell. When I mentioned Berlin to me, he replied, “And do you know what is the most amazing thing about Berlin?” I did not of course and so he told me, “The price of a cup of coffee; I cannot believe that humans can charge so much for coffee as they do in Berlin!” However, once I arrived, I got a most pleasant surprise, for not only was the coffee not ridiculously expensive, but in fact the German capital was much cheaper than the city from which I had travelled. Times have changed indeed.
[3] I wondered at the time what the British offering was like and two days later I passed it and found out. It was a sincere disappointment; a bland modern block with a big glass ball set into an enclave in the wall. It revealed absolutely nothing of my country’s traditions and instead seemed to suggest that Britain was unsure of what it was these days.
[4] As a final note on the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, I also considered it to be the ideal setting for a scene in a spy novel, where an unwanted agent could be murdered in a confusing, evocative setting. Just need to think up the rest of the book now…
[5] This is not generic for the whole world. Very occasionally, such as in the Netherlands you get girls, and in many countries, particular Far Eastern ones, it is blue, not green, for ‘Go!’ In North America, a hand suffices for ‘Stop!’.
[6] As a quick footnote regarding immigrants, the Rough Guide told me that Berlin is one of the most ethnically-diverse cities in Germany today, with an extremely high percentage of immigrants. However, coming from the UK, it seemed all rather homogenous, even compared with such backwaters as my own hometown. The only two visible minority groups were the Turks and the Vietnamese, although I suspect that there are vast numbers of Russians and Poles as I heard Slavic voices in the streets and in Charlottenburg station there was a supermarket selling only Russian products, (although with a Turk behind the till)!
[7] I later learnt that this is brewed in the city of Freising near to Munich and that the brewery is the oldest in the world, dating from 725AD. History in the drinking!
[8] I later learnt from Wikipedia that Spandau Ballet weren’t from Spandau at all, but were in fact English. Ho, hum. They got their name from DJ Robert Elms who went to Spandau to visit a famous prison there which once held the notorious Nazi, Rudolf Hess. Apparently, what it was about the prison that inspired Elms was, (and I kid you not), the graffiti! As a further note, here are some of Spandau Ballet’s biggest hits:  ‘To Cut A Long Story Short’; ‘Chant No. 1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On)’; ‘Parade’; ‘True’; ‘Gold’. I vaguely recall ‘True’.
[9] Hertha Berlin, who play in the Olympic Stadium, are another casualty of Berlin’s Cold War division. Although very successful in the Inter-War Years, after the defeat in 1945 they have rarely done well and indeed, rarely made it to the Bundesliga. In 1997 when they returned to the Bundesliga they in fact ended a ten-year period when the German capital had no team in the nation’s top league, probably the only country in Europe able to boast of such a dubious honour. Since then they have done better, regularly getting to Europe, although they did drop out of the Bundesliga in the 2003-4 season, (bouncing back the following year), and they have never got close to actually winning the league.
[10] I later looked it up on the internet and found that it was a Jewish Community Centre built on the site of and incorporating elements of the old Fasanenstraße Synagogue.

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