I have just been in Berlin. Actually it is a few weeks ago now but I have only just got round to writing about it, it is the classic mixture of busyness and sloth.
It was my first visit for nearly forty years so things had changed a bit. It used to be actually quite a scary place to be but now bubbles with affable young people, artists and slightly too many tourists. We came a few times as a family which involved the military train that ran from west to east. It began in Hannover and all the carriages were locked as we trundled through East Germany (which looked very like west Germany but a bit more run down) while armed military policemen patrolled the corridors. At one point it stopped and we could see East German border guards who stood around looking quite bored – officers travelling on the train had to count them and keep an eye out for any tanks.
Eventually we arrived in Berlin – there were schnitzels and lots of kuchen. I remember very distinctly going to look over the wall at the Brandenburg Gate and saw the minefields and the machine gun towers which was quite thrilling. There was a museum of all the various imaginative ways in which East Berliners had escaped to the west – through tunnels, in the enlarged petrol tanks of cars, by home made aqualung, through sewers and in a hollow plaster cow. We were allowed to go through checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin (because my father was in the army) which was extra thrilling. What if the communist baddies decided to hold us hostage? or spring a honey trap ? (which may have just been a fifteen year old’s wishful thinking).
They didn’t and we drove around for a bit before deciding that not much was happening and we went back again for more bratwurst.
The overwhelming impression was of greyness. The buildings were drab, the clothes were drab, the people looked pretty unhappy and the atmosphere was leaden. For a while living in Berlin was offered as an alternative to join the German army: unsurprising really, who in their right mind would want to live in a city surrounded by hostile East Germany with not much going on? This resulted in a thriving artists community and David Bowie spending the end of the 1970s taking drugs with Iggy Pop and recording Heroes.
This time things were different and we wandered through the tourists thronging Checkpoint Charlie having their photographs taken with people dressed up as American soldiers. I know that I sound like a grumpy old man but I feel slightly uncomfortable with people treating the sites of other people’s distress as if they were parts of Disneyland. Most people would not jump around graveyards so why is it okay to do so on the holocaust memorial?
I realise that we too were tourists but one cannot help but resent heaving throngs of humanity getting in the way. The memorial was rather ruined by people taking selfies and jumping up and down on the stones. I was grabbed by a woman who wanted me to take her picture while she leant against the stones. It seemed unseemly to pout in a place designed to commemorate the horrible deaths of 6,000,000 people but perhaps I am just out of the loop.
The installation itself is a simple construction of big concrete blocks that vary in height from about two to twenty feet as the ground dips and rolls beneath you, they form long vistas across which distant figures flit for a split second and then disappear. It would have been better if it had been quieter and you could get lost amongst the memorials. Pity but I guess that the point of public memorials is that they are public. More effective are the brass cobbles that are set in the pavements outside houses all over the city each one stamped with the name and fate of a former resident. You don’t notice them at first but then realise that they are all over the place. Subtle is good.
The purpose of the visit was to do cheering and offer support to Tom Chamberlain who had an exhibition running at the Aurel Schleiber Gallery if the fancy takes you in the direction of Berlin – sadly my gross inefficiency in getting this post posted means that the show only runs for another week. His paintings are exquisite and far too subtle to show up well in photographs. This one has had literally thousands of layers of paint applied to the canvas.
We cheered and then dined fulsomely in a Korean restaurant. I have never had Korean food before but it was very good – apparently Kimchi (pickled cabbage) knocks vitamin C and hot toddies into touch when it comes to flu prevention.
The next day we had a breakfast of magnificent proportions at the Cafe Einstein. Newspapers on wooden holders, uniformed waitresses and scrambled eggs with onions.
More art but mostly walking in the cold air and bright sunshine. It seemed odd to walk through the Brandenburg Gate and saunter along the route of the wall. There are some monstrous corporate buildings, some old warehouses and factories either housing trendy galleries or waiting to be turned into spiffy apartments. We ate cake: very good cake in that it managed to look rich but did not leave us feeling sick and regretful. That is quite a feat if you are a raspberry and white chocolate flavoured sponge.
Another gallery opening – this one scandalously pretentious – and more food before wandering back through the ranks of young(ish) ladies offering their services on Kurfustenstrasse. You need to be hardy to wear very short skirts and bra tops on a winter night in Berlin.
Sunday we left. I liked the city and was rather astounded at the amount of German I remembered. I was born in Germany and spent six years of school holidays in the country. It was quite dull as I had no friends there but spent my time knocking around the local towns trying to buy beer which gives you at least some rudimentary grasp on language. Naturally, this time I had to force my strangled Teutonic syntax upon them and they, very politely, listened and replied in English.
This blog post is the first to adorn my snazzy new website.
I am listening to Music when the Lights Go Out by the Libertines. The picture is of a bit of the new Reichstag.