Ich liebe Deutsch. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I have German family, and after the Brexit vote went and applied for German citizenship. Dropping my paperwork off at the embassy, the gentleman who examined it reported that it was “very organised” and I just about managed to stop myself from shouting, “see?! I belong!” Unfortunately, turns out that before 1952 women under German law were considered adjuncts to their husbands, and since I’m trying to claim citizenship via my Gran, and she married in 1948, turns out she doesn’t count. If she’d been male, she’d count, and I’d be hugging my German passport proudly all the way through customs right now, but alas… the patriarchy… oh the patriarchy…
Ich liebe Deutsch, regardless, although the grammar does my nut. Let’s turn up Die Toten Hosen to full volume and get down with the vibe…
I’d been to Berlin once before, when I was a teenager. Then, I travelled with my parents, and my Dad, being 25% more German than I am, had pretty good German and did most of the legwork. We weren’t in the city long, and my Dad hated walking. It was U-Bahn or nothing, and while we did the traditional tourist things of Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Museum and the Bundestag, none of the dots really had a chance to join up.
This time, visiting Berlin for work with some hours between, I tried to rectify that.
Flying into Tegel, the first thing I learned is that my German is good enough to make myself understood… then a friendly native speaker will reply… and I’ll realise in a moment of horror that the answer was far too fast for me to comprehend and all that hard work I put into seeming very fluent and clever is now about to be gutted by a half-hearted, “Um… langsamer, bitte?”
The next discovery was that, while I love German trains, Deustche Bahn is not above… bending… the truth on its maps. For low: there is a map of the S-Bahn and U-Bahn routes through Berlin. There is Tegel Airport; there are lines going to the airport and yet, look again, for these lines are goddamn bus routes pencilled on as though there’s an actual damn train, without anyone having the honest to goodness guts to admit that there’s not. There’s a bus. And it’s late. And because it’s late it’s too full to get on. And so is the one after. And when I finally do get on a bus from Tegel to Alexanderplatz, the driver gets to Hauptbahnhof and then engages in five minutes of merry chat with his replacement, who can then only be bothered to go as far as Brandenburg Gate. “Fertig!” he hollared, to the groans of the passengers. No reason was given, and no reasoned argument would be accepted. Behind his knee-high grey socks and neat white moustache, this gentleman would not be moved, and neither it turned out, would we.
Plus side: a return ticket from central London to Gatwick is a small fortune, whereas in Berlin it seems that everything is E2.80, regardless of whether you get shafted.
Fine, I figured. I had a touristy map of Berlin in my bag, and Alexanderplatz is home of one of the iconic spikes of the Berlin landscape – the Fernsehturm. Imagine a soccer ball impaled on a spike built by East German communists with a point to make about engineering ambition, and you’re basically there. I wouldn’t call it beautiful, though it has definitely earned the title of iconic – but it is geographically useful.
Wiggling through central Berlin, the first thing that strikes is just how blandly international much of it is. Starbucks, big brand fashion shops, the chains of pharmacies and health-spa-beauty digderidoos; it could be anywhere in the world. Indeed, much of the design of the area around Friedrichstrasse feels deliberately and pointedly American, from the slabby grey concrete pillars to the rumbling traffic on a not-quite grid. Hit the river, and you get a sense of a dozen different places coming together. There’s more traditional Eurosprawl, defined by pastel-coloured apartment and office blocks with casement windows and a dozen discretely labelled buzzers by the door. There’s industrial space waiting to be filled, the ground pressed flat and hoardings up, advertising burlseque, student marxism, McDonalds and your local family-friendly bank. Swing right, and museums pop up with a sudden, brutal, imperial glee, splat, every bit as magnificent and hubristic as the British Museum in London. Here also is a whiff of what Unter den Linden, the grand boulevard that connects much of the touristy heart of Berlin, might have been in my Gran’s day – a place for slightly naughty assignations beneath grand facades, and big business behind huge, metal doors. Now it’s a carefully restored mixture of the bureaucratic and the oligarchic, carrying much of the soul of any big Main Street, with a dose of restored European 1700s thrown in with 21st century cleanliness.
All this is in former East Berlin, but you would have to squint very hard indeed through the noodle bars and private gyms to work that out. Even when you hit Alexanderplatz, a temple to concrete shopping malls and traffic junctions, and begin to get a stronger whiff of what once went before, you’re squinting through big brand names and discounts on leather sandals to try and sense the Berlin of thirty years ago.
My hotel was as international as they come, with a cinema across the road showing Deadpool 2 (‘er kommt nicht allein!’) and a Dunkin’ Doughnuts which is every bit as bland and meh as I remembered. Sometimes you just gotta go through these rituals and remind yourself that yes, kebabs at 2 a.m. never taste as good as you hoped, and no, the doughnut that was rubbish then is also rubbish now…
After settling into my room, I went for a wee wander, past the old town hall and through a little mess of not-quite-as-old-as-they-pretend backstreets offering a taste of cobbled charm and expensive menus for the discerning romantic, before winding back in my room in time for an hour of Extra German Learning. In the case, watching a bit of the world cup. After all, punditry is a universal language, right? (Although: what the hell is even up with this world cup? My usual plan of supporting England until they get kicked out, then Argentina until they fall, then Germany to the end has been obliterated, and now I just don’t know what to think.) During ad breaks, a quick flick through the channels revealed that Dr House was on, in which German dubbing managed to make Hugh Laurie doing an American accent sound remarkably British. I dunno how, but the German dubbing had about as much cynicism in it as a strawberry tart.
The next day began with an Authentic German Breakfast, which I’m still gonna declare as a bit rubbish.
“But darling, when I was growing up,” explained my Gran, “for breakfast every day you’d have a nice, crispy brown bread road, and maybe a bit of butter, and I’d have a cocoa, and then we’d go to school. When I came to English and they gave us this ‘English breakfast’ I just didn’t know what to think! I’d never seen so much food!”
Fair – a proper English breakfast is ridiculous. But tomato, plastic cheese and terrible ham… just not a winner.
(And here, a terrible confession: I don’t really like wurst. Sometimes they’re fried, and that’s kinda ok, but even then they’re basically just an alright sausage. As for boiled wurst? Es tut mir leid, but it’s not a winner for me. Indeed, and I say this aware that my German passport recedes with every word, there comes a point remarkably fast where boiled potato in meaty gloop with boiled meat on the side… well, it ain’t no schnitzel. Aaaahh… schnitzel… anyway….)
At 8 a.m. it was onto the S-Bahn heading for Zehlendorf. Very quickly Berlin fell away into green verges and acquired a leafy, suburban feel. Zehlendorf had all the commercial normality of the centre of town, from its branded shops to carefully designed little shopping malls of hyper-modern glass and timber; it also had old, swaying trees and sweeps of open grass, nice gelato and a very welcoming school for me to talk about books in. Huge, detached houses peered down grass verges at quiet streets, and a general ambience of “kids play football in the back streets together when not using their private iPads” filled the air. On a hot summer’s day, it felt like a good place to sit in the sun at a cafe table, thinking profound yet mildly humorous thoughts about literature, eating Sachertorte and looking serene.
(Again: dire confession. Not 100% convinced about the wonders of Sachertorte either. Any cake that you need to serve with that much cream, is surely lacking a certain oomph in the making?)
However, there was a city to explore, and by the time I’d got back to Potsdamer Platz, the air was beginning to spin with the cold promise of rain. I got off at Potsdamer Platz mostly because I remembered going there with my parents, back in the dark ages. It felt emotionally correct to begin exploring from a place where once we’d eaten Chinese together, and this not-quite-as-hyper-techno-as-it-had-been-15-years-ago dome of glass, water and open air ticked that box. Tourists on bicycles and groups in ponchos on segways paused to admire the fountain and grab a coffee, before sweeping off to Brandenburg Gate.
I had orders from my Gran to visit Kurfurstendamm in the name of her childhood memories, which again I vaguely associated with happy thoughts of hot chocolate with my family. I pointed my face at what I sorta hoped was West, and set out. After twenty minutes, the wind that proceeded rain was whipping up an actual goddamn dust storm. Like much of Europe, it hadn’t rained in Berlin for weeks, and eddies of biting dust and dirt were sending people scurrying, blinking tears from their eyes, for any shelter they could find. I put on my best Intrepid Traveller face and kept on marching as my skin grew steadily more breadcrumbed with dust, past the giant cultural centres which Germany seems to do so well, past the slightly more realistic shopping streets of mattress shops and beer gardens with plastic tables and more potato in gloop, through residential streets and past international hostels of hidden inner courtyards and quiet arguments through thin walls until finally, just south of the Tiergarten, the skies opened in a proper celestial downpour, and I ducked for cover.
My cover turned out to be another shopping mall. Malls in Berlin were quickly falling into one of two categories – creaking monuments to 1980s blockiness, all in grey and dirty windows – and sleek, modernist designed with wide open spaces and potted plants, where you could order your soy chai latte without… whatever the hell goes into such things… and a pomegranate scented candle experience too.
In the latter of these, I tried a bit of my German on the quest for food, while patient women with ridiculously good English nodded and smiled and sometimes helped me fill in the verb I was missing. In the end, I found a cafe just to the north of Kurfurstendamm where my attempts at expressing how little I needed gherkins in my life were met with polite, bewildered laughter – and very good food. Lots of duck on the menu in Berlin, turns out. In London, such things are novelty, rather than a regular occurance.
Here were more distant memories. Coming to Berlin in the past, myself and my parents had arrived by train into Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten, just to the north of the big old shopping street, at around 6.45 a.m.. The quest for coffee and food had been urgent in still-sleeping streets, and it was perhaps that which made me remember the area with a certain fondness which, upon reflection, the Apple stores and expensive jewellery shops probably didn’t deserve. Yet even here, in this central avenue of expense and commerce, there was a sense of something about Berlin that I really like. Cut away from the big boulevards, and you’re instantly surrounded by communal living; the traffic calms, the posters for this week’s concert or next week’s play; the twee cake shops roll down their awnings and everything sits in a constantly changing crossroads of ideas. American commerce, Eurosprawl, history, brutal lines and discrete sideway cut-throughs; parks and avenues, old trees and blank concrete wastelands; yellow trams and dinging bicycles, imperial grandeur and subdued, polite living, all smash together without warning or apology, street by street. Little hints of what went before the Allies bombed the city flat poke out in both the East and West sides of the city, overwritten and hemmed in by decades of life.
Heading through steady rain, I wiggled round the side of the university – complete with a library built by Wolkswagen – to follow a gentle flow of cyclists into the Tiergarten. Across a canal that still bears a legacy of industry and heavy machinery, Berlin’s answer to Central Park is straight up wonderful. A great big forested splat of greenery plopped in the middle of the city, spotted with ponds and pools, hidden statues and – so I was told – ridiculous numbers of goshawks.
… which is pretty damn cool.
By now it was properly chucking it down, but the Tiergarten is so wonderfully wooded that you don’t get particularly wet, and get to enjoy that rare sound for an urban rambler of heavy rain bouncing on a canopy of leaves. In the middle of the afternoon, I was one of very few amblers through this inner city haven, tracking along wide avenues of gravel cut through with little paths labelled up in that gothic font you associate with bad Hollywood movies set in Germany during the 1920s, but which is actually a thing, and kinda cute.
Bang smack in the middle of the Tiergarten is the Victory Column – another one of those mid-Victorian European imperial spikes raised up in triumph, in this case of the Prussians over the Danes, and fairly quickly over a whole host of other people as Bismarck unified Germany. There wasn’t anyone around, so I sorta missed that you could go up inside, but wandering below was delighted to find that the tunnels which pass beneath it and the traffic roundabout that rings it, are full of nesting birds. Baby swallows and sparrows glared mutely from above the light fittings that their parents had made home, while you had to duck to avoid swooping birds coming home at the tunnel entrances and exits. One woman had also discovered the accoustic wonders of an empty, underground space, and kept singing snatches of opera as I trailed the sound of her voice beneath the column.
War memorials are a tricky number in Berlin. Arguably they’re a tricky number anywhere, from the statues to Confederate generals in the USA to our good ol’ fashioned breed of British colonialisers and racists (hello, Cecil Rhodes) celebrated across the UK. In Berlin this is at least a conversation that has happened and is still happening, and bumping into the Soviet War Memorial – complete with Russian tanks on plinths – was a reminder of how history is still used so much to define our present day identities.
Brandenburg Gate sits at the end of a wide avenue through the Tiergarten, and the avenue had been used for a piss-up. Tents stood wet and empty, waiting for the evening. Kebab shops and more currywurst was waiting for a night of party, and while I couldn’t quite guess what the occassion was, I would have put reasonable money on it involving football, which made Germany crashing out a few days later extra rubbish.
Pass round to the other side of the gate, and there are a lot of tourists, umbrellas blowing away in the wind as they try to take photos of mostly themselves, and sometimes the surrounding government architecture – but mostly themselves.
Alas, no time to linger, as the evening was spent apologising for Brexit to a very polite room of sympathetic people. Wandering home from that as the sun greyed out on the western horizon behind a tree-filled, low horizon, the city felt alive, interesting, full of voices, safe and able to change character within a moment – all things I like.
The following morning opened with torrential downpour, from which I hid in a cafe where the waiters were just a little too busy to indulge my German. A huge construction site on the north of the river was pointed out to me by one of my hosts with a sad tut and shaking of her head: “They’re rebuilding a castle. They don’t know what they going to put in it, though. But they’re rebuilding anyway.”
Swinging past the Bundestag, I at least hoped they’d do something as impressive as German’s parliament building, with its mixture of the old and new, ideas about democracy built into the very design of the place. Then north to Hauptbahnhof, not trusting in the bus drivers of Berlin to venture near Alexanderplatz except on a whim, through a teaming station of concrete and angles sat in the middle of what’s still an urban building site, and into the battle for the bus to Tegel. Two over-full buses later and one driver who was rude in any language, I made it to the airport in time to watch a spontaneous Tango lesson in the departures lounge, and head home, ready for more adventure.