My daughter needed a baggage handler – so that was me. It is usually Dad’s taxi that’s required, but this time it was brawn not skill.
She’s been taking a language and culture course in Berlin as part of her year out between school and University. Naturally, there’d been an accumulation of stuff (certainly more than she wanted to carry back herself), so Dad was summoned to bring half of it back. Oh well….
Actually – it wasn’t quite like that :-). I’d never been to Berlin, and this was the perfect opportunity for a short break, with the added pleasure of being taken around by a now-familiarized 19-year old. Four days in the second half of April – brilliant blue skies for the first couple of days, but temperatures that ranged from chilly to sub-Artic.
I won’t dwell too much on the usual tourist sights (oh well – indulge me – there’ll be a few), but I’ll try to get some impressions over.
I was prepared for a dynamic city, the capital of Europe’s most powerful country. So it was unsurprising that parts of the city, such the area around the Hauptbahnhof where I stayed, were a mass of cranes and newly poured concrete. What was a revelation was the other aspect of regeneration – human regeneration.
The city, for all its history, has a strong feeling of young people. Our first evening stop was at Markthalle Neun, an indoor market overwhelmed with young people in search of wine and food of all varieties. Our last stop on the Sunday I left was a stroll through the Tiergarten: on an April weekend, when the woods are bursting with new life, it is a very optimistic feeling.
OK – this is my daughter’s doing. She is a young lady who appreciates nothing more than great coffee and cakes. Of course, I lay claim to some influence there! So, we toured all of her favourite cafes – there were many, and they were, without exception, great. They might be on a main street, hidden around the back of a courtyard, or even, as I found out on my last day, secreted down beside a stream that empties into the Spree. They were all inhibited by youngish customers (rarely older than mid-20s), mostly with a MacBook Air open in front of them; faces were concentrated and coffee barely sipped as they conjured up some great new creation. (Pervasive wifi helps too…).
Being used to London and New York traffic, I’ve never understood the attraction of cycling in a big city. My friends who were medical students used to call London cyclists incipient organ donors, an image that has put me off city cycling for life. But in Berlin, there are cycles everywhere. On Unter den Linden, Black Audis and BMWs swish past the bikes, but there they all are – normal pushbikes, cycle rickshaws and combination baby-buggy-and-bike. They can even have their own traffic lights.
The weight of history
This was the biggest thing for me. I’d wanted to see the remains of the Berlin Wall for myself – the Wall has been part of my personal history, even as someone living outside the continent.
But, good grief, did it hit me. Somehow, the weight of history was much more than I’d ever expected.
The Wall has pretty much gone, but we visited two preserved areas. The first was the Mauerpark near Bernauer Str U-bahn. This has preserved the line of the inner and outer walls, with the death strip in between. The death strip is now a green open area, pleasant for lounging on a sunny day and far different from its original purpose. The outer wall has cleverly been replaced by a line of iron posts – nothing that will stop the visitor from strolling through, but stand beside it, and the line of the wall becomes clear. It is not often that I find standing on a site quite so emotional, but here it hit me. The line of the inner wall, partly preserved, represents the prison that my generation of East Berliners were held in, falsely told it was for their own defence; the unfinished business of the Second World War.
Somehow, the East Side Gallery, although a fearsome remnant of the wall, while still moving, was in some ways less intense; it renders a more optimistic look towards the future. The site gets its name from the East Side of the wall that, post-unification, was used as a site for street artists from around the world to turn into a living work of art. So popular is it, that a fence lines the gallery, protecting the wall itself from visitors.
And one last sign ...
On the last day I was in the city, my daughter took me to the Holocaust Memorial. It is a huge area of dark regular stone blocks. It has always been controversial, and, for many different reasons, people have had very divergent views of its success as a monument. But slowly walking through in the spring sunshine, there was one more thing that really struck me hard. It was the sight of a young tree growing in the midst of the somber dark blocks, putting forth golden coloured new growth. If ever there was an optimistic sign of redemption from the worst that mankind can do, and hope for the future, this was it.