'Imagination will take you everywhere'
On my first meander through Berlin (after a 14 hour bus ride from Paris), my German friend and I came across a small protest in a residential street. There was a live band, several journalists and a bunch of people – students, elderly, young families – chatting. It was more of a relaxed get-together than a demonstration. Above them were make-shift banners hanging from balconies with angry green writing scrawled across the fabric. They were protesting against the council’s decision to allow local restaurants to put tables and chairs on the pavements, explained my friend. Signs declared “These are our pavements too”. She said it was “very Berlin”.
A young, liberal city, the capital of Germany is known for its protests. It’s also known for its art scene, culture, and, of course, its history. I only had one humid June weekend in Berlin so I accepted that it would be impossible to see everything – instead I wanted to drink in the feel of the city, and explore it in a leisurely fashion.
The former mayor, Klaus Wowereit famously declared: “Berlin ist arm aber sexy” – Berlin is poor but sexy. Upon visiting you can understand what he means; the city isn’t the cleanest or prettiest European city – it doesn’t have the elegance of Paris or the grandness of London. But it is dynamic and electric. The word I kept on repeating throughout the weekend was “quirky”. Unexpected, cool, laid-back. Its got a grungy, bohemian vibe, with wacky street art lining its walls, dispersed with modern architecture which makes you look up in awe. It’s no wonder the city is a magnet for creative types.
There are quirky elements which pop up and surprise you everywhere you go – from a jungle of plants over spilling a balcony in a dense urban area, or a fashion shoot on the street, to an abandoned warehouse that comes alive at night, or people bungee-jumping off a crane in a carpark. Even the U-Bahn (underground) is bedecked in brilliant sunshine yellow – enough to brighten grey days – although be warned: Berlin’s transport system is a nightmare to navigate.
It was my first time in Germany. As my Flix Bus passed the pine forests which surrounds the northeastern city, I thought about the three modern wars that’s raged within it. My Grandfather parachuted behind enemy lines into Germany during World War II, so I felt particularly drawn to this time period. 90% of the city was destroyed between 1939 and 1945, so the majority of buildings are relatively new ones. Crazy geometric creations next-door to skyscrapers, while in the east there are rows of plain Communist houses, an echo of the divide that once tore the city in two.
I recently watched Roberto Rossellini’s film Germany Year Zero, which really captures the depressed post-war atmosphere that oozed from the city’s pores – Berliners were starving and turned to criminality to survive.
After an obligatory pretzel and Franzbrötchen (cinnamon pastry), we took a walking tour around the key historic points of interest, taking in the Brandenburg Gate, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, East Side Gallery, the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie. The tour guide (Lizzie, a lovely, bubbly American German woman) also showed us Hitler’s underground bunker, which is now a car park – there was no indication of what it was in its past life – she explained that it was because they don’t want him to be mourned or celebrated by neo-Nazi groups, instead Germans want to focus on remembering the people persecuted by the Nazi regime.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by Peter Eisenman, is a mesmerising sight, with 2711 concrete slabs of different heights on a site covering 19,000 square metres. Although it is shrouded in mystery as the designer never fully explained where he got his inspiration from, but our tour guide said the sloping ground and irregular height of the concrete blocks mimics that of graveyards in Palestine.
It was fascinating to hear the thoughts of Germany’s current young generation on their history. This is a country that’s been tarnished by one short period in history, for which it’s people still feel a sense of guilt, and still feel they have to apologise for their country’s past. The reflection on the past wars also made me think about the current relationship between European countries and how that may change once Britain leaves the EU – a union which was hoped would create long-lasting peace and stability.
There is an interesting piece on the Guardian written by John le Carré about learning German and why the act of learning a second language is so important – particularly with the huge upcoming task of EU-British negotiations. Carré writes how the choice of learning a second language is an act of friendship – not only a useful tool of negotiation, but a way to get to know people better, as well as their culture, social manners and way of thinking. He writes about his old German teacher, Mr King:
Rather than join the chorus of anti-German propaganda, he preferred, doggedly, to inspire his little class with the beauty of the language, and of its literature and culture. One day, he used to say, the real Germany will come back. And he was right. Because now it has.
The overwhelming feeling I got from Berlin was the power of art to unite – not only a country (particularly after the reunification of East and West) but also a continent. A trip to the Berlin Wall’s East Side Gallery is a must. It’s the longest open-air gallery in the world (1316 metres) and features artwork from a broad mix of international artists who have created their own murals to represent the city during 1989/90 – creating thought-provoking pieces. The most photographed one is Dmitri Vrubel’s Fraternal Kiss but there are loads more to see, my personal favourite is Rosemarie Schinzler’s Everything Open. Simple yet beautiful; perfectly capturing this city as the tolerant, accepting, diverse place it is.
The Berlinische Galerie in the cool Kreuzberg district is also a brilliant place to visit if you are keen on all things art; it’s a maze of modern art, photography and architecture. When I went there was a weird (quirky!) installation by John Bock, but the other rooms were packed full of varied pieces to suit all tastes – from Expressionism to avant-garde. Perfect for a rainy morning.
On Sunday afternoon we strolled through the centre and mooched around a market on the bank of the river Spree, before crossing over to admire the magnificent domes of the cathedral (Berliner Dom). Tourists and locals lazed on the grass in front of it, but we were on a mission to find the perfect lunch spot. A Vietnamese restaurant called Good Morning Vietnam, was recommended to us by our tour guide, and we soon found out why; fresh vegetable and shrimp spring rolls dipped in peanut sauce, followed by a fragrant tofu curry. In the evening we dodged downpours and found a dark little pub under a railway arch where men smoked and played cards, while we drank Radler (beer + lemonade).
We also met the infamous Kaiser Kasimir, a Polish beggar or self-styled ‘Emperor of Tramps’ who is now a performance artist and entertains passers-by with his horn and poems (in a mix of Polish and German). We were eating dinner outside and he walked passed in full regalia, stopping for a chat and offered us his autobiography, which my friend translated. While in Berlin I think it is best to embrace all things wild, wacky and a bit weird – because that basically sums up the city itself.