“Hide your sadness behind a piece of glass,
Sink your tears into a bed of stone.”
“You say when he hits you, you don’t mind
Because when he does that, you feel alive,
Baby, is that how it is?
Red lights, gray morning
You stumble out of a hole in the ground
A vampire or a victim
It depends on who’s around.”
- U2, ‘Stay, Faraway So Close’
When I arrived Berlin was grey, grey, grey. ‘Grau’, as they say in German, three shades of London, there is no black and white, only right or wrong, says Jack Ryan in Patriot Games.
Unwelcoming, as if to cast us out and to say, “Go back from whence ye came, I’m too shrouded for the likes of thee sirrah.” And what’s more it’d been sunny, and near sizzling in May, according to some local sources. But we were there and Berlin was windy, showing her tears and the cold shoulder.
Berlin is an old city, a soul city, one dripping with life and history. It’s got so much culture it could give away half its culture to other cities in Germany and still have enough left over for a UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination. It’s got so much culture I feel like an E.Coli except infected and infecting with art and life. Bullish and bearish Berlin became bastardy whence the Nazi beasts based their banal brutal bureaucracy of death there.
My first instance of culture was the Statue of Triumph, the Golden Angel that sits majestically above, yes, the true high lord of Traffic, governing the flow of vehicles below. I recognised it from World War 2 photos (vaguely) and from U2’s ‘Stay, Faraway So Close’ music video. Like all MVs, it was distracting - the one overriding thought being how the hell did the actors not get distracted by the members of U2 shoving their faces in while they mime playing and how did Bono get up there in the Angel’s arms?
1.Lots of practise or they were Scottish
2. Therefore he MUST be God!
3. That’s more than one overriding thought.
But if it is indeed Lord Of Traffic then it seems she’s got no luck controlling Berlin’s cyclists though. Those crazy bastards, men and women both, rip through the cycle lanes at god-knows what breakneck speed, I got out of the airport shuttle and almost got creamed by a large German lady who was none too impressed by my being a new Wall to her progress. Lucky I had my eyes open and peripheral vision on the ball.
This is Berlin as I saw it, without proper punctuation.
“Grey, stone, steel, glass, the people polite but reserved, the cars helter-skelter, pyramids of glass and matrices, a crystalline structure, old buildings, but not sandstone, the façade new but hiding secrets beneath, fifty years of Communist rule you try to seek for yourself - a Trabant - continue walking, tourists just like you in a group all come to soak in the spirit of History a fine-sipping whisky with a kick like a mule make sure you don’t forget the beggars - a Trabant – are we human? Or are we dung beetles for giving each other so much shit? An empty lot, a hole in the ground, green in the middle of the city, peaceful like a death camp memorial.”
There, that’s a lot to process so chew on it for awhile and go back to where we left off. The first day I chucked my things away in the room as usual then grabbed a map and started walking. Potsdam Platz is a central junction bordered by a huge underground train station, which rears up on each side like a technological Jormungandr with two mouths growling at each other from under the bed. Or is it Cerberus? Anyway, I took a waltz down south-southeast and in less than ten minutes I hit the Wall. Not hard, considering the red line that runs through the map, but the Wall where it exists as one of its remaining, longest bits.
I got there too early for the exhibit’s opening – landing at 0700 and reaching the hotel at 830 meant I finally hit it at 950 - so after milling around outside and seeing a museum sign ‘Freedom For Ai WeiWei’, I forgot that Checkpoint Charlie was just on down the road. Stupid head, I was at The Wall wasn’t I? So off I went.
What remains of the wall is quite literal, it’s like any other wall in the world, maybe twelve feet tall (4-metres plus), sandstone-like concrete with no brick but steel support struts on the inside, like bones laid in the flesh of a fish, many of them visible. If you were to tear a hole in a ribcage leaving the flesh to frame the bones, it’d look something like that. Holes and falling down pieces, decay of the geological and political sort. This piece of wall stretched for about 100 metres or so down the street, then abruptly ended. I look further on down, continuing where it left off. What was once the impermeable barrier is now grass pavement and the most recycled consumer item in the world – cars. Oh how the world has moved on.
I’m sure I’m not the first to notice that the symbol of a divided Western and Eastern Germany being torn up into thousands of tiny pieces to make tourist souvenirs is terribly ironic, this in the city where Karl Marx and Friederich Engels wrote their tome of well-intentioned, but totally brimstone-paved, literature, Das Kapital. They should have called it Arse Kapital and it would’ve worked better. Well technically speaking he wrote it in London and it were The Communist Manifesto that started all the shit, but nevermind.
Checkpoint Charlie was a tourist fest. I felt more like a native of Berlin because I pre-dated these parti-coloured, family-addled beings that waddled from (some didn’t bother) the pregnant nipple of the tour bus, by some two or three hours, like first and second twins, but already had a true feel, or deluded myself into thinking that I had, of what the city seemed to say. I don’t mean to say I’m a Charles Xavier, but it’s obvious they came to take pictures and say that they were there. Well, me writing this does too, but it makes you think. Uncle Jimbo and Aunt Harriet’s holiday photo-show does not, even if they did go to Berlin. I did a ten-minute walkaround of the place and then left – there wasn’t much to see. Sure I thought about how it must’ve been for the Allies, divvying up Germany with Berlin as the lynch-pin of it all, but it was too full of modern to be of any use to a macabre sot like me.
Checkpoint Charlie should be renamed Checkpoint Capitalism. Some re-enactment of it has been done up there (“You are now leaving the American Zone…”) but I wonder how much those guys get paid to stand there all day with an American flag. A kiosk, labelled ‘Visas’ sold old fur hats and mass-produced retro relics. The whole area was swarming with tourists, many American, some European, some from further bits of the world that I’ve never seen nor heard or just can’t place.
What makes Berlin Berlin, I think, is the walking. Because of the work, I’ve wandered around for short periods in cities around the world, usually a stolen hour or two away from the group with no particular aim – just find a map and aim. Sometimes that’s what sticks with me the most, that impression of a place is strongest when formed by yourself without the company of those you know to screen it out. Probably been mentioned before, but travelling in a group kinda misses the point of travelling. I don’t agree totally, but thrown to your own devices you do learn more than you would usually.
The walking in Berlin was good, this time of year. The forecast was for balmy weather but even the dimness was good, the clouds added an edge to all that I saw on my first day. On day two I did a Segway tour around the city centre, but I found myself having fun and watching people, old people with cameras, Euro girls with in their summer gear, tourists blundering into each other, that feeling of a holiday I very rarely get while on overseas jobs. Day two was fun, but what I saw of Berlin on the first day will stay with me the strongest.
At the risk of repeating myself, Berlin is a very gray city overwhelmingly the shade and the feeling, is anthracite, carbon, grau, grey, gray, silver, cold, slate, stone, steel, plated glass and granite chips underfoot. Munich, in contrast, would be sort of brownish-green and the colour of algae-aged sandstone and bronze, with dashes of colour thanks to the Marienplatz. Frankfurt was covered in snow and it was all I could do not to freeze my bollocks off so it doesn’t count. It’s not that Berlin hasn’t got its fair share of greenery, you’ll see later, but it’s a riot of green trying to shoot up between the stones. Walking towards the Wall I looked over a fence into a vacant lot, a depression in the earth, clay and soil, but it was still grey somehow. Even the plants are grey. The shape of the land, the foundations, the constant graffiti. Berlin, like no other city I’ve seen, is the concrete wall and the people fighting to be alive on it, like graffiti. If not for that, it’d be a city with a sort of deadgray exterior, having been drained of blood. There is graffiti everywhere in Berlin – except on the memorial to the dead Jews of Europe.
Before I hit CC I actually wandered into something else entirely. Across the road from the Tableaux of Terror (laughed when I saw that, naturally) was a nondescript modernised oldhouse of the type commonly found throughout Europe. I’m not sure what you call it, but these always house souvenir shops, art galleries or nice, funky dwellings. In it was another exhibit (free!) about the Stasi, the secret police that the German Democratic Republic instituted. I’m sure they offed and disappeared a lot of people but I think their chief crime was bureaucracy, in that way that Fascists often are. They left something like a gajillion miles of filing cabinets, UHU glue, liquid paper, staples and tried to destroy it all before Glasnost came calling but they failed. In the GDR, everyone spied on everyone, apparently 1 in 5 people worked for the gubmint in some way or another. Tells you all you need to know really.
I breezed through the exhibits. The Stasi failed to destroy the leagues of documentation because Der People stormed their headquarters and stopped them. Also the sheer amount of stuff meant it couldn’t be destroyed even by a thousand monkeys on amphetamines with scissors. I read about life under the GDR where you couldn’t make jokes and where they kept a file on everyone. I wonder if they kept files about themselves, that’d be so meta-fictional I think their stupid Fascists heads would explode. Apparently they stole people’s scents, kinda like soul stealing only less hygienic, so that they could use tracker dogs to hunt them down in case they decided to go native on them. There is an obvious, deeper connection that you can make between these Stasi agents writing shit about people all, threats to the regime, and to literature and newspapers, but my brain is too addled to mine it.
I expected most of the dissidents to get disappeared, but they mostly did funky shit, got thrown in jail for awhile and then were deported to the West. They were terrible, evil bastards but even they were kinder than the motherfuckers across the street.
Across the street was the Tableaux of Terror. Like all those dedicated to the war, the concentration camps and the entire six years of insane shit that was the Third Reich of No-Reach Around, where men became beasts and people burned, it was extremely sombre. What they call the Tableaux of Terror is a timeline of how the National Socialist Party engineered its rough way to Bethlehem to be born, from the Weimar Era all the way until old Adolf thought, nuff z’nuff, no more fun and games, cool while it lasted, buy the ticket take the ride seeya wouldn’t wanna be ya innawhile crocodile.
The loop descends into the foundations of an old building, which just so happen to be the headquarters of the Gestapo. It stands from something something something police, but basically it means evil murdering fucks. It’s just bricks, stone and pockmarked mortar until you read you’re standing in the basement of what was quite likely, hell for many unfortunates. I wouldn’t want to be there at night and stifle a shiver thinking of how much blood this place has seen, blood and teeth, limbs, screams and pain, all for some insane bastard’s dream. But it was the peoples’ fault too, for not caring and for voting for the beasts into power. Democracy is a bitch sometimes, and the Nazis knew how to tie her and her mother down. I fancy I see bloodstains on the walls, maybe a bullet hole or two, but it’s not likely. It’s been scoured by the gigantic hand of destruction and time, but the point is Good, the point is made if people do not forget. I walk the exhibit back to front, up the stairs, and come out onto the museum complex, again another wrought steel edifice shot through with glass. Bordering the three sides of the complex (away from the basement stairs) are fields of, you guessed it, grey granite pieces about the size of a fist. Close up it looks bumpy and coarse, but let your eyes zone out into a macro view and it becomes almost like a Zen rock garden.
Somebody taps me on the shoulder. It’s a girl, not a woman, and presumably German, and she has a laminated piece of paper. It’s something about orphans and the underprivileged, and the mute. She can’t, or won’t talk and is asking for donations. I haven’t got the train ticket system wrong until tomorrow, so I give 1.50 – probably because she can’t talk and is polite - and notice I am the least generous contributor on the page. Damn these well-paid Europeans. I continue my way through the gallery rogues and horrors, but it seems emotional thuggery is not done with me yet. Another girl, also not a woman, is questioning people in sequence. I am too engrossed in the thuggery of Ernst Rohm and the Sturmbahnteilung or whatever they’re called, SA, until I notice her. She has a shawl, or burqa, on her head, and is obviously not German, and quite scruffy. She asks, in the manner I expect the Gestapo would ask Jews, gays, lesbians, or gypsies, “Do you speak English?” Brusquely and without a care. Answer me now, schweinehunde! I’ve got a lot of tourists to question!
And I’ve met a lot of beggars in my time, but if you want to take up begging as an occupation and shrug off the rules of society then at least have a fucking USP. Hers is rudeness. I’ve seen beggars in worser condition than her, and maybe she has no choice, but nobody’s going to give you any dosh if you’re not nice. It costs nothing to be polite, even if money sometimes maketh manners where there were none before. I don’t give her anything, The words are on the edge of my tongue but I have the presence of mind to just look at her stupidly and shake my head. “German?” she ventures. I shake my head, and she moves, barges, karate rolls, on.
Berlin is many colours, as any city is. But it’s grey in the sense that it doesn’t have the soft of Starburst™ primary and neon colour explosion of a place like Tokyo, Seoul or Bangkok, or Hong Kong. It’s strangely smell-less too – Munich smelt like shit the last time I was there, and HK smells like boiled stomach. Singapore smells like the forest, a heavy, wet and green smell you notice only when you come back home.
Muted, is the word, except when in the green grass and bright sunlight outside the old Reichstag, then it comes alive.
There’s a long green corridor that runs what seems like the entire length of the city centre. I’m probably wrong, but you can’t blame me. All I know of Berlin now is the U2 video, blindly following a GPS, walking around the city centre and taking a train to a far off industrial estate. We swing by that green hall on the way in, I noticed it through the windows of the shuttle, that’s why I hate travelling by car some times, and thought I should go give it a gander.
Why Berlin is such a cultural city reason #3: I make a wrong turn out of the hotel and immediately trip over four or five more museums, monuments of interesting places…who knew the Musical Instrument Museum was only a block away? But I do find that green corridor.
It’s always a pleasure when you walk into the forest. Like I said, Berlin (in summer, at least) has undergrowth to match the rest of them, it’d take Kuala Lumpur on in a straight up ‘who’s got more weed’ fight no worries whatsoever, climate be damned. It’d lose the Bangla and Ah Tiong fight to KL and the Pore though. The park seems more like a wood that’s decided to exist in the middle of the city. I cross over behind the immense Sony Centre, which is opposite my hotel, and cross the road, watching for maniac cyclists (I am becoming a native! And restless.) my feet translate from concrete to grit. All the paths in the park are gravel or dirt paths and that’s the way it should be. It’s a uniquely Singaporean conceit to create tons of parks and green zones and then pave the fucking things. I walked in there to get away from the urban sprawl you arse eejits.
But it’s lovely how trees mask out the world. Cutting through the glass and geometry which channels the wind even stronger, funnelling it, until my coats flapping around like Batman, the stillness and quietness of the green is still amazing. The wind diffused by the trees, leaves, shrubs, and where the medium is turned into rivulets so is the noise of the outside world. The traffic and the snarling bicyclists fall away and the only sound left is the noise of my feet on the path.
Occasional mud and then the park opens up into a wide field and trees built in that uniquely temperate way. Green, fine grass all over, except where the trees are, dead leaves underneath, you walk beneath without having to fear a boiling army of invertebrates clambering up your feet. There’s an exhibition of stones sitting cow-like, plastered across the grass. One circle of seven or eight boulders, each about the size of a refrigerator, with brilliantly polished tops and feel cold, smooth and almost living. Some enterprising Berliners have been using them as an entertainment centre - beer bottles litter the floor. Speaking of entertainment, past a bench I find not one, but two condoms, one pink and one the granny-bra colour, all floppy and spent on the floor. They’re strangely empty.
A few people are in attendance; a lady playing fetch with her Jack Russel, three women having a picnic, the occasional intrepid cyclist and jogger, a man in a blazer walking quickly by. I pick the most obvious path and continue on my way, Berlin offers up its secrets. Undergrowth again, thick, purple flowers and dandelions, and fields of bees. I spy a rabbit in the park, a real-life brown rabbit, not the domestic abandoned ones I keep seeing in Singapore. It’s smart enough to know I intend it from the way I cock my head. A few steps after I see it, it’s gone, bolted back into the undergrowth. The Nazis hunted for Jews the way Ahab hunted Moby Cock, the way Winnie the Shit hunts honey. That is to say, it’s not just the doing, or the object, but the under-the-skin, it’s personal sort of vendetta that’s not so much about the hunted as the hunter himself. I exit the park and I come straight to the Jewish Memorial. I thought it was much further away, but the scale and size of the thing means I have to cross the road go touch it for myself.
No prizes for guessing what colour it is. It’s abstract, architectural and alienating. It does represent six million deaths, after all. It’s like a cemetery, but not. Imagine a keyboard with regular shaped but slightly more flat oblongs, arranged all in a perfectly aligned grid. Now imagine the keys are all of different heights and that you’re an ant walking the troughs between them. That’s what the memorial is like. The centre furrows into the earth, so the columns sprout from foot height to well over three metres. Sight down the perfectly-spaced rows and people blink past, here and then gone, before you can eyeball them properly. Much like ghosts. You ever heard the story of the man who saw a shadow at the corner of his eye? Like something flitting away at the edge of peripheral vision. One day his eye caught up with it and he was scared to death. The stones being so low it I didn’t even realise I was stepping on them, and the urge to hop from one to another like the Giant’s Causeway was unquenchable so I did. I wanted to hop all the way to the middle, the distance between each stone wasn’t near, but not far either, and it was a long drop down. I thought the better of it, it’d be disrespectful, so I hopped away. But everyone else did it too.
Life jumps up and gets away, despite everything, wars, murders, programmes of ethnic cleansing. In 1936 Adolf said to his homeys, I want to kill rule the world, kill all Jews, homosexuals, communists and bleeding heart liberals. I want you to make a car that everyone can afford while you’re at it. Fast forward fifty years and old Adolf’s wonder machine has become a cult classic because of its cute shape and relative affordability. And who loves it more than Jews, homosexuals, communists, liberals and artistic type? We shit on your grave Adolf. England prevails.
Do not grieve at the passing of mortality,
for life’s but a thing of terrible gravity.
And the planets gravitate around you,
and the stars shall dance about you,
and the angels in heaven adore you,
and the saints all stand and applaud you.
So faraway, so faraway and yet so close.”
- Nick Cave, ‘Faraway, So Close’