East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet…
We flew in to Berlin on Easter Sunday and took the S-bahn from the airport to Savigny Place, off Kurfurstendam. Berlin itself has been reborn, once more, and though sundered for years still shows the yolk and white of one egg. Snaking east to west across the city the S-bahn gives a near aerial view and we float over allotments and markets, decay and development. Startling examples of the ancient stand beside the modern. There are rivers and canals and graffiti spreads sinuously all along the line. We alight near our hotel and the first restaurant we see is titled, appropriate to our magic carpet ride: Ali Baba’s.
Berlin is a very political city, you cannot travel through it without having your opinion jolted in some way. It’s in the scar tissue of the Wall, the sometimes subtle, sometimes brutal contrasts and often oddly similar manifestations of two radically opposed social systems. It is in the people and the things that they say, their determined and avid valediction of freedom. It is in the air. Our cartoon version of Germans addicted to the term ‘verboten’ is misplaced. The atmosphere is liberal and relaxed. In bars and restaurants people lounge, laughing and smoking. No one smites the air or mimics asphyxiation. Berliners are less given to panic and disapproval than us, and they’ve survived some serious history.
Again we are airborne in the television tower rising from the Mitte in the old east. It is a giant cocktail skewer, its silver fruit being the giant orb with revolving restaurant. Over beer and snacks, no dearer here in the stratosphere than down below, Berlin spins slowly beneath us. Another journey into the sky as evening fades sees us spiral up inside Sir Norman Foster’s glass dome at the Reichstag. We look down into the parliament chamber of modern Germany, giving us a giddy feeling of power to go with the vertigo.
Water is another medium of travel through the city. You can take cruises through its system of rivers and canals and past some of its most notable sights. We travelled from east to west beginning where a large 70’s pile, the communist People’s Palace, is scheduled for demolition. Nearby, the Berlin Dome, with its peculiar mix of classical and baroque, Protestantism with a Catholic flourish, is lovingly restored. We pass Museum Island where later we will visit the Pergamon with its reconstructed palaces from ancient Greece and Persia.
Oskar the guide gives a leisurely commentary. He lives with his dog Lucky whom he had rescued from the pound. Not originally from Berlin – he would never even visit West Berlin in the time of the Stasi – he worries about the erosion of human and canine freedom. A proposal to have all dogs on leads at all times would be the end. It’s gay government, he says, explaining that it conjures up a vision of people and poodles mincing along in the park. More of that, he says, and he’s off. He shows us a picture of Lucky. We ask him to recommend a restaurant. Ali Baba’s, he says.
East Berliners voted with their feet, or tried to. Ultimately, in their Ladas and Trabants, they poured across the Hungarian border, an echo of their barbarian ancestors who had poured across the Rhine fifteen hundred years before. Again an empire fell and in popular symbolism it was the Wall tumbling down. You can buy crumbs in souvenir bags and bottles – the grey, blank east and the technicoloured graffitied West. Here and there some remnants remain.
Near Checkpoint Charlie a museum runs through several buildings and documents the escape routes taken over the years. A Trabant occupies the floor with a cutaway showing a manikin of one escapee. The Wall ran between families and lovers. One man, marooned in the west, married his lover’s doppelganger, took her east on a visit, left her there and absconded with his lover on his wife’s papers. Others just ran for it. Not everyone made it.
There is never time for all the stories of Berlin, but they persist. At the Jewish Museum the story begins in the dark ages and gets darker still. Not many escaped the holocaust either. In Libeskind’s building there is a chasm-like concrete room, filled with distant noise and the rattle of metal skulls underfoot.
The scar tissue is healing but it won’t vanish. Why should it? It is the wrinkles and cuts of experience that give us meaning. On Kurfurstendamm the spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedachtniskirche raises a shattered finger of defiance. The church itself is now a modernist bowl of blue glass. We light a candle. Outside we eat kebabs by the fountains amongst Berliners, immigrants and tourists. I feel very much at the centre of Europe and with Europe at a crossroads.
On the bus through the Tiergarten an old woman talks to me. She is wearing badges and bags from radical shops. She knows Synge and Shaw and says she feels that the tide is turning to the people and that an age of meaning is at hand. Perhaps she’s right, perhaps it is.
This trip was taken ten years ago. The photographs were probably our last pre-digital.