…visiting Berlin then and now.
Trust me, if you’re a fan of Eddie Izzard that subject line is hilarious.
Anyway, in September as part of my jolly back to Europe while I waited for my visa and new contract, I went to Berlin for a week and roamed around having a lovely time with Asad:
It was a very different experience to the first time I made it to Germany’s capital which, while still lovely, was rather more impoverished and involved a lot more very sketch situations, all brushed off as good fun by 18-year-old me.
It was the tail-end of my gap year (darling) when I arrived in Berlin, bleary eyed and incredibly poor.
I had been on a sleeper train from somewhere in eastern Europe (where my rail pass was valid) to Germany (where it was not but hey ho, I got away with it.) I took sleepers a lot during that trip as it meant I got transport and accommodation in one.
By that point I had beach bummed and sofa-surfed my way around the Greek islands, had a minor heart attack at how expensive Italy was (we camped to save money, even in Venice. VENICE. It was damp), and mooched my way through eastern Europe, largely pretending to be Australian as it was the football world cup.
Battered by boats, trains and random bongo-playing Russians (that’s a different story), by the time I got to Berlin I was living on about €15-€20 a day, including accommodation.
This had been a trip when I had slept on beaches so I could afford to go to historical monuments and my diet consisted of bread and things people from whatever country I was in dipped bread into. And peanut butter.
So I arrived, an 18-year-old with a pack, a smaller pack, and shoes that were nearly worn through after nine months of walking everywhere that was less than a few miles away.
Walking past me on that platform in Berlin were three glorious-looking men in stilettos and sequinned dresses. Oh yeah, I accidentally arrived during Berlin Pride. An eye opener for a Yorkshire girl who had never travelled by herself before.
A tallied forth to the Heart of Gold youth hostel (a place I chose purely for the name, aided by the fact it was a snip at €8 a night and there was HOT WATER you guys) lugging my bags with me and making sure my hand-drawn map, copied from the screen of a computer in a dingy internet cafe was to hand.
Fast-forward ten years (and get over the fact that was a decade ago – I find alcohol helps with this) and we landed at a civilised hour after flying BA (something I never did for European flights ever – who needs food when your flight is less than four hours??) we took a taxi from the airport, using googlemaps and the guy’s satnav to make sure we ended up at our delightful, airy flat in Mitte.
We had found the place on air BnB and chosen it for its amazing decor, central location, good reviews and the fact that it had all this while still not topping what we were willing to spend – a sum reached in about 5 minutes without the use of a calculator and copies of our bank statements.
There were no transvestites (I was a bit sad about this) and our suitcases had wheels.
After a leisurely breakfast with the guy renting us the flat, I napped in a comfortable bed before preparing to see the sites, DSLR in tow.
Day one was spent walking and walking, we walked along the remains of the Berlin Wall, and around the old Stasi headquarters and the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, accidentally seeing some Andy Warhols on the way round. (Also a giant gold statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the monkey, which was weird.)
We walked across bridges and down side streets and watched the sun set and then walked to find somewhere to eat before realising it was getting really and we live in the desert. Then we got a metro home.
Not having to worry obsessively over how much I am spending on holiday is a liberating and relatively new experience. I know that, as long as I don’t stay in ridiculously expensive places, or eat at excessively pricey restaurants, I will pretty much be okay.
It is a good feeling, but it is made better by the fact that I know I can, and have, done it on practically nothing, having to count as I go, and sometimes choosing between food and culture.
From what I remember of my first visit to Berlin there was a lot of walking then as well, and considerably less metro. As in none. If I couldn’t walk it I didn’t go.
It turned out to be a very fun experience, made all the better as those months often were by the weird and the wonderful folk you meet at places that charge you €8 a night.
In this instance it was two Northern Irish boys who I can remember very little about, including their names, although the main thing you need to know is that they didn’t steal anything or hit on me so they are better than 70% of people in the universe.
They also had a tendency to go “Oh, that looks interesting” and wander off in a random direction.
By this method of zen navigation (I am very much channelling the late, great Douglas Adams in this post) we found a super dodgy bar that was on the top floor of a derelict building, the other floors of which were being used as a kind of urban art gallery, with graffiti and bits of wall missing where people had literally knocked the bit of art they wanted out of the plaster and taken it home.
The outer wall of the bar was missing and art-house films were projected across a vacant square and on to the side of the building opposite. Drinks were cheap, strong, and quite possibly moonshine.
Unfortunately at that point in my life my camera was the film one my mum had bought me when I was about 12, so the pictures I did take came out as nothing more than blurs. Although that might not have been entirely the camera’s fault.
My first time in Berlin, then, was essentially one big walking tour, just looking at things that were out in the open and, more importantly, free. Brandendurg Gate? Check. Checkpoint Charlie? Check. Reichstag dome? Check. Berlin wall? Check. Bunch of other stuff I don’t really remember? Check. Lots of very friendly, possibly high homosexuals? Double check.
I walked through parks and round woodlands and into what used to be East Berlin and peaked in to the windows of things I wanted to visit but couldn’t afford.
I didn’t, on that visit, reflect much on the identity of the city or its cultural memory. The Jewish Museum had only been open a few years and was prohibitively expensive by my standards and the holocaust memorial was not yet complete.
I knew as much about the world as any average 18-year-old knows, basically nothing, and somehow didn’t connect the things I learnt about in history with the city I was in and the windows I was peaking through.
I was out in the real world on my own for the first time. I was on a self-involved voyage of discovery (read, being a slightly pretentious wannabe writer who was attempting to go through a phase of ‘not liking shoes’ but in reality didn’t like having dirty and sore feet more.)
This time around I am pleased to say my awareness of the world has extended beyond my own bubble and I spent a lot more time reflecting on the city, and the fact that many of the things we think of as ancient history, the division of the city, the poverty and austerity and spying, were actually within living memory.
Asad and I went to the Jewish museum, which is beautiful and stunning and thought-provoking and you should go there. Now.
I read letters from concentration camps, but also letters from people who survived and were leaving for Israel and that opened up another floodgate of emotion. I looked at those pages from history, full of hope, and felt a sinking sorrow for what was to come.
Hindsight is not always a wonderful thing.
Something that struck me is that Berlin’s cultural memory is still very much in the negative. We walked through the Topographie of Terror exhibition about the rise of the Nazis, and on the way out I saw a sign for a new installation. I forget the exact name but it may as well have said “Coming soon: Another look at all the terrible things we did.”
I know it is important not to forget. It is important for every country to remember its mistakes so it does not repeat them. I especially appreciate the Soviet War memorial, built in 1949, and one of the only memorials I have seen the properly manages to convey the sheer number of fatalities suffered by the Russians.
But I also think it is time for the people of Berlin to start the bit where they move on and don’t repeat them.
We met up with a few German friends, and they were all young and smart and dynamic and doing good work and I look forward to visiting Berlin in another decade, when they are the ones in charge.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom and Stasi museums. Anish Kapoor was exhibiting and we spent a glorious few hours wandering around the installations being perplexed at how they worked.
The Modern Art Museum was a glory of colour, and our hunt for the best currywurst in Berlin (which turned out to be at Curry36) was a glory of slightly oddly flavoured tomato sauce.
We ate the best burger (at The Bird) and drank the best cocktails (which definitely were not moonshine or cheap, but they were strong.)
One afternoon we went with friends to a flea market in Mauerpark and watched karaoke from the bear pit, along with about 500 other people.
One of the last things we did was have breakfast in the Reichstag. The tours book up months in advance but you can book breakfast or lunch about a week ahead of time outside of tourist season, and once you are in the dome you can wander around at will.
It was that breakfast that made me realise how different my two visits had been. I have a memory of standing in the rain, looking up at the dome, and thinking “Holy crap that’s expensive to visit, I need to find a tree to shelter under or something.” (I was profound.)
This time it was still raining, but I was on the inside looking out.
It isn’t just about having disposable income. Eighteen-year-old me would probably have hated this trip, and somehow felt staying in a nice place was cheating. Twentyeight-year-old me (urgh) however, has stayed in enough crap holes to know that when a clean comfy bed with a bakery downstairs is available, you take it, because you don’t know when the next one is going to come along.