Monday, 8 October 2012

Achtung Gadgie - Return to the Divided City

So it was Friday night, I was in the Aussie Bar which is next to the Irish Bar, drinking a rusty nail or two...and I just didn't know what I was going to do with myself for the weekend. I chatted with the barmen about this and that. The South African chap (for some reason I can't remember) mentioned that it was only about a 5 hour drive to Berlin.

Really? Only 5 hours? I didn't think it was that close.

The seed of an idea planted itself in my head. I have lived in Berlin, albeit many, many years ago (late '70s to early '80s), and haven't been back since the wall came down. I have wanted to go back and see it, but have never had the chance or got round to it. So why not now? If I left early enough in the morning, I'd be there by lunchtime and could come back Sunday evening. I did a quick check on a hotel website and found some really good deals. The seed was now a tree, and I was pretty much decided. I was going.

The drive there was horrendous. I had a map and my blackberry with google maps on it, but still got lost around Bremen, and the weather was awful. It rained constantly all the way. It took me more like 7 hours, and I was done in when I got to the hotel at about 4pm. The hotel was situated about 20km south east of the city centre. I decided not to go in that night, instead having a nice meal and a couple of drinks. I would get up early, head into the city and then drive back.

So that's what I did. It was cloudy and cold in the morning, but not raining. I drove in towards Alexanderplatz, which was pretty much a straight-line drive. I passed mile upon mile of communist-era buildings such as apartment blocks and office blocks, all square and uniform. I was in what used to be East Berlin. For me, this was a strange feeling. Back in 1979 or whenever, as a young child/army brat, I'd lived in a part of the city that was effectively an island of West Germany in the East. We were completely surrounded by hostile forces. As a kid I wasn't really aware of the significance of it all, only knowing that my father had to jump out of bed in the dead of night every so often when a military vehicle came past our street with a megaphone-amplified voice shouting something about Rocking Horses or something. When I think about it now, it gives me the creeps.

I finally approached Alexanderplatz along Karl Marx Strasse (I think), noticing the olive-on-a-stick shape of the TV Tower (or Fernsehturm in German) emerging from the clouds. I know it well; my mother has an ornamental block of glass with a miniature version of the tower etched in it. I found an underground car park and was soon on foot, walking towards Unter Den Linte in the general direction of the Brandenburg Gate. I wasn't sure how far it was, having only a small map I'd picked up at the hotel. I wondered if I'd have to take some form of transport at some point. The place was quiet, but coffee shops were open, and I stopped for a coffee and a croissant.

When I came out onto the street again there were more people around. I walked past a couple of souvenir shops and dived into one to buy a few nick-nacks for home, including a fridge magnet with a piece of the wall on (or so it said). A few shops along I spotted the office for a bus tour company. I was starting to think that all the things I wanted to see were miles apart. The price for a tour of all the major tourist sites wasn't too bad, and I could hop on and off as I liked, so I paid the lady and waited for the bus to come (they come every 10 minutes). It was an enclosed double-decker, but I was thankful for the warmth.

The bus moved along the road and over a river, past a series of grand, neo-classical buildings. I spotted the familiar shape of the Brandenburg Gate in the distance, but the bus took a right before the gate and stopped right next to the enormous Reichstag. I hopped off, readied up the camera and set off on a walk. I went back towards the Gate, passing a collection of white crosses on a fence that was near the old line of the wall. All the crosses bore names, obviously of those who died trying to get from the East to the West. Chris Gueffroy was the last person to die trying in February 1989, only a matter of months before the borders were opened and the wall started to fall.

At the Brandenburg Gate there were hundreds of people milling around taking pictures, and a group of young men dressed in US military uniform posing with some tourists (for a small fee). The gate had some ugly metal fencing near it, making picture-taking a bit of a pain. I think there had been a concert at the other side, having spotted a few scaffold structures being dismantled through the gaps between the columns. I returned to wait for the bus. Once on again, I relaxed and watched Berlin pass me by. We passed all the new government buildings and embassies and the shiny new central railway station. Then we went past part of the enormous tierpark (city centre park) towards the Charlottenburg Area. We turned onto Kurfurstendam and I decided it was time to hop off again. There were a few sites to see here, and I was hungry anyway. I spotted the Hard Rock Cafe a little way along the road and made a beeline for it. I nearly fainted when I saw a Trabbant car in the corner, covered in coloured squares. It was one of the cars used as promotion by U2 for their album Achtung Baby, recorded in Berling's Hansa Studios back in 1990/1. I took a photo, naturally, then ordered some food. It came really quickly, was eaten far too quickly and I was soon back on the streets.

The Blue Church, or Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, is one place I remember seeing from my previous time in Berlin. It was damaged in WW2 and had been added to in the 1960s, with distinctive blue glass on the new belfry. I was a tad gutted when I turned the corner to see it covered in temporary cladding. It's obviously undergoing some repair works. So I waited for the tour bus again and hopped back on. We started heading back towards the central area, and the recorded tour guide told me on my headphones that we were heading for Potsdamerplatz. The square had been essentially the central square of Berlin for years up until WW2, when it was pretty much leveled by bombing (as much of the city had - up to 75%). During the Cold War years it stood in no-man's land, desolate and neglected. When the wall came down it had new life breathed into it and is now a huge glass-covered area, surrounded by new office buildings, shopping malls and cinemas. I do remember climbing up to a public viewing platform and looking over the wall when I was a kid, and the area I saw was probably this very place. I remember how grey and dull the East looked. Now it was unrecognisable.

We drove past the Jewish Museum, the tour guide telling us about the symbolism of the zinc panels and windowless towers, then passed a stretch of the old Berlin wall, but there was no chance to get off (annoyingly), so I had to snap the wall from the bus as we drove past. It is now a museum piece, protected from what the Germans call "wall woodpeckers" who still come to chip off souvenirs from it. Reinforcement bars can be seen here and there, and most of the graffiti on the Western side has gone.

The next stop was Checkpoint Charlie. I hopped off again and went for a look. It obviously wasn't the original structure but a small wooden hut with some replica signs on it. The Checkpoint I remember was a larger, flat-roofed building. There was a McDonalds and a Starbucks right next to it now. The obligatory uniformed men stood in front of the hut, charging for snaps. The more interesting part was a large wooden hoarding just past the checkpoint where a history of the wall had been printed, detailing how the city had been divvied up after the war, then how the wall had been built in 1961 to stop the Eastern German economy losing all its human assets, going on to tell the story of the Cold War and how the communist states started collapsing in late 1989, the wall came down and Germany became one again in 1990.

I gave up on the bus after that. I didn't want to miss anything else. I decided to walk back to Alexanderplatz, and I'm glad I did. I saw some incredible examples of churches, libraries and university buildings, all restored to their former glory. The streets were now alive with tourists and the sun was shining on the autumnal trees. I passed an area of grass near a river bank with some kind of urban artwork in the shape of dozens of giant lollipops stuck into a map that had been painted on the floor.

I eventually got back to my car, walking back past the TV tower which was now shining in the sun. I decided I had time to go back to Charlottenburg, the district where I lived more than 30 years ago. I knew it was till there; I remembered the name of the street (the streets around there were all named after famous authors) and had looked it up on google maps. It took me nearly half an hour to get there, even though it was a straight-line drive most of the way. The city is just huge. I turned a couple of corners and was suddenly back on a street I hadn't been on for over 30 years. It didn't look like it had changed a lot. The primary school I went to was still there as well, just at the end of the street. It is now simply The Berlin British School rather than Charlottenburg Primary, but it didn't look to have changed much. I wonder if they still have the huge metal slide that went down the wooded hill at the back...

I took a quick snap on the phone camera, trying not to look like a snoopy weirdo, then set off for "home". I had a long way to go, but I had to do it. The drive took less time that the previous day, with the weather being better and my paying more attention to maps and directions, and I got back to the flat in Groningen at 10.45pm

I'd driven 700 miles and taken a few pics on the face of things, but it was more than that. Not only did I avoid another weekend of terminal boredom, I revisited a place that has changed incredibly in just 30 years, seeing a place I once knew through older and (I hope wiser) eyes. Berlin is a city of amazing, unparalleled history, and a place that has encapsulated world events for a good deal of the last century. When you think about what has happened there, World War 2 and the Cold War and all, it astounds you that it is now such a vibrant place full of life and wonderful architecture. I'm not going to wait another 30 years to go back...

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