Part II: Home Away From Home

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
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Trip End Mar 09, 2008


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Flag of Germany  ,
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Berlin is beginning to feel like home. Regular coffee shops, familiarity with the Metro, learning where the non-paid public toilets are: its all becoming second nature.

Six months have now passed of us being on the road. We can now tell you with assurance that the moral taught in 'Trading Places' is correct to the smallest detail: take people who have lived the fat and happy life, remove their comforts, and they - we - I - become street folk.

We have had inklings of this time and again over past months, but the moment was crystallised in a few minutes at the Pergamon Museum. Here I found myself wearing an odd assortment of clothes as its been cold, blisteringly cold, for a few days, and I am poorly equipped for this - so numerous shirts go on under a fleece jacket which has seen better days. It doubled as a chair in India a few times, and that is something you can't wash out. Since doing that, I have yearned for Jon Harker to come knocking at my door for the Napisan Doorknock Challenge, at which point I would thrust the garment forward with a cry of "Checkmate, Mr Harker".

So my clothes have... character. In this state of attire I was using the Pergamon's rather excellent washroom facilities to wash the vegetable component of our lunch, being diligent to remove any trace of pesticides which give 9c tomatoes "that" smell. I noticed the look of disdain from an actual museum visitor over the production line I had going, but the more surprising thing to me is that the look I returned back was simply one of "don't even be thinking of stealing my tomato buddy, I've got eyes in the back of my head y'know".

Homelessness, now, while not a mirthful subject, is now much more understandable and rational to me, where I used to wonder how people got in that state (excluding the mentally ill). You start out paying for accommodation away from your normal home. After a while you figure you can skip the odd night staying in an airport terminal or a train station. Do a few nights like that in a jacket you have carried through India and you are only one step away from looking at shopping trolleys as a just plain sensible way to carry all your belongings.

Berlin has justified our decision to extend our time here, with every day still bringing new worthwhile sights that we are keen to see.

The aforementioned Pergamon museum had two majestic features: The Altar of Pergamon (uncovered in Turkey) and the Ishtar Gate (the gate to Ancient Babylon, now Iraq). In each case the German government and their curators went to great pains to point out that they asked permission of the respective local governments before digging, before expatriating the ruins, and in how they displayed it. Having been reading about the treasures of The British Museum (as we will be in London at the end of the month), I was struck by the magnitude of the contrast, with the British Museum taking far more of the Schapelle Corby-esque approach of "look, that Rosetta Stone was not in my boogie board bag when I left, I guess someone just put it there."

Despite two great attractions, we were very glad to have headed to the Pergamon on its free admission night. Its odd, on reflection, to look at someone's life work extracting and reconstructing a massive monument from a great civilisation and then think "nice, but I'm glad we didn't pay six euro for it."

A second side to Berlin comes from the fact it was rebuilt in two halves. While the East Germans don't have a monopoly on building really ugly stuff, they have certainly attained a market dominance in pebblecrete structures. Even 20 years after the fall of the Wall you can still tell if you are in the old Eastern or Western halves just by looking at the buildings. Once or twice I have seized on something hideous as proof it was just the 1970s that were to blame, but on consulting the map we find we are on the eastern half of the old line of the wall.

One such structure that all Berliners remain immensely proud of is their TV Tower, 300m+ tall. It was built in the 1970's as a triumph of socialism 'look at the cool stuff we can build you fascists, come here for the good life... yep, just climb over the wall, ignore that'. It was plagued with problems that attract tourists to this day. First was that during construction it started to lean, and the (good) advice they got from the Soviets on correcting this was to call in the Swedes. The Swedes managed to get it standing vertically (in sort of kind of total secrecy), and it was triumphantly opened. But there was another problem.

That problem is the enormous gold ball that is the main part of the structure. Early on, the regime had been busily pulling down crosses all around the country as Walter Ulbrecht's Soviet government was officially atheist (even later, religion was tolerated more than embraced). But the refractive properties of large gold balls are such that the sun shining on it yields a large glowing crucifix. We actually saw this during some of the ten minutes of sunshine we had in Berlin... its uncanny.

Well, Walter was not happy. Questions were asked. It was resurfaced. It was repainted. Nothing worked. The chances of anyone seeing "the funny side" among a combination of Germans, Russians and Soviet planners was suitably slim and it cost First Secretary Ulbrecht his job. The tower is still nicknamed 'The Pope's Revenge' and less charitably 'Walters Last Erection'.

I am still forbidden from commenting on the Ampelmann phenomenon, and it is nigh on killing me. But Claude has decreed she is the piggy with that conch.

A long walk from the city centre, past numerous Ampelmenn, brought us to Pensioner's Bridge. In a variant on many states pension and superannuation funding policy options, it was here the East Germans brought the beautifully named group of "the elderly and other economically useless people" to the border zone and suggested that they may like a daytrip to West Berlin. And then locked the door.

We are able to discover all this as the Berlin State Government is an excellent provider of detailed multi language historical signage. You don't need to visit museums, you can visit places and the story will be told in detail. Now, I can see on reading this that it sounds like a cheapskate effort on the part of both the viewer and the provider, but its tremendously effective to be consuming the stories on the spot where it happened. Also quite funny to read the odd sign where a commemorative sign had existed but coalition communist members of the city council took it down. So they put a new sign up commemorating the sign that was there and making a very blunt point about local government.

Another place we visited was the Topography of Terror, built on the remains of various Nazi police state buildings. Less about Nazi architecture (which is a topic in itself), this explains how the state was legally structured to ensure their plans could be achieved. The most amazing thing I drew from this is that Himmler, Goering, Goebbels and the bulk of Hitler's leading apparatchiks had one thing in common. They were lawyers. I have always tended to think of them in parallel with the skinhead movement the are today the inspiration of, not as such educated people. Its quite a chilling reminder, as is the fact that of all the atrocities that have happened and continue to happen in the world today, this was the first to happen from the basis of a free and liberal democratic state. The point is well made as you read the sign staring at the remaining Nazi building (now the German tax office, as mentioned).

Each day we seem to have found ourselves at Cafe Adler, an expensive looking place that stares over Checkpoint Charlie. In years past it was inhabited by those coming and going through the barrier between East and West - and those who wanted to keep an eye on them or write about them. Amazingly, they have chosen not to profiteer from their history and position and it is a great place for lunch or their superb coffee (especially when the rain sheets down outside). They also do an absolutely special Bratwurst, sauerkraut and mash that I am making a good effort at living on.

Berlin, just like home but with better sausages.

* * *

Berlin.  What a first-rate city.  What an outstanding first impression.  It was on our first day wandering through the majestic Tiergarten park, passed the almighty Spiegsaule victory monument and towards a polished Berlin downtown that we decided that 7 days just wouldnīt be enough.

On day two we went on an organised walking tour around the city - most of you will be quite familiar with this tour as Iain has comprehensively plagiarised... ahem... I mean... summarised all four hours of it in Berlin #1.  The tour was led by an American girl, Charly, who had visited Berlin 10 months ago and completely fallen head over heels in love with the place.  She now lives here (and takes tours when she isnīt studying).  She was so effusive in her praise of the place, so energised with her descriptions and so engaging with her history that it was hard not to feel the same way she did about Berlin. 

Itīs an amazing city which is continuously tormented by all its history.  Donīt mention the war.  It was the cradle of Hitlerīs ruthless civilisation, responsible for two World Wars and millions of deaths and lets not forget the whole Communist bit as the country was split into East and West.  This is a city that, on the one hand doesnīt want to disrespectfully forget its insidious past, but on the other hand wants to move on and demonstrate that it is a modern city of new beginnings (and more than just a construct of its history).  This is Berlinīs unique dilemma.

Scraps of the Berlin Wall, relics of old buildings, bomb-damaged statues and bullet-ridden building facades are a constant reminder of the history this city has witnessed.  For example, near the main shopping drag along the cosmopolitan Kurīdamm, the bombed-out remains of the majestic Kaiser Wilhelm Church tower above Esprit, Zara and Burger King in a crazy juxtaposition of then and now.  Groups of hardcore Berliner skinheads, punks and gothics (all with obligatory large breed dog and 150 bottles of beer) lay strewn along the footpath in the shadow of various historically significant, grandiose monuments.

Complexity is also added by the fact that the wall only came down a short 17 years ago - wow I feel super-old saying that.  That is, in the lifetime of many of the cityīs citizens (and the cityīs tourists).  While Berlin has merged as one since the fall of the wall, it is still incredibly obvious which areas were formerly East and West.  There seems to also be residual East-West hostility illustrated by graffitti on the walls and the bitter debates that still rage today about buildings which might be restored, demolished or replaced depending on which side you came from.  Even down to the traffic lights.

The traffic lights in East Berlin look different to the traffic lights in West Berlin.  In summary, the traffic light man who tells you when its safe to cross, Ampelmann in Deutsch, has his own personality in the East.  When the wall came down the government was preparing to rip out all the East Berlin Ampelmenschen when the people cried out in protest.  People took to the streets and chained themselves to traffic lights campaigning tirelessly until the decision was reversed.  Now Ampelmann has taken on a life of his own.  He is a phenomena and a symbol of all things Berlin.  He has his own Tīshirts, bags, books, mouse pads, cups etc.  He even has his own Ampelmann shops.  

It was interesting for us to discover this as we had noticed the funny little men on the lights in certain parts of the city and were wondering why.  If you are curious as to why Iain was forbidden to tell this story, it is just because I knew he would write a lot about Berlin in his 2 entries and take all the good stuff before I got a chance to write - so I told him to keep his mitts off Ampelmann.  Thatīs it.  I promise.

What I love about Berlin is the zillions of free outdoor exhibitions.  You canīt possibly leave your visit to Berlin without accidentally having learned all about the cityīs history.  Checkpoint Charlie has a huge open-air exhibit, as does the Topography of Terror with exhibits mounted into the below ground ruins of the former SS Gestapo headquarters, there is the enormous outdoor Holocaust Memorial, the East Side Gallery on the longest surviving stretch of the wall and the Geschictsmeile Berlin Mauer with glassed marked history panels intended to soon cover the entire 160kms where the wall once stood.  It is done well and is a boon for tourism.

Iīm still loving practicing my German on all and sundry and between every few vaguely supportive "nice effort"s muffled through constrained chuckles, there will be one who responds in a constant flow of high speed German.  Just quietly, I am taking this as a compliment.  My vocabulary is growing daily as I stumble across words that I donīt know and need to look up.  For example: "himbeer" means rasberry, "spieg" victory, "rabbat" discount.  I can see how you could become fluent by living in a place as every spare moment on the train is spent reading signs, translating brochures and eavesdropping on German conversations.

Berlin has been a lot of fun and I think 2 weeks was the right amount of time to see the vast amount the city has on offer.  Our last day tomorrow shall be spent un-historically related at the German Technik Museum to understand all things scientific.  It will have to end with one last visit to Cafe Adler for some sausages, sauerkraut washed down with another perfect peach beer. 
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