Days 4, 5 & 6 – Berlin
The journey from Cologne to Berlin was my first longish trip, 6 hrs in all. The first hour or so was a bit boring and I got restless thinking about the hours ahead but the creaking sound of the train moving, and also the rushing of the wind, soon lulled me into a sense of semi-meditative lassitude as I snoozed, nibbled, sipped or watched the world go by. Towards the end of the journey, the sunset was spectacular. The train carriage had huge windows, much larger and deeper than any I had seen before, so the view was great. Another bonus was that my fellow passengers were as quiet as church mice. Not a peep out of them. About an hour from the destination, a guy behind me started talking on his phone, a wee bit loud perhaps. Several several heads swivelled in his direction without out as much as a tut being issued. This seemed to have a moderating effect on him as he lowered his voice to a conversational tone and silence descended again.
We arrived, right on time of course, at just after 9:30pm. I entered the name of the hostel in my phone, in Google maps, and popped the phone into my shirt pocket and followed the voice prompts. The journey was about 1.5km, a mile or so in old money. I wanted to walk to shake out the kinks of the longish train journey but was a bit worried that my bag might be a bit too heavy as this was my first extended walk with the pack on my back. I shouldn’t have bothered. It felt as light as a feather. OK, a LOT of feathers but still perfectly doable.
Did you know what happens if you drop a bunch of feathers and a bowling ball from a great height in a vacuum? See HERE and let Brian Cox show you.
I stayed at a hostel called The Happy Hostel! (I’m sure it sounds better in German). It was an old apartment block built in typical old German style with high ceilings, big windows and excellent craftsmanship visible in nearly every detail. It looked like a scene from the UK movie, “Christopher and his Kind” There were 3 bunks of 6 beds in my dorm. I arrived at 10pm so lights were out. Luckily there was only 1 other person in the room so I just chucked my stuff on the top bunk, grabbed my kindle and read for about 30mins before going spark out. Hypnos and Morpheus nestled me close to their bosoms that night and I awoke the next morning at 7am feeling refreshed and full of interest to revisit Berlin.
The hostel was quite basic but spotlessly clean and run with that demented fervour that seems to typify many German work practices. I thought I would be ok with sharing with people I didn’t know but it didn’t really work that way. The one in Köln was OK as it was just for a night and I met and connected with the guy already there. Berlin was a bit different. The security wasn’t that good and I didn’t feel confident that my stuff would be safe with strangers around. Working for so long in the criminal justice area seems to have heightened my suspicions. After the 2nd day I was asked to move to a different dorm with more beds. Bugger that, I said and asked to be moved into a single room. This was much more expensive but not excessively so and I spent my last day and night in my own room. What a joy to be able to spread all my belongings around the room and not have to restrain them in my pack all the time. No more hostels for me. Anyway, from Moscow onwards, hotel rooms are quite cheap and very cheap indeed in Central Asia. So there.
I went and had breakfast in a local restaurant that had an agreement with the hostel. A continental breakfast, ugh. A bit boring but probably much healthier that a typical Irish fry-up. Long distance travel depends on different types of motion. The train takes the strain in one sort of motion while regular muesli and brown bread prevents the strain in the other kind of motion. If you get my drift. I had two bowls of muesli to ensure regular coincidence of motions.
I dropped off my main pack at reception and put all my valuables into my zip-off day pack and went forth to rekindle my relationship with my old flame, Berlin.
I remember falling in love with Berlin, when last here. It had a radical independent and edgy feel to it. I even thought about moving there but decided to put my recovery first and stay in London. It was surprisingly green with lots of open spaces and parks. The largest is called the Tiergarten or animal garden, and is full of history.
Some interesting factoids: The first Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sex Research) of Magnus Hirschfeld was situated at the former In den Zelten street, near the contemporary Haus der Kulturen der Welt, from 1919 until it was closed by the Nazis in 1933. Those of you who were involved in the gay world of Dublin in the 1980s might remember the Hirschfeld Centre in Temple Bar. In 1979 the National Gay Federation (NGF) was established there. Named after the above mentioned German sexologist and gay rights reformer Magnus Hirschfeld the centre was the first full-time lesbian and gay community venue in Ireland. It provided a place to meet, a café, a small cinema and a disco named ‘Flikkers’. The centre also offered an information and advice service called ‘Tel-A-Friend’, aimed at helping people to come to terms with their sexuality. The word flikker is a pejorative term in The Netherlands for gay and translates as faggot or poofter. Like the word queer in English, it has been reclaimed by the LGBT community although it doesn’t have the wider non-normative context of queer theory. Anyway, I lived in Amsterdam for most of the 1970s and became active in the gay world there and was subsequently very aware of the word flicker. Imagine my delight when I came across a gay disco called Flikker in grey, grim, grimy Dublin of the 1980s
JM&J*, I don’t half ramble. Must be an old guy thing.
Another factoid about the Tiergarten. On 24 July 2008, Barack Obama spoke at the Victory Column in front of a crowd of over 200,000 people. So there. Although JFK didn’t give his famous speech there, that was nearby and in 1963, the most memorable phrase he used was Ich bin ein Berliner. I had to get it in somewhere.
The last time I was in Berlin was in 1986. I had returned from a long overland trip to and through India the previous year. I was living with a man called Steve who was my first lover since entering recovery. He had studied for his masters degree in philosophy at some German university and still had a lot of German friends. One of them, a woman whose name I cannot remember and who had previously spent time with us in Brixton, invited us to come and visit herself and her boyfriend at her apartment in Berlin. Their back garden was the infamous Wall, still very much standing at that point. They were very good hosts and brought us all around the city.
For those of you young enough not to have been around when the Iron Curtain split Europe in half, Berlin was divided into West and East Berlin and was also stuck in the middle of East Germany, the Deutsche Demokratic Republik commonly called the DDR or GDR. It was a seriously scary police state with a huge repressive arsenal of informers, interrogation centres, prisons etc. The main way in and out was by air and people were regularly shot for trying to escape. A road corridor was also possible with an armed convoy from border to border. Apparently, if you stopped, you were shot. We flew in, changing at Frankfurt. I don’t remember which airport we used. I hope it was Tempelhof, a very iconic place
I remember catching the U-Bahn (or S-Bahn, not sure which) from West to East Berlin. Once the train crossed under the Wall, all previous stations were sealed off and not in use. There was only one exit station and that was like being in the middle of an army camp. All the security and passport checking was carried out there. I still remember the eerie feeling of passing through deserted stations which still had old advertising posters from World War 2, and the early occupation, in heavy old fashioned Gothic typeface. There were several vopos or Volkspolizei on guard duty at each station. Vopos were the much hated state security police.
Following security screening we were allowed into the east but not before we were obliged to change 25 Deutschmarks into Oostmarks at a 1 for 1 official exchange rate. The black market rate was 10 times higher. Not that you spend them anyway, there was nothing to buy. It was like going back to the 1950s. It was unbelievably grey and depressing. The contrast between east and west couldn’t be more pronounced and I understood immediately why people took such huge risks to escape from this totalitarian state. I have sympathy today for the poor desperate people trying to escape from the war, hopelessness and poverty of North Africa or the Middle East. It’s the same old sorry process. Indeed, it occurred for centuries in my own country and in my own lifetime.
I’m rambling again!
On the way back from east to west, I exited through Checkpoint Charlie. First stop was the Vopo who checked my passport. Now, in those far-off innocent days, the Irish passport was very simple. It was just a cardboard cover with regular printed pages. The photo was just stuck on with glue and stamped with an ordinary ink stamp. Very simple and very forgeable. Apparently, intelligence agencies such as Mossad and the CIA were forging them quite a lot.
So, little old me meandered along to this praetorian guardian of the GDR and presented my ah sure it’ll be grand passport. I could easily have been a spy or an escapee or even Jesus himself trying to flee the christians. This enormous brutish scary Vopo looked at my passport, looked at me, looked at my passport again, put it down on the desk and just stared at me. It was extremely intimidating. I guess he was trying to break me, should the passport be false. I knew he had the power to make me disappear into the vast prison system of the GDR or worse. Anyway, after what seemed like hours, he waved his hand at me and barked Raus or Out. The word sounds awful in German. I gladly escaped and entered the American section and caught the eye of a cute young American soldier. Such things used to happen, back in history. I wished he would interrogate me instead but this was sadly not meant to be.
I have a great little app in my phone called Google Trips. It gathers together all reservation details and combines all into a ‘trip’ It also highlights interesting places to visit and makes itineraries for 1, 2 or 3 day trips. I originally intended to follow this and see all the major sights but soon decided that what I really like doing in a new place is sitting in a coffee bar reading and watching the people, soaking up the atmosphere. I’m intrigued by how different people relate to each other’s and what the place ‘feels’.
I also like travelling around on buses and trams and again getting a local person’s perspective on a city, in so far as I can. I got a daily travel card and zoomed around Berlin, from edge to edge, getting a felt sense of the city. There’s another great app called Moovit and this greatly simplifies travelling around.
The only touristy thing I did was visiting the Bauhaus Archive. I did this because I love Bauhaus design but also because I went there with Steve the last time I was here. Steve introduced me to a love of art, especially modern art. Steve died in 1994, shortly after my father died, so visiting the Archive was a sort of pilgrimage to his memory and spirit. I recognised many of the exhibits in the permanent collection and there was also another exhibition of modern everyday articles inspired by Bauhaus. When I was last there, they had an exhibition of painters associated with the Bauhaus. I remember seeing Kandinsky and Klee for the first time and being very excited by their art.
A strange thing happened there. I noticed a young man looking at the exhibits and for a moment, I thought it was Steve. This was a real shock and I felt my jaw drop and stomach churn. His profile was uncannily like Steve’s. I saw him again in the restaurant as I was having a meal and I could observe him more closely. He stood very like Steve used to and did the same funny thing with his hand under his jaw Steve used to do. This can’t be, I thought to myself. For a brief second I questioned my sanity but this was all quite real. The lad spoke German and was with an irritated looking Asian woman. I did the maths. I knew Steve dabbled with bisexuality when he was a student but this lad was too young to be his son. He developed HIV when working in San Francisco in late 70s so the youngest any son could be would be around 40yo. This lad was nowhere near that. It’s possible though, mathematically, that he might be his grandson. I was tempted to talk with him but hadn’t time to devise a plausible story. Then they left and I left and Steve remained with me. Spooky, eh
I broke up with Steve shortly after our return from Berlin and next I saw him was a photograph in Capital Gay or Gay Times, can’t remember which. The photo was captioned ‘Gay man with AIDS meets Princess Diana and Barbara Bush’. It was taken in Middlesex Hospital in London. He died shortly afterwards and I never got to see him again.
I got talking with a German lad who was in my dorm. His name was David and he had just completed a masters in logistics in Munich University and was in the process of moving to Berlin for a job. I was asking about his experiences of German identity and what does he feel to be essential elements of Germanness. He said that he feels more European than German and the only time he really feels German is during an international football match but that this is very transitory. He spoke a lot about inclusion and tolerance. I understand this narrative and it can be seen played out in modern Germany. I was wondering if there was a shadow to this tolerance and if German history had left a mark on collective and individual consciousness. However, he got increasing anxious as I followed this line of questioning. So I stopped.
It made me think though of the excellent job Germany has done in coming to terms with its past and transforming this into something positive and constructive. Very few countries have done this and many could be viewed as victims of their past and not victors like the Germans. I’m halfway through the abridged version of the Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solschenizyn. What happen in Russia during the Soviet times is a monstrous crime against humanity. There are many other parallels in world history but apart from occasional statements of mild regret, or vengeance by the winners, very little true repentance seems present or willingness to change society so that the past might never happen again. The Germans have excelled in this. They certainly have taken an inventory of past wrongs, expressed remorse and made amends and continue to take inventory to prevent relapse to past horrors. But I wonder if they have rejected the dark side of their psyche as well. This never bodes well.
That’s it possums. Next stop Warsaw for 5 days and then to Minsk in Belarus before I arrive in Russia for the real start of my trip. I continue to pay homage to Sinatra while paying lip service to Nietzsche and Kant. I’ll write more about Poland when I’ve left as I seem to have a better perspective then.
Please feel free to comment so I don’t think I’m talking to myself. Sorry, what was that. Oh, that…
* JM&J = Jesus, Mary and Joseph