Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Thoughts From A Broad - Berlin

So here is the gratuitous holiday post, as promised/threatened. Berlin is one of the best places I've ever been. A really schizophrenic city with stern and imposing greyness, concrete and Eastern bloc austerity nestling up to tree-lined avenues, cobbled streets and gracious apartment buildings covered in colourful graffiti and anarchic slogans. I really liked that. I love graffiti - as long as it's not the 'Shuggy Woz 'Ere' type. That's just unimaginative. Berlin's graffiti is artistic and pretty. And it's not just random graffiti, there's also street art of the most brilliant kind. I've put a few pictures here (click on them to make them bigger), dotted through this post, as I loved it.

You'll turn a corner and there's a huge picture on the side of a building. I loved this one of a giant made up of lots of little people, snacking on a little person. Then there's the East Side Gallery. This is a 1.5km stretch of wall where artists were commissioned to paint pictures. Before the fall of the Wall, practically the whole of the west side was covered in pictures and writing. Nothing on the East (mainly because on the west side of the Wall was a 70m 'death strip' of no-mans land, barbed wire, and yet another wall), so when the Wall came down, to redress the balance, the East Side Gallery was created.
This picture shows the wall, death-strip, watchtower and re-enforcing wall. In the background is the ubiquitous Fernsehturm (see later) and the apartment building we stayed in.

Berlin is made up of a number of different sections - many of which we visited - and all of which have their own character and atmosphere. I loved every side of it.

One of the things which fascinated me was that you always knew whether you were in the old East Berlin or West Berlin. Only East Berlin had trams so if there are tramlines it's the old East Berlin. Oh, on the subject of transport, Berlin has a brilliant public transport system. Trams, trains, underground, buses - they are everywhere and really cheap. In fact, probably free, but don't tell anyone I said so. Unlike London, or Glasgow, where there are barriers everywhere, and people suspiciously looking at your tickets, in Berlin, there appears to be nothing. We went 6 days without seeing a ticket inspector on any type of transport. And there are no barriers. We'd bought tickets, and so did everyone else, it seemed, very dutifully. It was just that no-one wanted to see them. We were trusted to ride the underground or the trams responsibly. 'Buy a ticket if you like' the ticket machines seemed to say. And we liked.

The other thing that differentiates East and West is the pedestrian traffic lights. If you're in the old East Berlin, the little green men and little red men are wearing hats. You are lucky to see these photos. I nearly got mown down by a tram taking the red one.

For the first few days we were staying in an old Plattenbau - an apartment building made up of prefabricated concrete slabs. This one was the highest in the Mitte district of Berlin, a stone's throw (well, unless you chuck like a girl) from Alexanderplatz. It was built in the 60s to house the GDR dignitaries who could look out from their lofty heights and revel in the fact that their side of the wall was better than all that capitalist nonsense on the other side. Many of them still live in the same building, apparently. I wanted to approach any resident over 50 and ask them what it was like in the old days. Ewan, the spoilsport, wouldn't let me.

Our apartment was on the 21st of 24 floors. Stripped back to the naked concrete which, strangely, had been varnished, we were spared the ubiquitous GDR lino, but the apartment was decorated with a mixture of 60s and 70s furniture, a grey metal wardrobe that I'm sure used to be a Stasi filing cabinet, and the naked torso of a man. Not a live one, I hasten to add; although, quite frankly, I wouldn't have been surprised. It also had a raised platform so that we could survey the wonderful view. Well, I say 'we'. What I mean is, I could hang half out of the window and take photos of the Fernsehturm (Television Tower) while Ewan would sit whimpering as far as he could get from the windows and ask me pathetically when I was going to shut it and draw the curtains. It's probably not an ideal apartment if you are afraid of heights.

I needn't actually have leaned out - you can see the Fernsehturm wherever you are in Berlin, it seems. This was very handy for those evenings when we'd had a bit to drink and couldn't quite place where we'd ended up. As long as we headed in the direction of the Fernsehturm, we knew we'd find our way home eventually.

Platte Mitte was a wonderful place to stay. I want to go back and stay there again. Ewan says we will have to have separate apartments - mine on the 24th floor, his on the 2nd. Wuss.

The back wall of each of the lifts in the building were plastered with little cards for various different services - language lessons, plumbers, restaurants etc. One of them was for a Thai Massage. At the bottom it said 'Keine Erotik' (no erotic). Someone, on each of the cards in each of the lifts, had scribbled out the K, completely reversing the meaning.

I should point out here that my German has suffered from the passage of time. I studied it, all too briefly, 30 years ago. Ewan, on the other hand, has a degree in it and a German channel on his TV. I was nothing, though, if not game. I found I could understand a fair bit, it was only speaking it that I struggled with. I also caused some consternation when I got Urlaub and Urteil mixed up and told someone we were in Berlin on trial, rather than on holiday. Easy done, I'm sure you'll agree.

While Ewan was phoning for a carpenter to come and board up the windows of our aerie (at least, that's what he said he was doing, for all I knew, he could have been phoning a Thai masseuse. He did sound rather disappointed when he came off the phone. I guess it was, indeed, Keine Erotik), I went to investigate the bathroom. I'm not sure if this is typical of German bathrooms but, on the wall by the toilet were two taps. Just your normal hot and cold taps. Nothing fancy. The only thing was, they weren't actually attached to anything. I turned the cold tap - nothing. I turned it off and turned the hot tap on. Still nothing. I turned both of them on at once. Then off. Nothing. Although maybe, in the next apartment, some elderly Stasi officer was sitting on the loo, being sprayed - first with cold water, then with hot, then with both...

We arrived in Berlin at around 7pm and, after leaning out of the windows and turning on the taps, we went out to eat, followed by a wander up Oranienburgerstrasse - apparently home of hookers and hookahs. Here are pictures of both. Hopefully you can tell them apart. Hookers in Berlin are much better shod than those in Glasgow. The hookah, by the way, was apple flavoured. I thought it was just apples and water - apparently there's also tobacco in it. Whoops.

We also went into a place called Tacheles. It's a five storey building which was a former department store/cinema. It suffered damage during the war and towards the end of the GDR it was slated for demolition. However, before this could happen, and a couple of months after the wall came down it was basically squatted by a collective of artists and musicians.

The place is covered from top to bottom in graffiti. Even the toilets. It's now home to art galleries, workshops,exhibitions and a theatre and, at the top, a bar with sofas that have been written all over and whose stuffing is coming out. The bar sells beer, vodka and Jaegermeister - and that's about it. I can safely say that Jaegermeister is quite strong.

Before we went, I had researched with my 26 guide books where we wanted to visit. I had separate folders for every day, complete with maps and public transport routes. Ewan, who calls me Monty (after General Montgomery) because of the way I plan stuff, decided that my new nickname was Rommel - especially for the German campaign.

We had loads of things on our agenda. There are about a million museums in Berlin. We didn't make it to the marvellously named Museum of Things, but we did manage the Film and Television Museum, which was a great place.

The most fascinating part of it was a hall of mirrors type of arrangement. Apparently, we weren't supposed to take photos. Whoops. Too late. I'd already taken this one. We also went to the Musical Instrument Museum which was, for me, the only disappointment of the trip. Great looking building which had that GDR smell and was full of 1960s lights and decor, but it felt as though we were being watched like hawks, I don't know whether they thought I was going to stuff a tuba up my jumper, or that Ewan was going to sit down and play chopsticks on a 900 year old harpsichord, but it felt as if we were being stalked by a gang of elderly men. And, for a museum dedicated to music, it was awfully, awfully quiet.

One of the most thought-provoking places we visited was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - around 2700 concrete slabs, varying in height. Standing at the edge, it doesn't look very much, but as you go further and further in, you get a real feeling for the expanse of it and what it means.

We also went to the Ramones Museum - a tiny little place stuffed full of Ramones memorabilia - set lists, handwritten lyrics, newspaper cuttings, old ticket stubs, posters, Marky Ramone's old baseball boots, DeeDee's jacket, a water bottle thrown into the crowd by Joey...

So during the day we walked and walked, in the evenings we ate and drank. We ate at the most gorgeous vegetarian restaurant in Kreuzberg called Cafe V - highly recommended, even for non-vegetarians like me. We sat outside on the pavement tables (as we did for most meals - most places even give you blankets for when it gets a bit chilly) and watched the world go by - lots of families with children, young couples with dogs, an old punk guy who'd maybe stayed in Kreuzberg too long because he walked past us four times with no shoes on. We had Italian in trendy Prenzlauerberg, Spanish in quiet and leafy Schoeneberg, and French in another part of buzzing Kreuzberg. One night we stopped off at a nameless bar in Mitte and sat outside having a drink. Two German guys sat down on the other side of the table. After a couple of minutes one of them leaned over and said to me "What wine are you drinking?" "I dunno, it's red. And dry. And yummy." "I supply the wine here, would you like to try some? On the house?" Wine? On the house? I pushed across my glass. "Warum nicht." We spent the rest of the evening chatting and laughing with Chris and Florian. Really nice blokes. We had brilliant fun.

But Donna, I hear you say, what of the famous sights - the Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate? Yes, we saw all that, and I even took photos, but I thought I would just give you the random stuff. The things that took my fancy, the bits that seemed quirky or interesting. And there were plenty of those.

An example of the schizophrenic nature of Berlin is that on two consecutive days we visited two parks. The first of them - Goerlitzer Park - is in Kreuzberg. The ubiquitous graffiti, scruffy, informal, its only monument appears to be a huge, wonky, rusting metal M (no, I have no idea why). We stopped and watched part of a football match, there were dogs having sex, people sunbathing, children fighting. I saw a great photo opportunity which was 2 guys from the waist down behind the branches of a tree. I was just about to snap this interesting scene when one handed over money and in return got a small package. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour I decided that photographing a drug deal would not be wise.
The next day we visited a park about a kilometre away in the old East - Treptower Park, part of which is a very imposing monument to the Soviet soldiers who died. I didn't realise that, out of all the people who died in WWII, half of them were Soviet soldiers. It was showery the day we went, so we had the memorial almost to ourselves, and my photos came out all shiny due to the rain on the marble. It's a gorgeous place, and very thought provoking. 7000 Soviet soldiers are buried there. The tower at one end is topped off by an enormous metal statue of a Soviet soldier wielding a sword, carrying a child, and with his foot on a crushed Swastika.

Goerlitzer Park is like the scruffy elderly punk guy with no shoes and a wandering mind. Treptow Park is like a spruced up soldier with shiny shoes and buttons. Both of them have their charms, and were two of my favourite places in Berlin.

I've already talked about Hohenschoenhausen Prison. We visited this on what we termed Stasi Day, as it also included a trip to the Stasimuseum in the Lichtenberg district. This is a sprawling couple of blocks where Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi, had his headquarters, and where files were kept on what seemed to be almost every East German citizen. The place is now a museum - and has been almost since straight after the Peaceful Revolution in January 1990 during which the place was besieged by demonstrators who wanted the reign of terror over and who wanted access to their files.

After some negotiations, the ordinary people finally got access to their files. They can go in and read what was written about them, find out why they were stopped from getting a job, why university applications were turned down, why they were followed, why years of bad luck seemed to dog their every move. And all this might be because they had their TV aerial pointing the wrong way (ie, so they could get channels from the West), or because they forgot to hang the Communist flag out on May 1st. They also have the right to know the real names of the people who informed on them - friends, neighbours, family. I can't imagine how something like that would make you feel. The Stasi had about 90K employees and 190K 'unofficial' employees.

The place has been kept more or less as it was - you can see Mielke's office, there are photos and documents and flags and medals, plus there are all sorts of listening devices and cameras - cameras disguised behind a button, or in a purse, in one case even in a watering can. A lot of the pictures and documents have accompanying text - unfortunately, it isn't always in English (yet), which made it a bit tough for me to take it all in, although I tried very hard. There were individual stories of people who had been subjected to scrutiny - a renowned musician who was allowed out of East Germany to perform (but only because he was surrounded by informers, including his manager); a man who spoke out against the GDR and whose file was 65,000 pages long.

One of our other trips was to the Gruselkabinett - sort of translated as Chamber of Horrors and here, just to prove it, is a Horror standing outside the Chamber. It's an old World War II bunker. The basement floor is an exhibition relating to the bunker itself - how it was used, how long people stayed there at any one time, and it has loads of bits and pieces that were found in there when it was cleared out - letters, papers, perfume bottles etc. There are still a lot of passages sealed off and the woman who runs it is trying to get permission to open them up. How exciting that would be - to go into tunnels that no-one has been in for years - apparently, some of the tunnels went for miles, linking up with underground stations in the city. There were no plans for the bunker and no logical way through - a staircase from the first floor wouldn't take you to the second floor but only the third floor for example.

The top floor was a totally scary experience. It was really dark and a series of rooms had creepy graveyard scenes, cobwebs, noises etc. We were lucky (unlucky) enough to be more or less on our own up there. !You do realise", said Ewan "that people are going to jump out at us, on't you?"
"Yes," I said, clutching his hand for dear life, "But I hope they give us a few min……aaaaaaaaaarrrrrggggggghhhhhhhh!" Someone in a mask came right up behind me and leered over my shoulder. And that was it. For the rest of the trip around the place I was alternately whimpering, hyterically laughing, and screaming as a series of sadists in rubber masks jumped out of dark corners at me.

In one room, I could see a figure at the other end of the room. "I'm not bloody going in there!" I said, rather triumphantly, turned round, and came face to mask with another one of the buggers. Another room was attractively light and tempting. "Quick, let's go in there and recover, look, it's light, they won't be able to scare us."

"What do you mean…us?" said Mr Bravery Personified. Apparently, it was my fault we were being targetted because my reactions were so extreme. And pathetic. I mean, you go into a Chamber of Horros, knowing that people in masks are going to jump out at you, and then you're surprised and practically wet yourself when they do? How can that be?

"OK. Me. I mean me. Happy now? Now, let's go towards the light." So we did. And a nanosecond later a masked freak jumped into the room behind us and turned the light off, leaving us in the darkest darkness I have ever experienced.

When we eventually managed to escape, I stood for a moment on the stairs trying to calm my heart. An unmasked, friendly faced guide appeared from behind a screen. Much, much too fast for my tender state and I screamed again. Oh, how they all laughed at me. Gits. It's a good job no-one tapped me on the shoulder for the next four hours. Brilliant, brilliant scary fun. Not for children, unless they're braver than me. I would definitely do it again. Maybe.

To drag this post kicking and screamng back on topic, we even managed to pay a visit to a bookshop. Where we discovered that Herr Allan Guthrie is very popular.

Well, there's much more, but I think I will spare you more babbling. Oh, we've already decided we're going back next year. After all, we didn't manage to see the Museum of Sex.



  1. Brilliant brilliant post, Donna! You should be a travel writer! Loved it, really super - and glad you took up my tip of going to the Memorial for the Murdered Jews, because it really is quite special. Also great to see Allan Guthrie on those shelves :)

  2. Sounds great. Especially the Ramones museum. I've heard lots of good things about Berlin.

  3. Margit - thank you - both for your kind comments and for the tip!

    Paul - they're all true :o)

  4. it's a while since i was there. i'm insanely jealous, but you've done something good - if i ever get to go there again i'm just goind to print off your itinerary and follow it (well, as much as would make sense, that is).
    thinking back to the Alaska pieces, you clearly have a talent for travel - the ability to experience, seek out the interesting and relay it to others so that it means something. i'm thinking a short story collection with a twist. visit 10 cities/places and set a short story there. preface each with your real life experience - better still, sandwich the story between real life experiences of each place. could be a first.
    anyway, i am prone to getting carried away (as you might have guessed by now, but not all my enthusiasm is crazy. if you try it though (tour the world on someone else's money, that is) don't forget to keep pumping out those novels.
    and ps, don't forget that sea minor hopes you'll be interviewing yourself real soon (preferably in english).

  5. LOL - thanks Nigel. Now, I just need to find someone to pay me to travel... And I was hoping you'd forgotten about the interview - everyone's is so brilliqant and mine will just be dull :o)

  6. This is all very well, but do you really imagine it's enough to mention one author, and at the very end too,with everything else being about travelling? What about Scottish crime?

    ; )

  7. Bookwith - yes. Yes, I do, as it goes :o) So there.

  8. Good grief, you packed a lot in. I've been to Berlin twice but I haven't seen half of the stuff you have. You've made me want to go back. Great photos!

  9. dull()*(^&*&^%^&&*&*()(*^&^&^&*^*&*???
    have you a dull bone in your body?
    if it's there at all, it'll be one of those tiny ones in the ear, i reckon. the hammer.

  10. Helen - yes, well, we didn't get to see Checkpoint Charlie so you've probably seen more than us!

    Nigel - LOL. I think there's more than that :o)

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