Saturday, November 7, 2009

Berlin Diary

Poet, Cilla McQueen, (no relation) had a stint in Berlin prior to the wall coming down. In her long poem ‘Berlin Diary’ she describes her experiences including an illegal visit to East Germany using the underground.

When Anne and I visited in 2002 the wall was long down. East and West mixed but there were still differences – mainly architectual. I kept a diary. Here are two days, 13 and 14 October that year.

I pulled back the curtain and there was falling and settling snow. Indeed it was the coldest October day in Berlin on record. 3 degrees was the maximum. I walked out to buy croissants for breakfast. Church bells added to the sense of a special day. It seemed a normal Saturday thing to do and half the men of suburb seemed to have the same task. They helped me queue and order what I wanted. How the world narrows down when one travels. We decided to brave the weather, Anne has never been in falling snow, so wrapping up warmly we set off to the station.

We did plan to go to the National Gallery but when we emerged from the underground at Potsdamplatz, it was snowing heavily, it was cold and as we had come up out of a new tube entrance we couldn’t get bearings as to north and south, east and west and it was too chill to try to work them out. So very sensibly we went back to the tube and went to Hackesche Hole carefully restored as it was originally built with glazed tile buildings around interconnecting courtyards with restaurants at ground level. Ulrike had taken Anne there the day they went shopping.

We found a restaurant called the Oxymoron that looked right. It seemed the right setting for a hundred Humphrey Bogart or Noel Coward movies, it felt old and glamorous. I just loved it. I had a kirsch and a hot chocolate to warm up. It was so warm and comfortable that we decided to have lunch there. I had two steaks with mushrooms and potato croquettes in a sherry sauce. Anne has salmon risotto. Superb presentation and a courteous Turkish waiter.

It had stopped snowing but there was still sleet and a drizzly cold rain so we decided to go to the only Museum near a tube entrance which was the Natural museum. Us, and every parent in Berlin. We were going to check our cloaks in but the long queues made us change our mind. As travellers we made three sensible decisions today.
a) pulled out of going to the National Gallery
b) to stay and have lunch at the Oxymoron
c) not to put coats in the cloakroom.

Anne was more impressed than she anticipated by the world’s largest brontosaurus skeleton. It was colossal. Indeed the Museum was built around it. It was dug up in Tanzania 1909-12. The other dinosaur remains were interesting but this massive one was awe-inspiring. I have seen dinosaur skeletons in London and New York and they have better displays but nothing to compare with this monster. The other interesting exhibit were large models of insects which a guy did for a hobby – right through the war he was making these models of flies and beetles. They were eye-catching.

It was getting so crowded that we gave it away and headed for home. We had a scratch meal. When we rang Ulrike she expressed amazement that we had ventured out. Please we did. Mad dogs and Kiwis go out in the Berlin Snow. The news is dominated by a brutal bombing in Bali of some night clubs packed with mainly Australians, young people. They talk of about 180 deaths and untold maimings. BBC commentators keep saying they are at a loss as to explain the motive for such a blast but nightclubs are anathema to the fanatical Muslim and this will have huge impact upon global tourism. It will have a devastating effect upon the people of Bali. Not only were some of their own killed, their whole livelihood was built around tourism. Too close to home for comfort. Humanity’s ability to wreck pain upon other human beings is beyond understanding.

Up relatively early to join Ulrike and Lisa on the train. [It started at ground level in the suburbs but went underground as it neared the city centre]. We got off at ‘Under den Linden sub-station and emerged alongside the massive Russian Embassy – obviously built to stand a siege. We walked along the famous street to the Opera Café where we met Ulrich and Ursala, both in their 70s for brunch.

He is an ex-history teacher and school inspector and has an OBE for services to fostering German and English interchanges. At 15 he was drafted into the army, put on anti-aircraft guns, captured by the Russians and kept a prisoner for a year. He and his father survived the war, his mother and brother killed in a bombing raid just before its end. When I expressed sympathy he replied “we began the war and had to accept the consequences.”

Anne loved the café. When we had finished he took us on a walking tour, past the Historical Museum (unfortunately being done-up and therefore closed), new Bertlesman headquarters, across the bridge and the Peoples Palace (now closed because of asbestos) - while utilitarianism is understandable downright ugliness is less so, the Communists did the same in Dresden – to the main Lutheran church. The body of it was closed, but we had a brief glimpse of the magnificent stained glass behind the altar, before attending a service in a small chapel. Lovely organ. I thought the priest was rather perfunctory, so did our guides for they both went up to him and told him off for not pronouncing the words correctly and for his casualness. That is something no Kiwi would ever do, rebuff a stranger – a striking difference between the Germans and us.

Back over the bridge we went to the memorial to those who died in war and terror, a striking Kathe Kollwitz small statuette of a mother grieving over her dead son has been recast to sit brooding much larger. It’s there under a hole in the roof, open to the elements, a very eloquent memorial. Yesterday it would have been covered in snow.

We went in to the Humbolt University to see its foyer, (second hand books for sale outside) and the Frederick the Great statue. Ulrich then showed us the spot outside the opera house where the Nazis burnt books. Below a glass dome is row upon row of empty library shelves. Finally he took us to see a model of what that part of the city had looked like before the war. Glories lost. He then took us to a pub, bottles of wine stacked to the ceiling – obviously no earthquakes here. Two reislings later we were left on our own.

Ulrike laughingly refers to us as her two little Inuits, we look so hunched in our windbreaker jackets. Anne led me to Lafayette where we had a late chicken and chips lunch to soak up the wine. Then we walked to the Brandenberg Gate and explored the ring of plastic bears, one for every country. The New Zealand bear had a moko and native birds. The English bear bore a cup of tea on its paw. We walked back along the centre strip with its linden trees to have an afternoon beer in the sunshine at a coffeeshop called Lindenlife. We made our way back Fornhou [Ulrike’s place] for a potato, sausage and egg dinner, a very traditional German meal Ulrike assured us.

The contrast between two days was striking.

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