Berlin

Our plane was halfway to Berlin, somewhere above the brown Autumn fields and lovely red-roofed towns of Northern Holland, when the driver’s voice burst through the general hum of hipster convos and fingers tapping on glowing screens to tell us that we were on schedule and we’d be landing at Schonefeld in time for a late lunch and that the current freezing fog would have cleared to allow the sunshine in by the time we landed. He was lying. Not about the lunch, we could have got a lovely late lunch, but the fog was still cloaking the city and it was still freezing. But our bald bespectacled driver was waiting with my surname and that of someone else written on his wipe-on wipe-off A4 sheet of laminated card, just inside the arrivals hall. I made myself known to him, we waited for the other party who, like us, couldn’t be arsed to introduce themselves to Berlin’s public transport system this early in the relationship, and he took us to our hotel. Through the fog, dear reader, through the fog. And it was German fog. Despite this we had arrived three hours before the official check-in time. It must have been my charm, or perhaps my brave attempts at speaking her native tongue which persuaded the lovely receptionist to let us have a room early. Or maybe the room just happened to be ready.

 

We were staying in a side-street just off the Kurfürstendamm, in the lovely Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf locality. Why? Partly because it seemed a nice central spot from which to get out and about, partly because among others, Berthold Brecht and Marlene Dietrich had called it home, not together naturally, and also because Anita’s uncle lives in the neighbourhood. He went out to Berlin in the mid-60s to work on the post-war demolitions and stayed, working his way along and up through the construction industry to become a champion Kayak paddler and instructor, boat repairer and then an administrator in the staff pensions department of the Gesetzliche Krankenversicherung. How about that, boys and girls? Also along the way, he’s had a few wives and girlfriends. We’ve met a few, Uschi, and Petra, and Jean, I think there was a Jutka but she may be someone else who I knew from elsewhere, and quite a few others who we haven’t met. Probably because he didn’t have time to bring them to England before they buggered off and left him lonely. Anyway, he’s come to the conclusion that although he loves female company, he’s obviously not the sort of person who women can live with for long. He’s got a photo of his dead brother, Anita’s dad, lying in his coffin, taking pride of place among the hundreds of family photos dating back to the 1920s, all of which cover three walls of his front room. Another wall is shelved and filled with folders containing his family history research, most of which he seems to have memorised by means of frequent verbal repetition. He’s a lovely man really though. I simply can’t understand why they don’t stay with him for long.

We hadn’t told him we were visiting Berlin, but on our last full day we made our way to his building with the help of a map and some hope, and rang the bell. He lives in a garden flat in a lovely 1920s block complete with shaded courtyard, with a well and trees, creaking staircases and tall, imposing oaken doors adorned with engraved brass nameplates. And patched up brickwork where once upon a time angry Russians fired artillery shells at it. Luckily he was in, and we had a long, lovely day and evening with him. My, he was surprised when he realised who was ringing  on his doorbell. He apparently deals with surprises by forcing red wine on the husband of his niece, then after hours of conversation, choosing a local Chinese restaurant as the place to which he’d most like to be taken out to dinner, then taking his niece and her husband out on the town for a while, then back to their hotel for drinks and more convo and reminiscences. We eventually got him home on the night bus from the Budapestestraße, which service luckily runs throughout the small hours.

Berlin’s a great city to visit; on our first two and a half days there we tracked up and down and around the Ku’damm, as the guide books insist we abbreviate it, through the lovely Tiergarten, where I climbed to the top  of the Siegessaüle while Anita sat in a nearby cafe and then to see the statues of Moltke looking casual and Bismarck looking shadowed and glum. There’s a lovely pond in front of the monument to Beethoven Mozart and Schubert, then an Amazon riding naked on a horse, bronze and powerful. Then out to Alexanderplatz, where I went up to the observation deck atop the Fernsehturm to admire and photograph the wonderful, if slightly mist-obscured views of the city and its surrounds, while Anita stayed below and shared coffee and cake crumbs with a hungry little sparrow in a nearby cafe. We went to the Brandenburg Gate, in daylight and at night, I went out to Friedrichstraße and Unter den Linden and Wilhelmstraße by myself, hoping to get a bit of a historical buzz, it kind of happened, but the city has so many modern layers. I wandered into the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, frozen in a state of semi ruin since 1945, then into the new church next door, a stained glass barrel in concrete and blue, where the massive golden Christ hovers above you, challenging and hopeful. There was a Mozart recital taking place just as I walked in so I sat for a while and got all reflective and my chest vibrated with the lowest notes.

Interesting, to me anyway, occurence after visiting the Holocaust Memorial, an area of ground covered with two thousand seven hundred bare concrete blocks of varying sizes, some flush with the ground, some towering up to eight or ten feet high, laid out in a regular grid. You can walk among them. I did. When we were making our way back through the city, I noticed that outside some buildings there are small brass plaques set into the cobbles of the pavements, commemorating inhabitants whose lives had been stolen in the Nazi years. I was glad I found them. It all seems to mean more if you find things in the right order where the pavements turn to memories.

Anita had to do some of the shopping thing, and I found my wallet quite often seemed to be the most convenient to use, but never mind, she got some lovely clothes and shoes and stuff.

I’ve never been a gin drinker really, until our last trip to Prague, where I tasted smoked gin, made by holding the empty glass over a smouldering sprig of rosemary, then filling it with the drink. They topped it with tonic water, a fresh sprig of rosemary and a twist of orange zest. I got the taste for it then. So in Berlin, along with the beer, which is always good, and after I had sated myself with Kirschwasser, almond flavoured Schnapps, peach Schnapps, plain Schnapps and even, God help me, lychee infused Schnapps in the Chinese restaurant where we had taken the uncle to eat, I eventually settled on Gin & Tonic as my favoured refreshment. So I had to fill up on it. It’s good, is gin, because along with grappa on Corfu, it doesn’t seem to have any hangover causing qualities. A good reason to like any drink, I think.

So, we ate well, we drank well, widely and deep, and we saw quite a bit of the city. One of my favourite ways to experience places is to indulge in the ritual of the aimless wander, punctuated by occasional refreshment stops. Another is, usually having a travel card to hand, simply to ride public transport, here mainly the U- and S-bahns, and jump out at interestingly named or decorated stations, scope out the neighbourhood and then resume the journey, eventually finding my way back to the hotel. Or wherever. But that’s just me. That’s what I spent some time doing and it was good.

There’s a lot of the city I still want to see though so we’ll have to go back one of these days. Soon.

 

The day after tomorrow, being Sunday, I’m taking one of the grandsons up to that Lambeth. Innit. He wants to go to the IWM.  City to city, wheels within wheels.

 

 

 

 

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River Mist

Ooh it was a chilly start to the morning today. In the cold clear sky Venus and Jupiter were hanging together, bright and spectral, but they were just below the horizon while it was dark here, so you couldn’t see them from this disadvantage point. I wasted no time looking for the glowing planetary twins, simply wished that I could see them, which would actually have given me a cricked neck as they were due to rise behind me, probably over my left shoulder. So apart from the gloom inducing fact that the planets in conjunction would not rise until the light of the Sun would render the fuckers invisible, I would have been compelled to present them with my least flattering profile, and most likely spend the rest of the day twitching in a sinister manner. And that was just the start of the day.

Steam was rising from the river causing a narrow blanket of mist to hang low over the river, and it was low tide, so I could stand on the bridge looking down on the spectacle. Thinking of kettles of  hot water and icy pavements. There were a couple of the flock of grey herons who have taken up residence around the pond in the sheep field down the hill from my house stalking the riverbank too, awkward yet probably deadly to any small fishes they might see. I don’t think they could see any small fishes though, because they looked pretty pissed off and hungry to me. I might be biased though. Herons always look pissed off and hungry to me. And grey. There was a cormorant too, perched on a stanchion and looking down at the water without even a gleam in his eye.

As I turned the corner half way up the High Street I bumped into the lass from the grocery shop five doors down. And I swear we could be underground. She said she hadn’t recognised me in the slowly lifting gloom and ooh isn’t it chilly this morning, and then gave me a lovely hug in order to spread a bit of body heat between us. I didn’t object. My coat was unbuttoned anyway and I’m sure she recognised me in Braille. It’s a nice improvement to the start to the day.

The day was so young, I hadn’t even unlocked the shop, and so much had occurred already; what else was the day to bring? As it happens, not much really. Busy day in the shop, got home to a horde of boisterous grandchildren, eventually sent them packing, wife went to work, I did my VAT return and booked a four day Berlin Welcome Card for next week. Had a glass or two of warming spirits, wandered round the garden in the dark, thought about having another bonfire of Bay Tree and Box trimmings (there are piles of them to work my way through) in the trusty and rusty old incinerator bin, decided not to, and sat in here again with another drink again. Hot this time. That’s the precis. I’ve missed out the bits where I stop and wonder what to do next. You can imagine how boring and tedious the unexpurgated version of my day would be. And it’s still only Monday. Tomorrow evening I shall probably read a bit of Joan or watch a Bogart film on DVD. The Maltese Falcon most likely. I like that one. It’s got Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Mary Astor. You must have seen it. You jolly well should anyway. Viewing will begin at eight sharp. Or maybe a bit later. But I shan’t wait too late.

Do you like the colour scheme? I don’t know whether it’s Salmon or Peach. Something edible anyway.

A Double Sunset. Or, Trees in the Downpipe.

Being something of a voyage of discovery into the savage beating heart of Sussex coastal and country life.

I took my usual bicycle ride along the coast this afternoon, having enjoyed a bit of a part-time week this week. My daughter who helps me run the shop was extremely poorly for the previous few weeks with her digestive disorder and mystery spinal pains which defy all attempts at diagnosis, so as she’s a bit better right now she’s doing five days this week and I did two. So my weekend began on Tuesday night. Wednesday was spent with two of the grandchildren, Jacob and Harry, at the zoo. No animals were harmed. But the boys are both under two, so there’s plenty of time for devastation of captive wildlife and some gratuitous maiming yet, don’t you worry.

So yes, the bicycle ride. I only did an eight mile one today, as tomorrow I have plans for going well into double figures up by the river and then back along the coastal bit again. On the return leg, just after four o’clock, the sun was sinking over to port, and I paused to watch the golden red disc melt into the trees on the crest of the hill on the far side of the river valley, but three miles away. How narrow are our everyday horizons? Pretty bloody narrow most days, I can tell you. A slight chill caressed my naked limbs, for today was warm enough to go out in polo shirt, chino shorts and canvas sandals, and so I headed along the gravelled track for home, almost but not quite shivering in the fading light. And bugger me, but if when I’d come up the hill to the street where I live, the sun had passed behind the hill and was visible above the shadowed landscape again, slowly setting somewhere over Brighton, or possibly Bognor, a handful of leagues away to the South West. I may have discovered the first step on the pathway to a sustainable and non-destructive method of time travel. More research needed, possibly.

The other afternoon, Tuesday it was, Mathew the Fretful one was perspiring and breathing heavily. He’d limped painfully into my shop, white of brow, wan and rather worried looking. So nobody thought anything was out of the ordinary. I certainly didn’t, until he spoke.

“I hope I’ve got away with that Graham”, he gasped as I placed his tea in front of him, unbidden, and unappreciated too, I suppose.

“Got away with what, Mathew?” I asked, unconcerned. This is the man who spends an evening and the following day in a state of desperate, blind panic if he notices a rusty bolt or a paperclip on the pavement and doesn’t pick it it up immediately a, to hopefully find the rightful owner to whose unresponsive yet probably attractively hairy bosom he wishes to return said piece of litter and more importantly b, to avert the inevitable disastrous and traumatic episode which would doubtless ensue if some innocent passer-by were to stumble over the offending article, no doubt causing multiple fractures, copious bleeding and Mathew having to ask some other innocent passer-by if they would really mind calling an ambulance because Mathew just doesn’t cope well when stuff happens. Any stuff.

“I touched a child out in the street, but I don’t think the mother noticed”. Fuck me, but he looked worried. “One of the masters at my school who went on to become a Bishop was sent to prison for touching children. I don’t understand. He never behaved out of the ordinary towards me. But it was just before my first breakdown. I’m still somewhat confused about some of the things that happened in my life at that time.” You’re telling me, Mathew me old mate. Clarification was needed.

“Mathew,” I said, “clarification is needed. When you say you touched a child, would I be right in assuming that you brushed past a child out there? Or the hem of your coat passed within touching distance of an infant as you walked unsteadily past? Something like that?”

He looked down at his tea. He explained, partly voluntarily and partly under gentle interrogation by my good self, that a young mum was pushing a toddler in a baby buggy along the high street and as he walked past them, Mathew thought he’d felt his carrier bag containing his freshly collected collection of pharmacy-only medications sweep along the side of the buggy. There was no damage to his carrier bag. There were no signs or sounds of impact. The child had made not even a whimper. The young mum had not taken her eyes off of the screen of her mobile device. I assured him that physical contact had most likely been avoided and he was most unlikely to find himself up before the beak any time soon. As nothing had happened, Mathew, really it hadn’t. And I’m sure Mathew’s suffered this particular near-life changing trauma before. Cycles within cycles, repetitions and repeats light our way through the gloom.

“And anyway, Mathew, it’s Tuesday. Why are you here? I thought Gina came and wafted ethereally around your house with a vacuum cleaner and a tin of Pledge on Tuesday afternoons, ghostly blonde, bespectacled and palely interesting? She’s not blown you out already has she?” Mathew’s recently acquired the services of a lady to help him keep the house cleanish. It’s probably an impossible task.

“Yes she’s there now, but I thought I’d better avoid her today. I had rather an unusual request to ask of her, but I thought better of it. Perhaps I will next week.”

“You dirty fucker, I’d have a few unusual requests to put to Gina if she came round my house too. One of us would probably stagger out of the house screaming and broken if she agreed to it, and it most likely wouldn’t be her,” I didn’t say. What I said was “Reeeally Mathew? Tell me more, do!”

“Well, I think a seagull or a squirrel has possibly dropped a seed or a nut into the guttering above my kitchen window, and the downpipe by the door isn’t emptying very well any more so I think there could be a tree or a shrub growing inside it. I was going to ask Gina if she could stand by the ladder while I climbed up to attempt to clear it. Then if I should fall there would be somebody to call for an ambulance. Nobody would see me thereotherwise, as the kitchen is at the back of the house. I could lay there injured for days.” He sighed. I sighed louder. “But I thought it would be an imposition. It’s not what she would normally expect to be asked to do. So I just thought I’d be better coming out today and leaving her to it.”

“Yes Mathew you’re probably right.” What else could I have said? What the fuck else could anyone have said?

I put a very healthy DVD order into Amazon today, of films I haven’t watched for years. Decades in most cases. But films I have a hankering to watch again on the chilly winter nights which loom ahead. I’ve ordered ‘Jean de Floret’ and ‘Manon des Sources’ twin pack, ‘La Gloire de ma Pére’ and ‘Le Chateau de Ma Mére’ twin pack also,’Diva’, ‘Suburra’, ‘Malena’ and ‘Let the Right One In’. The Yves Roberts ones are my favourites, they’re films to deeply submerge into and feel how a different life could be if we were someone else born at another time. Marvellous stuff. I could have so easily ordered another dozen or so, but they can wait. I’m dead fucking cultured, I am. You can tell, can’t you?