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.