Writings & Whatnot by Rob Hill
Notes From Berlin
3 Oct 2014Posted by on
German isn’t ordinarily the most soothing of tongues, an earthy cocktail of saliva and sawtoothed edges. But the tone of the feminine voice that poured out from the airplane intercom as we were flying somewhere over Cork sounded as gentle as waterlilies afloat on a pond. I assumed she was giving a courteous flight status update or weather report. But then she repeated the message in English. “Ladies and gentleman, if there’s a doctor on board the plane please signal one of the flight attendants. Thank you.” I glanced down at the tray of chicken I had only taken a few bites of before pushing it aside with distaste, remembering how in the movie Airplane! it was the fish that had KOed most of the passengers and crew. Eight hours wedged into an airplane seat, legs twitchy, head throbbing, my torso covered with a blue fuzzy blanket that smelled like synthetic body odor. To keep myself distracted I watched movies intended for IMAX on the tiny screen embedded in the seat ahead of me. Somehow, despite the discomfort, I managed to get some sleep.
A long queue formed at the airport customs booth in a space clearly not designed for it. No questions asked. Stamped and sent on my way. Not everyone had it so easy. The man with the cowboy hat and the abundantly-stickered guitar case slung across his shoulder had a lot of explaining to do. Soon I was heading into Berlin aboard the U-Bahn, exchanging glances with a Nico lookalike across the aisle. The trains are boxy and yellow, and look precisely how I would imagine German trains to look in a sixties spy film. Tucked in my wallet was a seven-day train pass, which no one had asked to see and there had been no turnstiles to swipe it through before boarding. Public transportation on the honor system in the United States, I mused, would be a money-hemorrhaging operation.
I emerged into the grey daylight and made my way past a series of casinos and Indian restaurants to my silverblue postmodern hotel, which looked like it was assembled from scraps from a decommissioned submarine. I unpacked and set about exploring the city. The sky was mulling over the possibility of raining. Having skipped breakfast on the plane, my first priority was locating food. I found a vendor hawking currywurst, a staple of Berlin streetfood—sausage doused in ketchup and curry powder. The ketchup is a little tangier than its American cousin, otherwise it tasted pretty much like I expected it would.
My plan was to get most of the touristy spots out of the way and then move on to more esoteric sights. With its alluring name, the Topography of Terror was first on my list. It turned out to be one long remnant of wall adorned with photos and enlarged newspaper clippings of various Nazi shenanigans. I was captivated by a surreal photo of a classroom full of students wearing gasmasks. Up the road was Checkpoint Charlie, the iconic gateway between the East and West during the Cold War. A McDonald’s loomed prominently in the background as some kind of ideological middle finger. A Turkish woman approached, asked if I spoke English and seemed so grateful to learn I did. I assumed she wanted directions or something but instead she handed me a card saying she and her three children had been stranded in Berlin for the past few years and were trying to raise enough money to escape. I handed her a pocketful of change.
Many of the infamous Nazi bookburnings were held at Bebelplatz, a benign-looking plaza flanked by construction. A beflowered square of glass in the pavement served as some kind of memorial, but the sun, which had finally decided to poke its head out, reflected harshly in the pane, making it impossible to see what lie underneath. I dodged the crowds at Brandenburg Gate and passed the Hotel Adlon, where Michael Jackson infamously dangled one of his kids over a balcony like some kind of neo-pagan sacrifice. An intimidating queue to visit the dome of the Reichstag stretched down the block. Hard to believe the stately building, now restored, sat out much of the twentieth century as a ruin. I walked the length of the Tiergarten and huffed to the top of the Victory Column, which I recognized from a memorable scene in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire. It was built to celebrate the nation’s victory in the Danish-Prussian War of 1864, but by the time construction finished they had dragged themselves through a few more skirmishes and tacked those onto the celebration as well. The view from here was predictably spectacular. The most prominent features in the Berlin skyline were a television tower called the Fernsehturm, which looked like a grape impaled on a knitting needle, and a robot army of yellow construction cranes. Seventy years after getting the bejeezus bombed out of it, the city was still being rebuilt.
I tailed a gothy-looking woman in leather, with Louise Brooks bangs and a Nosferatu handbag, who looked like she was probably headed towards the Bauhaus Archive. She was. I traded my driver’s license for an English language audioguide and plunged into the collection. The gallery was crammed full of models of provocative architectural designs, most of them award-winning but few, it turned out, actually built. Many of the styles reminded me of the modern home from Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle and James Mason’s Mount Rushmore hideaway in North by Northwest. I learned the artists Klee and Kandinsky had been teachers at the school, which made sense, since their work appeared to echo the Bauhaus aesthetic. Examples of design, such as Marcel Breur’s cantilevered chair, impressed upon me how styles we now take for granted were once considered visionary and controversial.
En route to Potzdamer Platz, I stopped at the Berlin Philharmonic, which looks like a Chinese emperor’s flat golden hat, where I inquired at the ticket window about an upcoming Anne-Sophie Mutter concert. Tickets turned out to be well over sixty euros, so I passed. In the wake of WWII, Potzdamer Platz was a rubblestrewn no-man’s-land, but has since been lavishly rebuilt into some kind of space-age mall. Photos are not allowed inside the Museum für Film und Fernsehen (Museum for Film and Television). I found this out when an agitated guard rushed over, sputtering in German. Clips of Metropolis and Dr Mabuse played on giant screens in a labyrinthian chamber of steel reflections. One section was devoted to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, that pinnacle of German Expressionism, including an elaborate diorama of the production stage and original poster art. Several galleries were set aside in commemoration of screen legend Marlene Dietrich, displaying her costumes, luggage, letters, and such accoutrement.
The Führerbunker, where Hitler spent his last days and eventually did himself in, is now nothing more than a parking lot distinguished by a sign. (The Führerparkplatz?) I was surprised anyone else was able to find the spot, tucked as it was behind some anonymous apartment blocks, yet a small crowd was gathered when I approached. Some dads squinted at the wording of the information sign while a scattering of kids sat on some concrete bumpers nearby looking bored. Just north of this was a field of staggered black cubes which turned out to be the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. A woman passing near me described to her husband that it was like stepping into an MC Escher drawing.
I hopped a train across town to where the stately Oberbaumbrücke crosses the river Spree. Along the bridge’s walkway a bagpiper belted out a wheezy Mozart tune. I walked in circles around the neighborhood of Kreuzberg looking for a traditional German restaurant. This turned out to be the wrong part of town for that, for there were none to be found, though there was no shortage of Mexican or Middle Eastern fare. Shawarma on every corner. Eventually I located a suitable place where I hid in the back on a dark wood bench and ordered Käsespätzle and a Berliner weisse with raspberry syrup. David Bowie songs blared from the stereo. Kreuzberg reminded me vaguely of Bushwick in Brooklyn, or what the East Village must have been like in the seventies, in that it’s a landscape of decaying husks that have been reappropriated by artists. The architecture in Berlin is a strange patchwork of oppressive cubes and space age angles. Pessimism and optimism woven together in the same city blocks, with fledgling little parks rising out of industrial corners. Strange balls of fluff routinely descend from the sky looking at first glance like snow. I keep forgetting to stay off the bicycle paths which, unlike in New York, are not separated from the sidewalk by a curb. I’m surprised not to have seen any horrendous bicycle accidents, the way riders careen through the streets, weaving in and out of pedestrians. In Neukölln I saw a kid on a bike jolt to a stop inches from an old woman in a burqa. She didn’t flinch a muscle, just stood her ground and glared daggers at him.
An elderly woman on the morning train devoured Wuthering Heights in German translation like it was a scandalous bodiceripper. At last my train pass paid off when a ticket inspector wormed his way along the car, asking to see everyone’s ticket. He stared at mine for an uncomfortably long time but eventually handed it back, satisfied. Must not be a common sight, I figured, since most commuters probably use single rides or monthly passes. A young blonde woman wasn’t so lucky. The inspector followed her onto the platform and the last thing I saw was him scrutinizing her ID and copying down the information on a pad while she waited patiently but redfaced.
In the late seventies David Bowie and Iggy Pop decided it would be a good idea to move to what was the heroin capital of the world in an attempt to kick their drug addictions. They shared an apartment in Schöneberg, a sandbag-colored building exhibiting no outward signs of glam decadence. The man taking out the garbage in the small courtyard in back probably rolled his eyes at the sight of me taking photographs of this otherwise nondescript building. I know I would’ve. But I wanted to get a sense of location for Bowie’s Berlin years and this seemed like a good place to start. The skies looked up to no good and I found a kebab stand just in time to stand under the awning as a heavy rain let loose. The doner kebabs, another staple of Berlin street food, are awfully tasty (garlic sauce is the secret) but I have yet to master the art of eating them without spilling the ingredients all over my clothes.
Outside the Alexanderplatz station I encountered what could be one of the least dignified jobs in modern history, a hotdog vendor on his feet, his hotdog-making tray suspended by his shoulders and a red umbrella fixed above him in the event of inclement weather. There he stands, the embodiment of humiliation, as commuters come and go, sweeping past his pleading glances like he is a lodged rock impeding their upstream swim.
Why there is a Ramones Museum in Berlin is not a question I have the answer to, as the band seems so inseparable from the once-gritty streets of New York. From outside the museum looks like a clumsy recreation of CBGB. The front of the museum serves as a ragged coffeehouse while the punk artifacts are kept in back, through a swinging saloon door. The fellow behind the counter greeted me in hesitant German. When I replied in English he gratefully reverted to an American accent. He handed me a bottle of lemonade as part of the ticket price and I headed inside. Concert footage played from a hanging television. Wallspace and display cases were crammed with photos of the band, newspaper clippings, stage diagrams, signed frisbees, a pair of Johnny Ramone’s ripped jeans, and other punkwardly minutiae. A photograph of Dee-Dee Ramone and Sid Vicious hanging out backstage made for an interesting bridge between the American and British factions.
A scraggly busker outside the Warschauer station strummed the chords to “Take Me Home Country Roads” for the gutterpunks ensconced along the bridge, who appeared to enjoy it unironically as they hit up passersby for change. The restaurant Spatzel and Knodel wasn’t quite where my phone’s TripAdvisor map claimed it was. Despite our wealth of technology, never underestimate the importance of knowing your destination’s street address. I planted myself at a knifescarred table and ordered vinegar-soaked beef with dumplings. The table next to mine spoke English with lilting Michael Caine accents as the stereo coughed up a steady stream of reggae.
SO36, often referred to as the CBGB of Berlin, was having some kind of punk flea market when I ducked in to pay my respects. The thickly flyerplastered walls looked like they’d seen their share of vomit and blood over the years. Ended up at a subterranean lair called Madame Claude’s, where I was greeted by an ominous Twin Peaks motif at the entrance—a portrait of Laura Palmer hung above an lonely chair and floorlamp. Past this, a spiral staircase descended to a series of chambers with furniture fastened upsidedown to the ceiling. Here two DJs played snippets of music and asked those assembled to guess the artist. Since most of the music was American I figured I’d have the jump on them, but this turned out not to be the case. One particularly enthusiastic table up front pounced on the answers before I could even formulate a coherent response in my head.
Took the train out to Dahlem on the western outskirts of the city where the Brücke Museum lay hidden amid serene estates. The Brücke (“Bridge”) movement was ground zero for German Expressionism in the early 20th century, and a prime influence on Bowie during his Berlin years. On display were numerous works by the artists Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. But the bulk of the gallery’s wallspace was devoted to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, whose prints I recognized as illustrations from a Kafka novel I once owned. I imagine the museum was ordinarily a quiet and reflective place, but today I had to step around a puddle of children scribbling in crayon on the museum floor. Within walking distance was the Allied Museum, where I encountered the first assemblage of American accents I’d heard since leaving JFK airport. A bus pulled up, a crew of paunchy Americans spilled out, snapped pictures of everything in sight, squeezed back on the bus, and roared away. Escapees from a Warnemünde cruise ship was my guess. The original Checkpoint Charlie booth and an immense warplane filled the parking lot, while the inside of the museum was crammed full of military outfits, letters, field supplies, full-sized jeeps, and a reconstruction of an escape tunnel. Irving Berlin, I learned to my amusement, had been convinced to write a theme song for the Berlin airlift called “Operation Vittles.”
A long trek into the dense woods of Grunewald, or “green forest,” brought me to the Forsthaus Paulsborn, a historic lodge buried deep in the weald near a sparkling lake. I initially thought they were closed, since all the chairs in its biergarten were upturned and there appeared to be no sign of life. But as I approached I discovered not only was the massive front door unlocked but there were a few diners inside the grand hall, which had a royal hunting lodge ambience, antlers and other such hunting trophies on the walls. I took a table at the far end of the room, where Billie Holiday’s voice emanated discreetly from a corner. The menu was in German only and I had to rely on the waitress to translate. Unfortunately for me her English wasn’t very strong. And my German was useless beyond a few rudimentary gestures. Rumpsteak sounded safe but I didn’t recognize the word for the dish that came with it. All her attempts at translation drew blank looks from me. She described it as having a “long body with a hat,” which sounded beguiling so I went ahead and ordered it. Only when she set the plate before me did I realize I had been tricked into ordering asparagus. Or “spargel” as it was called here. It was monstrously large and faintly yellow in color, not the sickly green stem I’m accustomed to. Fortunately it came doused in Hollandaise sauce. An entire gravyboat of it, in fact. Even drenched in the sauce I found the rumpsteak tasted like a boiled boot. As I ate I listened to the British diners across the room carrying on with talk of Canterbury and the White Cliffs of Dover. When the waitress returned to check on my food she asked, “For you all is nice?” I attempted a phrase I had been rehearsing in my head for the last few minutes: “Die rechnung, bitte.” The check, please. “Ah, gut!” she squealed, nearly applauding my effort.
A bobhaired gamin tapdanced whimsically on the platform while waiting for the train. Not showing off, it seemed, just amusing herself to pass the time. Meanwhile a roguish gentleman caught without a train ticket figured he could make a break for it and was promptly chased down by a swarm of greenvested inspectors. As my train jolted away I watched him stumble and fall over an outstretched pair of legs, to be pounced on by his unamused pursuers. The center of my train car quickly cleared out when a reeking puddle of liquid fecal matter was discovered on the floor. As in New York, an empty train car is usually empty for a reason.
The house where Bertolt Brecht spent the last few years of his life is now a museum where his furniture and possessions are preserved for devotees of the influential playwright. Brecht occupied the second floor while his wife, Helene Weigal, lived above him on the third. They shared a common kitchen and dining area on the first. To communicate they often left notes written on index cards for each other on the stairs. His library was brimming with books, arranged by genre, which the guide assured me was in a far more organized state than Brecht had kept it, being the organized chaos type. A slew of cheap paperbacks lined the top rows of his bookshelves—Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rex Stout, and the like. Turns out he was a rabid fan of detective novels. The house is situated on what was East Berlin at the time but Brecht himself occupied a curious ideological no-man’s-land. The West suspected him of being a Communist and the East regarded him as overly decadent, which meant he was under suspicion by practically everyone but for entirely different reasons. After his death, Helene moved down to the first floor and preserved the upper rooms as an archive. Conveniently located next door, on the far side of an crumbling stone wall, is the cemetery in which Bertolt and Helene are buried. One of their cemetery-mates is the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
The Design Panoptikum, or Museum of Extraordinary Objects, is run by a lively Russian artist and photographer named Vlad Korneev. He habitually prowls through junkyards searching for oddball debris like old medical equipment and vintage cameras, which he fashions into anthropomorphised robot sculptures. His main concern, he explained to me in rapidfire speech, is the intersection of form and function. As an example he showed me a metal green pod that looked like a submarine for hamsters. But flipped upside down it became obvious it was a rather commonplace streetlamp. What looked like a fearsome medieval torture device turned out to be a Soviet grasscutter with the handle missing. An iron flower was actually the spinning part of an airplane engine. The centerpiece of the gallery was an iron lung made from leftover WWII submarine parts. Vlad told me he was eager to visit America someday and I assured him he’d have a field day poking through the rubble of Detroit.
Eerie aftermath of an accident. A police van blocked off a Kreuzberg intersection. Seated inside, a cop punched information into his laptop. Under the floodlights were a crumpled bicycle lying in the road, measuring tape draped over a white car with a crumpled fender, chalk hieroglyphs on the pavement. The sidewalk was spotted with casual gawkers. There was something oddly matter-of-fact about the entire procedure, like it was nothing more than a road crew installing a new traffic light.
There wasn’t much in the way of food open this late near my hotel, but across the street I found a pizza joint with the sign still lit. The owner and, presumably, his wife were sitting in the dark in an adjoining room. Both looked like over time they’d had the life kicked out of them. The owner rose reluctantly and came over to take my order. I glanced along the counter, surprised there were no readymade pizzas from which to dish out slices, as is typical in New York. Instead I discovered for three euros he whips up an entire pizza from scratch for you. Then with a small machete chops it into small squares to be eaten with a tiny plastic fork. I was just glad I didn’t have to eat my dinner out of a vending machine.
At every subway stop comes an announcement that sounds to my ear like “eine schwein, bitte,” which would mean, “a pig, please.” I hoped this was the case, that you were expected to bring along a pig to offer the transit officials in order to ride their train. After asking around I eventually learned the voice was saying “einsteigen, bitte,” or in essence, “all aboard,” which I suppose makes more sense. I also wondered why so many of their escalators appeared to be broken down. I started to form a negative impression of Berlin train station maintenance until eventually I realized the escalators operated by electric eye and thus sat motionless until approached.
At the end of a graffiti-splattered alley, guarded by an animatronic hybrid batfrog statue, lies the entrance to the Monsterkabinett. Myself and a small group of venturers were ushered down into the murky subterranean lair, past Hitler’s brain encased in a glass skull. What transpired down there was difficult to describe. It was as if Walt Disney hired Alejandro Jodorowsky to redesign the It’s a Small World ride and convinced Rammstein to compose the music. Through the seething smoke a dancing robot hatched an egg from its brain while another beat percussion on a skull’s tophat. Meanwhile I had to dart to one side to avoid getting pulverized by a vicious metal attack spider and a four-eyed disco beast with extending lips. The show concluded with an anti-monster spray that blew the face off a mannequin. Only when I returned to the surface did I realize I had been so taken off my guard that I had neglected to grab any photos of the unearthly steambeasts.
Down to Nollendorfplatz for a prearranged tour of the author Christopher Isherwood’s old stomping grounds. I rendezvoused with the guide, Brendan Nash, and the rest of our six-person touring crew under the clock outside the subway entrance. Isherwood lived in Berlin from 1929 until 1933, when he was pressured out of the city by the rise of the Nazis. He wrote about his dabblings with Weimar decadence in the collection known as The Berlin Stories, which were later ground up as fodder for the musical Cabaret. The iconic character of Sally Bowles was based on a woman he knew named Jean Ross. Though she has a memorable introduction in Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood later admitted he couldn’t remember how he actually met her. Located not far from his apartment, a nightclub called El Dorado was the inspiration for the fictionalized Lady Windemere, which later became the Kit Kat Club of Cabaret. The disapproving Nazis eventually shut it down and hung their swastikas in the windows. The building still stands, albeit now as a supermarket. At least a few photos of the original interior are displayed on their walls. Down the block was the site of the Scala Club, no longer standing. According to rumor Hitler was a frequent guest, an admirer of the synchronized dancing girls in military uniforms. It seems he was a fan of precision in any form. A high-end lesbian bar called Les Garcons was run by a glamorous woman named Susi Wanowski. Her lover was the dancer and actress Anita Berber, whom Nash described as the Amy Winehouse of her day. The subject of an Otto Dix portrait titled “The Dancer Anita Berber,” she was outrageous even for that notoriously decadent period. Once when a man in the audience dared to talk during her act she smashed him over the head with his own champagne bottle, then leapt on the table, lifted her skirt, and urinated on him. Antics like these didn’t do much for her popularity. Eventually she ended up in Beirut with severe drug problems, culminating in an onstage collapse. Gravely ill, she returned to Berlin where she died penniless. Her funeral was attended by a mere twelve people. Long after the war, Isherwood returned to Berlin while writing a magazine article called “Back to Berlin.” There he encountered his old landlady, whom he had fictionalized as Frau Schroeder, still living in the same building. He was shocked by the extent of damage his old neighborhood had sustained from Allied bombing raids. Nash passed around photos of rubblestrewn sites and a collapsed train station, the very station he led us back to where the tour concluded.
To Potsdamer Platz for a tour of the legendary Hansa Studios. A truckload of notable albums have been recorded here over the years, but the two that primarily yanked my attention were David Bowie’s Heroes and Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life, and these are the ones I’m most eager to hear antecdotes about. A large group had already assembled outside the studio entrance when I arrived. Our guide was Thilo Schmied, he of the demonically pointed beard. An American camera crew whom we were told were filming a documentary about David Hasselhoff trailed us into the lobby. Perhaps their intention was to make it look as though this large band of people were gathered for Hasselhoffian purposes. We headed up the majestic staircase to the Meistersaal ballroom known as Studio 2, which had once been a concert hall for chamber music and was renowned for its rich reverb. The vocal sound on U2’s “One” is a good example of this. (An aside: the legendary Krautrock producer Conny Plank was once asked to produce U2. After meeting the band he refused, claiming, “I can’t work with that singer.”) In the early days the structure was so unsound that steel nets were placed along the ceiling of the ballroom to prevent debris from dropping onto the musicians’ heads. Once during a recording session the industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten was asked to be as noisy as possible, as a building was being erected next door and the construction crew wanted to gauge how much soundproofing would be needed. The band readily complied and proceeded to drop a succession of clangorous metal objects from the ceiling. The ballroom floor may have been damaged, but the builders got the sound measurements they were looking for. Another band that recorded there extensively was Depeche Mode. Thilo showed us a photo of the band during their pre-leather days taken outside the studio, lounging on rubble wearing sandals over fluffy socks. We heard a story about a drugged-up member of Killing Joke going berserk with a fire extinguisher, causing extensive damage to a piano and the studio’s mixing board. Located down the hall from the ballroom, the former control room was now outfitted with a bar for social events. Here we stood beside the window from which Bowie had spotted two enigmatic figures (later confirmed as producer Tony Visconti and his mistress) kissing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, which had given him the idea for the lyrical imagery of “Heroes.” This was also the window through which the musicians taunted East German guards in a nearby watchtower. “What are they going to do, shoot at us?” would’ve made for memorable last words. We headed upstairs to the more modern Studio 1, which in an effort to prevent unwanted echo was designed with a complete absence of 90-degree angles. Even the ceiling slanted. The drum room had a marble ceiling, designed for that bombastic eighties drum sound once considered desirable. These days many drummers prefer to cram their sets into the smaller guitar booth for a starker effect. We all crowded in the control room where Thilo played U2’s “One” at a blistering volume so we could hear the ballroom’s natural echo on Bono’s vocals. Then he played Bowie’s “Heroes” which gave me shivers, hearing it in the very location where it was recorded.
I wandered into a Kreuzberg bar called Würgeengel, named after the Luis Bunuel film The Exterminating Angel according to a sign hanging from the restroom door. I ordered a pint of grog and sat eavesdropping on the lively table beside me discussing six-story Japanese sex emporiums stocked with used panties vending machines, which later somehow transitioned into a scandal involving China selling pandas to Denmark. Finished my drink and headed down the street to a David Lynch-themed rock club called Wild at Heart. The front of the club was crammed full of people so I wove my way to the back where I could sit in relative peace near an empty stage. It soon turned out an all-girl band called Mushi Features was making their live debut, as well as it being the guitarist’s birthday. As soon as they took the stage and struck a chord everyone at the bar surged forth as if a levee had given way. After the band finished their set of feisty punk numbers I escaped from there and found another, quieter, bar called the Mano Cafe which was honeycombed with narrow passages and chambers. A ladder led up to a loft above the entrance. Beside me at the bar a pale short-haired woman straight out of an Otto Dix portrait chatted with her friends in English about her love of old movies. By this point I’d imbibed enough to casually lean in and recount for her the story of Buster Keaton unknowingly breaking his neck while filming Sherlock Jr. She turned out to have grown up in the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York. Of all the people in all of Berlin to start a conversation with I pick one from my home city. (Of all the gin joints…) I asked her and her friends what unusual things they recommend I do on my last remaining day in the city. A girl with punky peroxided hair jotted down some suggestions in my notebook, among them the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park and Tempelhofer Feld, a decommissioned airport turned into a public park. On the trainride back to my hotel an excitable girl told her friend, and unwittingly the entire train, “My boyfriend’s always drunk. And when he’s drunk he’s really gay.”
My last proper day in Berlin and I woke to rain falling like a burst water main. People lurked in doorways and under awnings, still drunk from the night before, swigging from bottles and stumbling down subway stairs. This was not celebratory drinking. They drank like they took their drinking very seriously. They drank soberly. One brazenly pissed in a trashcan as morning commuters passed by pretending not to notice. Another nodded off with his bottle gripped in a very calloused hand, sagging in his seat, a defeated old man.
In what was once the Sovietest part of town I found myself at the bewildering intersection of Mollstrasse and Mollstrasse. I headed east along the Karl-Marx-Allee (formerly called Stalinallee until Stalin became suddenly unpopular), a wide boulevard of imposing cubic monoliths that somehow manages to appear empty even when lively with cars and shops. The Stasi Museum, tucked away down an unassuming sidestreet, is located inside the former Ministry of State Security building. There I marveled over exhibits of spy cameras hidden in neckties, logs of wood, oil barrels, watering cans, and thermoses. Rooms and furniture were preserved just as they’d been during the glory days of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Tape recorders hidden in closets, elaborate telephone systems installed into the desks as you see in spy films of the period. Children’s propagandist drawings of happy East German families. On the wall hung the “Ten Commandments of Socialist Morality,” one of which translated into “You shall protect and enhance state-owned property.” Under a glass display were confiscated teen magazines smuggled illegally into the East, with covers sporting such ideologically verboten figures as Bruce Springsteen and Magnum PI. An absorbing time capsule of Soviet life.
Hungry, I grabbed a burger from a stand called Burgermeister which was built into a converted pissoir under the elevated train. Then I hopped on the Ring, a branch of the train system that circumnavigates the city and the quickest way to reach the Templehof Airport, which was converted into a public park in 2008. The former runways were bescattered with parkgoers rollerskating, flying kites, walking dogs, racing remote control cars. Unfortunately the airport terminal building itself was gated off, still in use for God knows what. It was advertised as one of the biggest buildings in Europe when it was built. I followed the sound of an impassioned German voice coming over a loudspeaker, images of the Nuremberg Rally flashing through my head. This led me to a game of beach soccer being played in a sandpit.
Freischwimmer is a restaurant fashioned out of an old boathouse along a canal. There I had a beer and watched the ducks cruise the canal for handouts, all while trying to avoid becoming a mosquito feast. Chirpy birds landed on my table with hopeful expressions despite the fact that I had nothing to offer them. The monotonous pulse of Eurotrance, or whatever the proper terminology is, throbbed across the canalwater from an outside bar. It sounded like a clangorous old copying machine set to infinite copies. Some scraggly fiddle music would’ve been more appropriate, I thought, to go with the fishy wharf smell.
I wandered through the verdant Treptower Park in search of the Soviet War Memorial. Few things smell better than the woods after a recent rain, though I could live without the mosquitos. I never would have found the memorial on my own, set deep in the woods as it was. I was not prepared for its grand and majestic scale, and felt miniscule in comparison. Like in a science fiction movie where astronauts are exploring what they assume is a barren planet and suddenly come upon a sprawling civilization the likes of which they have never seen before. The Soviets certainly did things in a big way. The memorial was built in 1949 to commemorate the Russian soldiers killed in the Battle of Berlin. A college student meditated on a bench, twisted into a lotus position. This was an ideal spot to come contemplate your insignificant role in the mechanics of the universe. Serene and reflective. With the exception of two teenage girls playing racquetball beside a monolith.
And then the curtain came down and the show was over. Without much enthusiasm I found myself airbound for the States. During the flight I got into a conversation with the German businessman beside me who was coming to NYC for a meeting on the twenty-somethingth floor of the Empire State Building. He’d lived in Berlin since the eighties and remembered the days when Potsdamer Platz was a rubblestrewn wasteland. He very helpfully gave me recommendations for places I should’ve visited. Perhaps next time. We talked about Berlin architecture, East vs West, the ugly brutalist buildings which were so perplexingly fashionable during the sixties. He pointed out that during the air raids, many people were killed not from the bombs or fires themselves, but from suffocation in the massive firestorms caused by the buildings having been built so close together. He said post-war city planning kept this in mind and many areas, such as around Alexanderplatz, were designed to avoid this ever happening again.
After landing at JFK I was not even out of the airport when one belligerent woman screamed “fucking bitch!” to another who was moving a touch too slow for her taste. Which, really, is just New York City’s way of saying “welcome back, sojourner!”
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