I first visited Berlin in 1992. The Berlin Wall had come down in 1989, but large parts of it still remained. In ’92, there were plenty of other reminders of the Communist regime. (Side note: If you ever want to see an argument against Communism, visit a country just emerging from its grip.)
Back then, West Berlin felt cosmopolitan but soulless and East Berlin was drab and bleak. The city was full of road works, because the tram tracks in the East didn’t match those in the West. The apartment buildings and roads of East Berlin were in a sad state of disrepair and the place was full of soviet-style cars pouring exhaust fumes into the narrow streets.
Fast forward to 2017, when we returned.
It’s hard to understate the changes over those 25 years. Berlin is now a vibrant metropolis. It’s full of fascinating alleys and side streets, amazing restaurants, art galleries and best of all, the old East Berlin. The apartments that survived the War have been restored, and the place is clean and bright and exciting. And safe!
To my mind, every creative should visit Berlin once in his/her life. This is why:
- The Wall. Seeing the remains of the Berlin Wall and its profoundly tangible consequence on memory and culture is a stark reminder of why artificial barriers always fail. Sectioning one element of a community from another weakens the entire community – but we never learn, do we? Every generation, another leader comes along and says “these people/this religion/this political system is bad, and we must separate ourselves from it, lest it overwhelm us”. Yet, the truth is, of course, that humans are more resilient than we realise and mixing of ideas and communities strengthens us all. But still, we delude ourselves that ideas can be quarantined.
- Stumbling Stones (Stolperstein). The stolpersteine are cobblestone-sized plaques set into the sidewalks outside apartments in Berlin. They bear the name and life dates of victims of Nazi persecution. You can find them outside Berlin, too: many German cities have them, as do cities in the Netherlands, Austria and Italy. But Berlin seemed to have the most, especially in the old East Berlin, where many Jewish families lived. Its sad (and disconcerting) to daily step over those who once lived in the same building as you. Many people leave flowers and memorials. Why is this a good thing? Because its hard to forget the past once it wears a human face. And what is more human than a name?
- The gardens and parks. Berliners appreciate their public spaces. That’s because many were almost destroyed in the War; much of the urban landscape of Berlin is relatively recent. There’s nothing like nearly losing something to make you realise its importance. The Wall has left its mark, too – and the corridor marked by the Wall became a haven for wildlife. Some parts of Berlin are greener and more beautiful as a consequence of the Wall.
- Culture – according to Time Out, you can’t fling a currywurst without hitting an art gallery in Berlin. From traditional to contemporary to street art, Berlin is full of the galleries and sculpture. Plus, the architecture is amazing: from Prussian-establishment to Sovietstyle, the cityscape is extraordinarily diverse.
- What price art? Berlin is known for its reflective, regretful installations. The most moving is Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a 19,000 sq metre site of grey concrete coffin-shaped stelae. It’s eerily reminiscent of a cemetery, as it slopes downward, so the stelae grow deeper and the space grows darker as you move through. However, for me the most thought-provoking place was the Kunsthaus Dahlem, former atelier of popular Third Reich sculptor, Arno Breker. This small-but-monumental space was commissioned by the Fuhrer, for Breker. After WW2, Breker maintained he had never been a supporter of the Nazis, merely an acceptor of their patronage. Now, looking back I wonder: was Breker’s art good, or bad?
Berlin’s vibe of restoration, regret and rebirth is a heady mix. It’s perfect for a writer, because in every tragedy there’s a possibility of redemption, and in every tragedy there’s a tale to be told. If you get a chance, do visit.
To end this rather reflective blog post, here’s a poem. I wrote it after watching a girl, dressed all in pink (including her hair), stepped into my subway car.
Princess in Pink – Berlin, 2017
A princess in pink rides the subway
Traveling the rails alone
Her hair and her nails and her clothes are all pink
And she carries a silver iPhone.
Her cheeks glitter softly, like star-dust.
She wears a silver-gilt crown
A violin case over one shoulder
A heart-stopping hint of a frown.
Above, the city is freezing
But down in the tunnels below
Where the princess is riding the subways
There’s never a hint of the snow.
She’s been inside these tunnels forever,
Just her and her silver gilt crown
She was here when the world was younger
Before tracks of iron were down.
If ever you meet the pink princess
Don’t stare. Never ask her to play –
With one touch of her bow to the violin’s strings
That music will draw you away.
For she plays of a time long-forgotten
When stars could be seen in the sky
When the rivers and ocean were clean, clear and blue
Before buildings and people and lies.
Sometimes she sings to her music
In a voice made of starlight and pearls
And her words, inexplicably haunting,
Set heart, mind and soul in a whirl.
When the song ends the princess has vanished
Leaving you trapped on the train
But her memory stays with you forever –
Along with a silver iPhone.