Notes from Punya’s visit to the German capital.
The taxi driver is from Russia. From the radio I hear Russian. Is it news? Is it entertainment? He speaks on his ‘handy’ to a work colleague of the name of Ali in German, then to his wife in Russian, reading the numbers from his credit card to her. All this while we inch forward in traffic. Why these queues? Police cars with flashing lights on the side of the motorway. There must have been an accident, we conclude.
Past the now redundant Tempelhof airport. I had read in my travel guide about it. The second largest building in the world, as per square meters of ground covered, after the Pentagon. It was built in the late 30’s! The traffic is swifter now but it still takes ages to drive around the sleek sandstone building. They are now deciding what to do with the complex and the runway. It had been the airport to connect West-Berlin with the rest of the world. Now too close to habitation for safety and with a runway too short for modern planes, it was closed in 2008.
Because of the delay in traffic my nephew has managed to get home from his meeting in time to greet me. It should have cost 30 euros instead of the 40 I was asked. Maybe he did a detour with this old first-time visitor?
The guest room is enormous; creaking, broad, light, sanded, wooden floor boards give it a warm and luxurious feel. High ceilings, two windows onto the trees on our street and the lawn in the park across. We are in a recently refurbished tenement house (‘Altbau’) I am told. Dining-room-cum-kitchen with a high bay window. The last coloured leaves from the one tree closest to the window are gently falling onto the pavement, letting in the early afternoon sun-rays. Where is the kitchen? A block of white, well-studied elements, slate top and at right angle down one side, with an inlaid electric cooktop. No knobs in sight, sliding automatic drawers (Amiten would love them), even a dishwasher is hidden in there. Like a country bumpkin I admire its details and play with the drawers.
On Sunday a birthday party: brunch in a close-by café. Eat as much as you like and get charged for the drinks separately. Young people, the expression ‘half my age’ does not even apply… I am accepted as Oscar’s aunt, I make them laugh and they feel comfortable, even intrigued, by my presence. I’m not a conventional aunt; I am also Oscar’s friend.
When our belts start pressing our bellies we gather in front of the café and spontaneously start walking towards the canal. We walk in pairs, talk, change companions and talk; and sometimes I walk alone. Trees in their autumn cloak have been hidden from my sight for years. In Corfu it is always green. Almost bent over I watch shapes and colours of leaves pass by under my feet, sometimes picking up the winner of the beauty contest. The river flows softly to our right. To our left streams of Sunday-afternoon strollers (as is tradition) dressed in black (as is the trend). Children on bicycles, women under head-scarves, young fathers with children on their shoulders, students on bicycles weaving in between.
On Monday starts my sightseeing. I have a welcome pass on all public transport for five days. No worry about where to buy the tickets, the only concern is to get out at the correct stop. Things become muddled in my memory now, what came first? what came after? On the list of things to see there is, of course, the Brandenburger Tor, the landmark of Berlin. I never realised that it was in the East before unification (‘Wiedervereinigung’) in 1989. They call unification also ‘Wende’ (turning point) or ‘fall of the wall’. I thought that the horses would be facing the wide road and park to welcome the travellers from afar, but they are facing inwards, celebrating the exit from town and the entrance into the State of Brandenburg. I am a bit disappointed. But one of the buildings of the adjoining Paris Square catches my attention: the modern block belonging to the DZ Bank. No wonder, architect is Frank O. Gehry.
Just around the corner, on prime real estate, the memorial for the six million Jews murdered during the Nazi regime. It does not look like much when I approach it. Uneven slabs like tombs on a square, white tourist buses at the other end. A pretzel man. I must have one! Is it OK to walk through the memorial munching on a pretzel? Ah, I see, the paths between the slabs are dug into the ground; in a straight line they undulate up and down from one end to the other. So many slabs, so many tombs; look to the right, an infinity of deaths; look to the left, some other visitor is approaching through his narrow alley of steles; when he squeezes past me he looks down into ‘my’ alley with a bewildered eye like mine.
Oscar, who also has some Jewish blood in his veins, reminds me to watch out for those little brass plaques on the pavements. Here lived so-and-so, year of birth, date of deportation, name of concentration camp and date of death. They use the word ‘ermordet’ (murdered). The plaques are inlaid into the pavement at the entrance of private dwellings. Sometimes I think of how Berlin was a sea of rubble at the end of WWII and that most houses I see around were re-built in the last sixty years, although according to old plans. What a waste of energy, destroy and build again – and we still keep on doing the same; now Syria is being destroyed….
I sometimes also think of my father working here during the war for the Swiss embassy, during the bombings evacuated to a castle outside town, Mom visiting him sometimes. (Strangely enough, the building of the Swiss embassy in town survived the bombings and was one of few that have survived.) What must Father have seen when the war was over the following year? He never talked about it.
A lot of construction work is still going on. Apparently they even joke about the never-ending construction frenzy (sounds familiar?). I count eight working cranes in one single photo shot. I watch the diggers and cranes swirling around in the gray sky. Crimson or blue 20 cm metal pipes criss-cross the roads at a height of several meters from the ground. I ask a young man who surely will know the answer. What are they for? For the construction site. For electricity supply? No, to drain the ground water. Aha!
Four buildings in a row are under construction as I walk through the financial district near Parliament. My feet start hurting. The distances are vast, mainly in what used to be the eastern part of Berlin. The Frankfurter and Karl-Marx Allee remind me of Moscow where crossing the street takes you ten minutes. Broad pavements, some so wide they could harbour a little forest, six traffic lanes.
Nefertiti was on top of my sightseeing list. I had channelled years ago that she was originally from Corfu, that she was a poetess and healer. Only later I heard that indeed some pharaohs were of Greek origin, so why not Nefertiti from Corfu? A whole room was dedicated to the almost immaculately painted bust, dark walls with spotlights onto her face. I always thought she looked like my mother, and walking around her now, she looks even more like I remember Mom. Also a bit sad like her.
Egyptian statuettes, almost by the thousands, one could say. Where do these people come from? They look like indigenous Mexicans, or maybe Japanese? Some like Italians, some definitely from sub-saharan Africa. It feels like an amalgam of peoples like I see in this town. On my way home I buy sushi from a Chinese takeway (which was a mistake, I should have gone to the Japanese across the street); the young man behind the counter looks exactly like one of the statuettes, same high and flat cheek bones, same jaw. You figure!
Most impressed was I at the sight of two lurs of the bronze age, also in the New Museum. The beautifully crafted ‘stems’ must have wound around the bodies of the musicians. The ends like the centre of lotus flowers. As a joke I ask a guard. But, what sound do they make? Just press the button, he says and walks away. He must have heard that ‘music’ umpteen times. Also children stop next to me listening. Imagining desolate moors, a cold and wet winter’s day, maybe a feud, and this awe-inspiring sound, low frequency with some high shrills in-between. Again we press the button, the children and I cannot get enough of it. But now let’s be civilised again and walk on. (Hear the sound of these instruments on YouTube.)
My neighbourhood is trendy; students, young professionals, also the Osho centre is here (more to come about that!); Arabs running Italian restaurants, Italians with food stalls, an Indian restaurant across from the centre, a whole-food shop (all bio), a fast-food falafel stall (delicious and cheap). More neighbourhoods further up north to explore. My first photograph is of a bakery window. It has a few tables outside, in time to sit down (finally!) for a pita pocket and a decaf cappuccino. American English, Italian, French – I thought I was off the beaten track, doing my private exploration. But maybe they live here or are on their private exploration as well.
The streets are poorly lit at night, maybe for ecological reasons I would suspect in a wealthy country like this. A few times I miss finding my way back, the wide pavements lined with trees all looking almost the same. Earlier in the day a kind woman on a bicyle explained to me (in English!) that I should be walking on the inner side of the pavement and that the outer part was for bicycles. By now I look carefully right and left and back when I slightly change my direction on the pavement; the cyclists rush at high speed through the city with their dainty flashing headlights.
One day is totally dedicated to the Jewish Museum. My nephew tells me he met the architect, Daniel Libeskind, at a dinner and heard that he is also a musician. When young he had to decide if he wanted to become a musician or an architect. This might explain why he was interested in meeting my nephew who is a composer. I first check out the outside of the building. Some policemen stand around. Will it be OK to photograph the architecture or will I look suspicious? I somehow seem to create suspicion in police officers, an old lady who looks like an old lady but has a spring in her gait (despite the arthritis!). The metal cladding of the exterior reminds me of doors shut, I can even hear the sound of one being slammed and echoing in an empty room. Windows are more like scratches in the metal. But the intersecting elements have an elegance that defies gloom.
The entrance is, oddly, in a separate, sandstone, baroque-style building. Security checks like in an airport, as I would have expected. Show your ticket and down you go on dark slate steps into an underground space, across into the new building. A guide gives out a map of the museum, a three-dimensional drawing so complicated you soon give up and ‘go with the flow’ or rather go where a lift can take you. Feet and hips are hurting again. There are some foldy-chairs for old people like me. You can carry them around with you dangling on your arm and when you see something you like, sit down, study the photo or the graphic and read the explanation in all comfort, in German or English. A well-spoken and well-informed (and also good-looking) guide goes into details of the Jewish rituals for a dozen employees of some very straight German company. But then who cares about rituals?
Of more interest are the stories of Jewish personalities who have contributed to the culture and commerce of the town. Stories of women who had literary salons for Jewish and gentile guests. Words of despair of Jews who have been baptised and are still not part of society. A map of a county in southern Germany with the trajectory of a street vendor’s travels during one summer, his stops on the Sabbath in villages or towns with a Jewish community. Small windows into the lives of outsiders, holding onto each other, a bit like we sannyasins do.
What can you say or show about the holocaust which would be more pregnant with significance and give a clearer experience to the visitor than a huge empty room, high as the whole building it seems, no lighting, no heating. The only light on the gray concrete walls comes from a narrow cut in the corner of the building. It is colder in here than outside. A few more people come in through the gray heavy metal door, but we all leave quickly. This is how it must have felt! Desolate, hopeless, or is there a light somewhere?
On Sunday afternoon, after another brunch with Oscar’s friends, another opportunity to savour the collection of creative and intelligent people that surround him, people with life in their bones. The sannyasins of the centre have a workshop so cannot come. Anidana comes and picks me up at 3pm in his brand-new white SUV. Instead of a cup of tea and a chat somewhere he proposes to drive me around. So Punya, what have you seen and what have you not seen? The Kurfuerstendamm we can drive through, there is not much to see, it is not as magnificent as the Karl Marx Allee you have already seen. It is more narrow, more Western. But I take you to Potsdam. Look, here is where the Osho commune used to be and now here was the Disco! We drive past a beautiful lake with marinas and posh villas, a Russian colony with the typical wooden dachas.
I read about King Friedrich II’s summer residence Sanssouci in Potsdam, but it was beyond the limit of my travel pass. Now it is easy by car. The day is coming to a close and we see the palace and its sloping gardens with vines and sheltered fig trees in the last rays of the setting sun. We peep through the curtains into some of Fritz’s many guest rooms. Anidana had recently visited the interior with a friend and remembers some of the historical facts he had heard from the guide. He is now passing them on to me, at least what he remembers. Voltaire was one of the king’s friends and would be invited to stay for long periods. Apparently the king was gay which explains why he built a castle for his wife, Charlotte, a few miles away.
A visit would not be complete without a stroll through the Dutch neighbourhood; narrow two-storey red brick houses with the typical Dutch gables. Why Dutch? Because architects from the Netherlands knew how to build on sand and were invited by the king to expand the town. Also not complete would be the visit without a cup, or rather glass, of strong hot chocolate at Café Heider.
The Berlin wall has been taken down (on 9th November 1989) but, as a memento, about a hundred meters have been kept along the river Spree, mainly for us tourists to see. I remember the horrendous stories of people jumping the wall and being killed. And then suddenly the wall came down, without a fight, without a revolution. We were in Pune when the news came. It was unbelievable. East Germans would come over to the west after work, or on Sundays, and buy bananas. After a few days all bananas were gone. Bananas, such a common commodity in India!
So on my last day I tick off from my list also ‘die Mauer’. The stretch of wall is painted on the north side by artists and after them, onto the same surface, passersby and tourists have added their own graffiti. Photos of your friends with cameras and smartphones, selfies, the lot! This piece of wall is nothing compared to the original length which was almost 165 kilometers, the circumference of West Berlin cut off from East Berlin and the DDR. The wall was taken down and destroyed in a hurry but a few years later there was a trend to remember history, so they turned the path of the wall into a cycle route and added as a marking a double line of paving stones, sometimes even with metal plaques saying ‘Berliner Mauer 1961-1989’.
The taxi driver for my ride back to Tegel airport arrives ahead of time and in a hurry Oscar and I drag the suitcase one flight of stairs down onto the pavement, Oscar still in his pajamas. Thanks so much for the wonderful holiday! Next year it is your turn to come to Arillas. I sit back in the comfy leather seat and enjoy the last view of this wonderful city and keep in mind all the places I still need to see, I hope, on my next visit. The taxi driver, so he tells me, took early retirement from his job as a PR man and is now working part time with the taxis. He is only 63. He came to Berlin from the south of Germany 30 years ago because he did not want to be drafted for military service. This explains some of the rebellious and less bourgeois attitudes of the people who live in the city. If for any reason I would need to go and live in Germany it would be Berlin I would choose!