Hello to Berlin
October 30, 2012 § 2 Comments
A few weeks ago I had a work trip to Berlin. My first and only experience of the city had been a day and a night spent there twelve and a half years previously, and I was eager to make its re-acquaintance – especially as I knew that the city (and I) had changed a great deal in the intervening time.
As you might recall, my first impression of Berlin was that it was a cold and forbidding place. When my flight touched down at Tegel this time, the sun was shining and I was determined to approach the city with fresh eyes. How disheartening, then, was my first sight of the city when the U-Bahn spat me out at Potsdamer Platz.
The last time I saw Potsdamer Platz, it was an enormous construction site. This time I emerged among a forest of skyscrapers, aggressively shiny and totally devoid of personality. My first sacrilegious thought was that I’d preferred it unfinished. My heart continued sinking as I made my way to the Kulturforum (my business was at the Gemäldegalerie) – the same wide, windswept, depopulated boulevards I remembered from twelve years ago hadn’t changed one bit.
After I’d dropped my bag at my hotel and taken care of Part 1 of my work, I had the rest of the day to myself. It was a Monday, which meant the only museums open were the Pergamon Museum (which I’d visited on my first trip) and the Neues Museum (which had still been closed back then). I set off for the Museuminsel and my heart continued its descent. I found the behemoth buildings lining Unter den Linden every bit as intimidating as I had that first time, and my constant impulse to draw my coat a little tighter around myself was not entirely motivated by the weather.
Once I’d crossed onto the island, though, Berlin began to improve. The museums that had stood empty and still war-damaged the last time I’d been there had been restored to their former glory. I spent a very happy few hours exploring the Neues Museum – including paying court to the breathtaking Nefertiti – and when I came out there was still just enough daylight to make a bit of further exploration possible. I crossed to the other side of the river and headed north. Some minutes later I found myself in an enchanting network of Art Deco courtyards – the Hackesche Höfe.
Here at last was a side of Berlin I’d never seen before – the human-scaled, the homely, the unassumingly lovely. I stayed there until darkness fell, exploring the shops (some of them wonderfully old-fashioned – a toyshop that didn’t contain a single shiny gadget was probably my favourite) and admiring the tilework and the architecture. A walk along Oranienburgerstrasse in search of a new pair of boots (singularly unsuccessful) and dinner (a success, in the form of a cheap and cheerful falafel place) made me warm to the place even more… almost enough to endure the cold walk back to my hotel along Mitte’s inhospitable streets.
So am I a convert to Berlin? To be perfectly honest – no. Or rather, not yet. I think it will take at least one further visit, one which allows me enough time to get out of the chilly emptiness of Mitte and to explore the city’s more human-sized corners.
In the meantime, there are books. In the years between my first and most recent trips, three showed me faces of the city I hadn’t seen on my first flying visit – Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, Cees Nooteboom’s All Souls and, most recently, Cécile Wajsbrot’s L’Île aux musées. That last, which sadly has yet to be translated into English, takes place half in Berlin and half in Paris and centres on the idea of sculptures as witnesses of history and vessels of memory – something which probably sounds like heavy going but which Wajsbrot pulls off with poetry and a deceptively light touch. Reading it reminded me how easy it is to ignore sculptures in plain sight, and I resolved that when I went to Berlin, since I couldn’t explore the tawdry glories of its Weimar cabarets (Isherwood) or enjoy the rarefied company of a group of Dutch expatriate intellectuals (Nooteboom) I’d keep my eyes open for at least a few of the sculptures she wrote about. So this time, when I strolled through the Tiergarten, I skipped the Victory Column in favour of a humbler but much more poignant piece – Gerhard Marcks’s The Crier.
The Crier stands in the middle of the avenue that bisects the Tiergarten, facing the Brandenburg Gate with its cupped hands and open mouth. Around the base is inscribed a quote from Petrarch: ‘I wander through the world and cry “Peace! Peace! Peace!”’ When it was first installed, the sculpture faced the Wall. Although this state of affairs only lasted a few months (the Wall fell six months later), it’s impossible to see The Crier now without imagining how vulnerable and, at the same time, how indomitable it must have looked.
Even today, an island in a river of streaming traffic, its silent cry speaks volumes.