To the Heart of Europe — Day 8: Back in the U.S.S.R.

29 May

Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC, didn’t get to bed last night…

At nine in the morning Dennis wakes us all up with a sudden gasp. Normally I would glance at him briefly, think “he’s missed his alarm for the buses again” and try to go back to sleep, but this time I know precisely why. It’s results day and even though I’m fairly confident of my results, I can’t help but feel my own pulse quicken. Nothing spoils a trip more than the prospect of academic ruin. A quick check on the online system. Wifi goes slow for a few seconds, and the blood roars in my ears. Finally they appear, and my heart skips a beat. It takes a few more moments for it to sink in — that all is well.

On the way the paper bag was on my knee: man, I had a dreadful flight

Our first stop of the day is Alexanderplatz, memorialized in Alfred Döblin’s decades-spanning masterpiece “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (which Wikipedia calls “the Berliner equivalent of James Joyce’s Ulysses”). It’s a sprawling chronicle of a man navigating the depressing realities of Berlin in the 1920s: full of drugs and prostitutes, betrayal at every turn, it’s a far cry from the sunny explosion of artistic freedom that we often associate with Weimar Germany. It’s a long and sometimes uncomfortable read, two adjectives that also perfectly encapsulate a ride on the S-Bahn: we’re now in the last stretches of May, with the temperature is constantly above the twenties, and a badly ventilated S-Bahn train is not the best place to spend it in. There’s a fetid smell about the carriage: maybe it’s our coats, soaked with eight nights’ worth of travel, or maybe it’s just the smell of Berlin. The travellers all avoid eye contact (despite some claims that it’s a speciality, the truth is that conversation with a stranger in the Metro in any city immediately marks you as a lunatic), though there are still a few conversations to be overheard.

I’m back in the USSR, you don’t know how lucky you are, boy
Back in the USSR

The leafy treetops of the Tierpark and West Berlin slowly give way to skyscrapers with glass facades as we cross into East Berlin. Thirty years removed from its Communist past, the Eastern half of Berlin is today one of the world’s most prosperous and tight-knit communities, and tall buildings are now to be seen everywhere. Still, though, there’s a noticeable change in atmosphere: maybe it’s just cause we’ve been spending so much time in parks in the Western half, but East Berlin feels more heavily urbanized, as if the end of the German Democratic Republic unleashed a whole new frenzy in construction.

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Alexanderplatz is a brilliant example of this. Back in (the previous iteration of) the Twenties, the Alex, as it’s commonly called, slowly built up to become the centre of Berlin nightlife. Picture Weimar Germany: think of its rampant consumerism, trendy people and hedonistic lifestyle, those seizure-inducing flashing neons and that raucous laughter coming from the cabarets (you know what, just think of any interior scene from Kander and Ebb’s classic musical “Cabaret”). You might not know the exact name, but you’re probably thinking of Alexanderplatz in the Roaring Twenties.

Then of course the Nazis happened, and the Alex was bombed in WWII — totally bombed. Almost no architecture from before that period survives, save for a couple of buildings too unimportant for their names to be mentioned in this journal. So Alexanderplatz, which was by now in the hands of East Berlin, was rebuilt — in a way that suited socialist tastes, of course. For many people, who couldn’t afford to go beyond East Germany, the Alex was the centre of their world. The World Clock, which still stands in the centre of the square, was a landmark where people met up, where they read the names of cities abroad and dreamed about them: Paris, New York, Honolulu. Then as now, it was a place where journeys in the mind began.

So you can imagine my disappointment when the first thing we viewed in this place was a bunch of electronics. Dennis and Wilson, being proud camera enthusiasts, have an eye for places selling that sort of equipment, and once we alight they immediately gravitate towards one building sitting on the corner of the square, a huge complex featuring all the latest fads in shooting people and pictures. The boys spend quite some time here debating whether the prices are worth investing in. Everything here, inside and out, is new, technological, and, to say the least, disorienting. It’s not so much Alexanderplatz, Berlin as it’s Akihabara, Tokyo.

In my introduction, I mentioned how portraying Dennis’ reaction to everything as “insane” would be reductive, an incomplete representation of the man himself. There are times, however, where the needs of accuracy are too great to be ignored. As Dennis strolls through the wide expanses of Alexanderplatz, he starts using the aforementioned adjective on everything he sees: from the trams that bisect the square to the Television Tower that sits on its edge, everything is “insane”, and wonderful. We walk into a souvenir shop next to the World Clock: the glasses, the notebooks, even the tatty postcards — all “insane”, as are the contents of other souvenir shops along the street. Can’t help but raise my eyebrows a little at this slightly manic expression of wonder, but then I remind myself that this is a state I’ve been trying to get at myself — the innocence, the awe of seeing things for the first time. Smile and engage in banter as Dennis’ effusing continues. He seems to have an unlimited supply of wonder.

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Lunchtime. Our friend Zoe, who spent an extraordinary amount of time in Central Europe last year, has WhatsApped to tell us about this amazing burrito place that is hidden somewhere underneath Alexanderplatz station. (Food to Zoe is basically what buses are to Dennis.) What appears to be a simple task of locating a restaurant quickly turns into a nightmare as the monstrous size of the station — and its unnavigability — becomes apparent. Besides the S-Bahn station on the surface, a U-Bahn station also exists, and it’s connected to the former only by a hidden side door IN THE BASEMENT. Once we’re underground, the identical turquoise facades send us going round in circles: we can’t even find our way around, much less a restaurant which we don’t even know the name of. Eventually, quite by chance, we bump into the very store Zoe mentioned right next to a McDonalds takeaway. Perhaps the hunt has whetted our appetites, but there’s a certain thrill to seeing our larger-than-usual burritos being prepared, in a sideshop of the metro.

Been away so long I hardly knew the place: gee, it’s good to be back home

2:30. Lunch over, walk out with Wilson to revisit Museum Island, right in the centre of the city. Not content with having one museum on an island in Munich, the German government has stuffed FIVE museums, each of them enormous buildings, onto this tiny island. Between them they share about 4000 years of human history, from the wonders of the ancient Mesopotamians to the latest bits of art that the world agrees should be proudly displayed. And now I’ve returned to this place after my first visit some years ago, because when you’re in Europe, you don’t pass up the chance to see loads of things that the Europeans have charitably “borrowed” from ancient civilizations over the past two centuries.

Start at the Pergamon Museum, home to some of the oldest pieces of history on the planet. Most of the stuff here dates way, way back (among other things this museum holds, the largest surviving fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh sits right here), and it’s without doubt the most stunning of the five museums as well. A reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate, the ancient entryway to the grand city of Babylon, towers above the visitor in the first room they enter. Delve in deeper, and Middle Eastern wonders greet your eyes whichever way you turn: an early Persian variant of chess, an entire room transported in its entirety from Aleppo in Syria, and so on. One thing NOT on display, however, is the famous Pergamon Altar, formerly part of the giant temple in Pergamon in Turkey. Constant exposure to tourists has taken its toll, and in the museum’s own words, it’s been shipped off “for a little restoration holiday”, not expected to return till 2023. There are enough exhibits to fascinate even without it, though, and the authorities have tactfully arranged it so that a lot of these exhibits stand along the same corridor. I sit down underneath a gigantic Roman market gate to admire the sheer majesty of it all.

Leave it till tomorrow to unpack my case, honey disconnect the phone

Eventually I decide that I’ve had enough of old stuff, and I leave the Pergamon Museum for a walk in the afternoon sunshine. There’s still a lot of time to spare, and I’m definitely going to spend it on a museum on the Island — but which one? All of them have identical facades, faux-Roman porticos built out of cream-coloured stone, which makes identifying them more than a little difficult.

Settle on the New Museum, which deals with Ancient Egypt and Greece and which also has a Wilson within its walls. I walk about the hallowed courtyards for a bit, trying to soak up what’s on display underneath the red brick colonnades. Then it hits me: I’m not interested in any of this. I can’t give a damn about the kind of artefacts sailors left behind, or whether cats or mice were worshipped by the Egyptians as deities. They’re mostly common, normal trinkets — things that were part of their normal, everyday life, things that didn’t set out to be works of art. Imagine if people in AD 6019 looked upon our iPhones as art: we’d think they’d gone insane. I know it’s silly to say that ordinary household objects can’t be pieces to be admired in future, but right now… these things just don’t speak to me.

Walk over to the building next door: the Old National Gallery, which holds paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries. This is more like it: the paintings here need are more straightforward, meaning less brainpower needed for appreciating them. That said, besides the obvious Monets and Renoirs, I really only know one artist here (the German painter Caspar David Friedrich, most famous for his Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, also known as “that painting that always crops up in Romanticism courses”). Having gone through room after room after room of anonymous painters, the landscapes and portraits begin to blend into one another after a while, and I’m not exactly bored here, but you can only look at so many paintings before you start to wonder if there might be a little variety.

Check my phone again. Another 90 minutes before the museum closes; another three hours before we meet up. I’m quite conscious that I’m supposed to be admiring the paintings here, not looking at my phone to check for updates. And yet there’s something that doesn’t feel right. I like to think of myself as a cultured person, yet I can’t really stand looking at these paintings for more than a couple of minutes. Instead, I’m now looking at the Asian-looking girl sitting next to me, asleep with her jacket tucked up against her. I feel like walking up to her the moment she wakes, make up some excuse for a chat — I need the conversation. But then again, I’m not as outgoing and talky as Dennis and Wilson are: that chat with Elizabeth back in the Bavarian hinterlands was basically done out of necessity. Should I move over and introduce myself? As I think this, her phone buzzes, and she wakes up and walks off. I’m left staring at Friedrich’s The Monk by the Sea, a vast painting featuring a tiny monk standing on his own by the dark, dreary ocean. I quite like the monk.

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6:00. The museum is closed, and I am forced back out, the sun still blazing in my face. No sign of the James Simon Gallery, dubbed Berlin’s “ascent to the artistic gods” and scheduled to open in six weeks. People have compared it to both a modern Parthenon and, less charitably, a massive public toilet. I’m certainly in need of one right now as I walk around the Island looking for somewhere to go. There’s a construction blitz going on in the centre of Berlin right now — just opposite the Island is the Berlin Palace, opening scheduled for September; while underneath my feet is the U-Bahn extension linking Alexanderplatz with the Brandenburg Gate, opening next year. The DDR Museum, a building on the banks of the Spree and which catalogues East Berlin life, looks interesting but as my wallet is beginning to leak badly I decide to simply head westwards and admire the buildings along Berlin’s most famous street.

I’m back in the USSR, you don’t know how lucky you are, boy
Back in the US— back in the US—
Back in the USSR

Unter den Linden, or “Under the Lime Trees” for those of us who don’t speak German, is Berlin’s central thoroughfare. Although the titular lime trees have long since been replaced by buildings and trees bearing less edible fruit, there’s still a certain charm to the avenue that attracts tourists. Part of this is because more than a dozen attractions are situated on this very street: the Berlin City Palace, Humboldt University and Berlin Cathedral are just three of the many reasons why people like me flock to this place. Every building here likely has two hundred years of history behind its walls, a story of oppression or chemistry or salvation. To walk down this street is to literally go through a crash course of Berliner history and culture.

Which is all very well if the sun’s not directly in your face. Unfortunately for me I’m going west at six thirty in the afternoon, and even though the towering Brandenburg Gate sits at the very end of the street it does nothing to hide the mighty summer sunshine, hot and blinding. I can’t take an umbrella out because A. that looks stupid on a hot summer day in Berlin and B. I don’t have one. I duck into the shades of buildings every now and then to get the sunlight out of my eyes, and it’s a welcome relief to feel the instant temperature drop when you’re under the protection of some large brick building. It’s temporary, but you get what you can as a tourist.

I don’t have any idea where I’m going. I’d originally thought of seeing the Holocaust Memorial or the House of World Cultures before I met up with the boys, but I’ve done sightseeing the whole day and all that walking in the past week (I’ve averaged 20,000 steps every day since I landed at Munich Airport) is beginning to take its toll on me. For a moment I feel like just wandering the streets of Berlin like Wilson is doing, but I’ve never been good at that kind of aimless, leisurely wander that travellers always swear by. You always feel like you need a destination, some place you need to end up at. And that’s hard to think about when there’s a bright light in your face.

In the end, I simply duck down the closest U-Bahn station. Metro systems always calm me down — rather than boxing you in, each station has its own story to tell. The one I’m on, Französische Straße, is special: it was closed for thirty years because it was an East Berlin station on a West Berlin line, and now it’s scheduled to close again for good next year, handing over its story to a new station on the Unter den Linden. I breathe the musty air, the stench of the pack of commuters and the grease of the carriages; the rust of the iron pillars and the imagined whiffs of gunpowder from the tiles in the wall — and I smile. So much history, so much mystery in each station, connected by a simple pair of tunnels. Maybe I do belong in the shadows underground, after all.

Well, the Ukraine girls nearly knock me out, they leave the West behind
And the Moscow girls make me scream and shout
That Georgia’s always on my m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-mind

Find myself back at Potsdamer Platz for dinner: Dennis has discovered yet another brilliant Italian restaurant which demands our attention. As always happens with these things, I’ve over-exerted myself and arrived early, so I have a sitdown at the Sony Centre again, admiring the late afternoon sun as it shines through the giant sails again. After a while Wilson arrives too, and as we scan a gift shop for souvenirs, we chat amiably about our day in Berlin. He’s been exploring the outer suburbs, though as he basically went wherever the U-Bahn took him, he didn’t really pay much attention to the placenames.

What he does know, however, is that the vibe there seemed a little different. “It was a little seedier out there,” he says. “I didn’t really want to focus a lot on what the people were doing there — I just walked on.” The neighbourhoods were a little rougher, the buildings a little drabber. He assures me that he never ran into any trouble, but his descriptions make me think that the shadows of East Berlin still linger on, the two halves still having a lot of catching up to do with each other.

Dennis arrives at the Sony Centre fuming. Apparently he ran into one of those scams which pick on clueless tourists: asked to sign a petition, he ended up having to fork over some cash as well and had to quickly “forget” his English vocabulary so he could cut his losses. In the end, he only lost 50 cents, but we emphatically agree that this is really unfair.

Show me round those sloping mountains way down south
Take me to your daddy’s farm

Our waiter at Dennis’ Italian discovery is one of the friendliest we’ve seen on our trip so far. He’s North Macedonian (though I can’t help but notice that he left out the “North” — the Macedonian dispute is evidently still going strong despite the naming agreement), and has been working here as a waiter for quite a few years — he tells us (and particularly Dennis, for whom he seems to have a particular affection) that he likes it here a lot. He tell us that he went to Hong Kong on holiday once and loved it. “You’ve got a great city there. Maybe I can visit you all someday.” We hasten to assure him that the city is very much worth the visit, and part ways.

We walk about Potsdamer Platz for a bit. It being our last full day in Europe, we might as well explore, find something beautiful under the twilight to keep as a final evening memory. While Dennis walks off to take another couple hundred shots of buses, Wilson and I walk into the adjacent stop with the same name. Although Potsdamer Platz is classified as a minor station halt (seriously: German law specifically states that it’s too small to be a major station), the glass panels and tall central pillars tell another story.

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And that’s it, really. Just a subterranean cavern. Nothing flashy. That’s all there is.

Let me hear your balalaikas ringing out
Come and keep your comrade warm

Back upstairs at Potsdamer Platz, we comb a supermarket for local goodies to take home for friends and family, but come up empty-handed except for some chocolates and a bottle of milk, bought at Dennis’ excited recommendations. So we end the day back in Alex, combing the shop we visited earlier in the day for souvenirs. The story is always the same in the end: capitalism comes to the rescue.

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Let me tell you, honey:
I’m back in the USSR, and it’s so good to be here
B
ack in the USSR!

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