To the Heart of Europe — Day 9: The Fall from Olympus

30 May
I awake to find myself at the centre of a miracle. Not only are Dennis and Wilson up and about, but they’ve already washed and are putting on their street clothes. Prepping for a full day on the town, their plan is to rush out to shop for souvenirs before splitting to do whatever it is they plan to do.

It’s my last day here, so I might as well treat myself. I am downstairs lazily enjoying my breakfast when the phone rings. “Erm, Chamois? The breakfast room still open? Is there still time for us to come and eat?”

I glance at my phone and sigh. Today is Ascension Day, a holiday in deeply Christian Germany, and as a result everything is shut. It’s too late for them to come back up, so they take the typical course of action — starving themselves until lunchtime arrives.

Take the U-Bahn out to the western suburbs for the main attraction of the day: the Berlin Olympic Stadium, built in 1936 for the Summer Olympics. This was Hitler’s attempt to show to the world that he was not a monster, which was slightly undermined by his determination to show how Germans and Aryans were much better at sports than any other race could be. More than eighty years later, the legacy of the Berlin Games are gone forever, but the stadium still stands, and I’m off to see how good it is.

Olympia-Stadion station has a beautiful station building, reminiscent of Charles Holden’s modernist brick boxes on the London Underground. I’m normally not a fan of simple structures — the more elaborate, the more impressive it seems to me — but the geometry and unpretentiousness have a certain nostalgia that just charms you.

Walking down the concourse, I notice a small plaque announcing the U-Bahn Museum. For some reason it’s only open twice a month, and today is not one of those days. No worry, though, just gives me more time to stop and smell the roses. Down a leafy avenue, full of trees arching over each other, their shade providing a bit of welcome coolness to the already hot morning (it’s only 11 o’clock, for God’s sake, why is it so WARM). Cross under a wide brick arch and come out of the trees — and then I stop dead. What I’m seeing simply boggles the mind.

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Germany has a reputation for enlarging everything, but this is beyond belief. Before me is the Berlin Olympic Stadium, capacity 74,000, dimensions 300 metres long by 225 wide, cost of construction a whopping €300 million in today’s money. Everything about this place is supersized, right down to the entryway: being one of the largest stadiums in the world, it naturally comes with what has to be one of the world’s largest carparks. It takes me a good five minutes and more to walk from one end of the mostly empty carpark to another. Perhaps it’s the size, but walking up to the huge twin towers that guard the entrance, I find it a little odd that almost nobody’s here on such a beautiful day — and a public holiday, to boot.

Once I’ve bought my ticket from a very kind old lady, I’m allowed to wander around the grounds. One thing I’ve learnt on this trip is not to save the best till last or try to build up to a climax — you simply won’t have the energy to go through the biggest and best thing on your list. So I make a beeline for the huge stadium, walking into the shadow of its Roman-style colonnades. When I’m up close, I realise how big the thing is: the arches tower above me, reaching to ridiculous heights, a proud declaration of strength and glory. The stones feel rough to the touch — God help any drunk on match day who happens to smash his head into them — but they’re stacked so tidily, you don’t feel a lack of attention to care or organization. It’s probably the ultimate expression of Nazi masculinity: rough in appearance, hard all the way through, but never putting a step out of line.

A cleft in the colonnades up ahead, and the sky opens up before me. I’ve stumbled into a section of the stadium that faces the old parade grounds: Hitler used to use it to tell the world how great the Germans were at gymnastics and crowded it for May Day celebrations. Today, the Mayfield stands desolate, but the gate opposite is lying open, so I walk in — to find myself face-to-face with an entire stadium. I have stumbled upon the original parade steps, where the presumably Aryan performers would have entered the stadium while the crowds cheered their heads off. The original cauldron that held the Olympic flame stands proudly in the centre of the steps, while inscriptions commemorate the people who built the stadium.

I gingerly walk down to the track. This opportunity is surely too good to be true, and a sinister figure of authority will surely pop out any moment now and throw me out. But no such person appears, and I am free to squat down on the track and take pictures of this glorious sports paradise.

Eventually a construction worker walks up to me, gently but firmly telling me to beat it. I make my excuses and head back into the sunshine, finding myself face to face with the Clock Tower. It’s not an original: rebuilt in the sixties after the British occupiers blew it up, the only thing related to it dating from the Nazi era is the bell that somehow survived all the damage. It’s still here, complete with a small attempt to erase its Nazi roots — the swastika at its base has been crudely filled in.

Back in the 1930s, the Olympic Village was much smaller and everything was much more closely placed together. So here in the Olympiapark you find the ice rink and the equestrian grounds a stone’s throw away from the clock tower, which is perfect for people who like both horses and curling. The hockey grounds sit on the ruins of the old 1913 stadium (just like Hitler to tear down something that was only 20 years old), just next to the swimming pool. Both sit in the shade of the stadium itself, and squeals of delight are audible from the pool. Walk over to see the divers and swimmers, and there is a perfect picture of German family life — the mother chattering away with the father, occasionally admonishing their kids as they dive into the pools. It’s an idyllic picture, something worth preserving in the mind. I try to take a photo from the entrances without looking like a pervert.

What impresses me most, though, are the stone slabs (or as the Park insists they’re called, stelai) that surround the entrance passageways. There’s a lot of them, all there to celebrate the German athletes who’ve participated one time or another in the Olympics, and the contrast is astonishing: the ones from after World War II depict athletes in all sorts of graceful poses, doing all kinds of sport — skiing, diving, almost every sport imaginable. The pre-1936 ones simply feature a lot of naked men. Curiously, none of them seem to have any penises. And with that observation, I leave the Olympic Park, having seen my fill of this blessed ground’s cursed history.

Of course, it is here that things start to go wrong for me. First I realize upon arrival at the Olympiastadion station that my timing gives me too little time to visit Spandau but too much time to just visit the Museum of Illusions on the Unter den Linden. Having gone for the latter (museums is sort of my Achilles heel), I am told that S-Bahn trains are not running between Charlottenburg and Zoologischer Garten and I have to switch to the U-Bahn. When I do hop on the first underground train I see, I realize too late I am heading in the wrong direction. The panic that hasn’t appeared since the Deutsches Museum is rising again, and with every misstep I find that I am less and less able to control it. As I arrive back at Alexanderplatz it’s all I can do not to simply give up the fight and break down on a station bench. I am tired, lonely and, most frighteningly, scared — scared because I do not know what I am going through, because I want to believe that I am safe, and because I really really fucking want a non-sarcastic smile from somebody I fucking know. This cannot be happening. This simply cannot be happening.

Queue up at a McDonalds: the first I’ve had for the entire trip. I figure that what worked in the Deutsches Museum should also work here, and one cheeseburger and coke later I’m feeling mostly myself again. Walk upstairs and down the Unter der Linden, and it’s not long before I find the Museum of Illusions, a sleek shop in the side of the building. It’s bustling with tourists and there’s a small crowd outside the entrance, but it’s a beautiful day and nobody seems to mind. I begin to relax. Probably just another phase of mine. At the museum entrance an assistant is entertaining customers at the front of the line: chatting animatedly, handing them wooden conundrums to solve.

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At last, it’s my turn to enter behind a huge German family. The man gestures some sort of number, and waves me through as well. I notice that he seems a little unsure.

“Do I follow them or should I wait…” I ask the assistant, but he’s already closed off the line behind me. I approach the counter, where another shop assistant is taking care of the family in front. He glares at me suspiciously.

“Are you with them or did you come in here yourself?” he asks. I stare into his eyes. Can’t help but notice that he’s got fake eyelashes.

“Oh, I’m not with them…” I begin hesitantly.

“Well, you’ll have to wait here then.” And with that I am left standing in the lobby, a horde of tourists curiously looking in at me through the glass, the other assistants all but ignoring me. I feel like a freak in a circus show, put out for all to see. My mind is a blank, whirling in directions I don’t understand. I want nothing more than to walk out, to get away from all those starers, or to explain that it’s all a terrible misunderstanding. Yet what good would that do me?

I must have spent twenty minutes there at the counter, unable to think of what to do except stand there and wait. Why was this happening? I admit that for one moment I imagined that the brusque attendant was a closet racist, a man who had his fair share of pain from other bratty tourists from the East and was now taking it out on me for looking like one of them. (Which I wouldn’t blame him for. Mostly.) But more to the point: this is not how I want my trip in Europe to end. I wanted something memorable, a blaze of fireworks and glory that proved the perfect end to an almost-perfect grad trip. Instead, I’m stood before two men who are half a head taller than me, having something of an existential crisis. What kind of ending do you call that?

At last, I am waved through, breathing a huge sigh of relief. Perhaps it’s just that my long wait and my suspicions have soured things, but the Museum of Illusions is really disappointing. What I’d imagined to be a large hall full of surprises turns out to be a small shop, easily finished within 15 minutes even if you stop to take pictures. Kaleidoscopes, a hall of mirrors, a small alcove where you can pretend you’re playing cards with five other copies of yourself. The only thing of note is a tunnel painted with garish, psychedelic colours that rotates as you walk through it. Disregarding the stern warnings on the side, I let go of the bannisters meant to keep you steady and almost immediately feel incredibly dizzy. Regain my balance and walk out just as the shop assistant, the one who kept me outside for so long, peeks into the tunnel with what looks like a stern look of disapproval.

As the train rumbles north from Alexanderplatz, I reflect upon everything that’s happened so far. This is my last subway ride of the trip. This time tomorrow, I will be safe in my own bed, pondering the summer job I’ll be stuck in for the next 10 weeks. There’s so much to look forward to in the summer: some outings with my friends, lunches and dinners spent with people I love, even the job I signed up for but know almost nothing about. For all intents and purposes, this is basically the last day I will have something tying me to my undergraduate life — so I have to wonder why I’m spending it here in Berlin, of all the places I could have gone.

Do I like Berlin? These are people who, having had more than a half-century of chaos and tyranny, clearly know how to treasure their ideals. They’ve known that freedom doesn’t come easy, that there are dark corners inside a person that people with a bit of power or influence can all too easily exploit. And in the 30 years since the Berlin Wall came down and people all over Germany gained the right to be free, everyone’s held onto the symbols, all too aware that history is not something you forget and allow to fade in the backwaters of your collective consciousness. You need to remember; you need to learn from it to be free.

And that freedom is everywhere: in the way they build their buildings, like the openness and gaiety of the Reichstag and the Communications Museum; in the way it’s run, with everyone willing to get on with creating a better society; and even in the way its people treat each other, living as if it’s the last day of their lives. They’ve done very well for themselves, the Berliners. It’s certainly not something you can say of every capital.

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Change at Osloer Straße for the southbound train. A man progresses up the train, shouting at people he doesn’t know, apparently begging for money. But then again: I find myself wanting more than just the prospect of a free city. There’s so much that I found disenchanting about Berlin — that experience with the emotionally distant staff of the Museum of Illusions, for example, or the general emptiness I felt while walking around Berlin’s enormous open areas. Even the transport system felt alienating and uncomfortable to ride on here, and I speak as a fervent admirer of metros. To be fair, this abyss between peoples exists in every city — but it feels especially hard to bridge in Berlin. When you step out of the place you live in, you’re constantly rubbing shoulders with Berliners, but they steam straight on, never giving you more than a glance. The feeling you get from the city is that you can stay here as long as you like, but you can never belong.

Perhaps it’s an indication of just how hard reality lands in Berlin. These are people who have gone through hellfire in the past ninety years, and perhaps this has toughened them up. Whatever comes their way, they can take it on the nose — it’s just in their blood. But for a fragile little eggshell like me, it can be a lot to keep up with them. They always seem like they’re glad to be the ironic observer of your situation — while never fully understanding it. That’s probably why they can feel aloof and alienating at times…

… or maybe I’m just wrong. Going on a trip sort of means that you have to expose yourself to new experiences, allow yourself to be swept along by the tide. And perhaps it’s just that I didn’t throw myself enough into the spirit of the city, toughen myself up to probe deeper, and find the camaraderie within. In any case, Berlin remains a city of limitless wonder and intrigue. Its people are a living, breathing idealized representation of freedom and faded glory. And I never want to visit it again.

I sprint up the stairs of Turmstraße station, eager to see a familiar, friendly face once more. I spot my two travelling companions from far away, chatting amongst themselves. I wonder how they found Berlin: perhaps they view it as this free utopia, one where they can do as they please, one where people learn from the history of totalitarianism, one where buses of endless variety run wild and take them to infinite sights of unimaginable beauty. Or perhaps they view this place as a shabby city that is still struggling to figure out what it wants to be; a place that’s overrated, pompous, and undeserving as the capital of a proud nation. Or maybe they just don’t think about it at all — all they might care about is how, after nine days and nights together, we could be separating for the last time, never to see each other again. The possibilities are endless, but I put them behind for the time being. As I walk up to them, pulling out my key card, they look at me and smile.

“Time to go,” I say.

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