Walking is our preferred mode of transportation. Whether we’re on the road somewhere or living in Canada, we always turn first to our feet when we want to go somewhere. Here in Berlin, sidewalks are wide and excellent, and you can breathe the air, but the distances to various places are very, very long. We knew this in advance. We’re getting much-needed exercise after a three-week period of almost no physical exertion in Ukraine. On our first day here, we planned to walk from our place in Neukolln toward the Brandenburg Gate and the Tiergarten. The obvious tourist photo destination. We didn’t make it. There are much more important things to see along the way.
Along Niederkirchnerstraße, fronting the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters, are the foundations of the college of art and design that once stood here. In 1933, the Nazis took over the building for the use of the secret police and the SS. While it was a college, skylights had been built into the ceiling of the basement to allow light from above into the rooms below ground. As you walk along the covered walkway that now stands over the crumbling ruins of the basement, a small sign marks one of the few alcoves where pieces of the original skylights can still be seen. In the alcove next to this one, the skylights are completely covered by a thick brick wall.
In what amounts to an early suicide note for the German nation, the Nazis had already in 1933 been preparing for the destruction they knew would be coming in the years ahead. They had bricked up the skylights in the basement of their new headquarters. They were preparing it for bombing. In 1933. Like much of the history of the Nazis, the true insanity of those nightmare years comes clearly into view when you get down into the details. From the very beginning, it seems, the Nazis understood they would be taking the country to hell.
A visitor reads the displays at the Topographie of Terror.
It was nearly silent in the museum, despite a crowd of several hundred.
Along the same street there is also a long stretch of the Berlin Wall, still intact and left as a memorial. The only building that now stands on the former site of the ideological centre of the Nazi horror is a simple and important museum known as the Topography of Terror, documenting Germany’s journey into madness.
A stretch of the former Berlin Wall outside of the Topographie of Terror museum.
Peering through what’s left of the Berlin Wall, from East to West.
Berlin is not among the very old cities of Europe. Compared to other European capitals, Berlin is virtually North American in its relative youth. In 1600, when London numbered over 200,000 inhabitants, just 12,000 people lived in the two little towns that eventually merged to become the German capital.
Yet Berlin wears the years of its short life like someone with progeria. This isn’t a city that feels like it’s seen better days. It feels like a thousand years of history exploded here suddenly, smothering the city in moody grime, much thicker than it should be. While other European cities have become sort of tourist caricatures of themselves, Berlin appears to have remained authentically uninterested in being anything other than what it naturally is. If cities have personalities, Berlin is a shabby grouch that has gone through too much to care about what people think. And, like many troubled and eccentric personalities, there’s something genuine here, something genius.
Most people in Berlin do not care what you think of them.
A couple strolling through the flea market near Karl Marx Alle in East Berlin.
Once you’re out of the airport, there isn’t much here that strikes us as quintessentially German. When we land at a new airport, as the plane slowly taxis to the gate, we both sit there and wonder how we’re going to find a bathroom, then passport control, then baggage claim, then negotiate a taxi into the city. Every airport is different. Some are like small cities. Some are poorly designed for getting around in an intuitive way (Heathrow). At Tegel airport I did the usual wondering. We walked off the plane and then hoofed our packs and started to walk briskly toward the exit into the airport. It might be a 15 minute walk. After 5 seconds, and while we were still in the gangway, we stopped. Nobody was moving. We craned our necks to see what happened. Did somebody fall? Was there a security problem? The line crept forward a bit more. After a couple of minutes, we had moved enough to see around the corner. The line up was for passport control. Huh? They had border officials stationed at kiosks right off the plane. As we got closer, we could see behind the officers. The baggage claim carousel was right here too. Then the exit to taxis. From parking at the gate, to getting into a taxi took less than 8 minutes. Efficient.
This is the Germany of my imagination. Berlin is not that Germany.
There are not many German restaurants, but a ton of Middle Eastern street food. In many parts it’s a grimy city, with few surfaces not tagged with graffiti. Berlin isn’t dirty, just unkempt. Dishevelled. The fashion here is a huge middle finger to anyone who aspires to being among the fashionistas of Paris or Rome or London. People here dress frumpy, not preppy or cool. Uncool is cool. So obviously we fit in nicely without even trying. You can feel self-consciously inadequate walking the streets in Spain or France or Italy. I’ve never felt homlier or less sophisticated than when I was walking the streets of Paris. Not here. Nobody seems to care about how you dress. I’m sure there’s a fashion here, a sort of anti-bourgeois sense of what’s on the cutting edge. But you’d have to be here a long while to figure it out, and separate it from what’s just hard-core normal.
Who’s the tourist? Luckily we naturally carry Berlin camouflage with us. Always.
Very happy once we figured out how to take the U-Bahn….
We’re lucky. We’re here to visit family. My cousin Shannon, her husband Dani and their son Echo. So we get a peek at the insider’s view of Berlin. They’ve lived and worked here for many years. Shannon and Dani are both artists. Shannon grew up in Canada, Dani is Israeli. We’re staying at the homes of their friends. The first was the apartment of a writer just down the street from Shannon and Dani, in Neukolln. We cared for her three amazing cats while she was away for a few days. The cats are amazing because they don’t seem to shed. Karen loved them for other reasons: they’re cuddly, cute, and insisted on sleeping curled up between our legs every night. I was just amazed at how clean and shedless they were.
Our first homestay in Berlin. A friend of Scott’s cousin.
Her profession was obvious from the copious number of books.
One of three hairy (but not too hairy) brothers snuggling in our bed.
We’re now in another neighbourhood, Kreuzberg, at the home of two artists who are in China at an exhibit of their latest work. We’ll be here until we leave at the end of the month.
Our other homestay. Very snazzy. No hairy brothers.
Few of my cousin’s friends are not from elsewhere. They moved to Berlin because it is the art and culture capital of the world. These are not artists working as waiters or street performers to make a living. The world we are visiting is inhabited with people who are at the top of their artistic careers. They have collectors among the wealthy and well-known elite of Manhattan and London. Shannon is a professor at the Mainz Academy of Arts at Johannes Gutenberg University. She is a working artist, producing and showing work on a continuous basis. She is currently being featured in the Canadian Biennial at the National Gallery in Ottawa. Dani’s work is in museums and private collections in New York. The son of two successful artists, Echo is currently showing his own works, mostly sculptures of plastic blocks, but also graphite and ink on paper, portraits of people or studies of extraordinary objects. He currently has two collectors from Canada. And he’s only just turning nine.
Two of Shannon Bool’s works on display at a small show.
The artist taking questions from visitors.
A detail of one of Shannon’s famous marble benches.
Too real. Early works by Echo Gal. Notice the watch he managed to get into the drawing of Scott.
There are two obvious historical periods worth exploring here in Berlin. The years of Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust, and the years of the Cold War when Berlin was split in two, one city walled off from the other divided over ideology. There are museums here with superb antiquities, too. But we focused on these two periods. We also went to an art opening of my cousin’s work, wandered around the neighbourhoods of the former East Berlin, and took a stroll though the spectacular Tiergarten.
The people’s theatre in Rosa Luxembourg Platz.
A bronze bust of Marx along Karl Marx Allee in the former GDR.
Couldn’t help but notice that someone has left Karl some flowers…
From inside the Holocaust Memorial.
The Holocaust Memorial.
An awesome project. The largest decentralized memorial on earth. This is one of the thousands of Stolpersteine
that commemorates individuals at the exact last place of residence or work before they were victimized.
Part of the Neuer See of Tiergarten.
Tiergarten in the fall.
The Victory Column in the Tiergarten.
The Brandenburg Gate.
We never would have made the choice to visit Berlin as tourists. But we’re glad we stopped here on our way back to England. It’s a serious city with incredible architecture and art. It’s also beautiful in the fall. Berlin is perhaps one of the most sophisticated, most emotionally complex cities anywhere. And its history is also the world’s history, tragic and horrific. There are memorials and museums here that every human being should visit at least once. They remind us of the hate and terror all of us are capable of. In these days of resurgent irrationality and the onslaught of emotional appeals to our worst impulses, a visit to Berlin is like a cooling dose of reality, a reminder of what we must protect if we want to be truly human.