Archives for the month of: April, 2014

I’ve always thought Easter was a much better celebration than Christmas. In religious terms, of course, you get all the dramatics of death and resurrection, as opposed to birth in a stable, but Hallmark and the Capitalist machine hasn’t reinforced too many “traditions” to be observed. The pagan original was all about fertility and the coming of good weather after the spring equinox, but these things still spring up in the shape of eggs and rabbits. It’s an opportunity for people to get out in the open, celebrate sunshine, eat some chocolate, have a pint after Lent is over, feel liberated from the long winter.


We heard mixed reports about how many tourists came for Easter, either 200,000 or 2 million people descended on the city for the weekend. Actually, looking at the figures for last year, Berlin had 5.3 million guests in the first half of the year, so somewhere between those two figures would make sense. More Germans than foreigners come to visit, though the U-bahn tends to be overrun with very loud Spaniards (I’m getting to be a Berliner now). Actually, probably the major tourist sites were very busy, but in the far reaches of Neukoelln, there was no noticeable difference in numbers. Tourists tend to want to feel the buzz of everyone, to know they are in the middle of things, whereas we want to know that we are in a place that nobody knows. The weather was ideal for hanging out – sunny with the odd cloud, a little chill at night – and I spent the weekend between cool and quirky venues, meeting the new breed of European: Serbians who live in Dublin, another Serb who speaks Swedish and Spanish, a Spaniard who speaks faultless American English, a Finn, a Croat who speaks Italian, a Dubliner who moves between Berlin and Sligo, a Norwegian, an Australian who’d like to be a Berliner, a German who needs to brush up her Spanish, Italians and Swedes; all of these speak perfect English, that’s the currency these days, and most speak German.


We celebrated Easter itself by having a barbeque/picnic in Mauerpark. This is a green space, taken over by residents after the fall of the wall. “Mauer” means “Wall”, hence this area was the site of the death strip between the French and Soviet areas. Half of it is a big tacky fleamarket, half of it tries to grow grass to accommodate crowds of people who come to throw down rugs, have picnics, play ball, listen to buskers and drummers, sunbathe and chat. A large part of the attraction is the “Bearpit” Karaoke Show, which takes place in a stone Amphitheatre every Sunday. I had been to see the show on and off throughout the winter, and it was a sad affair, not really karaoke, with just an odd gem thrown in. What we got this Sunday was obviously the beginning of the Real “Bearpit” Karaoke Show, with an Irish MC introducing people, making sure their words and music were happening, moving them right along, and cracking jokes at a great rate. I don’t think I’ve laughed as much in years. People without a note in their head were cheered on, we all sang the chorus for them; a man who looked like a curate, black overcoat, black flat cap and hornrimmed glasses, gave us a most fabulous rendition of “Highway to Hell” to rival AC/DC; a 12-year-old sang “I will survive” to a rousing crowd; Detlef (who sings every week apparently) turned in a heartfelt German version of “My Way”; a troupe of California students performed a number from “Grease”. All the while, the sun blazed, we went back and forth to the collective picnic, we had a laugh. The “Bearpit” closed around 7pm, with the MC getting us all to join in his version of Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher”. It was difficult to let go of the day, it was so perfect, so we repaired to a bar with doors open to the terrace, to have one drink before dark.

There are times when you feel as if you have put a piece of your personal history in place, to look back on, to enjoy again and again, to say “that was a great, sunny Easter”, and this was one of them. The next day, I got together with another friend to try to turn our minds back to study, and we read together, first in one venue, then in another (when the first closed). This, too, is crystallised as a perfect day, when the comfortable couch is free, when the music enhances rather than intrudes, when the company is perfect. College today was hard work to return to, but it was a pleasure to come back refreshed, restored, ready for action.


A sharp change in the weather reminded us that it’s still not full summer here. I had begun to see people sporting shorts and belly tops, and I’d got to the point of discarding a few layers myself. Though my ears still haven’t gone back to normal quite yet (almost unblocked), the blazing sun was fantastic enough to jump on the bike and explore a bit of Berlin. Just at the bottom of the road, there’s one of the many canals running out towards what I always think is the sea, but it’s just a wider bit of the river. I followed cycle paths along the side of the water, with apartment blocks, little expanses of allotments, industrial buildings and remote shops until I got to the junction of four canals, or the crossing of two. From here, it would be a short hop up to Treptower Park, where the tremendous Soviet War Memorial is located, and beyond that, Spreepark, an abandoned amusement park which used to be situated on the east side of the Wall. It ran after the Wall came down, but the owner went bust, took the choicest amusement rides (and the whole family) to Peru on the pretext of having them fixed, and in 2002 it was closed. People sneak in over the fence to hear the creak of the Ferris wheel, see the sad-looking rusted attractions, and run the risk of guard dogs. I found a website devoted to abandoned placed in Berlin some of which I’d noticed myself without realising they were sort of landmarks.

I realised last Thursday was going to be 20 degrees, so I arranged to go for a cycle round Templehof with one of my friends from Uni. This is where you feel you are in the Berlin movie – we had been too disorganised to bring a picnic, so we just pedalled up to Schillerpromenade in search of a decent coffee, and found an outdoor café on Herrfurthplatz, where we sprawled in the sun. On Saturday, I crossed Templehof in the other direction, and headed up to Schoeneberg, past Paradestrasse, an enclave of houses straight out of the Home Counties, unlike almost all of the apartment-block accommodation in Berlin. I ended up in a vast café full of chattering people, all ensconced on old couches and armchairs, Café BilderBuch, surrounded by walls of books, board games, pens, paper, and art on every wall.

There’s a strange feeling of being in limbo for me at the moment. I’ve really never had such freedom before in my life. The only pressure is to see Berlin while I have no classes. They resume next week, so I have been trying to catch some sights while I have spare time. On Sunday morning, I wanted to either go to Berghain – the legendary Berlin nightclub that stays open from Friday evening until Monday morning, best time to get in for a good dance is Sunday morning – or go to the Berliner Dom, the Protestant Cathedral facing the Lustgarten, just off Unter der Linden. Going to Berghain requires getting up early, so the Dom won out. I had wanted to see it in action, both to save the very expensive entrance fee, and also to see what the service was like. The service was very like a Catholic mass, with plenty of hymn-singing, but interminable. The sermon went on for hours, totally bland material, all spoken in a sort of “church” voice. Incredible to think that priests or pastors could be totally political radicals, could change people’s minds, turn heads, push moral choices, but instead, they choose the safe path every time, and present a hypnotic drone to a congregation already thinking about their morning coffee. No wonder they would, I left at the communion and it was already an hour and a quarter. The Dom itself is very impressive, vast, gold everywhere, one whole wall the organ, with statues of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, just in case you didn’t know which lot you were with.

After this, I headed up to Kurfurstendamm, which used to be the fashionable, cool place to go in West Berlin in the 1960’s and 1970’s (when the Wall was in place). The street is dominated by the ruins of Kaiser-Wilhelm Church. It was bombed in 1943, as a reprisal for the bombing of Coventry Cathedral, and the ruined steeple was going to be removed, but was left as a reminder of the war, an anti-war memorial. A new, utterly spacey church was built right beside it, which is interesting in itself. The pastor here during the rise and rule of the National Socialists was one Gerhard Jacobi, who initially stood up to the SS to object to baptised Christians (who happened to be of Jewish origin) being lifted and sent to concentration camps. Then he realised what was happening with Jews, and used his pulpit to fulminate against the regime, risking being sent to a concentration camp himself. He organised resistance, founded the Pastors Emergency League in 1933, which eventually became the “Confessing Church”.  They split from the German Evangelical Church, which was subject to Nazification, and had accepted the “Aryan Paragraph”, which forbad the inclusion in their congregation of Jews, Poles, Russians, Slavs and Mischlinge (Mixed race). The German Church saw an opportunity to clean up its own image after the liberalisation of the previous 20 years, and a return to the strong, moral, masculine force to defeat Bolshevism, calling themselves Deutsche Christen (German Christians). Jacobi and his colleague Boenhoeffer called for the church to do its moral duty and protect all people against a corrupt government, and named itself the “Confessing Church” as a reference to the church being in statu confessionis, meaning that during this crisis they should confess out loud the gospels, to defend them, and point out their message to all men. There’s really not an awful lot of highlighting of these kind of heroes, people who preached what they really believed in opposition to the majority. It sounds like the kind of sermon I could have really listened to.

Ireland welcomed me with a hailstorm and an icy wind. I had totally forgotten what it feels like to walk up the quays in Dublin and try to negotiate this same weather. I had got some sort of virus in my ears just before I left, which meant I had to work hard to equalise them when flying over, and on the quays, freezing and fuming, I battled on, Smurf hat in place, my hands on my ears, resembling the figure in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. Everyone said how it had been lovely last week, which almost made it worse – I just got the dud week. However, I had flown home, not for the weather, but to spend time with family and friends. In between the blasts of winter, there were glimpses of what-might-have-been: a glistening landscape saturated in sunshine. So, although we got out for walks, it was an indoorsy kind of a week: lots and lots of talk. I travelled on the buses, which, after Berlin, were something of a disappointment. Having said that, I loved travelling on the top of the bus in from Walkinstown to the city centre, all that was missing was a packet of Carrolls No.1 (Cigarettes for those you too young to remember them, or to recall how you could smoke on the top of the bus).

Dublin looked well, despite the weather. There’s money floating around all right, and there are shops there that have lasted through more than one recession – Heathers shoe shop and Bargaintown on the quays, Evans’s art supplies on Capel Street, Hogans butchers on Wexford Street. Areas that were semi-derelict in Dublin now have shops and cafes. I’m thinking of Aungier Street/Wexford Street/Camden Street as they were thirty years ago – I actually loved the down-at-heel look, but even the improved look has a nicely bohemian flavour to it. Lots of places have embraced the Berlin tatty-old-furniture look, and though they are more expensive, they are comfy and hip after a blast of hail. I had new eyes for my city, realised why young tourists like it, and really enjoyed the familiar flavour. Going down to Ballyknock was a most wonderful treat. I had dreamed of sitting by the fire, watching a movie, sleeping in my own bed finally. We got out for a walk, but I had forgotten that you have to seize the day in Ireland – any dillydallying and it’ll be wet again. I found it colder in Ireland than in Berlin, because of the damp and the ever-present wind. You realise what hard work it is to function, endless closing the door, pulling the curtains, worrying about the cost of heating, wearing layers of clothing, and talking about it all the time.

Of course, there’s the awful tug of the goodbye facing you at the end of the week. I began to feel lonely for Barry and Clare the day before I left. I helped Clare to bleach her hair – something which goes against every fibre of a mothers’ being, to do such damage to a beautiful head of hair. But I understand, I have been putting highlights in my own hair (but via a hairdresser) for 30 years, so I can hardly judge. Then we made 2 big lasagne, portioned them into little containers and froze them, so that Clare has instant food for the long slog ahead to get all her projects submitted. By the time we had had dinner together, I realised they were all set for their final few furlongs till the end of term, and I lost my loneliness. I arrived back to the non-damp, non-wind atmosphere of Berlin, which was considerably warmer than Dublin. Yesterday hit 20 degrees, with misty sunshine, so I went cycling on my now-fixed bike in Templehofer Feld, with my friend Jennifer. Originally, it was supposed to be a picnic, but we were too disorganised, and there are too many lovely cafes, so we sat in a wonderful open space enjoying the full sun and had coffee after our cycle. Today is cooler, only 15 degrees, and there’s rain forecast for the weekend, though it will still be hovering around the 20 degree mark, so I might do my Irish trick and seize the day if there is any break in the rain, and get out for another cycle.