The Berlin blog – part 1

I should probably give a bit of background to my experience of Berlin, given that it’s where I keep returning to, with or without various family members in tow, and also where my novel is set, so even when I’m not physically here, my head still is. I use the present tense because I am writing this blog on holiday in Berlin – in fairness, I spend much of the time travelling around in trains, buses and trams just observing the place and we do end up going down an abnormal number of side streets in case we encounter something unusual I can use or that prompts a thought. Or a photo.

I first came here in early 1990, just after the Wall came down. I was living in Munich at the time, but as an 18 year old living and working away from home for the first time, I don’t have any real memory of the political events happening just a few hundred kilometres away from me. But a few of us decided to take what seemed like a new opportunity to travel to the East. Some memories of the trip:

– Driving along the transit route between what was still East and West Germany and seeing the Trabants and other Eastern bloc cars at the side of the road being or needing repaired. There were a lot of them. An awful lot.

– Leaving the transit route and ending up driving through the suburbs of Dresden. I’m pretty sure we weren’t supposed to do that, but my only regret now is that I didn’t have a camera with me. The Dresden you can visit today looks nothing like the outskirts did back then. End of understatement.

– Driving through a forest (we were fairly convinced we were lost by this time) trying to get into what was still Czechoslovakia in the middle of winter, with snow on the road and in the trees that rose up close to the road on both sides. Yes, it was exactly how you imagine a cold war spy thriller. We did eventually come to a border crossing and despite the lack of a mutual language managed to get whatever stamp we needed in our passports and continued on our way to Prague.

– The restaurant menus in Prague had two prices, one for the locals and one for the tourists. It was easy to ensure everyone paid the right price because we couldn’t have ordered from the Czech menu if we had wanted to. It was still ridiculously cheap for us of course.

– And then there was Berlin. We stayed in the West, in a grotty hotel over a bar. I think that’s what happens when you don’t think to book anything in advance because the internet isn’t something anyone has heard of yet. My memory of West Berlin is that it was loud, bright, and brash. I didn’t like it at all. The next day, our car had disappeared. We found it in a nearby street with no sign of any damage, but as one of our group had been in the British Army, he was convinced that we had to check for bombs under the car. Why I had to check instead of him might have been testament to my youth and his experience. The mystery was solved a few weeks later when the Berlin police sent us a bill for having towed the car that was apparently partially parked over a bus stop. In the meantime, we had to go over to East Berlin. We drove through, exchanged our money at the border, and were suddenly in a different world. Gone was the glitz of West Berlin, the familiar cars, the familiar shop names and brands. We walked around for a while, partly trying to find something to do with the Eastern Marks we now had. It must have made an impression on me even then because when I returned years later, I instantly recognised the streets we had walked down which at the time had seemed so forgettable.

The clincher for me was of course living in Berlin for almost a year. But that was almost twenty years ago now, and parts of the city are unrecognisable from the chaos I experienced back then. There were stations that had been blocked off for thirty years that were being not just reopened but rebuilt from the inside out. Just to change trains at those stations, we had to go out of the station building, walk around it to a different entrance and then go back in there. It took for ever changing at Friedrichstrasse, the station that had symbolised the division between East and West and then became past of the largest building site in the world that was Berlin.

Skip forward a couple of decades and it turns out that there are still things we haven’t seen in Berlin that are well worth a visit. More on that next week. I have four rolls of film to develop first!

The thing that my eye has been drawn to this last week has been the things that are still the same, caught in time.

Houses that could still be in East Germany:


Buildings falling apart between expensive villas (I said it was worthwhile going down the side streets):


And others whose exteriors look like they have missed the last 25 years, beside spectacularly renovated buildings:


And finally, the Glienecke Bridge, where East and West swapped spies.


The centre of the bridge marked the point those two worlds met, and today we could walk across it, see the plaques and tell the stories of when it was all so different. Because eventually the buildings will be gone, one way or another, and we will be left with the stories.

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