Last week I was fortunate enough to visit Berlin. Initially I didn’t want to go, particularly not for an outside-of-my-comfort-zone corporate event held at 7-10pm on a Friday night surrounded by ‘luvvies’ and other press/media types.
Nevertheless, I went, and due to the flight timings and late finish of the meeting, I had no choice but to stay overnight. Luckily, my meeting was in the heart of the city and so I booked a cheap hotel walking distance from the event and within striking distance of historic, downtown Berlin.
Why didn’t I just stay the weekend, I hear you cry? Well, I’m a married man with kids. If I were single I almost certainly would have stayed longer, but the trip was short notice and we had things planned and I needed to get back. We had considered my wife flying out to join me, but cripplingly high last minute, (summer holiday), air fares put a dampener on that idea, and so I flew alone and was due to return back just after lunch on the Saturday.
I should point out that my default setting when travelling alone is ‘recluse’. I hate eating out on my own. I feel desperately self conscious and tend to wolf down my food just to get out of the place as soon as I can, which I feel is a terrible waste of money and a real wasted opportunity, as eating out is one of the best bits of travelling, but I do need company.
Ergo, my initial plan for Berlin was to get back to my hotel at midnight, and use the late start to sleep in and catch up on some much needed rest before heading to the airport.
Thankfully, I didn’t sleep well and was up and about by 9am. The sun was shining and I had three hours to kill before I needed to be at the airport, so I set off on foot to explore. I should perhaps explain at this point that I have only been to Berlin twice before in my life:
I first went there in 1989 when I was inter-railing with my then girlfriend, now wife. Donna and I stayed a few days in Berlin during a very special part of its history. I remember there was a real buzz about the place. I had heard people talk about the “Berliner Luft”, which literally means “Berlin air”, but is a reference to the special atmosphere that seemingly permeates everything in Berlin. In the summer of ’89 there was a lot of political unrest in Eastern Europe, especially the Eastern Bloc.
I’m no historian and I won’t waste my time googling events but it was around the time the Soviet Union unravelled and geographical and political boundaries were being redrawn. Berlin was politically tense, there were suggestions of reunification and although that didn’t happen until the following year, the “Berliner Luft” was in overdrive, pumping a heady aroma of anarchy, freedom and electricity throughout the streets of the old city.
We visited Potzdamer Platz and stared at the wall. Like many others during that time, we anarchically chipped some pieces off the crumbling relic, so maybe the transition was already underway, I’m slightly ashamed I don’t quite remember. But I do remember the atmosphere. I remember visiting Checkpoint Charlie and reading about the heroic attempts at escape. I remember the stunning black and white photographs of men, women, children and even soldiers like Conrad Schumann trying to break through the barbed wire to escape to the west. Amazing stories of people hiding in car seats and suitcases to try and cross the border.
The second time I went to Berlin was around 1998. I was living in Munich at the time and went to Berlin for someone’s birthday or stag do, I forget which, but I will never forget the weekend as it was quite possibly one of the best weekends of my life. There were around eight of us. We did the sights again by day – museums, buildings, parks. In the evening we visited bars and drank a lot. We were seven English and one Austrian. I’m not sure why I mention that but it might help explain the drinking part.
On the main night, probably the Saturday, we went to a huge nightclub where I seemingly danced all night. Yes you read that right family and friends, I danced all night. The night club was like a vast aircraft hanger, there was lots of acidy house, trance, dance, I-have-no-clue-what-I’m-talking-about kind of music, great lightshows and what seemed like thousands of people all dancing their own dances. And there I was, dancing. I hate night clubs. I detest night clubs. I hated them as a kid growing up, they blighted my teenage and university years, those godforsaken places that always left me feeling miserable, alone and skint. Expensive, low quality booze, pretentious poseurs, the whiff of violence as the night wore on as testosterone mixed with sweat, I hated them then and I hate them now, but I loved that night in Berlin. The “Luft” was everywhere. It crept under my skin. I don’t know what it was. I wasn’t overly drunk, in fact I recall I drank water that night as I wanted to keep dancing, I wanted my senses to remain alive, my receptors on full alert. I wanted to savour everything. This was nothing to do with romance, but everything to do with deep friendships, the few of us who stayed there until the early hours didn’t need to talk, we remained connected by the ‘Luft’, that made Berlin feel so very special.
It also felt safe, full of people that just wanted to have a good time. There wasn’t that sense of violence that I usually associated with nightclubs. No packs of lads on the prowl looking for a fight or a vulnerable bit of skirt. This evening felt like humanity stripped bare, love reigned supreme, a love for life, love for humanity, love for the world.
Back to last week, and within 30 minutes of leaving my hotel I had reached Potzdamer Platz for the 3rd time in my life, 14 years on from my last trip. There were pieces of wall still, kept as tourist memorabilia, watched over by a fake touristy guard who would put fake touristy stamps in your passport (for a tourist fee). Kind of tacky, but still very poignant. To see the 12ft high segments of wall plastered in graffiti really did bring back memories. To think I was now stood on the border, literally with one leg either side of what was the wall. It still felt bizarre. To see the buildings on that side of the street that now looked identical to the ones on the other side of the street, yet just 20 years ago they would have looked so architecturally different, the wealthy side – the poor side, the capitalist side – the socialist side, the open side – the closed side, a street separated by feet and inches, yet impossibly kept apart by a 12ft high, 96 mile wide concrete wall.
I then walked on to Brandenburger Tor, the Brandenburg Gate, probably the most well known landmark of Berlin. During the partition access through the gate was blocked for this was where the wall went. I took a photo. I had to. Ever had that feeling?
I continued my walk to the Reichstag. The very word sounds scary, immediately bringing to mind thoughts of Hitler, the Nazis, WWII. In fact it’s been there since the 19th century and is now once again home to the German Parliament. It’s so fcuking historical you can only stop, look up and stare in credulity. It’s a truly incredible building. You try and soak up all that history but you can’t, you just can’t, it’s too vast. So I took another photo.
At this point I had timed out and needed to head to the airport so I hunted down a taxi and was gone, but I vowed to come back again soon.
I love Berlin in a way that I also love Munich, but for very different reasons. I lived two years in Munich with my young family and it will always hold a special fondness and affinity for my wife and I. I think we could easily live in Munich again, but I love Berlin for very different reasons that I have found hard to communicate in this blog. I love its historical significance, I love the stories, I love the atmosphere. It really does feel special and unique. I know you can make that case for any city in the world, they all have their own stories, but Berlin’s history is so far reaching, so dramatic, so close in time, and that seems to make it something truly unique.
At the weekend I told my mum about my trip to Berlin and she said my Dad had always felt the same. Apparently he had been several times on business trips and had always promised to take Mum one day. Dad must have bloody loved the place, all those museums and history. He never did take Mum before he passed away, but I like to think that, somehow, accidentally, I have stumbled across the same city, unknowingly falling in love with the same places he did.
I want to go back again one day. Perhaps I’ll take my family next time, and maybe Mum might even come too.