We rejoin our story on day 129 of my mid-life gap year.
Wednesday 30 September 2015
I wake in Berlin to diffuse autumn sunshine and breakfast in the sparse kitchen before reorganising my gear in preparation for putting my bicycle in storage and slimming down to just a carry-on bag for the next leg of my journey.
With those chores done I set out for lunch and bit of exploration. Hummus & Friends proves too inviting to pass by and, oh my God, it’s so good. The hummus is creamy with just the right amount of tang – I could eat it every day forever.
With a full belly, I set out to walk to Silo, an Australian café five kilometres away. It’s nice to be walking and to do so without anything much weighing on my mind. The angst of Zurich has dissipated. I am concerned about figuring out my time in the US and Canada – but that’s bubbling beneath the surface. Mostly, I’m just walking, looking, seeing, being – it’s nice.
I walk through Alexanderplatz – which was once the centre of East Berlin and now is home to many of the retail chains you see everywhere in Europe. I’m looking forward to not wearing my bicycling clothes for a while but that means I need a few more of the basics so I pop into C&A and buy socks with the names of the week on the soles. Sadly, in English.
Berlin, I like it, a lot. Though I suspect if I’d visited 15 years ago, I’d have loved it. It’s got a nice vibe – low-rises, parks, lots of bicycles. There are groups of multicultural kids speaking German and a lot of English is spoken on the streets. It would be impossible for me to learn German here – I can use English nearly everywhere.
Silo, the café I have finally reached after my long and meandering stroll, operates entirely in English. This neighbourhood, Friedrichshain, is cool, hip, but not quite annoyingly so. The coffee – I have a macchiato – is good, in a Melbourne way – strong rather than smooth.
Caffeinated, I walk to the East Side Gallery – a graffitied remnant of the Berlin Wall. It’s covered in street art, most of which has been tagged by lesser beings. It’s interesting to see it but the context is so changed as to make it seem, almost, like the wall is new rather than the surroundings.
Nearby, I’m surprised to find a large abandoned building with no sign of either active squatting nor reconstruction. Tattered blinds flap in the breeze through broken windows, allowing a view of graffitied interior walls. The city is full of cranes and construction sites, it’s a wonder why this building has yet to be either knocked down or renovated.
I’ve been invited to dine with Jochen, Sasha, and some of their friends at their place at 7 pm – which is a 10-minute walk from the flat where I’m staying. I get home at 6:35 pm and am madly preparing to go when Jochen rings to check on my progress. I know Germans are sticklers for punctuality but checking eight minutes before one’s scheduled arrival?
I am, it must be said, two or three minutes late in arriving at their gorgeous top-floor apartment in an old warehouse. The main room has a panoramic view across the city taking in the Fernsehturn (the famous TV tower). Sasha tells me that when the sun strikes the tower a cross can be seen in the reflection. The tower was designed by Swedes and the cross – seen from everywhere in Berlin – is called The Pope’s Revenge.
Jochen is out collecting the Lebanese food when I arrive. He soon returns with a man from the restaurant who is carrying a large foil covered tray. Now, we are waiting for Sasha’s Greek friends to arrive, a mother and daughter, the younger woman has just moved to Berlin from Boston – where she went to uni.
Jochen comments on the Greek sense of time; I suggest it is more like Australians’ – a bit loose and easy going. Whereas, Jochen says, Germans are right on time. Or, I say, if it’s eight minutes before someone is due, then ring to see where they are. He laughs.
The Greeks arrive, I never really get their names, but we have an excellent evening full of engaging conversation: life, politics, travel, adoption, carbon energy divestment – which is what Jochen is involved in, apparently. I like them all.
I walk home around 11:30 pm. On my way, I pass a dark-windowed corner bar. As someone opens the door, David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting out Fire)” spills into the night. Perfect. I’ve always associated Berlin with David Bowie, and that song is used in Inglorious Basterds. Perfect.
Thursday 1 October 2015
At dinner last night Jochen and Sasha recommended the Fat Tire Bicycle Tour of Berlin. I’ve decided to take up the suggestion and have booked into the 11 am, 4 ½ hour general tour.
I walk briskly to Alexanderplatz and find a huge group waiting. We are split into smaller groups and ours, of 21 riders, is led by Maren from Melbourne, by way of Iowa, and now of Berlin courtesy of a German grandfather.
The tour is good but not amazing. It is nice to be riding in Berlin and it offers a good overview of the city, including a lot of the history. Along the way, I fall into conversation with Tayo and Amy, an American couple from Marin County, California. They are on a two-week European holiday 18-years in the making. Tayo wanted to travel in Europe between university and starting work but the company he was interning with in his final year of study made him a job offer before he graduated. He told them he was planning on travelling but when they asked what it would take to hire him he suggested a salary rather than asking to delay his start by six months. They met his requested salary so, here he is, 18 years later, on a two-week whip around. I ask how long they have left he says they are exactly halfway. I tell him that in six weeks I will be about halfway through my trip. He is … amazed and envious.
Along the ride, we stop at several sites including:
The Book Burning Memorial at Babelplatz This is the square where Goebbels stood on a balcony overlooking the square and encouraged the burning of some 20,000 books on 10 May 1933. The memorial, by Micha Ullman (an Israeli sculptor) is a room beneath the square with a little window to look into it – with empty bookshelves – enough to hold the books for that night’s bonfire – there is also a plate engraved with a quote from Heinrich Heine’s 1821 play Almansor: “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” (“That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.”)
The carpark which covers Hitler’s bunker. For a long time, it was unmarked as to minimize its draw for neo-Nazis. But, now, there is a pretty basic sign. According to our tour guide, the Soviets found the burned remains of Hitler and Eva – identified by dental records or something. But they didn’t tell the West they had found them until 1971. They said they cremated them and ground the remains into a powder which they poured into some Russian river – again to eliminate the chance of a place of veneration. It’s a weird place to be – this prosaic carpark, surrounded by dull modern apartments, which is also the place where the final solution to The Final Solution played out.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – the grey blocks – meh. Our tour guide tells us when they were still building the memorial, construction was halted when it came to light the company set to supply a graffiti-resistant coating had once been part of the company which supplied Zyklon B – the gas the Nazis used to murder millions. Evidently, they found another company to supply the coating. I find that interesting – just the way companies literally get away with murder, morph, adapt, and keep going. But, look, the memorial just isn’t working for me. It’s too abstract and too anonymous. Some six million people were murdered – they were human shaped and had names, many of which are known – for me a city-block filled with large grey concrete blocks simply doesn’t invoke any of the emotion of the historical facts.
I don’t feel these places.
I remember how I felt seeing Josef Mengele’s signature in the Jewish Museum in Merano, Italy – it was powerful, cold, physical, nauseating. Here, today, these places are interesting but I’m not feeling them.
Is it the gorgeous day? That I’m in this tour group? That somehow the way they’re presented has taken the power from them? That I’m just not in the space to feel them? That I’m not ready?
It does make my desire to be able to read German stronger – I want to read the original stuff. I want to listen to Hitler and understand what he’s saying. I want to read what German’s say about it in German. Learning German with Christoph Waltz with lighten the load, emotionally.
Friday 2 October 2015
I’m putting my bicycle and cycling gear in a storage cage in the basement of the apartment building. One of Jochen’s staff shows me the way and is tolerant as I pat and kiss my bicycle. I’m a little teary about storing her away. I still want to be riding.
I leave the flat at 11:45 am with just my carry-on duffle bag and a small rucksack. It’s everything I will travel with until Spring. It feels weird but also light and easy. The train trip to Schönefeld Airport is straightforward and simple. Before I know it, I’m taking off from Berlin bound for Shannon Airport in Ireland.
As you may recall, a few weeks ago I realised I would be overstaying the permitted number of days an Australian passport holder can spend in the Schengen Zone. The rules allow for 90 days out of the last 180 days – if I remained in Germany until my flight to the US on 13 October – I’d be over by nearly a week. So, I’ve found a well-priced ticket to Shannon and hastily arranged for a return visit to my friends in County Carlow.
The flight is short and fine. The weather is clear all the way across the continent and the UK, then, laughably, Ireland: under a thick woollen jumper of cloud.
My big day of travel continues with a bus ride to Limerick Station. I have time for a cup of tea and a scone before my bus to Dublin. I’ve been in Ireland for about two minutes and suddenly tea sounds brilliant.
My Dublin-bound coach rolls through a foggy cool evening. The distinctly Irish smell of peat fires invades the bus. I’m enjoying how different Ireland feels from all the places I’ve been this past month and a half; it’s good to be back.