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Object of the Week #4 – Berlin



As part of our travel prep before we headed off to Berlin to visit a friend (whom I shall dub ‘The Archaeologist’ for purposes of anonimity) in early December 2011, we settled in for an episode of a series I grew up watching on Sunday nights with my parents, hosted by one of Australia’s greatest cultural exports (and personal hero of mine). Postcard from Berlin is one of Clive James’ best travel documentaries from a series that took him into heart of the world’s great cities during the mid-1990s. For most of these places his opening monologue begins with a vague, faux-naive statement about his trepidations, but for Berlin, the tone becomes more genuine and James prefaces his arrival with the caveat that, now that the Wall had come down, he had “finally run out of excuses for not taking a look at the place that had been scaring me half to death all my life.”

For his generation, the children of WWII and eyewitnesses to the decades of segregation that followed, Berlin must indeed have been a place of fear and loathing. For me, old enough to remember when the Wall came down but young enough for it still be something of a blur, Berlin symbolises almost the exact opposite. In my mind it’s a city of pace and change, of design and bohemian aesthetics – a city of possibilities where a range of friends from home have travelled to work, study, fall in love and prosper.

The Archaeologist, our most excellent host, is one of those people who moved to Berlin for an unspecified period, hated living on its fringes then moved into its core and has grown to feel passionately about its history and attractions. He took us not only to those places that are postcard ready– the Brandenburg Gate, the huge art galleries and Christmas markets but also to those landmarks that recall a violent past – The Memorial to the Dead Jews of Europe, the fake and Christmas light gaudy Checkpoint Charlie, remnants of the Wall, colourful murals belying its grim original purpose.

As we walked I was trying pinpoint an ‘object’ or place I could blog about for the ‘Object of the Week’ section. In most big cities I can highlight a few places that stand out as favourites, but in Berlin it gradually it dawns that it’s a city that can’t be sectioned like that – it’s a place whose beauty and appeal is in the sum of ALL its parts.

Last September we visited Warsaw – another great European city devastated by WWII, so I was in some sense prepared for Berlin to be a city still showing the scars of it past. Warsaw is doing its best to rebuild now that the money has started to flow in, and yet the shelled out buildings from nearly 70 years ago still remain hidden behind the swish modern hotels. The overwhelming impression I got there was that the people of Warsaw are proud to have these decaying physical reminders of the past in their midst,  as well as a raft of museums dedicated to the destruction of the place dotted all over town. The ruins of what the city had once been serve as a counterpoint to the modern, global place it is now becoming. In Berlin, there is less of the ravage and more of a question mark over how to represent its undeniably troubled past with its position as one of the leading cities of Europe.

The culmination of years of war, peace, death, growth, summers and winters make Berlin a city that feels like it truly is a global lynchpin – a place that shaped modern Europe and, consequentially, had in its hand the fate of the rest of the world. You could compare it to London in that sense, but whereas London can celebrate its part in the allied victory of WWII, Berlin must tread very carefully when it comes to memorialising its past in a public way.

One of the most astonishing places in the city was the site of H*tlers bunker – I was expecting tourists, queues, signage…instead I got a desolate car park out the back of some apartment blocks and a solitary piece of signage with minimal wording to let us know that one of the most notorious places of WWII was resting quietly under out feet. It’s a hugely emotive example of the problems faced by heritage professionals in Germany who have the task of figuring out how to remember, but in no way celebrate, a human being who caused so much destruction in his lifetime. Even 70 years later is too soon I think – whilst the carnage of WWII is still in living memory it going to be impossible to even contemplate the best way to use sites like this is in any kind of ‘museum’ context. Maybe it will just moulder away and new generations of car park will be built on top…it could be for the best.

Once that layer of Berlin that is war and pain had been peeled away -we began to see the other things that combine to make up the rich daily street life that Berliners enjoy.Before left for Berlin I was under the delusion that West was still best, but it turns out that the East is the life and soul of the Berlin party. In East Berlin today, huge amounts is conceptual public art, street art and graffiti colour the city streets.

You are encouraged to leave your empty bottles on the street for homeless people to collect and sell, you can wander freely with a beer and the food is exotic, cheap and plentiful. Huge, decorated squats are hidden in back streets, but defiant in their determination to survive gentrification. An  evening visit to some of the bars in Adrian’s  neighbourhood was one the greatest drinking experiences I’ve ever had – one place was fully candle lit, with a thin film of fragrant cigarette smoke wafting over a punter laying piano and singing spirituals in the corner – apparently this level of awesomeness is normal for Berlin.

Overall there was this delicious sense of a city not sure of what it was becoming, but damned if it was going to let itself be pulled like so many other great European centres into a cookie cutter ideal of what a great European city should be (clean, neat, politically correct).

We’ll see you again in summer Berlin where no doubt you’ll put on another fine show and maybe this time we can dig even deeper and go exploring in the abandoned theme parks and sing karaoke with the crowds in Mauerpark.

Now that we are back here in Oxford – seemingly a different world and age to the city I have just been enthusing about – I can wish you all a belated Happy New Year! Lets hope the coming 12 months bring us all new horizons, some excellent graffiti and many kinds of sausage and beer :)



The BEST holidays

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