Wednesday 10 July 2019

Not Just Another Brick in the Wall

Tuesday was Nulli and Family's first proper day in Berlin, so there was lots of sightseeing in the afternoon. (For various reasons, they didn't stir from the house in the morning. Benedict Ambrose and  I, however, made a visit to the "Cafe/Backerei Kirsch und Karamell" for coffee and buns.)

The first port of call was a ballet clothing store in Kreuzberg (Gneisenau Strasse), where I bought my niece a belated birthday present: her choice. Her choices of pointe shoes and a doll being rejected, she chose a fuchsia wrap-around cardigan and pink leg warmers. Compared to Edinburgh, prices were quite good. 

My brother and nephew gave the ballet shop a miss and went instead to the comic book store next door, where the shopkeeper shouted at poor Peanut for sitting on the floor with a comic. Exeunt menfolk. Beside this shop there was a bakery, and it was a friendlier place, so we all had a light lunch. (B.A. and I were very hungry indeed.) 

We then took a bus through eastern Kreuzberg to Ostbahnhof and looked out the windows at all the interesting Turkish and Vietnamese bars, cafes, and restaurants. There were many ladies in colourful headscarves, and the exciting businesses were a vast improvement on the often very ugly apartment and office buildings. Old or new, plain or Baroque, these edifices were built along large lines. 

At Ostbahnhof our party divided in two. Nulli took the children to the computer game museum on Karl-Marx-Allee and Ma Belle Soeur took B.A. and me to the "East Side Gallery" which is the official name for a stretch of the Berlin Wall preserved in situ and covered on the east side with paintings by international artists and on the west side by a lot of graffiti. Sadly, the graffiti is all from the past 10 years or so, the old graffiti being presumably under thick coats of cream paint.
My favourite Berlin Wall graffito.

Several foreign tourists like ourselves were taking photos of themselves in front of the Wall, and one limber young bearded man was filmed doing an interpretive dance. There are many new buildings on the east side of this part of the Wall; on the west side there is a park and the Spree river. 

Instead of going to the Mauer (Wall) Museum (expensive), we then walked up the Strasse der Parisser Kommune to Karl-Marx-Allee and sat at a table outside the Computerspielemuseum waiting for the others. Ma Belle Soeur told us about post-war life in her (Iron Curtain) birth country, and I fell asleep. (I was up very early.) 

The children loved the Computerspielemuseum, so that was a great success, and then we went to Alexanderplatz, which wasn't a great success with me. The walk from the East Side Gallery to Karl-Marx-Allee still retained an intriguing if dour socialist look whereas Alexanderplatz screamed praise to the tyranny of the multinationals. The iconic East Berlin TV tower now has a Starbucks chewing at  its roots. A nearby sign advertises Disney's new version of "The Lion King". The air is scented with products from Lush. Naturally there is a McDonald's nearby, and there is an enormous Vapiano restaurant in the same building as Shoe City.
Victory of multinational chains.

We went, as I mentioned, to the Vapiano, where we stood in queues to various stations and then watched the short-order cooks make our suppers. Desperate for caffeine, I had my first bottle of Coke (albeit Diet) in decades. I took it along with me when the fire alarm went off and a recorded polite female German voice began to say "Achtung! Achtung!" 

Vapiano calculates the bill with electronic cards you place on the counters of the cooking stations, and you hand them in on the way out. My hunch is that someone pulled the alarm to avoid having to pay for their meal, and I am sure the Alexanderplatz Vapiano lost a lot of money yesterday-- although not from us as my brother went back indoors to pay even while the recorded polite German voice was now saying in English "Attention! Attention! Please leave the building. Do not use the loo." 

"For you English, the war is over," said B.A., thrilled by the unexpected repetitions of "Achtung!", and I felt rather more cheerful about Alexanderplatz.  I felt even more cheerful when we walked to the Nikolaikirche (St. Nicolas's Church), which was itself shut, but was in a bright little neighbourhood of German shops and rescued statues, e.g. St. George about to kill the dragon mauling his furious horse. 

Probable victory of anarchy over multinational chain.
That was nice. And then we walked along to Spree to investigate the tour boat schedule, and although  we had missed the last for the day, it was very nice to sit by it and admire the East Berlin skyline. 

Our next port of call was Potsdamer Place, where the Canadian Embassy is rather comic in its ugliness, and where I bounced along the brick path showing where the Wall was. Potsdamer Place is cheerfully hideous, but undoubtedly nicer than it was in 1989, and we walked through it to a signboard explanation of the Wall, where MBS explained Soviet-style communism to her children. She stressed that everyone was supposed to be faceless and the same as everybody else, which was a pretty good description of Alexanderplatz but I obsess. 

We had dessert in an "Australian" restaurant in the Sony Centre across from the Museum of Film and Television, which (sadly) shut at 6 PM but did have an interesting bookshop still open.

Next we walked through the Tiergarten, which has lovely marble monuments to Goethe et alia, towards the Brandenberg Gate and came upon the Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe. This is, famously, a collection of concrete slabs of different height all set in a grid. The children were intrigued, and B.A. and I told them about the Holocaust and I ordered them not to run through, shout among, or climb on the slabs, as they might sadden visiting relations of the dead. When a cheerful young couple climbed on a slab and took widely grinning selfies, subverting my narrative, I informed my own relations that the grinners' mothers would be ashamed. 

"Do you think they are anti-Semites?" I asked B.A.

"I think they don't know what it is," said B.A., the soul of charity. 

We reached the Brandenberg Gate, and the other adults chatted with an American woman who hadn't seen it in person since 1961 and needed to talk about it. The sky was darkening, and the Gate certainly looked dramatic against the clouds. 

And that was almost it. We got on the S-Bahn but went the wrong way, so got off at Friedrichstrasse and began to look for the U-Bahn. We found ourselves in a small grassy area with food stalls, a rainbow sign reading "WC ->" and a bearded torch-juggler in a leotard and tutu who referred to himself as Marilina Ballerina, if I have that correctly. After of few minutes of admiring the skills of Marilina Ballerina, we got on the U-Bahn and went back to Alt-Tempelhof.

At this point you may be saying to yourself, "Mrs McL doesn't like socialism, but she doesn't like multinational chain stores either. Does she like anything?" And I say, Yes! I like particularity, which is a grad school word for unique stuff that appears and grows or develops in one place and not necessarily another.  The Berlin Wall is particular. The comic book shop where Peanut got reprimanded is, despite all the Tintin stuff, particular. Marilina Ballerina is particular. The bullet holes in the walls of the Pergamon museum are pretty darn particular.  


  1. You might be interested in the book The Ghosts of Berlin by Brian Ladd -- it's an examination of (public/private) memory and architecture and how they intersect in a unified Berlin. The writing itself is a bit on the dry side, but I found the content very thought-provoking.