Thursday, 7 November 2013


Along with The Langsett (Sr) and my brother, I've just got back from three days in Berlin. Easyjet took us there, and treated us to a low banking turn over the lakes and woods to the east of the city, sun sparkling on the water and sailing boats bobbing in the bays,  as we flew into Schonefeld airport on a crisp autumn morning. I love this city, for a hundred different reasons. For instance; I was there for my stag do a few years ago. We stayed in a hostel on Simon Dach Strasse in what used to be East Berlin. I basically spent the whole weekend in a state of extreme euphoria because of the proximity of reasonably priced accommodation, excellent beer and hearty food, all linked to the centre of town by a public transport system of such sublime perfection that it could even be trusted to transport a group of drunken Englishmen from Freidrichstrasse to our hostel at god knows what time in the morning without losing any of us.

What I really love about Berlin though is its surprising combination of two characteristics: honesty and hopefulness. It's a city whose history is always on display. If you walk into town from Alexanderplatz, you'll pass buildings like the Berliner Dom and notice that the wall facing you looks like it has been caught in a terrible storm. Whereas the stone on the western side of the building might be crisp and  square cut, the stone on the eastern side is chipped, scored and pockmarked -almost worn away, as you would expect cliffs that have been battered by the sea to be. The reason of course, is that the East is the direction that the Red Army came from in 1945. The damage to the stone was caused by their shells, bullets and rockets. Just seeing the dramatic difference in the amount of explosives that the Germans and Russians were throwing at each other tells you a lot, in a very visceral way, about how the battle ended and what it must have been like to live through.

Right across the road from the Berliner Dom is a small thicket of tower cranes and a single section of balustraded stone wall.

This is the site where  the East German parliament building used to stand, housing not just the legislative chamber but also - in a cheery demonstration of the DDR's unease with its own grumpy nature - thirteen restaurants and a bowling alley. After a very public discussion about what on earth should be done with the building, the government took the decision to rebuild the Stadtschloss - the City Palace - that used to stand on the site: . I don't think there is exactly a plan as to what the rebuilt Stadtschloss will be used for, or even whether it will be a full steam ahead replica or not. But I liked the fact that the discussion about what happened on the site happened in public and took years. And I also like the fact that here, right next to the pin in the map that marks the very centre of Europe's largest economy and its most successful exporting nation, a decision has been taken which probably makes no financial sense. Standing across the road and watching the cranes working for a few minutes, you start to wonder whether financial sense might be overrated.

You wouldn't blame Berlin and Berliners if they felt traumatised by the last hundred years or so of history, and the rollercoaster ride from youngest European capital, to battleground, to walled front line of the Cold War. But it doesn't feel like that at all. Berlin feels incredibly at ease with itself. A few examples: Half an hour after that photograph was taken, we were right in the middle of the rush hour, on the U-Bahn, riding back to the Kurfurstendamm where we were staying. This is just not something you'd do in London or probably even in Manchester. You would let the convulsive indigestion of evening rush hour strike the city and fade away again before you tried using public transport. Berlin was fine though. Busy, but still usable - even for tourists who didn't know their way around. The Langsett (Sr.) projected an air of serene calm as the bright yellow subway train barged its way across town.

Berlin is beautiful too. Not in the way that central Paris is, where more or less every decision taken in the last thousand years has resulted in a small improvement on what was there before, until there is such an accretion of improvements that the city is as close to aesthetic perfection as any large city can hope to come. But it is a very humane, liveable city. Many of the decisions taken about the way that the city has developed have been taken with care and thoughtfulness. On our second day, we caught the S-Bahn to Anhalter Bahnhof. The underground station is huge, built to handle thousands of passengers every day. It's on a comparable scale to, say, Kings Cross Underground station. But when you walk up the steps from the station, you emerge in the middle of a park.

There was a station here once of course: a huge one, covering hundreds of acres of central Berlin. Badly damaged in the second world war, Anhalter Bahnhof was demolished in 1960. Now, there is this very beautiful park, smelling of autumn leaves and horse chestnuts when we were there. At the front is the heroic carriage porch of the railway station, hinting at how enormous the station itself must once have been.

I don't know anything about the decision making process that led to the park being created instead of the memory of the station being erased and the land being developed instead. But the decision was the right one. And that's the other wonderful thing about Berlin. It's a tangible demonstration of the fact that people can make good choices and stick to them, even if the circumstances are difficult. When the wall came down, Berliners need not have decided to knit their city back together again. But they did, and for twenty years now they have used that impulse to improve the city. Anyone living somewhere that faces difficult questions about its future might look at Berlin and feel hopeful.

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