Fushan kids back in bus

BerlinAugust, September 2011:
Having Doubts in Berlin



The woman on the desk tells me, "Berlin is a wonderful city." She has a wonderful voice, low and sexy, but I'm not sure about Berlin.

Sometimes it is revealing to turn a positive statement into a question—such as, "Berlin is a wonderful city" into "Is Berlin a wonderful city?"—and reflect on it.

It wasn't easy getting here. From Paris it took two trains to get to the Hauptbahnhof (head railway station) in Berlin, then the metro train to get to Jannowitzbrücke station. I nearly fell down an unlighted set of stairs leaving the station. When it comes to lighting and street lamps, Berlin is not the city of light.

Walking east on Holzmarkstrasse, then north on Lichtenberger Strasse, I see almost all new apartment buildings and a lot of trees. I love the density and lushness of the trees but feel neutral about the concrete and steel apartment buildings.

When I walk into my room at Singerstrasse 109 hostel there are two German girls in bed talking. They act delighted to see me, which must mean they have grown tired of their own company. Soon they are working on "the poem". But then an older woman comes in and tells us to shut up.

She is but one of a long string of strange roommates.

She goes to the bathroom and we start talking again. The girls, baffled by her behavior, tell me she brought three drunk British guys into the room late last night and made a lot of noise. She comes back, tells us again to shut up, then, saying nothing more, switches off the light.

I go to bed, thinking about trees and the German countryside that I passed through during the day. It was more scrappy than the countryside in France or Spain. It was more like a forest that has been allowed to grow wild. I liked it but it seemed a little out of character for Germany.

My initial reaction to Berlin is depression; it makes me feel heavy. It does not make me feel happy or light-headed as I usually do in Paris. But I have only been here a short while.

The next day I go in search of a market, walking all the way up to Alexander Plaza. I find only fast-food places. I get ripped off at a small Arab stand.

I ask several German-looking people where there is a market but no one can tell me. Is everyone a tourist here?

I feel depressed; I feel like a dying animal. I have gone to the ends of the earth and found nothing. Now I will starve.

Will I starve?

Okay, my mistake. Later I find the markets and they are good.

Berlin was extensively bombed in World War II, which may account for much of it looking so new and some of it looking so beaten up. Between the Brits and the Americans it was bombed some 350 times.

Being on a budget, two days later I moved to SleepCheap on Spandauer Damm, but with 10 bunks in the room and with the same number of roommates I did not sleep easy. With no lockers in the room I had other concerns as well.

But I did go visit Charlottenburg Palace. It is the main tourist attraction in the district of the same name. Unfortunately the entrance fee was nearly the same as my daily food allowance and I chose to eat that day rather than gawk at the furnishings of royalty. Moreover, I had viewed the chandeliers of Napoleon not that long ago at the Louvre in Paris and was still filled with admiration and jealousy. But I did take a free, self-guided tour of the gardens. In so doing, I got a glimpse of the Orangery, when a guy near the entrance tried to sell me an expensive ticket to an upcoming concert of royal court music.

"Kann Ich sehen? ("Can I see?") I asked.

Dressed in a Napoleonic-era hat, a bicorne, but otherwise sloppy street clothes, he acquiesced:

"Warum nicht?" ("Why not?") he said.

Had I asked if I could pee in the royal garden, I think I would have gotten the same answer.

The Orangery is where Friedrich III "overwintered" his oranges. That's what you need to do if you own a lot of orange trees in cold country and you don't want them to get frost bite. Maybe I'm lucky. I only have to worry about personal frost bite.

Do I only have to worry about personal frost bite?

So what if I only got to see the exterior of Charlottenburg Palace! I had enough money to go across the street to Klausen Plaza and have a nice glass of cold Reisling. Klausner Plaza is a neighborhood place with a big park in the center for kids. The kids love it and the park, like the countryside, is thick with trees, shrubbery, and flowers. It isn't dreamy like Swan Lake in Puigcerda—I didn't bother looking for Von Rothbart— but it is a nice park. And by not going into the royal palace and hobnobbing with ghosts, I had enough money for diner.

Okay, excuse my facetiousness but I was on a budget and wanted to be sure my money held out. Also, I was not sure at this point what was important to me and what wasn't. I wanted to see some of the "monuments" in Berlin, but I did not feel like they were that important to me. Walking around was; so was knowing how to get places; and seeing the parks was. But more important, perhaps, was getting to know the city's dark past. While I was hearing that Berlin was a vibrant city—thriving and cosmopolitan—I sensed that a dark cloud still hung over it: namely, World War II, Adolf Hitler, and the Nazis. For me it was hard to ignore that. It is hard to say that mass murder on a scale unprecedented in human history is "water under the bridge." How many years does it take for the "bad vibes" to go away? One thousand? Two thousand? And will anything be left in this world by then? I'm not sure on either account. Youth went to the clubs and the pubs and drank. Maybe that brought some forgetfulness. I was not of the international pub-club people and had no desire to be.

The debris had settled. The air was clear. But there was still something hanging around. A vibration, a material substance—perhaps Spinoza would describe it as an attribute or a mode—that no rebuilding effort could dissipate. Perhaps, like radioactive decay, murder had a long half-life.

After a couple of days at SleepCheap I moved to Main Station Hostel on Quitzowstrasse to the east. There were lockers there and ample public space.

I was glad to be out of SleepCheap. In the morning of my last day there, with four of us still trying to sleep, two German girls came in and began talking nonstop. Any nonstop conversation, in my opinion, is worthless. Without pauses, there is no space for reflection or thought; the mind simply dumps known content.

But I had to kill time before check-in at Main Station. Since all I had in this world was time, I was really killing myself if I didn't come up with something worth doing. Hostels are pushing check-in times that are later and later and check-out times that are earlier and earlier. They are shorting guests at both ends. 4:00 PM is not uncommon as a check-in time these days. Maybe I was lucky. The check-in time at Main Station was 3:00 PM.

As I was low on cash, I decided to look for an ATM machine, then explore the neighborhood. I walked through the park next to the hostel before heading down Politzstrasse to Birkenstrasse. The park was rich in vegetation of all kinds but poorly maintained. I found this typical of most small parks out of the major tourist areas. While the trees are beautiful, though often not thinned, other vegetation grows completely wild, poking up through cracks in the sidewalk and out through broken walls, the latter often sprayed with graffiti.

While Berlin seems to celebrate graffiti as an art form, I have mixed feelings about it, especially in parks. Nature doesn't need juvenile, cartoonish enhancements.

Main Station hostel is in the Moabit district, which seems to have no major tourists attractions. For me, that was a good thing. It meant a quiet cup of coffee, neighborhood restaurants with reasonable prices, and a scene where people were not all pumped up and on parade. I painlessly killed time, opting for the quiet cup of coffee and Der Tagespiegel newspaper.

The next day I decided to get out and see some of the tourist attractions. I wanted to get them out of the way early so I could pursue the city in other ways.

The Tiergarten was down the street. The Tiergarten is a giant park in the middle (Mitte district) of the city. I walked to its western side, then into it on Altonaer strasse. I got my first lesson on distances in Berlin. On a map they look small, they look walkable. In fact, they are long, deceptively so. An hour and a half later I emerged on the other side at Brandenburg Tor (tower), having seen the Victory Column in the center with polished bronze sculpture of the goddess Victoria on top. For some reason, I was not impressed with Brandenburg Tor, and even stood looking at it for awhile wondering if that was really it.

Tired and somewhat disappointed except for the park itself—it was truly magnificent—I took a short walk up Under der Linden strasse, which seemed to be lacking in trees and shade. I watched a few tourist consume hot dogs and beer at small cafes in the center island—they had such an obligatory look doing so that I almost felt sorry for them—then took the S-Bahn subway back to Main Station Hostel. I was exhausted.

But memories of the park lingered. Trees and grass are monuments without anyone needing to declare them so. It is only the statue of some great personage sitting on a horse that needs to be declared so. Usually the horse would be enough. Horses are monuments, just like trees; they too are magnificent. But that guy on top with the absurd hat? How many people's deaths did he cause? Surely quite a "great" number to warrant such a public display.

Mother nature seems to be the "great" one in Berlin. With so many bombings and so much abuse from within, she is the real winner, the "victorious" one. Put her on a pedestal or a column and you would have something worthy of worship.

Trees and flowers forever;
Streams, rivers, and fountains.
But the man on the horse
and the victory tower?
But a day, but a day,
But an hour, but an hour.

And the new steel and glass highrises? Just waiting for the next madman, or madwoman, to destroy them. Waiting for the anger to build, the adrenalin to flow, then BOOM! Take that you less-than-we-are people with noses that are too long or too short, eyebrows that are too bushy or not busy enough, hair that is of the wrong color, and ideas that differ by a percentage point from the norm! Oh, worm of unseemly difference, die, die, die!

Unless their is an evolution of consciousness. But at the moment there seems to be a devolution, with the beast of greed winning the day.

Highrise mentality is the low aesthetic taste of the banker enclosing space to charge money.

The next day I took the S-Bahn down to Brandenburg Tor, then walked up Under Der Linden again, this time in search of St. George English Bookstore on Worther Strasse. I got another lesson on distances in Berlin. Under Der Linden changed to Karl Liebnecht, then to Prenzlauer Allee. I never got to Worther. Exhaustion set in around Tortstrasse and I turned back. So much for English-language bookstores in Berlin. But it didn't matter; it was only an exercise in getting around. But finally it was clear to me: City maps do not reflect walking distance. They are driver guides, not hiker guides.

Before retreating I did get a look at a number of Berlin monuments—Adlon Hotel, Humboldt University, Berlin State Opera, Zeughause ... I also had a look at Spree river and Spree Island with the Domkirche and the art museums in back of it. Lustgarten park before the church is light and charming, the church massive and crushing. It is a heavy burden on such a small island. Also, the park was free, whereas the temple of god had a cover charge.