Landing in the rain in Berlin, the first conversation I had in German was about how hilarious my long hair looked in my passport photo, with the man from passport control. Tegel Airport was tiny compared to the airports in London. I had just flown from Heathrow terminal 5, a stupendous, airy statement of a place, coming to Tegel was like I’d arrived at a regional college built in the late Sixites. Concrete, narrowness and no real space for queuing. A British person’s nightmare. The space between the gates and the waiting areas was, at most points, a series of glass walls, which made sense in terms of making the place seem a bit airier. I noticed lovers talking to one another on their phones on either side of the glass, a man waiting for his flight and the woman waiting to see him off.
In a fit of pique I booked a holiday for myself to Berlin for my birthday. My Birthday is the first week of January and I had to pay for the holiday before Christmas, which wasn’t, financially, the greatest decision. It was a little irrational, perhaps, but one of those things you end up doing around birthdays. My previous birthday had been heavy and painful, having just been broken up with not seven days prior. A year later, I had wanted to make a break from the past. I didn’t want to remember that last birthday or that time in general. I wanted to go to Berlin and speak German for the entire visit. I had the money (only just) so I decided to do it alone.
Being alone doesn’t scare me as much as it seems to scare almost everyone else. I suppose a normal question to ask someone when they tell you you’re going on holiday is, “who are you going with?” the response people never hear is “I’m going by myself” a follow up question being, “do you have friends out there?” to which I answer, “I literally know nobody in Berlin”. This exchange happened a few times in the weeks running up to the trip at work. I don’t know whether it’s just a part of how I am or whether it’s something about my upbringing but being alone is something that I can enjoy. I spent a lot of time throughout my childhood and school days waiting alone for buses (there being only 4 per day from the town to my village) I think I got so used to that solitude that I depended on it. Linked to this is my talent of spending a good hour or more in any bookshop available.
In Berlin, it rained practically the entire time. After chatting to a devastatingly attractive red headed German man who sold me my travel card for my stay (and whose directions to the correct bus stop I totally misunderstood) I boarded a bendy bus that would take me to the city centre. It was an old bus, everything was dusty and grey and the streets were concrete and broad. Like most journeys from airports you don’t see the best of the city at all. I started recognising the buildings and, rather incredibly, unexpectedly rounded a corner and hopped off the bus directly in front of the Brandenburg Gate. I stood there in the rain, unfurling my trusty umbrella and walked towards it through the square in front of it called Pariser Platz. All the headlines of German History seemed to have centred around the Brandenburg Gate. Hitler had the direction of the chariot statue on top of it changed so it was riding out towards the West instead of facing east, an obvious statement of his intentions. The gate was damaged during the second world war and after the partition of East Berlin was inaccessible from either side due to the heavy military presence and the Berlin Wall. During that time of the two different German states, both sides could see the gate but it was actually in the East German side. It became a symbol of the difficulty of disunity. A little up the street from the gate I noticed the heavily guarded Russian Embassy. A point of pride for us British (and the French and Americans) is that these embassies lie even closer to the gate than the Russians, each being directly in Pariser Platz. In a running race, we’d get to the gate first, before the Russians, if it ever came to that again.
It’s a strange moment to walk underneath the arch. I stood for a long time sheltered from the rain. I thought a lot about my footsteps whilst in Berlin. Whether thirty years ago I would have been allowed to walk where I walked. On the other side of the gate is a cobbled line by the road, which runs alongside a cycle path. This is the imprint of the Berlin Wall. I noticed a man running along it’s path, part of his usual jogging route, something impossible 30 years ago.
Later on the first day (my birthday) after I had checked into my hotel I visited the Berliner Dom, a huge Cathedral on Museum Island. I could barely comprehend my place in the crypts amongst the coffins of long dead German Royalty, hundreds of years of ornate coffins of Kaisers. I climbed all the way up through the building to the top, I walked on the terrace at the top in the cold rainy night, with the TV Tower ahead of me through the mist with it’s East German, Soviet Space Age statement architecture. I couldn’t really believe I was there. Berlin was spread out below, through the rain and mist. I watched it from there for a long time, standing with the huge angel statues with their bugles. I stood in my raincoat, wanting to remember the feeling of going somewhere alone, being thrown out of the strange low-level depression I had had for the winter in London, working a boring job and living in a very cold and drafty attic room. Now I was in Berlin, alone. I could stay out and walk the streets until the cold dead dawn came if I wanted. I could walk ceaselessly through the wide streets thinking about the streams of people who crowded down the same streets as the wall finally came down.
Berlin had that sense of liberation in itself, the same way it had destruction and tragedy. Some parts of the city feel empty, because they were destroyed and never built up again. The opposite to London and how London recovered from the Second World War, London built itself back up again. Berlin, because of the terrible History that followed WW2 was left in utter ruin. Crossing the invisible borders, you walk around Alexanderplatz, the heart of the old East Berlin, you feel the rush of soviet buildings that came into this vacuum after the war. Those streets are even broader, the architecture has that slight ornate Eastern look to it. And you remember that East Germany existed for a long time, long enough for people to live and die not knowing Germany to be reunified.
On the Saturday morning I took a train to Nollendorfplatz and wandered in the light rain towards the market square. I took a turn down Nollendorfstraße and stood outside number 17 , a normal block of apartments. Walls painted an off-peach with ornately carved heavy wooden doors. This was where Christopher Isherwood lived when he came to Berlin to and wrote Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin which were adapted into the musical Cabaret. This was Berlin at the end of the Weimar Republic during a time of political unrest and economic decline just as the Nazis were beginning to take control. There’s a large sign on the wall describing Isherwood’s time living there. The street was quiet in the rain and I ducked into large old bookshop just across the way. Very old books were stacked up high, leather-bound, ancient things. The man at the counter was incredibly old and I fancifully wondered if he had known Isherwood or if he had grown up there and his Mother or Father had known them. I stood looking at those old books, books older than reunification, The Wall, The Second World War. I wondered if any had sat on those shelves undisturbed for those long years. I felt close to Berlin then. I felt like it was a city I knew, a little. I understood it in that bookshop. Finding an old leather-bound copy of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves translated into German, I bought it and smiled at the old man behind the counter. He probably recognised straight away as another strange Englishman coming out to see where Isherwood had lived.
Leaving Berlin, I knew I would return, hopefully during a spell of nicer weather. I had not visited all the Museums on Museum Island, but that morning before my flight I went to the top of the soviet-era Television Tower, a giant metal spike with a large orb at the top, the orb was a viewing platform and a restaurant. I stood looking out over the streets of Berlin, on one side more ordered and planned on the another, ancient and chaotic. Through the fog I could see the Reichstag in the distance. I love Berlin (and maybe London too) because of how odd and unfinished it is. It is a strange monster of a place which has grown randomly. It has a history you walk over, almost constantly. A history I met and understood, a little, for those few days in the rain.