Climbed into a cab at a little after 3 in the morning on Saturday and had a very easy ride up to Stansted. Behind us in the check-in queue, two female exemplars of English moderation and kindness took their time explaining the obvious: that the airport is very busy even at this time in the morning; that it’s still dark outside; that there’s a lot of people going to Berlin.
They also get mardy about a young couple just ahead of us they’ve decided jumped the queue. When they start saying, “Well then we should push ahead, too,” I point out that the young couple have been there all along. They glare at me right up to the check-in desk.
Security is no more of a palava than usual, apart from them not allowing cigarette lighters in your hand luggage. Well d’uh. Your hand luggage must also be, er, hand luggage, and not just a suitcase which you can demonstrably lift. We pass swiftly through the arguments with patient airport staff, whose mantra goes, “No,” and, “No,” and, “No,” and, “Even in this circumstance there aren't any exceptions.”
Had hoped to pick up “Lost Girls” in the airport bookshops, which are often ahead of the outside, real world. No such luck, and the Internet is available for just £1 per 10 minutes. Bah.
We shuffle onto the plane, and no one is allowed any sleep because Ryanair has exciting news of drinks and scratchcards and hire cars and shit. Everyone is already cranky from no-sleep, so this makes things all the more lovely.
Then we are in Berlin, sleep-starved and lost by the route into town. There are chatty volunteers at the railway station showing what tickets to buy, but they’re so chatty we miss a train while they “serve” the people in front of us. The train then stops for 20 minutes at one station and terminates at the next. We spend longer getting the miles into town than we did in the air.
“It’s a lot like London,” says the Dr as we plod out of Friedrichstrasse station, friendly commuters bowling past us, between us and sometimes right over the top.
We amble down the street to where our hotel is meant to be. On first sight, Berlin reminds us of Chicago, our favourite American city from our honeymoon. The hotel is sumptuous and we sleep a couple of blissful hours, me dreaming of Bernice Summerfield and spaceships full of cats. The Dr indulges in a bath (we don’t have such things at home), and the Hotel even provides its own rubber duck.
After a spot of lunch we wander up to the Brandenburg Gate, both so blinded by prejudice we’re amazed to realise we’re staying in what used to be East Berlin. Poster campaigns show the city’s gleaming tube network peopled by every demographic – young, old, scruffy, smart, disabled, gay and into rock music. I think I even spot someone who isn’t white, but it might be my imagination.
We gawp at the gate we’re so familiar with from old news, and then go for a peak at the Reichstag. Deciding to do the climb to the roof another day, we amble back through the park comparing notes on our A-levels and what we learned about the fire.
Feeling jet-lagged we explore the Gemaldegalerie, where there’s a Botticelli sketch of Venus and a lovely Vermeer of a girl polishing off a Glass of Wine. We pootle around for a good two and a half hours, and spent an anxious time in the shop afterwards looking for postcards. Why do they never have ones of our favourites?
On the way back to the hotel we marvel at the swanky new shopping centres, and then stumble over what used to be the border. We follow the line of the old Berlin Wall, picked out in colour stone in the pavement, and take photos where there are odd fragments of tall concrete, like the ruins of a skinny Stonehenge.
We reach Checkpoint Charlie and instead of trying its museum (which we’ve been warned is a bit gaudy), we read the many information boards all round the crossroads. It’s an eerie and moving experience – both of us remember watching this place on the news and seeing the world change. It could have all so easily played out more violently, more miserably, more slowly…
Then back to the hotel and the Dr has a swim while I snooze. We eat at the same nice place we had lunch in and then crash into an early night. The Dr dreams of monkeys without legs after I tell her I glimpsed one on the television.
We get up lateish and head towards Museum Island, the reason we are here. On the way we pass through Bebelplatz, the square where the Nazis burnt 25,000 books.
The well-read Dr quotes Heine’s remark that,
“where they burn books they will also, in the end, burn people,”and wonders whether the burning of the Satanic Verses all those years ago was the first symptom of more recent religious tensions. I start to answer that burning books is easier than burning people, but that’s not actually true.
The destruction of books is the destruction of social structure. The law is in books, as is religion and science and history. To burn a book is a refusal to empathise, to think, to engage. When you have burned down people’s ideas and opinions there is nothing left to stop you burning the people down, too.
Bebelplatz is an empty, open space amid the university, and though there are a couple of artworks about books in general, I think there should be something more lasting. They should have something like the stalls of mixed second-hand reading outside the National Film Theatre, with all kinds of well-thumbed, unsuitable ideas at tantalisingly affordable prices.
We move on, and the Dr adores the Altes Museum, speaking highly of a video presentation that shows where the ancient objects were taken from and how. We cheer as it shows an original Firman (a Turkish certificate saying they Ottoman government okay any looting), and I’m introduced to Furtwangler, whose marvellous moustache – as Charles Newton said – makes him look like the Dying Gaul.
There’s all sorts of detail in the objects on display and we coo at intricate glass and gold works and the insights into everyday life. We collect a mass of photocopied sheets with their additional facts about each display, the Dr marvelling at how well interpreted it all is. Again, though, the selection of postcards misses several favourites.
The museum is on a shared square with the vast, dark edifice of Berlin Cathedral and the building site that used to be the East Berlin government. The secular cathedral of classical gods easily holds its own against the Christian fella, and a great neon sign declares that “All art has been contemporary”. Feeling taller and happier and properly on holiday, we go find a suitable beer.
Next stop is the Pergamon, and the Dr marvels at how cheap the museums are before remembering that in London all this would be free.
The Pergamon is on a much bigger scale than the Altes, with whole reconstructions of pillaged ancient streets, but leaves us less impressed. I like the vast paintings of the relics in situ, hanging above the same relics on display. Yes, they look better where they were. And they wouldn’t have been quite so bombed, either.
We head home, get changed and head out for dinner. After a bit too much red wine we see in the Dr’s birthday with what cards I’d intercepted and the book on Victorian London she’d already intercepted.
Breakfast arrives at 7am, courtesy of the not-too-bad husband. We then amble down to the Health Club for the morning of indulgence I’d booked. The Dr chose the special “strawberry bath” while I was lead away by an agreeable-looking blonde to have an all-over massage.
She gently suggests I’d be more comfortable without the swimming trunks on and then sets to work on my knotty bits. Its odd to sprawl out in the all-together for a complete – and pretty – stranger, but I am soon blissed out by the pummelling. Point out later to the wife that it’s the first time in nearly seven years another woman’s got to have a prod at me naked. Does this count as a scratching of the itch, and do I have to wait as long for another go at it?
When it’s the Dr’s turn, I have fun playing in the saunas and then in the pool, and but for the last ten minutes have the whole place to myself. The Dr should have birthdays more often.
Floaty and content we find some clothes to put on and head out to again to explore. We pass the rather groovy British Embassy building, a cube of yellow inset with fun blue and pink shapes. It looks like a military headquarters run by children.
Queued and queued to get into the Reichstag as we passed through the various airlocks of security and up into Norman Foster’s splendid roof. The fine panoramic views remind you how flat Berlin is and why there are so many bicycles.
We then wandered East down the Spree and into the old Jewish quarter. Having marvelled at the great palace built for the Post Office’s horses, and at the magnificent rebuilt synagogue, we had a happy time poking around the fashionable, studenty shops. The area around the Nikolaikirche was very badly bombed, and the rebuilt area is rather smart and foreboding. A bar seemed a bit perturbed to be serving tourists, so we left them to it.
Instead, we dined at the 12 Apostles, a lovely pizzeria just next to the Pergamon. It was bustling with locals – always a good sign – and we got to sit right up by the open-plan kitchen. I had a huge calzone (a folded over pizza), and managed manfully to finish it. Cor, it was good. We bickered amiably about the selfish gene and about lost bits of stone off Malta and where our travels would take us next, and then plodded home.
Breakfasted and checked-out of the hotel, and then made our way to the Jewish Museum, which was something of a surprise. It was less about the Nazis as about the history of Germano-Jews since the time of the First Crusade. Charting the highs and lows of bias in the law and acts of violence, to the contributions to society by Jewish scientists and artists, it’s as much a celebration as a warning.
I found it moving and involving, and was impressed by how much it engaged the gangs of noisy schoolkids. The interactive elements included difficult yes/no questions about citizenship and immigration, such as “Should those born in Germany automatically qualify for German citizenship?” (68% of visitors when we were there said, “Yes.”)
Then we had a foolishly long walk across town to the Humburger Bahnhof – a former railway station and now a contemporary art gallery. It had been recommended by a few people, and we were hugely disappointed. As well as the usual pretension of the things on display, the place was stark and unfriendly, the staff keen to tell us off for carrying a cardigan the wrong way.
Only contemporary art makes you feel like a trespasser, and I found it difficult to get anything from the work. Were scuff marks just discernible in the blinding-white walls some new, untitled piece? Or were they just what was left behind when a piece had been relocated? In different cases, both.
There was little signage or – so important to the Dr – interpretation. The café was not open but didn’t tell say so anywhere (so we got told off again for blundering in), and there were various building works going on and things set up, with nothing to explain which areas on the map were newly out of bounds.
We did like some of the things – some fascinating photos from inside the ruin of the Palast der Republik, built in 1976 to govern East Berlin. But much of the collection was large, abstract, plain-toned stuff, presented against large, plain-toned walls so as to reduce any hint of excitement.
Also, of course, none of the things we liked were available as postcards. Instead they had lots of pretentiously rude ones – dead-eyed women fingering their bits, a bloke looking bored with his half-hearted cock out. I suppose there’s an argument that it’s not dreary porn because of the building its in. But, you know, piss off.
We had curried sausages before taking a train back to the Altes Museum, where the Dr was keen to make notes. On the way back to the hotel to fetch our bags we nipped into the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche and had a look at the collection of sculptures by Schinkel. The church was largely destroyed during the war and has been rebuilt elegantly. Some of the early 19th century sculptures were also missing limbs, and seemed oddly so much more like the classical works that had inspired them.
There was time for a beer before getting the train back to the airport. Our place was late leaving London, but they didn’t tell us that until we were on the plane. We mooched around the meagre airport facilities – a coffee bar, a shop and a sickly-stinking Burger King – and then huddled in a corridor with our fellow passengers.
Air travel brings out the worst in people anyway, but the half-hour lateness turned boarding into a scrum. There is something especially galling about people pretending not to see me as they shove past – I am tall, I am freakish-looking and I spend my whole life in the way.
We left the tangled morass at Stansted, climbing into our waiting taxi as people around us swore at each other for all having been off on holiday. Home about half one this morning, to the Dr’s remaining cards and presents, and a pair of new shoes for me.