The other day, as I was walking with a friend through the suburbs of Hamburg, I was telling her about two views of two particular cities that will live long with me. They are the two views that I see in my head whenever someone speaks of the anonymity of the metropolis, or a landscape that has been entirely shaped by human hands.
The first was in Beirut, standing on the balcony of a friend’s apartment to talk to another friend on a fuzzy and expensive mobile phone connection about the birth of his first child. As we talked I looked out across the rooftops, a jumble of buildings, of balconies and air-conditioning units, the streets invisible between them and the sea a hazy, unreal blue, seemingly miles in the distance. The second was from a hotel room in Tokyo and also high up, with high rise office blocks and hotels and a sense, even more so than in Beirut, of a city where every space was built upon and where nothing was more than a couple of decades old. The only trees I could see from that Tokyo hotel room surrounded nearby shrines, tiny green splodges of colour on a canvas otherwise painted in concrete and glass.
It is not that there is anything particularly wrong with this, and in any case it would be unfair to characterise Beirut in this way as during my time there we moved quickly between the city, the sea and the mountains. I found both cities fascinating and I have a strong desire to return. It is just that these views are what I think about when I imagine the cityscape that I love to visit but have no desire to live in, views that fascinated and repelled me at the same time.And I still find it a little odd that although I never really thought of myself as someone who would live long-term in a city, I have done so ever since I was eighteen (which, as suddenly occurs to me as I write this, is half of my life). Read more…
This morning, as I walked with Lotte down the street towards the U-Bahn on her way to the second day of the school year, we noticed that we could see our breath in the morning air. Is the summer over already in August? It certainly feels that way, with school returning and the football season long begun. So it seems like a good time to reflect on the summer and to return to the grey skies of this website.
Our main trip this summer was to the Thuringian forest and then on to the Ardennes, with more trees and plenty of Trappist beer. There will be more on that journey in the coming weeks, but in some ways it was an unrepresentative fortnight when it comes to this particular summer as, if there was a theme of the last few months, it was finding some lake or other in which to jump in.
Almost all of our swimming (we could call it ‘wild swimming’ but then, how wild is it when a little further down the shore a couple of retired women are preparing for the morning swim, even the smallest lake has a Badestelle and every Berliner or Brandenburger has their own favourite lake?) took place in the waters around Berlin. There are hundreds, if not thousands of lakes in Brandenburg, and we found some pretty special ones. The Gamensee near Werneuchen. The Steckelsdorfer See near Rathenow. Both were connected to nearby campsites, but it felt like we had the lake, the water, the reeds and the big skies all to ourselves. Read more…
We have reached that time of the year again when we put Under a Grey Sky on hold in order to set off down the road or along the rails to collect more stories and pictures for when we return. This year however, regular readers will have noticed other pauses on the blog – unscheduled and unannounced – and it is certainly true to say that the volume of posts here has fallen over the past twelve months.
There are two reasons for that, and thankfully neither of them are because we (Katrin, Lotte and I) have not been getting out and about and having those adventures beyond the front door. The simple fact is that with the launch of Elsewhere this year and an agreement to write a book about the Baltic coast, time has been limited for writing up our wanderings and wonderings here. Alongside this, I haven’t been able to spend so much time looking for guest contributors, and so the combination of these two reasons – both linked to the journal and the book – has meant that Under a Grey Sky has suffered somewhat.
Still, as I look back through the posts that are here from the first six months of 2015 I am looking back on a great half a year of explorations near and far. And the other journey, that of launching the journal from a website and a blog via a crowdfunding campaign to being something printed and solid and held and read by many hundreds of people around the world(!) has been a fantastic experience. It is not easy, of course, and actually the process of writing and editing has been the smallest aspect of running the journal, as distribution and marketing takes more time and energy than the creative process.
Which reminds me… do you have your copy of Elsewhere yet? The first edition – which you can buy here – has some great writing and wonderful illustrations, as well as interviews, photography and reviews. And if you have already read it, liked it, and want to help us make the project sustainable, how about a subscription? The second edition, which will be published in September and which we are working on around our summer trips, promises to be great… we have some wonderful writers, great photography, and a feature that I am working on with my good friend Marcel Krueger about the night train that I am really enjoying putting together.
So that is that… we have a couple of weeks exploring the forests of central Germany, watching out for the witches and the wild boars in the woods, the high fens on the Belgian-German border, and the footpaths and beer glasses of the Ardennes… see you on the other side.
PS. The image above is from another road trip. I will send a copy of Elsewhere to the first person in the comments to tell me where it is – and if you already have a copy, to a person of your choice…
At the harbour in Rathenow on a sunny, summer’s day, the atmosphere is fine. People take pictures of the “lock spitters”, a memorial to the piece workers who used to kill time whilst waiting for the barges to pick them up by holding spitting competitions against the canal. Others queue at the specially-erected wooden info stands for their maps and tickets for the BUGA, Germany’s premier flower show being hosted in 2015 by Rathenow and other communities in the west of Brandenburg. The BUGA has brought many people to the town, and it seems well-scrubbed in anticipation of their visit. The streets are clean and the bicycles lanes smooth, the balconies of the GDR-era Plattenbau filled with flowers, and every shop and cafe seems to be welcoming the flower-peepers to their corner of Westhavelland, proud of their town.
But as we cross the bridge from the harbour and into the old town – a collection of cobbled streets around the church – I get the sense of something missing… the old town itself. For in Rathenow, the Altstadt only contains a handful of pre-war buildings. The red brick church (itself needing massive renovation over recent decades) and some half-timbered houses, but otherwise most of the the old town seems to have been built either during the years when Rathenow was part of the German Democratic Republic, or even since. It is not that it is bad, or it is ugly, but just you cannot help but get a sense of loss as you walk the streets… and you want to find out more.
In the bowels of Berlin Hauptbahnhof the platforms are lined with trains that will take you are long way from the German capital. Czech railways. Polish railways. The slim lines of the ICE. But on platform eight – which is thronged with young people as three separate school groups have all just arrived for a few days in Berlin – there is a small train waiting, in orange and green, whose final destination is about an hour out of the city and the town of Rathenow, close to the Sachsen-Anhalt border but nevertheless still firmly in the state of Brandenburg.
But a train is a train, and there is something special about Germany’s regional expresses. Often they are – as this one is – double-deckers, which mean they offer a fine view down over the embankments and fences that line the railway into back gardens or the forest, across the fields and the lakes. They move slow enough that you get a sense of really moving through the landscape, and they stop at every small settlement along the way. Berlin-Staaken. Dallgow-Döberitz. Elstal. These are all places we will pass through on the RE4 from Berlin to Rathenow, and although they may be small, some of them have their own stories to tell.
The Possibility of an Island is a better title than it is a book. Indeed, although I have read it I cannot for the life of me recall a single scene from Michel Houellebecq’s book, but the title has stayed with me. To me islands always seemed to be filled with possibility; they are an endless source of fascination. Perhaps it is because they are contained, a world in and of itself, that can be explored and mapped. There is an end to an island. A natural border.
A few weeks ago I read about a short journey I have always wanted to take. The writer Richard Carter had climbed into a canoe on Coniston in the Lake District and, slowly but surely, made his way across the lake to Wild Cat Island. No matter that the island’s real name is Peel Island, for any readers of Arthur Ransome’s wonderful Swallows and Amazons will know what it is really called, and thirty five years after reading the book for the first time (about six or seven years before I did), Richard discovered the magic was based on reality:
We drift past a low, rocky promontory and some rocks. This is so right: it’s just like in the book! We’re almost past it before I see it: back to our right—I mean starboard—a steep-sided, narrow channel leads straight into the heart of the island. A few feet to either side of here, and the channel would be invisible, obscured by rocks and headland. This is the place! We’ve found the secret harbour! Read more…
It has been a crazy month. It appears that launching Elsewhere, a new journal of place, even more than a blog about adventures beyond the front door, means you spend more time in front of a screen, behind piles of paper, or in climate-controlled storage facilities (that are at least a kind of Elsewhere because they could indeed be anywhere) than you do exploring the world around you. I am reading submissions based on places in Australia and Rwanda, the islands of Scotland and the two sides of Budapest, and it is all very inspiring if only we had the t…
No. There is no need for this. In my diary I have a note, scribbled every Monday. UaGS. It means don’t neglect the blog. Don’t forget the blog. But I have been neglecting and forgetting, and then I remember… adventures beyond the front door. That is how all this started in the first place. You can go to Rwanda and leave it all behind. You can go to the islands of Scotland. Or you can take a morning and, if you live where I live, you can go to Wittenau.