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Meeting Julius Fučík in Pankow, Berlin

December 14, 2015

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The park is deserted. I have walked here from home, a couple of kilometres along the Panke river from our apartment, past the garden colonies and old factories, past the football pitch and where the Berlin Wall once stood. It is a walk I have made many times, a corner of Berlin I have written about many times. More often than not we go this way in the summer, aiming for green open spaces of the park or the beer garden at its heart. We have celebrated birthdays here. Met friends. But on a weekday in December we have the park to ourselves.

The playground is empty, the swings gently rocking in the breeze as the sound of a plane coming in to land at Tegel fills the scene. The path by the river is muddy, churned by the bicycles of the school run or the journey to work. I look for the grey heron but he is not around today, just a handful of ducks on the embankment, heads buried in their own feathers. The bandstand is deserted. The beer garden too. A solitary runner enters at the far end, a flash of reflective orange from her jacket, but then she is lost to the path through the trees. Read more…

Chasing memories and the sound of church bells, Berlin

December 3, 2015

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Last Saturday as part of our Printed Matters indie publishing day in Berlin that we hosted through Elsewhere, I led a neighbourhood walk in the area around the venue. The walk took us to two squares – Arkonaplatz and Zionskirchplatz – my home neighbourhood for about a decade before we moved a few kilometres north about five years ago. So as I was telling stories of industrialisation and the divided city, I was also walking through some very personal memories. A few days later I decided to go back on my own and chase some of them down.

Arkonaplatz. One of the first pieces I ever had published was a short piece in the Guardian Weekly. I wrote about the Sunday flea market at the end of the road and the bargain hunters chasing GDR-kitsch. I wondered whether we had a potential goldmine in our basement on Wolliner Straße, just around the corner, or whether Katrin’s family had such treasures in theirs. I wrote that piece in the summer of 2006, not long after we had moved to Wolliner Straße and just after Lotte was born. Now she is approaching her tenth birthday, we have been gone from the apartment on Wolliner Straße longer than we ever lived there. We have lost some of our family too. I write this at Katrin’s grandmother’s desk. Wine glasses and bowls stand in the cabinet. Too many memories from when we knew each other, and for Katrin, even longer. Too precious for any flea market.

On the square I stop and watch a couple of guys play table tennis on the concrete tables, despite the single-digit temperatures and the cold late-November wind racing through the cobbled streets. These streets were built as part of Berlin’s great expansion in the second half of the 19th century, when the city was transformed from garrison town to Weltstadt. Northern Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg and Wedding were industrial neighbourhoods, working class and poor. Heinrich Zille, the cartoonist famous for his illustrations of working class life in Berlin, once painted the Christmas Market at Arkonaplatz, the twinkling lights losing the battle against the grime and the smog. Now Arkonaplatz has some of the highest real estate prices in the city. Read more…

Discovering the ruins at twilight, Berlin

November 19, 2015

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The subtitle of this blog includes the phrase “dispatches from beyond the front door” and what I was getting at when I came up with it was the idea that you don’t have to look far for adventure and discovery, and that to find something new among the familiar you just have to look up or down, stop for a second, and basically just open your eyes. I thought of this again this morning as I read this short but interesting article on the polis blog by Min Li Chan, that included a quote from the Australian writer Gail Jones:

I’m very interested in psychogeography, and the idea that we must walk around our own place with an active intelligence and a degree of radical attention to what is there. … We ought not be the flaneur who is idly and languidly consuming the sights of the city, we must look at its shapes, at its motions, attend to its sounds, corridors between spaces, the unexpected things looming up or falling away as we turn a corner. Read more…

Among the trees and above the ruins, Beelitz

October 31, 2015

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The Beelitz Heilstätten stands in the forest some 35 minutes by train south of Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten station. This hospital and sanatorium complex opened in 1898 as one of the biggest tuberculosis clinics anywhere in the world, and by the outbreak of WW1 had developed to include its own power station, water tower, laundry and restaurant, farm and post office. Between the wars it developed even further to occupy over 200 hectares of the forest, and following its use as a military hospital during WW2 it was occupied by Soviet forces until their final withdrawal in 1994.

The Beelitz that we explored earlier this week under soft October sunshine is the crumbling ruins of an almighty complex abandoned with the Soviet retreat and pretty much left to nature and the attentions of (sub-)urban explorers and graffiti artists. The buildings are landmark protected, but the scale of the complex makes it hard to imagine what kind of project could bring life back to these structures in the woods. And so they are left, trees and plants growing on balconies and roof-tops, the buildings slowly being swallowed by the forest as people walk amongst them, for it seems that ruins – and not just of the antique variety – hold an endless fascination for many. Read more…

In the shadow of Schmitz… running Leipzig and the Battle of the Nations

October 14, 2015

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It is strange to visit a place that has already appeared on your own website to which you have never seen with your own eyes before. Katrin visited Leipzig’s Monument to the Battle of the Nations (Völkerschlachtdenkmal in German) a couple of years ago and wrote this post for Under a Grey Sky. But even her pictures could not do justice to the looming scale of the thing, as we arrived to face it on Saturday afternoon as I registered for the Leipzig Half Marathon that was taking place the following morning.

Before we got there, I was wondering what my feelings would be when I came face to face with this looming presence. Monuments built to commemorate battles, especially when triumphalist in conception and execution, always make me a little uneasy. The monument was built in 1913, but the battle itself was 100 years earlier, when on the fields south of Leipzig the combined armies of Prussia, Russia and Austria gathered to defeat Napoleon’s army in what was the biggest mass battle of the 19th century. From Katrin’s blog: Read more…

On foot through Epping Forest

September 20, 2015

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Buckhurst Hill

The underpass beneath the tracks at Buckhurst Hill tube station had that smell, that mix of urine and rain and absence of natural light, and so I quickened my step. I was running, not from anything in particular but because this is what I do most mornings and just because I was in Essex I saw no reason to change my habits. On the ramp up, back to fresh air, my footsteps startled an Arsenal fan, dressed for the match and on his way into town.

I had no real plan of where I was going to run, except a quick look at Google Maps offered up a green space on the other side of the railway from where we were staying. Lord’s Bushes and Knighton Wood. From the tube station I picked my way through residential streets until I came to a road called Forest Edge, and began to look for a way in. Forest Edge, because this collection of trees surrounded by the suburban streets of Buckhurst Hill and the north end of Woodford belong to Epping Forest, that ancient woodland that stretches from Forest Gate, not far from Stratford and the extravagant and impressive folly of the Olympic Park in the south, to Epping in the north. Read more…

Wild Swimming in the Duddon Valley

September 14, 2015

It has been a summer of swimming, as I mentioned in this post a few weeks ago. Perhaps inspired to put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, regular contributor and friend of Under a Grey Sky Chris Hughes sent us this dispatch from a spot of swimming of his own…

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This pool might look inviting to some… Read more…

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