As darkness falls: a walk through Berlin

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On Thursday afternoon I took a walk through Berlin. I had decided to follow the Berlin Wall Trail from Potsdamer Platz to Ostbahnhof for my project Traces of Border, a walk of five kilometres through the south of the city centre along the boundary between the districts of Mitte and Kreuzberg. As always with these walks it was a combination of the familiar and new discoveries, but for the first time I was walking as darkness encroached on the city which gave it a very different feel.

It was my own fault, only starting to walk at about half past three, and at this time of year the streetlights have already flickered into action and the main roads are a stream of white lights approaching and red lights retreating by the middle of the afternoon. Through the half-light I followed the line of cobblestones that marks the route of the wall past the Topography of Terror and through Checkpoint Charlie and its collection of memorials, exhibitions, souvenir shops and fast food joints, and then the site where Peter Fechter died and the enormous Axel-Springer building that houses publishing company of the same name.

By this point it was properly dark, and as I moved away from the fairly commercial part of the city that the trail passes through and into a more residential neighbourhood, I reflected a little on the nature of walking at night – or at least, as it was still only the afternoon – in the dark through the city. I have written about this topic on Under a Grey Sky briefly before, about our walk through the streets of Greifswald in January and the words of Will Self from a column on the pleasures of night walking published on the Independent website a few years ago.

Following my walk through Berlin and the thoughts it inspired, I returned to that piece to refresh my memory…

Nothing and nobody is more covetable than a cosy dwelling, seen by night from the street without. The sash window is a shop window, and what’s for sale here is an idea of cosy homeliness that can never be experienced, except by a voyeur.

I had a few of these moments too, as I walked the line between Mitte and Kreuzberg, with posh new apartment blocks on one side of the road – filling in the space where the border fortifications once stood – and the more low rent blocks of flats on the other… two very different economic realities divided only by a leafy side street and a line of cobblestones on the ground. But, as I paused to scribble some notes beneath an orange street light and felt the cold in my fingers, the living rooms and kitchens that I could see on the both sides of the street seemed fairly inviting to me.

Still, I pressed on, through more residential streets and along what was once the embankment of a canal – the waterway long-since dried up – and past some hulking, looming buildings that could have been any kind of public institution, perhaps a school or a hospital, but I could see no sign. At one point the old canal opens up to create the “Angel’s Basin” and here there was water, but I could not see it, my eyes drawn instead to the illuminated angel that seemed to float above an otherwise dark and ghostly church. I tried and failed to take a photograph, and then a bicycle bell ringing to warn me of its rapidly approaching presence made me jump.

Every sound – a door creaking, the sudden collection of voices of three women leaving an office at the end of the working day, a dog barking down some shadowed side street – was all much more unnerving because I was hearing it in the dark, in an unfamiliar corner of the city. This was not a rational response… but I was walking more aware now, and with a slightly quicker step. As major cities go, Berlin is reasonably safe in the daytime or at night (and, remember, this was only about four thirty in the afternoon by now), but we have been conditioned to fear the menace that must be lurking in the shadows where the city’s gas lamps cannot reach, and I have to admit to feeling a sense of relief when I reached the river and the business travellers’ hotel on its banks, the stream of people crossing the bridge, and the bright lights, sighing buses, and all the human life that hangs around train stations at the Ostbahnhof.

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Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton

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