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).
Ah, but someone said to me on a tour of my local neighbourhood last week, Berlin is not like other cities. The neighbourhoods are self-contained, like small towns. You can spend weeks without ever leaving your kiez. And what about the lakes and the woods and the trails that lead from one to the other, and all those other things that you write about on that blog of yours about adventures beyond the front door?
She was right, of course. But it is not just Berlin. When I try to think about what it is that makes a city liveable, those places when I come across them on my travels that draw me to a place it is almost always those small corners, those parts of a city that seem to be built on – for want of a better phrase – a more human scale. In Berlin this has always been the Zionskirchplatz, where I lived for eight years and which, even five years later, I still miss. In Stockholm it was a square at the top of a hill. In Barcelona a courtyard linked to by four narrow lanes. In Lübeck, the alleyways of the old town. The same in Edinburgh. And in Erfurt, it was a bridge over the river.
The Krämerbrücke is a bridge lined with half-timbered houses, and is the only one of its kind in Europe north of the Alps. All but a handful of the buildings that line the narrow street are owned by the city, which means they can control somewhat the kind of businesses that operate there, and as such most of the shopfronts house artists or craftspeople. As one of the major sights in Erfurt, when we crossed it during the summer it was absolutely packed. This would normally be something that would have diminished the appeal of a place, but on the Krämerbrücke in the drizzle, I didn’t really mind.
We walked across among the tour groups and poked our noses in the independent shops. And then we climbed down the steps that led to the river bank, where we could look upon the bridge from behind with the river running beneath it, and the jumble of buildings and balconies hanging from them. As we looked up at the balconies and their plant pots and washing lines, I thought back to the tour groups I had just pushed through on the bridge and said to myself: Yeah, but you wouldn’t want to live there would you? And as we walked away to explore the rest of the city I admitted to myself that, yes, part of me actually would.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig