Discovering the ruins at twilight, Berlin

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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.

If you have been following Under a Grey Sky you will know that this indeed is something I try to live by, writing not only about the places I travel to but also the discoveries I make within this city that has been my home for the past decade or so. But as I read Min Li Chan’s piece I began to realise that in recent months the pressures of work and the plunge into a freelance life has meant that if I am not running the same route or leading the same tour, I have not been getting out in the city as much as I used to.

And so today, with an hour to kill before I picked up Lotte from school, I decided to go for a walk. At Alexanderplatz, having crossed the square and gone to search out the talking moose outside the glühwein stand by the ALEXA shopping centre (tip – he’s on the other side this year), I passed beneath the S-Bahn tracks to that strange corner of the city when the traffic streams up from the Leipziger Straße around the back of the city hall and the Decathlon car park and where the buildings always seem to be dark and few souls stalk the streets.

To be honest, I have only walked these streets twice in my time in the city, even if they are less than a hundred metres from Alexanderplatz and the World Clock. The first time was for a visit to one of the oldest restaurants of the city, when my parents met Katrin’s parents for the first time. The second was when Katrin and I got married at the registry office in one of the gloomy, melancholy buildings around the corner. So it is perhaps not surprising that I had never before noticed the ruins of a 16th century monastery church that had its origins in the 1250s, making it one of the most historic sites in all of the city of Berlin.

The Franziskaner-Klosterkirche was closed about forty years after its last renovation, due to the Protestant Reformation, although the church would become later linked to the nearby school that counted Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Friedrich Ludwig Jahn as alumni. In 1945 the church was hit by bombing raids and the ruins were left as they were, save for a tidying up job in 2003/4 that allows them to hold concerts and other events in the shell of the building.

And I had never seen it before.

As I walked around the site, the gates already locked in the 4pm twilight of a November Thursday afternoon, I thought about the other times I might have noticed it. Driving down the Leipziger Straße. Running past at KM20 of the Berlin Half Marathon. That time, a few weeks ago, when we parked across the street. And yet as I turned the corner, half-thinking of searching out the restaurant and the registry office, the red-brick walls, empty arched windows through which the half-moon shone because the roof was long gone, the ruins came as a surprise.

I made my way around to the locked gates, six lines of traffic streaming behind me, the shoppers dragging their Primark bags to the tram stops and the U-Bahn just a hundred metres away. No-one else was around except for a blonde woman who had the same idea as me. Together we stood and took photos with our phones through the locked gates; a nod and a smile of acknowledgement but no words shared. Above crows hovered above the straight lines and exhaust-stained walls of a GDR office block. Below two strangers took a moment to consider this structure, most reminiscent of Casper David Friedrich’s Eldena Abbey, that was older than anything around and yet felt like the usurper.

How had I not noticed it before?

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Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton

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