(Or, the story of a Grey Sky Walk)
It was only a few days after the winds hit the city, toppling chimneys and uprooting trees, tragically taking a couple of lives. Despite the increased frequency of extreme weather – the summer was marked with floods from torrential rains and an overwhelmed drainage system – there is still something unsettling about experiencing a storm like that, one which had blue lights flashing and sirens sounding long into the night.
There was little indication of damage done as we headed north. The U-Bahn was running again and we could see, once the train emerged from its tunnel to the elevated tracks, the planes taking off and coming in to land at the airport. In Tegel, the Saturday shoppers were happily pounding the streets and down at the promenade there was no sign of the storm, except for the piles of fallen leaves that might have been larger than usual. It was only on the path that follows the river across the northern edge of the city we saw proper evidence of the power of the wind.
Trees lay across the footpath, necessitating unsteady scrambles and the odd battle with rogue branches. Cyclists dismounted and had to carry their bikes over and through this edgeland obstacle course. One tree had demolished a fence and pulled row after row of slates from a roof, the scrape-marks from the branches visible in the brickwork of the house. The marshes had already begun to swallow the severed branches and other debris of the storm, and though the grey herons made lazy progress from one soon-to-be rotting clump to the next there was little sign of bird or animal life. The water buffalo were nowhere to be seen.
Where are we? the sign asked.
A picture of a cheerful-looking hairy buffalo offered us a clue as to what we should be looking for on the other side of the fence.
At home, was the reply, scrawled in marker pen.
But where is home? It was an answer that begged further questions but there was no-one to ask. It was quiet here, between the neat lawns and garden fences on one side of the path and the bog on the other. There were some signs of life. In one place it looked as if the soil had been turned over by a force other than high winds. A wild boar, perhaps. But there was no other sign of any wild pigs either. Maybe they were at home with the water buffalo, wherever that may be.
We walked on, the trees of Brandenburg waving at us from the other side of the river and the city boundary, where once the dividing line between here and there was marked in concrete slabs, barbed wire fence and watchtowers. Not anymore. There was nothing to stop us striking out; nothing to prevent us leaving the confines of old West Berlin to the countryside of the former GDR. Well, apart from the river and the marshes, the sucking mud and the knotted grass. Wading through a puddle that separated us from where we stood and the pub in Lübars was enough to suggest what the result of an off piste excursion might be. From a first floor winter garden, a naked mannequin holding a guitar watched as we slipped and splashed through to the other side.
In Lübars we negotiated a table with the waitress who, out here at the very limit of Berlin, seemed to be channeling the grouchy old school service Schnauze that elsewhere in the city is just a fond memory. We smiled, she scowled and outside it began to drizzle. With soggy feet we ordered our beers and tea, our hot chocolate and a slice of cherry cake.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig
Hi Paul, I just started reading your last book “Am Rand…”. I like it very much and think you owe a lot to Bruce Chatwin … Maybe you enjoy this Melville quote from Moby Dick: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” Thanks from Thomas