I am early, so I take some time on the corner with the man who is always there, looking out across the junction towards the kebab shop and the U-Bahn station; to where the crowds gather waiting to gain entrance to the club; to the Plattenbau walls and their balconies; beneath the wintergarten windows still shining with the lights of a Christmas already past. The cars move along the street that bears the name of the man for whom this memorial – surrounded by trees atop a small plaza of crooked flagstones – was built. Beneath the ground the U-Bahn trains stop at the station of the same name, a station that was closed for 28 years when the wall divided the city and divided the street a few hundred metres to the south, complete with barriers, checkpoints and border controls.
Heinrich-Heine-Straße is one of those corners of Berlin I had never had any real reason to spend time in, although my daughter’s friend lives down the street so I have emerged onto this corner a few times recently, and usually too early. When I do, I spend some time at the memorial, following the man’s gaze as he looks out across the street and the traffic. Heinrich Heine lived in the first half of the 19th century, a writer of narrative poems, plays, essays and travelogues; a man who wrote the words “where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people too” in 1821. In 1933, 102 years later, Heine’s books were among those burned on the Bebelplatz by the Nazis in Berlin, and those sadly prophetic words are now engraved at the spot.
It was on the 29th December 2011 that I launched this blog by looking back over the previous twelve months, which included trips to Spain and Anglesey, the Baltic coast and walks in and around Berlin. I am not really sure now, five years on and once more immersed in the not-unpleasant limbo of the Christmas-New Year period, what I was hoping to do with this website. Early on I searched for and encouraged others to contribute to the site, launching (and the quietly abandoning) ideas for different series of posts, before it settled down to being what it is now.
So what is it? It is a place where I can write about the things that interest me; the places I have visited, the ideas and reflections that are inspired by “adventures beyond the front door” – the original tagline for the site. It turned from a collaborative project to a personal one, for my words but also for the photography of my partner Katrin. We realised over the five years that Under a Grey Sky was becoming an inspiration to us as a family, to get us out that front door and down the river bank, up the hill or to a new neighbourhood of the city. “It’ll make a good blog,” became the rallying cry; reason enough to visit someplace new or head back for another look at a familiar haunt.
We had not been running the tours at Slow Travel Berlin very long when we got the request. A couple, new to Berlin, wanted a private tour of Wedding and Gesundbrunnen for them and their friends. “My husband is in his eighties,” the message ended. “So it might be a little slower than usual!”
We met at the ice cream cafe on Prinzenallee, on the corner of Badstraße. The couple were already there, drinking coffee and waiting for their friends to arrive. Once the group had gathered, and after another round of coffees, we began to walk. The route starts at the site of the old Luisenbad in Gesundbrunnen, and then moves through the historic neighbourhood of Wedding; along the Panke river and across Nettelbeckplatz; to Leopoldplatz and then back through the side streets to Humboldthain and the top of the flak tower.
During the first years of the German Democratic Republic, the leading members of the Socialist Unity Party took homes in Pankow, in a crescent of villas close to the Panke river and the palace at Niederschönhausen. After 1953, when Soviet tanks rolled onto the streets of East Berlin to quell an uprising of the workers, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which ended in much the same way, those head honchos, including Walter Ulbricht, Erich Mielke and Erich Honecker, decided things were not secure enough even in the leafy Berlin suburbs. Five years after Brecht had written his Buckow Elegies as a response to the events of 1953, the leadership – unable to dissolve the people / And elect another – moved north, to a fortified compound in the woods, just outside the town of Wandlitz.
They remained there until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the eleven-month transition that followed, resulting in German reunification on the 3rd October 1990. Not long after the Wall came down, at the end of November 1989, the first journalists were admitted into what had become known as Volvograd, after the Swedish cars the Politbüro members drove along their special motorway between Wandlitz and East Berlin. Although the myth and rumour of the GDR had created an impression of the leaders of the GDR living in unimaginable luxury in the Waldsiedlung (‘Forest Settlement’), the reality of life in the compound was, like so much in the GDR, a little more banal. Continue reading
I met him by the sea, at a place where the road ended with a turning circle and a neatly mown patch of grass and a sign that said NO BALL GAMES. It was to be the last of our meetings. I had everything I needed, everything I thought I was going to get, and had only come back to say goodbye.
I rang the doorbell of the holiday cottage but there had been no response. Only then, as I looked back across the grass and down towards the water, did I see him, standing on the coastal path with binoculars raised to his eyes. Beyond him the tide was low; an old ship’s boiler – the remains of a wreck – rested on the damp sands between seaweed covered rocks. Oystercatchers, gulls and cormorants. Out on the horizon a container ship. Otherwise just the expanse of water, waiting to be filled with thoughts and memories.
Photo: The Baltic Shore
Yesterday the publishers Influx Press announced the release of my book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast, which will be published in June 2017. The book is an exploration of the shoreline between the old inner-German border just north of Lübeck and the boundary with Poland on the island of Usedom. The idea behind the book was to tell the stories from the shore, from folklore, art and literature to the history of the 20th century, as well as personal memories of Katrin and her family and their time living on the Baltic coast during the GDR.
So the subject of place and the importance of memory, particularly in this country I have now called home for fifteen years, has been consuming me for the past couple of years as I have been writing the book and it was therefore with great interest that I headed to the Martin-Gropius-Bau on Friday to see the exhibition Germany: Memories of a Nation. The exhibition, which first appeared in London alongside a Radio 4 series and an excellent book by Neil MacGregor, has been subtitled in Berlin as “the British view” because of its origins. On the day we were there our fellow visitors in the gallery were overwhelmingly German. I had already read the book, so most of the objects and the reflections in the accompanying text were not new to me, but nevertheless it was a fascinating exhibition that in its essence asks of us the question: what is a nation anyway?
There is no reason for this walk except for the locations of two appointments; one in Friedrichshain, the other in Hohenschönhausen. I call them both up on Google Maps and ask for the distance between them. A half second later and I have my answer: Six kilometres and an hour and twenty minutes when travelling on foot. Half an hour on a combination of trams. Fifteen minutes in a theoretical car. Outside it is overcast and blustery, but the forecast is that it should remain dry. Walking it is.
I start out from the RAW complex beside the railway tracks, below the bridge at Warschauer Straße. At home I have a reproduction of a 1902 street map of Berlin which tells me that this used to be a railway maintenance yard, part of a network of lines and stations in this corner of the city that linked Berlin with territories far to the east. Now it is a hub of cultural venues; of bars and clubs and galleries; a poster on an outside wall promises a swimming pool. Inside the walls appear to be held up by spray paint and fly posters.