Category Archives: Memory

Baltic: Capturing the stories of the shore

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We have travelled north again, following those well-travelled routes through the pine trees and past the lakes that have taken us back and forth to the Baltic shore over the past couple of years. Our destination is Koserow on Usedom and this time we are travelling with friends, here for a week to make a short film that will be a companion piece for my upcoming book about this coastline and the stories it can tell. It is fitting that we have come to Koserow, because it was here that the idea for the Ghosts on the Shore came to me. It was during the easter holidays and I had two books with me. One was Europe by Jan Morris. The other was Marshland by Gareth E. Rees.

Sitting in an old GDR-era dacha at the foot of the Streckelsberg with its ivy-clad beech trees and legends of witches and gluttonous cities lost to the waves, I sat one night with some beer and whiskey and wrote down an idea for an essay or maybe something longer that would tell some of the stories of the German Baltic between the old inner-German border to the west and the line in the sand that divides Germany and Poland to the east. Marshland inspired me because it suggested to me that there are many ways to tell the stories of place. Jan Morris provided me with a quote:

The Baltic she wrote, is the most ominous and eerie of Europe’s waters.

Why is that? I scribbled it down on my notebook. To answer that question became the starting point for my own explorations. The next day I talked to Katrin about the idea, about her own family history that would become a central part of what I wanted to write.

That was nearly three years ago and now the book is finished, to be published by Influx Press – just like Marshland – in June. Over this week we have returned to some of the places I travelled to for the book, to create this visual companion. We have talked a lot about the stories of this shore, of previous visits, of memory and legends. We have been to the beach and the town, the frozen inland sea and to the top of the Streckelsberg. And once again I have been captured by the melancholy beauty of this part of the world. It is amazing what can happen, given four days in a cabin by the woods, a couple of good books, and the time and space for a few drinks and a lot of conversation.

Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along the German Baltic coast will be published by Influx Press in June, and you can already order your copy via their website now.

Postcards from the Edge, Part Three: Parkfriedhof Marzahn

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Over the next few months I will be walking around the outskirts of Berlin, starting each walk where I finished the last, until I complete a loop of the edge of the city. These walks will be written up for a new book project, and here on Under a Grey Sky I will publish some postcards from along the way…

Across the street from the Eastgate shopping centre, on the other side of the S-Bahn tracks, is a cemetery. This has been a place of burial for decades; a pauper’s graveyard long before the S-Bahn came, the high-rise apartment blocks and the shopping mall. The memories contained in these spaces between the trees, tell the stories of this corner of the Berlin outskirts. Of villagers from when this was the countryside beyond the city limits. Of more recent residents of the huge housing estates built during the GDR. Of the victims of war and the Nazi regime.

Just north of cemetery is the spot where the Nazis interned hundreds of Sinti and Roma, brought here during the 1936 Olympics. From Marzahn they would be later shipped east, to the concentration camps and the extermination camps. A memorial stands in the cemetery and another outside the gates, telling their story. There are other memorials too, to the forced labourers of nearby factories and to Red Army soldiers who died during the battle for Berlin. To the victims of fascism and the victims of Stalinism. And on the grass, between the trees, row after row of small headstones. I kneel down to brush the snow from the stone closest to the path.

UNERKANNTER
SOLDAT
1945
1939-45

It is the resting place of an unknown soldier. Of tens of unknown soldiers. All that can be remembered is the year they died and the conflict that killed them. But in their numbers, these comrades have a power that is perhaps even heightened by their anonymity. It makes me think of the words of the old East German anthem, written on the walls of another graveyard, a few hundred kilometres north of here:

Dass nie eine Mutter mehr / Ihren Sohn beweint

That never again, a mother mourns her son. That is the message the unknown soldiers have for me, on this cold and bitter February morning.

On Heinrich-Heine-Straße, Berlin

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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.

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Five years under grey skies

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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.

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A Berlin Story

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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.

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The forest compound and the lake, Wandlitz

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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

These fractured lands

fracturedlandsA story:

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.

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Germany: Memories of a Nation

memories-of-a-nationPhoto: 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?

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Sechs Kilometer (Ost) Berlin: Walking from Warschauer Straße

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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.

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The tram to Hohenschönhausen, Berlin

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On the corner of Prinzenallee and Osloer Straße I wait for the tram, standing on the platform of the stop between the currywurst Imbiss where they grade their sauces by how red it will make your face and the old pub on the corner that was a den for serious drinkers when we first moved to this neighbourhood five years ago but which now sings over its polished wooden tables as the canary in the coalmine of gentrification. Except, as I wait for the tram and look down Prinzenallee, past the pub towards the Spielothek and its slot machines, towards the Späti with used mobile phones in the window and the line of kebab shops, halal butchers and shops advertising cheap calls home to wherever home may be in this neighbourhood with the highest number of foreign-born residents in the city, I can’t imagine that you could gentrify Gesundbrunnen. It was once a spa town, north of the city. Then came the railways and industry and then the bombs of the Americans and the British and as the Berlin Wall cut it off from its southern and eastern neighbours the industry had long fled, never to return. The printworks is a cultural space. The factory on Osloer Straße is a children’s museum. The bus depot is a dance studio. The queues at the unemployment office are long.

Here comes the tram. It is an imposter, one of the few lines in this city that breaches the old East-West border. Look at a tram map of the city and it is like the Berlin Wall never came down. But it did, the first hole opening at Bornholmer Straße in November 1989, across the bridge that the tram I am waiting for will soon take me as I travel from Gesundbrunnen into Prenzlauer Berg. The bridge rises up, over the top of the railway lines and past the allotment gardens and the Lidl supermarket where the checkpoint once stood. Into the east, towards my destination. Continue reading