Category Archives: Reflections

Sechs Kilometer (Ost) Berlin: Walking from Warschauer Straße


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.

Continue reading

Notes from the end of summer


On the last day of the summer holidays the sky – which has been clear and blue all week in the Uckermark – is overcast. Down by the shore of the Kölpinsee the mood is melancholy. Starlings flock around an old cherry bush. In the fields cranes stand in groups, preparing for a long journey. We are heading south too, to Berlin, but it won’t take long and we are stretching out the last day of summer, pausing here and there to see what we can see.

At the small beach a man stands by the firepit with a couple of plastic bags, eyeing us suspiciously. He is the only person we have seen out on this Sunday morning, aside for a couple of car drivers. We walk down to the jetty to look out past the reeds and across the choppy waters of the lake. I can feel him watching us, his eyes moving from us to our car and its strange numberplate. We are a long way from Nordrhein-Westfalen, it is true. But none of us are from there and the car does not give us away, indeed it only complicates matters in the small villages of northeastern Brandenburg.

Continue reading

Democracy without populism: Reading Joseph Roth

There are certain memories, and certain moments, that linger longer than others. I can remember clearly the first evening, some time around 2007, that I went to the Joseph Roth Diele for the first time. I was there to meet Nicky and Susanne, editors of the wonderful hidden europe magazine who would soon become my close friends. They had chosen the venue for our meeting, and for three people for whom wandering through and writing about central Europe is something of a calling, it was the perfect location.

The Joseph Roth Diele is a cafe bar on Potsdamer Straße, in Berlin Tiergarten, a short walk from Potsdamer Platz and close to where the Tagesspiegel newspaper used to have its offices. It is next door to the house where Roth – a newspaper man himself – lived when he was a working journalist knocking out page after page of incomparable prose in articles that should have been destined for the chip wrapper but which are still being read almost a hundred years after they were written.

Inside the Joseph Roth Diele there is a lot of wood; wood panelling and wooden tables, covered by red and white check table cloths. The floor is covered by black and white tiling, the walls with black and white photographs… when they are not lined with books. Those books are, of course, the ones written by the man whose name is above the awning and who used to live next door. Continue reading

Feels like coming home? (Rotterdam to Hull)


The journey began before we even caught a glimpse of a boat, a ship or a patch of water, let alone the open sea. The motorway, having swept across flat fields, canal-flanked and criss-crossed, now swung around Rotterdam and – beyond the pylons and the billboards, the railway wires and a raised bike path that might be a dyke – the first cranes of the Port of Rotterdam appeared against the skyline. It is the largest port in Europe, a fact that I knew and yet was unprepared for as we seemed to drive for ever past a procession of container yards, refineries, warehouses, yet more cranes and – finally – the first glimpse of ships flying flags from all around the world.

At the terminal for the ferry to Hull we stood in line as the ship loomed over us, above the waiting room for foot passengers (there were not many) and the wire fences that kept us all in place while advertising the sun-faded glories of the East Riding of Yorkshire to the travellers about to head across the North Sea. A family kicked a football across an empty patch of concrete. Motorbike riders compared horsepower and routes. Cyclists compared panniers and aching legs. We walked down the line and counted the numberplates.

GB. D. F. B. DK. NL. White letters on a blue background, surrounded by stars.

Continue reading

In and out of Europe

Bonn, Juli 1991 Europa-Flagge Die zwölf gelben Sterne auf blauem Grund stehen sinnbildlich für die Mitgliedstaaten der europäischen Gemeinschaft (EG).  Der EG gehören an: Belgien, Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Dänemark, Griechenland, Großbritannien, Frankreich, Italien, Irland, Luxemburg, die Niederlande, Portugal und Spanien.

“What happens now?”

It is a question I have heard a lot in the past couple of days, ever since the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe woke to the news that the seemingly impossible had happened and the voters had – just – decided for LEAVE, for Brexit and for the end of a 43-year relationship with the rest of Europe. The question means different things, depending on who is asking it. What happens now for the UK, in England and Wales, in Scotland and Northern Ireland? What happens now in Germany, or France, or the Netherlands, where the far-right and Eurosceptic politicians spent Friday celebrating as the rest of the continent looked on in horror and disbelief. And what happens now to me, still an EU-citizen living in Berlin thanks to my British passport, and to my daughter and others of her generation for whom the world, all of a sudden, seems a little smaller?

“Are you going to get German citizenship?”

This is another question I have heard over the past couple of days, to which the only answer possible when no one seems to have any clue what is going on or what is going to happen next is: Maybe. And maybe, having lived in Germany for fifteen years, I should have got my German citizenship already. After all, having committed to living in this country, I should have made the next logical step. But until now it was not, for me at least, a logical step. I did not want to get German citizenship because I did not – I do not – feel German. My own sense of identity is as mixed up as many peoples, I imagine. Part northern English. Part British. And yes, part European. And it was always that third part, the European part, which allowed me to feel there was no contradiction in living in one part of this Union of ours while maintaining citizenship in another.

Continue reading

Just like going home – Rhoscolyn, Wales


Long time readers of Under a Grey Sky will have seen pieces about Rhoscolyn before, and here comes another one, but I make no apology. As someone who left the UK at the age of 22 and has lived in Berlin for almost 15 years, and whose parents no longer live in the town that I grew up in, the idea of “home” has always been an interesting one to me. And if there is one constant in my conscious memory, the one place that has changed through the years but – really, when it comes to my emotions about the place – always stayed the same, then that is Rhoscolyn, and specifically Outdoor Alternative, home to my Uncle and Aunty, cousins and whatever it is kids of cousins are to me or to Lotte (we have this discussion on every visit).

Over Easter we returned again, to that field with the views across from Holy Island to Anglesey and beyond, to Snowdonia. When the weather is good it feels as if you can make out the climbers reaching the top of those peaks. When the weather closes in you can feel as if this collection of buildings along a dusty track is the very end of the world. This time, on arrival, we did as we always do and walked the headland around to the beach, following at the same time the waymarked trail of the Anglesey Coastal Path but also the personal topography of memory and my fellow members of the Red Devils, who explored every patch of heather and gorse, sandy cove and rocky inlet, and gave them names and stories and drew maps that made the place truly ours… and now, as we walked that headland again, I could still picture those maps in my head as I told some of those stories to Lotte.

Continue reading

27 Years


On the 15th April 1989 I was nine, and I can remember playing a game with my younger brother Sean. We were in the bedroom of our house in Burscough, messing around on the bunk beds. At some point we wandered downstairs, to get a drink or a ‘Toronto Snack’ – a fruit salad like the ones I used to get at nursery in Canada when Dad was teaching there for a year and Sean was just a baby. In my memory we came into the living room to find him watching the television.

“Something’s happened at the match,” is what I remember him saying. I remember the green of the pitch and the blue of the sky and the people milling around on the grass. People running as they carried others on makeshift stretchers. A line of police. As the afternoon progressed we learned of the deaths. 10, 20, 30… until it got to 95. Mum and Dad never hid the truth of the world from us, and so we knew what had happened but of course, at nine years old, I don’t know if I could really comprehend it. That night and over the next days Dad met many of the survivors as they returned from Sheffield. He knew, we knew, the truth from the beginning, whatever that newspaper wrote. A week after the disaster we went with Mum and Dad to Anfield, to pay our respects and to leave scarves on the pitch in front of the Kop. At 3.06pm we were in Stanley Park and held the line of scarves that linked Liverpool and Everton. It was the start of a bond between the two clubs, between the two sets of fans – between the people of Liverpool – that remains to this day.

# Continue reading