Postcards from the Edge, Part Five: The Barbed Wire Fence

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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…

I spent the night in a retail park by the motorway, sleeping in a budget hotel beyond the edge of the city in a room that reminded me, more than anything, of the inner cabin of a Baltic ferry, complete with factory-formed, hose-down plastic bathroom (with no toilet seat). At 5.30am the hotel was alive with travellers, pulling themselves bleary-eyed from their wall-fixed beds to catch the early Ryanair or Easyjet flight to somewhere else. Altogether, I didn’t sleep well. And now I am facing down a barbed wire fence and I cannot work out where to go.

My aim, my plan – which involved that overnight stay in a retail park by the motorway – is to explore the surroundings of the new Berlin-Brandenburg airport. I want to see if this mythical structure actually exists. If there is any chance that one day those early-risers in my hotel will get the chance to pass through its terminal halls. But I can’t get close. A bike path, tarmac and with neat granite waymarker stones laid by the local council, promises me a route via the new airport to the old at Schönefeld, but at some point it runs out. I am left on a narrowing patch of wasteland, between the motorway and the barbed wire fence of the airport. It is foggy. Can I see the terminal buildings in the distance? I don’t think so.

The paved bike path has become a dirt track and now even that has petered out. A police van makes a slow pass on the service road, turns, and then comes by again. I try to look like a lost edgeland explorer rather than someone with more nefarious intentions. It must work, as they don’t stop. But the message is clear: here, but no further. I start to retrace my steps. I am going to have to take the long way round.

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 Four: The Müggelberge

walk4blogOver 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…

The last time I walked these woods it was with friends and family, stretched out along the path as we crossed the small range of hills in the south-east of Berlin that separate the Müggelsee from the Langer See, the Dahme from the Spree.  Today, having not met a soul on that same path, I feel alone in the woods, although someone, somewhere, is using a chainsaw. I am aiming for the top of the hills, where a tower was built in the 1960s to replace one that burned down in the 1950s, although it will be closed when I get there, its panoramic views of Berlin and Brandenburg protected from me by a high metal fence and a padlock.

But in the German forest, even a small one like this, you are never really alone. As I push on up the hill, avoiding the path that is treacherous with ice, I am walking with the characters that live here in the Müggelberge – on the hilltops, the tiny valleys or in the depths of the Devil’s Lake. Fontane told me these stories; tales of the Wassermann and the ghosts that appear when nocturnal wanderers pass a certain stone by the path. There is also a Princess, whose palace was once swallowed by the marshland on the edge of the lake, who can take you and show you, or demand to be carried to the church in Köpenick, a few kilometres back down the track…

Fontane seems to like these stories, like he likes the Müggelberge themselves. More than any other collection of hills that rise modestly from the sandy soil of the Brandenburg plain, he thinks that these are the most like mountains in miniature, with their summits and their gulleys, their “high” passes and icy lakes. The Müggelberge are an artists’ impression sketched on a pad. An architect’s model, laid out a table. They are an experiment by nature, a first attempt, perhaps, before more ambitious projects down in the south.

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.

Postcards from the Edge, Part Two: Blankenfelde

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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…

For what feels like hours I have been walking alone. Blankenfelde is Berlin’s most sparsely populated locality, once dominated by a wide expanse of sewage fields which are now farmed beneath big skies, all combining to make the solitary walker following the path between the monochrome fields and the iced-up drainage ditches feel small and insignificant. On the horizon, faded in the mist, a collection of tall structures that all help us keep warm and connected in this second decade of the 21st century: windfarms and electricity pylons, telephone wires and mobile phone masts. Some bare trees in the distance. A moody-looking church steeple. Otherwise, not much at all.

This is probably going to be the longest of my walks around the edge of Berlin, and probably the loneliest. There is little sound out here in the fields. The odd bird. The distant rubble of the cross-continental trucks on the motorway. A plane high and invisible above me. And then, all of a sudden, I get the sense that I am being watched. Observed. I turn and look behind me, across a rutted and snow-mottled field. Three deer have stopped in the open and are looking at me. They are standing about a hundred metres away, and the four of us stand frozen, staring at each other for a moment or two. Then I lift my camera from the bag and that is enough. They turn tail and run for cover, aiming for a small copse not far from where they had been standing. I watch the go through the lens, trying to capture their escape. Once they are out of sight I continue my walk, but this brief encounter is a reminder that when walking the outskirts I am never truly alone, not even in the emptiest corner of Berlin.

Postcards from the Edge, Part One: Tegeler Fließ

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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…

At the Heimatmuseum they tell me that the first human settlements in Berlin were here, eleven thousand years ago. Reindeer hunters who caught the migrating animals as they crossed the river on their back and forth journeys each year, before the planet warmed and they headed north, to the Arctic, for good. I stand on the path and look out across the reed beds, the alder marshes and the stream itself, winding this way and that. On this side of the path it is easier to imagine the reindeer hunters. On the other, a row of suburban gardens and their collection of trampolines, compost bins and patio furniture. Looking this way, the leap of imagination is further.

This contrast between the two sides of the footpath continues as I walk on, following the waymarked Barnimer Dörferweg across the northern edge of Berlin. Gaps in high fences offer a glimpse at neat lawns and greenhouses in one direction. Signs warning me to keep to the path because these wet meadows are the nesting ground for rare birds in the other. So I stick to the prescribed route, here at least, and the sound of my feet crunching on the grit and the ice, and the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker hitting a tree. At least, I think it is a woodpecker. It might also be the sound of an early riser, lifting the shutters of their bedroom window, to let in the half-light of this January morning on the outskirts.

Words & Picture: Paul Scraton

Zabriskie and a year in five books

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One of my favourite discoveries of 2016 was Zabriskie, a bookshop focused on ‘culture and nature’ writing and a place where I am always certain to find something new and tempting and I know I am about to emerge back onto the streets of Kreuzberg a few euros poorer but as always with books, infinitely richer. They have been strong supporters of Elsewhere – we wrote about Zabriskie on our blog – and in November they hosted an evening of stories from the journal, and I read alongside my colleagues Saskia Vogel and Nicky Gardner.

This week Zabriskie sent out their newsletter, featuring the book selections of a number of writers who appeared at events in the bookshop over the past twelve months. I was delighted to be included, and also thought it would be nice to share my choices here. The books did not need to be published in 2016 but read in that year… an approach that more ‘best of…’ lists would be well-advised to take. When combined with the rest of the choices on the newsletter, I think there is at least a year’s worth of inspiration for further reading, so go check it out hereContinue reading