An Ode to the U-Bahn
There is a city which I have only been to three times, and it is this city which fascinates me, which seems to call me back to itself even as I write this.
Now, Berlin is a huge place and in the sum total of six weeks that I have spent in the city I cannot claim to have seem much of it at all. I can only claim to have experienced Mitte, Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg, Charlottenburg and a smidge of Friedrichshain. Any Berliner would tell you that I have only scratched the surface of a city that is both treasured, in much the same way that you treasure the bosom that nurtures you, and avoided. So, instead of attempting to masquerade as knowledgeable when I most certainly am not, and instead of attempting to broadly paint the city for you with my meagre supply of colourful experience, I will confine myself to one arterial aspect of Berlin which I find unutterably intriguing — the U-Bahn.
Marc Augé wrote an entire book on the metro system of Paris, and it is to his revelations that I turn to give substance to the fanciful threads of my remembered experiences. Memory is simply memory — it cannot prance around as the reality of the moment, but neither does it have to. Its power lies in the fact that it is memory. It is reality through the golden, or perhaps rotting, depending on the situation, lens of time and experience. Memory is tinged in a colour, and my memory of the U-Bahn is orange.
Augé asserts that, “To every station are tied knots of memories that cannot be untangled”. These knots of memories are congealed in my mind, not simply defined by particular stations, but by the peculiarity of being able to move freely, of being able to be transported from one part of the city to another. It was a privilege I hadn’t experienced before. My memories are moving, they flash before me like the dark tunnel walls behind the wallpaper of Brandenburg Gate covering the windows. Some stations stand out like beacons in a dark night, like that one familiar face in a sea of strangers. Others are blurred, strung together not as individuals but as a general impression.
I have never been a local in a city. And yet I am a city girl. The cities that I have encountered, namely Johannesburg and Cape Town, have been on the periphery of my suburban life. We speak of “going into the city” and “going to town”. The reasons for this removal from the city centre, despite technically belonging to this very city, are rooted in the history of South Africa. If I so desired, I could even now detour into a long, nuanced description of the city as I encountered it. But that is not the focus of this discussion.
In Berlin, I experienced what it might be like to be a local. I lived there for a month, in a flat shared with other international students in Kreuzberg. If I wanted to go anywhere, I would either have to walk to the bus stop at the end of the road, make my way to Kottbusser Tor or walk down Heinrich-Heine-Straße to the U-Bahn station of the same name. Heinrich-Heine-Straße is a long road, a relic of the days when it was thought that endless roads with expressionless blocks of flats was a good idea. I have a yellow Reclam book of Heinrich Heine poetry sitting on the shelf above me as I write this. It is worn and paged-through, but not by me. It’s browned pages and handwritten note in German on the first page reveal that it was treasured by someone who loved poetry, someone for whom Heine was a Held of sorts. For me, Heine is one of Augé's “names sanctified by the subway”, a man who lives on in my memory in the form of concrete stairs, slightly pink tiles and the repeated mantra of “Zug nach Wittenau”.
I visited Berlin in summer once. I had taken a bus from another part of Germany and, as we neared the city, I had the distinct impression of returning to a beloved, familiar space. It helped that I was met at the bus stop by my mother’s friend, a sunny South African woman with a big heart and a penchant for storytelling. I was in Berlin for a mere two days and, during that time, I marvelled at the transformed city. The black coats, grey sidewalks and frosty air that I associated with Berlin merged with new sensations, with picnicking alongside a See, marvelling at baby swans and the taste of ice cream. And, this time, I cycled. My legs were jellified and I could barely make it up the five flights of stairs that lead to my host’s apartment in Charlottenburg. Out of this wonderful experience there is a moment that lingers in my mind, a memory of a brief thought. Once, when passing the stairs that lead to the U-Bahn station below, I caught a whiff of that very particular scent — the smell of people, of underground, of public transportation. It was delightfully familiar. Looking back, I have the lingering regret that I had not eschewed the bicycle and taken the U-Bahn instead.
I supposed what attracts me to the U-Bahn is the vitality of it, the awareness that you are surrounded by life. I was a sojourner in the city, a sojourner along the routes of the U-Bahn, there one month and gone the next. I was a fleeting presence. But those I brushed past, those I jostled against, those who sat across from me and continued to read their novels — they were fixtures, individuals who lived their lives between U-Bahn stops and who, like Augé, have the privilege of “the subway map as a reminder, a memory machine, or a pocket mirror on which sometimes are reflected — and lost in a flash — the skylarks of the past”. I like to believe that I, too, resembled a fixture; that my winter coat and small black backpack, my distracted, citified look, lent me some credence, allowed me to somehow, and even just for a second, be a Berliner myself. It’s highly likely, though, that in much the same way that the teller raised an eyebrow at my attempt to pass off as a German customer, my fellow U-Bahn travellers could tell that I was only there for the briefest of moments.
I long to go back. The Gautrain ride from O. R. Tambo to Rosebank just doesn’t quite do it for me anymore. It’s almost as if my soul yearns for dingy stairwells, graffiti and the faint smell of urine, and the soundtrack of mechanic German and whooshing trains echoing down the tunnels. I think the U-Bahn has captured my imagination.