A Berlin Triptych
The heightened fever around Brexit soon dissipated into a state of loss. In an attempt to banish some of that hollowed out state I decided to call upon some European friends. The result was a trip to Berlin in October 2016. In the intervening three months all manner of opinion, comment and debate could be felt reverberating around the country. Hard, impassioned, soft, disdainful, ecstatic, fearful. Never before had the future state of the nation felt so wrapped up in the politics of the right here and right now. Post-fact. Post-truth. Post-hope?
I first happened across Berlin in the late summer of 2006. It was a geographical accident more than any strong desire to visit. I’d loosely organized, not unlike many university students with a long summer holiday to fill, a month long European inter-railing trip with three friends. We started in Amsterdam and embarked upon a clockwise loop: Berlin was the second stop. Pre-trip research had been light in detail, and between the four of us we had one Lonely Planet ‘Europe on a Shoestring’. I’d studied 1930’s Nazi Germany and post-war Soviet Russia as part of my history GCSE, but the intervening years of A-level science had done a good job of relegating all but the barest of facts to the recesses of my memory. They went something along the lines of: Berlin had been a tolerant, largely free place in the 1920s, the rise of Nazism put a stop to that, the war devastated and subsequently divided it, with reunification only possible with the collapse of the wall and the soviet union in 1989.
In one of those spontaneous decisions that seem to happen with greater frequency when abroad, we chose to take a late afternoon bike tour. This awakened me to the joys of travel by bicycle, planting a seed that eight years later would grow into a three month, 4500km cycling journey through Europe (including a long stretch in Western Germany up the Rhine from Strasbourg to Cologne). For me, cycling is not just a method of geting from A to B, it’s a way of truly seeing a place. Being alive to the specific layout of the metropolis, its labyrinthine back streets, varied architecture, direction of wind travel. Lead by an enthusiastic guide we took in the city in all its contradictory glory. Rebuilt, repentant, reborn, resplendent. I drank up the pulsing richness of it all: the Brandenberg gate, Norman Foster domed Reichstag, bullet-damaged structures, old section of wall, hipster Prenzlauer berg. I was thirsty for more. As we sat on the steps of the neoclassical Altes museum to conclude our history lesson- to be told of how the tumultuous events of 1989 lead to the collapse of the Berlin wall 17 years previously (two years before my birth)- the distinction between history and current affairs blurred into a hazy mirage. At 19, it can’t have been the first time I realized that awful things don’t just happen in the past.
I returned to Berlin in June 2011. I was in that weightless, hallucinatory, shape-shifting period between finishing my degree and starting work. Medical school had been a six year marathon and I wanted to make the most of the time free from responsibility. Time that is so easy to take for granted when you have it and then desperately yearn for when you don’t. I would go and stay with my German friend Petra. You can visit a place, even stay there for a few days or weeks, but it’s very hard to feel like you are part of its fabric, to lose the sense of transience. But if you can see it through the eyes of someone who knows that place, who has lived and breathed it all their life, the rewards can be rich. Petra was a fellow medical student who I had met at my university’s triathlon club. She had come to the UK from Greifswald medical school as part of her final year programme. She is an avid runner and cyclist. She always seems to be entered into one race or another, and has a strict training schedule that does not take kindly to interruptions from an opportunistic visitor from England. On a Saturday afternoon we took a run to what may or may not have been Hans-Baluschek park. As we made it to the top of a small hill, a panoramic view of the Berlin skyline to the north opened up. There in the distance was the Fernsehturm tower at Alexanderplatz. Like the Shard in London, or Manchester’s Beetham Tower, it’s a familiar structure that locates you within the city.
The Carnival of Cultures is a festival that takes place in Berlin every June: a celebration of its cultural diversity. There is a four day party, the centerpiece of which is a street parade in Kreuzberg, complete with music, dance and elaborate costumes. We joined it on a Sunday afternoon amidst blazing sunshine. Somewhere around Hermannplatz we met the parade snaking its way along a wide boulevard. Off the back of one of the floats techno music was being pumped out of some oversized speakers. A gaggle of revelers was dancing along with the float, beers in hand. Taken up in this way, like flotsam in a wave, we traversed our way with the crowd to nowhere in particular. When the music changed, or we wanted a break, we stepped back into the crowd lining the street, joining another float when it took our fancy. I’m not sure if it was the heat, the good-looking youthful crowd, the great music, celebratory atmosphere or hard to pin down sense of belonging, but there was something about that afternoon which left a lasting impression. I’ve been trying to capture the feeling at various festivals back home since, so far without success.
Berlin in early October 2016 is cold and grey with the looming threat of rain. The eastern soviet era concrete monoliths lining Karl-Marx-Allee are imposing, the grey stone blending into the grey sky. It’s a long way from care-free dancing in the street. Germany still, for now, has Angela Merkel as Chancellor, the UK has inherited a new Prime Minister in Teresa May. The political events of the summer were so fast moving and dramatic that even the news couldn’t keep up. We have a triumvirate of previous down-and-outers in Johnson, Davis and Fox, who can’t believe their good fortune. They’re hovering on a precipice, making it up as they go along, one small step from destroying the entire construct. £350 million a week for the NHS? Oh we never actually said that. The pound is crashing? Oh but the economy is still growing. The belligerent chorus continues. Stop your naysaying. Stop complaining. Stop trashing democracy. Brexit means Brexit.
Besides the changing politics, our lives are marching on too. I’m now approaching 30, my Berlin visits splicing my 20s into equal chunks. Petra is working in sports medicine at the university in Potsdam. I recently started my registrar training in renal medicine. She has her own flat in Friedrichshain. She is still obsessed with triathlon training and has run three marathons already this year and is planning a fourth.
On Petra’s recommendation I took a train out to Potsdam one of the days she was working. Her university is on the edge of a large park which happens to contain two remarkable buildings- the Neues Palais and Schloss Sansoucci. These were built in the 18th century under the Prussian rule of King Frederick II. I walked through the park to reach Sansoucci. This was built as the King’s ‘summer residence’ although he actually spent most of his time here. Perched on a hill, rolling down from it towards Potsdam is a terraced vineyard. The palace is in thrall to hedonism and you can almost get drunk on the wine just looking at it. Being the dutiful tourist that I was I decided to take an audioguided tour inside. Within are stunning examples of rococo architecture and interior design. King Frederick was a lover of the arts, music and literature (in stark contrast to his father), and had a library in each of his residences. Not known to me before my visit, historians have concluded that he was gay. He had a male lover as a young man who his father had castrated, and although officially married, he never had children. He has a reputation in Germany for being a warrior leader, and was hailed by the Nazis as an example of great German strength and leadership. I guess they chose to ignore his sexuality. All minorities have to discover their own history. It felt serendipitous to stumble across some of mine on a spontaneous visit to a Prussian palace.
I wanted an authentic Berlin clubbing experience. I’d read all about the infamous Berghain, the place that opens on Friday and doesn’t close until Monday, has a door policy that nobody can make sense of, and entrance queues that stretch into the distance. Berghain is for tourists, Petra said. The fact that I was a tourist didn’t seem to have any bearing on her decision. Instead, we arrived at Schwuz just before midnight and walked straight in, the bouncers barely acknowledging out arrival. It is situated on the edge of Neukölln, Berlin’s latest up and coming neighbourhood. In an old industrial warehouse, it had the vibe- on a smaller scale- of London’s Heaven or Manchester’s Warehouse Project. It was populated with mostly 20-something year old gay men, although as their flyer was keen to point out, this was an inclusive kind of place and bigotry of any kind should be left at the door, preferably half way down the street. Inside it was low ceilinged, smoky and intimate. We made our way to one of three main dance floors. Berlin techno was ricocheting of the walls, people in drag were feeling out their space, a barman wearing gold hot pants and not much else was collecting empties. The dance floor was yet to fill up so we had space to let go. The music was pulsating and glorious. Taking a breather outside, the queue to get in now traipsed down the road. They don’t start their night early in Berlin. Back inside, the second room was more commercial. It reminded me of the gay clubs I was used to: perfectly serviceable music to dance to, but like an over-zealous chocolate purchase, left a sickly taste if too much was consumed at once. The techno room was now full and on the dance floor there was a heaving throng lost in the music. I recently read an article in which Michael Chabon talked about his son’s interest in fashion and how he had adjusted to it, concluding that his son had ‘found his people’, whatsmore, earlier than most. Right there, in that moment in a disused warehouse in Berlin, I could make a similar claim. Petra had since gone home, and despite being sat alone on the S-bahn making my own way back sometime after 4am, I felt a sense of belonging that I hadn’t for some time. In an age of dating apps and online hookups, in which straight people ask why gay people need specific places to hang out, the argument for the need for collective gay spaces should be even more urgently articulated.
October 2016 was my first time on the continent post referendum. Of course, we’ve not actually left yet, article 50 still to be triggered. I still had my EU passport and still took advantage of borderless passport control. Goddamit I still feel European, that can’t be taken away. Maybe a bit less British, but no less European. I’m going to be coming here for as long as they’ll have me, visiting friends, making friends, generating memories, forging links, looking outward, welcoming difference and feeling more human for it.
The thing about great cities is that they can embody different versions of themselves for different people. My Berlin will always be the open, tolerant, creative, forward thinking, beautiful, inclusive place that I have experienced. As I sat in the departure lounge of Schoënefeld airport reflecting on my three visits to Berlin and the state of UK and world politics, I couldn’t help but think about how we got here and what my generation’s response should be? Are we post-hope? Rebecca Solnit, the wonderful American non-fiction essayist, writing in 2004 (at the end of the Bush administration) argues that hope is an essential ingredient driving human progress. “To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable”. If Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe does indeed bend towards justice then there is still much to be done.