I took Matt to Berlin for his birthday. I could write so much more about this, given time, but for now just a memory-jogging sketch.
We got on the Eurostart at 18:30 at St Pancras. St Pancras is really chic and well-heeled. We got off at Brussels Midi at 19:30, ate Vietnamese with too much coconut milk, waddled back to Brussels Midi and boarded our DB sleeper at something like 23:43. I splashed out on a 2-bed cabin. Matt let me have the bottom bunk so I could look out of the window. When I was young I used to dream of being in the circus, or a gipsy, or a 19th century American pioneer – something involving horse-drawn caravans. It’s magic to lie on your stomach under a duvet in a dark cabin on a DB train in the small hours watching the full moon on the dark land and the houses. About 90 minutes outside Brussels there are round steep wooded hills and rushing rivers. Under a silvery moon I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so beautiful. I don’t remember what time I got to sleep. Our breakfast box contained some alarming stuff.
We arrived at Hauptbahnhof Station at 08:10 and made our way on foot (we did everything on foot for the entire weekend) to the hotel, the Arte Luise, where every room is an art installation. Here’s the foyer, with Matt underneath:
Our room had two windows looking directly onto an elevated 4-lane railway track the nearest of which was about 2 meters from the building. I liked this very much – the sound proofing was good. We were literally eye-to-eye with blurred commuters to and from Friedrichstrasse Station and it took quite a few passing trains to get bored of lifting my t-shirt.
Arriving at 8 that first day meant that we went to the dome of the Bundestag, the Pergamon, the Museum of Islamic Art, and the Museum of the GDR before about 6pm. We got a 3-day museum pass, which I recommend. We didn’t get into the Berliner Dom but I looked at it from different angles all weekend – it’s a beautiful thing.
That evening I ate the most disappointing lentil dal of my life.
The second day we were warned off breakfast in our hotel and forced out to eat mueli, fruit and soya milk in a small, pleasant cafe. Then we walked in the Tier Garden, shopped for pants for Matt (he always leaves something behind, this time it was his pants and for some reason it was really difficult to find pants in Berlin so this took a while) and went to the Bauhaus Archive which was mind-blowing. I finally understand what they were trying to do. I’m a big fan of audio tours in these places – it makes perfect sense to avoid competing visual tracks by substituting audio descriptions for captions. And it meant that I could sit on the balcony and get something out of the stuff I could see at a distance in a closed-off section.
That evening we ate vietnamese, which was fine.
The next day we had a hard time finding breakfast and ended up in an unlikely place called something inappropriate like Neptune’s near to the TV Tower. It was in a time warp, sleepy sunny and speckled with solitary pensioners. It was also very clean and relaxing. Matt had a strange breakfast, pictured, and I had a pretzel and seed bread shaped like a heart. I couldn’t get any margarine so decided to have butter instead, and it was really rather tasty. I can’t recommend this place enough – or I wouldn’t be able to if I could only remember its name.
The TV Tower was brilliant. I took a million shots of Karl Marx Allee and Alexanderplatz because we weren’t going to get there. They’re restoring the concrete tower blocks and they’re truly beautiful.
Then we went to the Markische Museum, created in the very early 20th Century to preserve a disappearing Berlin which was being swept aside by expansion. We rattled round this one – hardly a soul there. Counterposed to this nostalgia was the Jewish Museum, which I thought was excellent. There was a really good exhibition called Typische! on stereotyping of different social – particularly ethnic – groups. It included the masterstroke of a coca-cola bottle. Indeed, how are human beings distinct from their packaging? Then, being short for time, we concentrated on the Moses Mendelsohn, Enlightenment, and Jewish and German at the Same Time sections. In wandering between them there was also some excellent stuff on perceptions of and responses to so-called jewification – urbanism, financial complexity, commerce. Very resonant today. There was a wall upon which was a timeline of antisemitism. In 18-something, 265,000 people signed a petition to rescind Jewish emancipation. In 19-something a German student body proclaimed that the social isolation of Jewish students was complete. There followed the section on Zionism.
On the way back down Kreuzberg Strasse and beyond the buildings were breathtaking. All those people. About ten years ago I lived in an ex-council flat on Hackney Rd – from my kitchen window was a vista of tower blocks and nothing else. I was young, they were post-war, built on the homes of blitzed and displaced cockneys, they killed the street life and they never moved me like the Berlin buildings, built with love by an optimistic socialist state under the influence of Bauhaus and then re-clad by Schröder and Merkel.
We ate at an Italian place and ran for our train. Lovely night on my stomach looking out the window with a Ritter Sport Marzipan. Something went wrong, we broke down in Aachen and were two hours late into Brussels – which was a mercy as it turned out.
The woman at Brussels Tourist Information was brusque – told us that everything was closed on a Monday, omitting the churches and the EU visitors’ centre, even though I told her that that was precisely where we wanted to go. Brussels was down on its uppers, and depressing (especially if you didn’t sleep well because somebody in the next cabin on your train was snoring like a walrus). Its best buildings are dirty and broken and its fountains, crazy. There was sludge between the cobbles and an abiding smell of urine. Poor faded Brussels, but like a raddled old good-time girl she still has some flashes of beauty.
The EU precinct was eerily quiet and there seemed not to have a centre that wasn’t a mess of chocolate and beer shops. It was an abrupt change from hygienic Berlin. From the station we walked through an area – Turkish? – where there were lots of people and no women except me. Invisible women make me uncomfortable, whether in Brussels or Haringey Green Lanes. We did visit three churches and the Cathedral, which were beautiful. The dogs were so cute – many dachsund types. And I spoke a lot of bad French to wincing shop assistants, bar tenders and waiting staff.
We drank some Trappist beer that was strong as hell and then wove our way in hot sun to get on the Eurostar at the drab terminus at Brussels Midi. Only then did I allow myself to acknowledge that there is something about tourism that’s wasted on me – as Woody Allen says “I’m astounded by people who want to know the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Barkingside.”
Or rather, I like the journeys immensely but the arriving feels more than anything like a hiatus. This is why I prefer to strap on my pack and walk from place to place. Luckily this is what Matt likes most too. This summer we’re going to Scotland with bivvy bags.