Part of the throng at Winterfeldmarkt
ROBINSON'S GERMAN JOURNEY: DAY FOUR / PART ONE
SATURDAY 24 MARCH 2012BERLIN
Having had to abseil precariously down the hotel stairs in Amsterdam the previous day, it came as a blessed relief on this sunny Saturday morning to be able to use stairs banked at a more conventional angle; the neighbouring lift was pure luxury. Like hills and cycling proficiency tests, lifts do not seem to have caught in Amsterdam just yet so I took full advantage of civilisation by using the lift here to descend two whole floors. After spending a day in armed conflict against an overloaded and warlike suitcase, it also felt good to be unencumbered and prosaic.
It felt less good to be so hungry so I made for the bakery across the road, ordered whatever coffee the owner thought I might like ‘and a couple of those things there’. Those things there turned out to be home-made apfelnussrollen, apples and hazelnuts wrapped and cooked in a long thin pancake roll - a local delicacy of the first water. Two weren’t nearly enough to sustain me for the day ahead that I’d planned. I had six. And another two coffees. I was in 'sheep as a lamb' territory, a landscape I know well.
That little street-corner bakery was to become my home for the next three days
I looked at my local street map whilst the stewed apple dribbled contentedly down my shirt front and, having overindulged like a condemned man, I staggered to my feet and headed around a few corners to the Winterfeldmarkt, the most celebrated Saturday market in Berlin.
It covered an area about the size of a moderately busy bus station and was, as they say, heaving. Progress was difficult - and sometimes impossible - because the stalls were so close together and attracted so much attention, such was the unimaginable variety of goods, chattels and provender on offer.
My tour of the market went from dried flowers and pot-pourri at one end to German open flans with indeterminate but vaguely disgusting ingredients at the other, via fish and meat (fresh and cooked), fruits and vegetables enough to feed everyone there, breads and cakes of extraordinary variety, cheeses from any country you could name (except England)….
There was hot, cooked food, too - to feed the natives of not only Germany but France, Greece, the Lebanon, Japan, Scandinavia, China, South America, the Caribbean, Turkey...
There were shoes and socks. Scarves and coats. Plants and crafts. There was jewellery, umbrellas, hand-made soap, coffee and even tea. There was a bicycle repair team and, for all I know, a man who would take the stones out of horses’ hooves for a fee.
It was enormous and crowded and great, great fun. Eventually I gave up making notes about it all, bought a carton of blood-orange and pomegranate juice that was squeezed from the fruit itself right before my eyes and which tasted exquisite and looked at the bar of lemongrass soap I had just bought. It was made in the colours of the German flag.
I felt satisfyingly touristic. Which meant that it was time to get serious; to do the kinds of things that people visit Berlin to see and do. It was time to sober up, as it were.
If I didn’t know it already, I was about to find out how sober the sights of Berlin can be.
Potsdamerplatz had been one of the city’s busiest and most colourful squares before the Second World War. But its proximity to German High Command - Hitler’s bunker was just round the corner - meant that it was virtually obliterated by the Allies. Its final humiliation was to be split in two by the occupying forces - the Berlin Wall passed right through its heart and killed it stone dead.
I discovered, from the explanatory boards in the square, that the ‘deadening’ effect of the Wall was felt along its entire length. A ribbon of ‘no man’s land’ 30 yards wide bisected the old centre of the city and forced normal day-to-day life to move away to its west and east. This effect is still apparent today; Berlin has two centres and no centre.
The six columns of the Berlin Wall (the 'Berliner Mauer') at Potsdamerplatz; the 'Border Guard' selling 'passports to the West' for charity is under the green umbrella
The entire route of the Wall is marked along the ground by a line of cobbles and there are six columnar remnants of the Wall itself in Potsdamerplatz. Tourists photograph each other in front of them and a mock East German border guard sells ‘passports to the West’ for ten euros. I didn’t really mind this light-hearted treatment of a brutally repressive monument. On what is once again a busy and lively square, it seemed to put the Wall in its proper place somehow. Visitors are laughing at the ludicrous - though sadly often successful - attempts by the Communists to oppress and imprison their citizens.
I was reading a panel about the heroic attempts made by many East Berliners to get over the Wall - some successful but most ending in capture or death - when loud peals of incongruous laughter brought me four-square back to the present.
Two beer-bikes had appeared.
It’s not easy to say why these forms of locomotion are quite so ridiculous, or even to describe them at all.
Imagine an ‘island’ bar the size of a large dining-table with a dozen or so drinkers - mostly men, of course - sitting around it on bicycle seats and each equipped with pedals. All of them are pedalling furiously (and drinking) and the whole contraption moves along the road at slightly more than walking pace.
That’s a beer bike. And when two of them appear, the effect is, firstly, shock; secondly, bewilderment; and thirdly, gales of laughter from puzzled onlookers.
Nothing could have relegated the Berlin Wall more effectively to its ignominious place in the city’s history than the appearance of these perfectly contrived movable jokes.
The fact that these bizarre machines are permitted to hold up the traffic in one of Europe’s busiest cities is a very great credit to Berlin’s sense of humour and its recognition that city life can be enriched by the absurdly unexpected.
The past, though, is not forgettable. I have met many people who would not visit Berlin under any circumstances because of it. And, as the beer-bikes headed west into the sunshine and street-theatre of modern Berlin, I wandered away from Potsdamerplatz into one of the darkest places that humanity has ever been in its whole history.
The laughter died away quickly and, much sooner than I’d expected, I became a wanderer who would much rather have been lost than contemplating what stood before me.
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