Hans ('Nick') LeutwylerIn this blogposting….
* AGM XXXII
* Robinson’s German Journey: Day Six
Our May AGM will take place at 1100 on this upcoming Thursday 17 May at Newcastle Art Centre at the town end of Westgate Road, more or less opposite the Assembly Rooms.
There is an agenda.
Item One: I will expect everyone to plank (unless the appropriate surface is wet).
Item Two: Truckshunter Tongue-Twister Torture.
Item Three: Truckshunter Tango - I will provide the music.
I am especially looking forward to Item Three. And Item One. And Item Two.
The AGM will go ahead, even if I am the only one there (which should make for an interesting Item Three).
A splendid time is guaranteed for (one and) all.
ROBINSON’S GERMAN JOURNEY: DAY SIX
MONDAY 26 MARCH 2012
In the same way that England is not just London, so London is not just its tourist sites. You don’t get a feel for ‘the people’s London’ if you only visit Trafalgar Square or St Paul’s. To find out what life is like in Chalk Farm, Acton of Streatham, you have to go there and have a look.
And, if I’ve got time in a city new to me, that’s what I try to do; to take a bus or a metro or a tram to its terminus, just to see where it goes and what it’s like there. Even doing that may not give you an accurate idea of what life is truly like for ordinary people but it’s usually worth doing nevertheless - just for the ride and to get away from the visitor sites, however splendid they are.
I’ve visited Amsterdam often enough by now to have done this several times there. I set aside an hour or two, grab a coffee and a cake (which make all the difference) and jump on a tram. By doing this, I’ve chatted to some talkative Dutch people (usually about why on Earth I’m on the tram in the first place) and, so far, I’ve ended up in places as varied as an industrial estate (twice), Amsterdam’s Turkish quarter (where I ate some quite delicious spinach and cheese pie), a drab housing estate of gigantic proportions, the Dutch equivalent of the MetroCentre, a beautifully laid-out park, the biggest children’s playground I’ve ever seen and an extremely pretty, almost picture-book, Dutch village called Sloten (‘Ditches’), complete with working windmill.
In New York City I ‘commuted’ each day from the suburban town I was staying in (Rye) and this served a similar purpose to my Amsterdam tram jaunts. I was able to see the kind of streets that Kojak was filmed on, and to spend time amongst ordinary New Yorkers going about their business and speaking in an accent so thick that it may as well have been Dutch. Which, come to think of it, it once was.
Unexpected consequences can sometimes ensue, though, if you beat a path away from the tourist sites. In Seville, our journey on the number 5 bus was enlivened by a gentleman who insisted that he was speaking perfect English (which he had learned at school 40 years ago) even though we couldn’t understand anything he said. It sounded like a patois of Hungarian and Urdu being uttered by a dying duck.
Where was I? Ah yes. Monday morning - and my final day in Berlin. Time to catch a bus somewhere…..
Berlin’s double-decker buses are enormous, six-wheeled monsters as big as cathedrals but much more fun. They are cheap, comfortable, reliable, frequent and convenient - and they run all night. Moreover, they are driven with the kind of graceful, lurch-free smoothness that’s been a thing of the past amongst English bus-drivers for decades.
So it was a pleasure to walk up to Wittenbergplatz once more - but this time to take a bus rather than the metro.
The first one to glide up to the bus stop was a number 29 to Hermannsplatz. I had no idea where this was and didn’t care. I boarded the behemoth, sat in the front seat upstairs (as you do) and was driven away in considerable style.
We were soon crossing over into ‘East' Berlin; I saw the only remaining stretch of the Wall left standing to its full height. It’s about 100 yards long and is now a city heritage site and important tourist destination. From my vantage point, it looked grim and forbidding which was, I suppose, exactly the intended effect of its builders.
Nearby, the bus wove its way past the site of Checkpoint Charlie - also thronged with visitors. And that’s where things started to change.
At first, I thought that the surrounding buildings looked meaner and untidier because I had expected them to. But it was no self-fulfilling expectation. The streets really did look much less chic and up-to-date. The shops were duller and cheaper, there were no fashion outlets, and groups of people - mostly men - stood about on street corners smoking and looking threatening and unhappy.
The bus ran the whole length of Oranienstrasse, the centre of the Turkish quarter of the city. It looked extraordinarily inhospitable. I hadn’t known what to expect, but I certainly wasn’t expecting quite so many jerry-built slums and so much obvious poverty. It seemed to me that many of the city’s Turkish ‘guest workers‘ were living hand-to-mouth lives at odds with the lives of their hosts.
I know this phenomenon is not unique - it exists in England, too. But I’d never seen it quite so baldly presented as here.
My bus journey also provided me with first-hand evidence of the increasing ‘capitalisation’ of ‘East’ Berlin, and the resentment it’s causing. Most of the Communist-era tenements were drab and shabby, but some of them have been tarted up, double-glazed, colour-washed in subtle pastel shades - and sold to affluent ‘West’ Berliners. I even saw anti-West graffiti like Nein Verein - 'No Unity'.
The impression of lives comparatively poorly-lived intensified at the Hermannsplatz, the route’s terminus. A large, paved square was lined with very cheap fast-food outlets you wouldn’t touch with someone else’s bargepole. At its centre was the ugliest sculpture I’ve ever seen. It dated from the ‘bad old days‘ of Communism and looked it. Two featureless bronze figures held hands (I think) with ‘workers’‘ tools kind of sticking out everywhere; I could see a hammer, something that looked like an adjustable spanner, something else that looked like a sink plunger, and a scythe (- scythes being very common tools in deepest urban Berlin).
It was truly ghastly and I whole-heartedly approved of the verdict bestowed on it by the local pigeons.
Jehovah's Witnesses - Jehovas Zeugen
As I looked at it, trying to figure out what was going on up there, some Jehovah’s Witnesses started setting up their stall so I took a picture of them. Then I looked around looking for other subjects for my photographic talents. There seemed to be a lot of people carrying carpets or items of furniture or large, bulging bin-liners. And a lot of other people were standing about doing nothing at all except looking at me looking at them.
So I bought an iced-coffee, sat in the sunshine and suddenly realised how unbearably smug I was feeling. The citizens of the old 'East' Berlin lost much that they genuinely valued when the Wall came down. Their sense of commonality and community has evaporated in the full glare of the West's capitalist 'sunshine'. And I realised that what I was seeing was not just the symptoms of impoverished Communist-era life but also the signs of how unforgiving and avaricious capitalism can be when it marches in and takes over.
The late evening - my last in Berlin - found me sitting outside my favourite little Turkish café reading a publicity leaflet about an internationally important event to be held in the city 6 days later, over Easter.
The Berlin Leather and Fetish Festival.
The leaflet was 124 pages long. Here was evidence of an extreme of gay liberation totally outside my experience.
Every gay venue in the city - and there are well over 50 of them - would be open 24 hours a day for five days. During that time, over 250 events would be taking place, including….
Leather shopping nights (at Sling King)…‘Prosecco for Pigs’...Wet Hunks (at the Apollo Splash Club)...Black Extreme (at Woof, just round the corner from my hotel)...Fetish Mix (dress code: bondage or nudity)….Fist Invasion….Bears and Boots….Black Foam Zone...Skins and Punks United….Sweaty Meat Extreme….
And those were only in the first 40 pages. Many of the other events listed had titles the mere mention of which would make maiden aunts swoon and repressed ex-Army officers move to Corbridge or Wooler. Dale Winton and Graham Norton - eat your hearts out. This was gay life with a capital F.
The highlight of the weekend was to be the election of Mr Leather Germany 2012. The winner is pictured above.
Reading the leaflet made me feel that - maybe, just maybe - my life was a little too reassuringly comfortable and perhaps even cynically unexotic. I was tempted to pop into Woof just to see what a Berlin darkroom was like - just for the hell of it.
But I gave up on the idea fairly quickly. Regrettably, I am way past my sell-by date for steamy sexual encounters in humid darkrooms. They are for another generation to enjoy and savour.
And anyway, it was late. Too late.
It was too late to enjoy any of the many other unsampled delights that Berlin had to offer me. My time was almost up. Tomorrow morning I would be leaving. As uplifting and as exciting and as liberating as the city had been, it was not the heart of my journey. Many miles away in the countryside to the north-west lay a sleepy little town….
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