Markets and more

It’s a testimony to German efficiency that a market spanning two city blocks can be set up and taken down every day. The transition from organised chaos to clean streets and sidewalks made in the space of an hour. Right next to the Tiergarten stop on the S bann, the Todelmarkt is a shopper’s paradise. I found myself thinking how great it would be to furnish a flat in Berlin.

There was everything from new Spanish linens to old masters. From books to baubles. From beer tankards to fine china. And where else would you find a Russian trying to buy a bag of chips and a bottle of water with a €500 note and simply not getting the fact that the chipper couldn’t make change for her. I was in my element and could lawfully have spent a fortune – if I had one.

Across town, at the Mauerpark market, things were a little different. This is where you need to roll up your sleeves, disturb the dust and the cobwebs, and burrow for your bargains. The vendors are younger and more hip. The wares lean more towards artisan than antique. And the food is healthier. A completely  different experience and yet just as interesting.

What makes Mauerpark market different is that outside the market fence, on a Sunday afternoon, a open-air karaoke session is in full swing. Browsing is puncuated with regular applause as complete randoms take the stage to wow the crowd and enjoy their three minutes of fame. A multicoloured golf umbrella marks the spot and a guy in a green t-shirt emcees the proceedings. The audience sits under the full blast of the summer sun, oblivious to the heat. BBQs smolder and cold beers wash away the dust. Tis a hard life but sure someone has to live it.

Something old, something new

One of the many things that make Berlin interesting is the juxtaposition of old and new. Streets in the city are lined with alternate old and new to the point where you can’t help but marvel at the sheer randomness of destruction. I can only imagine that bombs were dropped and buildings razed and then, in the post war years, a more modern ediface rose from the ashes.

The apparently seamless flow of one building to the next made me think of how adaptable we all are. Imagine a whole building being wiped out and a new one put in its place, both joined at the hip. Completely different styles yet both functional, both serving a purpose. Old and new.

If looking for the silver lining in this particular clouded history, rebuilding a city provides the opportunity to be visionary. Or revisionary. Berlin is still being built. It’s a city under construction and they’re doing an interesting job. Given the choice between old and new, I’d plumb for the old anyday. I’m rarely impressed with modern architecture and yet in Berlin it seems both stylish and tasteful. Funny how those two adjectives would not  have come to mind last week, if and when I ever spent time thinking about the city.

Which way is east?

Before last week, what I knew about Berlin would have fit on the back of a milk carton. Think Berlin – think the wall. Visiting the wall (or what’s left of it) has been on my list of things to do since I first read a John Le Carré novel. The boundary between east and west has fascinated me – and the thought of two such diverse ways of life living in the shadow of the same wall is hard to imagine.

First built during the night of 13 August 1961, the wall was regenerated four times. The second wall was built in June 1962 and the first renovated to make it even more difficult to breach. The third generation appeared in 1965 – a more advanced structure with concrete slabs between steel girders. The final iteration came ten years later in 1975. Some basic facts: In its heyday, the wall boasted 302 watch towers and stood  3.6m (11.81 ft.) high. 96 miles (155 km) long, the border between East and West Berlin stretched for 27 miles (43.1 km).  Today, a 300 m section has been retained and around the city, sections have been used as a canvas and stand as living testimony to a division that is now a but a memory.

There is one stretch near Potsdam Platz where you can walk along the foundation. A line of bricks shows where the wall once stood. Straddling this line, and looking right and left it’s impossible to discern a difference in the two landscapes. I was thoroughly confused for most of the weekend – and never more so than when we were at Checkpoint Charlie. I am convinced that the sign is back to front.Either that, or my sense of direction and ability to read a map are both a lot worse than I’d ever imagined.

Standing in front of this sign, I had my back to Alexander Platz, which is firmly rooted in the former East Berlin. So how is it possible that I could be leaving the American sector? It did my head in. But not enough to distract me from the reality of what happened and the numbers of people who died trying to escape to the west.

A tale of two cities

It seemed as if there were two cities. One that I could touch and feel. Another that I only caught the occasional glimpse of. A vision slightly distorted, hovering at the corner of my eye. Blink and it was gone. But soon, it was that secondary image I was looking for, the one reflected in the walls of glass that testify to the newness of this city. To its regeneration.

Pictures within pictures. Images divided randomly by lines that already exist creating even more variations, so that after a while I began to wonder which was real. They were everywhere. Clear skies and sunshine turned sheaths of glass into placid pools of aqua blue water onto which reality superimposed itself. It’s something I’ve noticed before but I’ve never seen so much of it. And it felt slighly surreal. But then Berlin itself is slightly surreal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A splash of colour

Berlin never struck me as city that would be particularly colourful. When I think of colour and cities in the same sentence, I think of Barcelona and Gaudi; or Subotica and its art nouveau; or even Budapest with its great green and gold rooftops. But not Berlin. Yet even though it has its fair share of graffiti, it is awash with colourful murals that reflect the diverisity of its citizens and the creativity of its artists.

Blank walls have become canvases and the streets an open air gallery. Travelling by the S5 out to Charlottenburg is particularly colourful with lots of interesting murals of a more political bent. Others are more cute than chiq and others still a bleak commentary on city living. Some trace the history of the city while others exist seemingly to mask its grime. Most are interesting though.

Bumping into Beethoven

I doubt there is anywhere in Bonn you can go and not see a picture of the man himself. And credit where credit is due…if I had composed an opera, a violin concerto, five piano concertos, and nine symphonies, ten sonatas, and seventeen string quartets, I’d expect to be looking down from above and catching the odd glimpse of my best side!

Although he eventually settled in Vienna, Beethoven’s home town of Bonn has not fogotten him.

There’s a lesson to be learned in the fact that despite his disturbing childhood (his father was a particularly violent alcoholic, apparently) and the onset of deafness in his twenties, he could still find the wherewithal to compose the marvellous Ode to Joy. The cause of his deafness is stil unknown, although the lack of any factual conclusions hasn’t stopped people wondering: syphilis, lead poisoning, typhus, autoimmune disorder and even his habit of immersing his head in cold water to stay awake have all factored in the diagnosis at some stage. But imagine not being able to hear your own music – at the end of the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, he wept when he heard no applause. He had to be turned around to see the audience clapping wildly.

While many other musicians, including his one-time teacher, Haydn, actually feared his work because it relied too much on passion, Mozart recognised his talent for what it was. Apparently, when he heard the 17-year-old play, he said ‘Watch this lad. One day he will force the world to talk about him. ‘

I didn’t get to see his house – I didn’t particularly want to. He was born there, he lived there, and he lived plenty of other places, too. So what? Far more satisfying was the short time spent in St Remigus’s Parish Church where, at the age of 10, he used to play the organ at 6am mass. And yes, fanciful as I am, I thought I could hear faint whispers…

From Budafok to Bonn

Apart from the fact that I’m having an increasingly hard time imagining sweet nothings whispered in German actually sounding remotely romantic, I was quite taken with Bonn. I’ve even picked out my house. It’s a small, walkable city that seems to be living in the shadows of its perhaps more famous, or more ‘out there’ neighbours: Cologne and Dusseldorf. I know you can’t go by my geography, but last time I was in Cologne, I had no idea that Bonn was literally up the road. Yes, I knew it was once the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, but that’s about the sum total of my knowledge. How pathetic is that?

Apparently, it started off in the first centry AD  as Castra Bonnensia, a Roman fortress. When the Roman Empire broke up, it became a civilian settlement and then, in the 9th century, it became the Frankish town of Bonnburg. In 1949, the quiet University town was catapulted into the limelight as the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, a term it would serve until 1991, when Berlin once more resumed the mantel as Germany was reunified. So, it’s been around for a while and despite the wars, it’s still a beautiful city, tucked away on the banks of the Rhine. Beethoven was born there, Schumann lived there, and Karl Marx studied there.

The first thing I noticed about it is that it’s green. It has so many trees, parks, lawns, flowerbeds… a nightmare for those afflicted with hayfever, but a welcome respite from the usual, built-up metropoli that pass for major cities these days. Apparently 51% of the city is protected:  28% under landscape protection and 23% nature preserves.

The second thing I noticed is that it has big bio supermarkets – not a couple of shelves in the main shops dedicated to a paltry selection of bioproducts, but huge stores stocked with organic and bio products. So much to choose from and so much locally produced. How novel is that? I even came across a clothes shop that stocked only clothes by a German designer that are made in Germany – Zero has become my second-favourite, must-visit, must-buy clothes shop after the WE  chain in the Netherlands and Belgium.

And the third thing is its community spirit. Okay, so this isn’t exactly a tangible thing but if you watch, you see. The door of the Cathedral seemed to be staffed by a series of what look liked those on the down and out. They opened and closed the huge doors as visitors entered and left the church. Some people gave them money.  I saw a old lady pass off a packed lunch with a sleight of hand that said she wanted neither thanks nor recognition.

And then there’s the book stops: places where people can come and swap books, free of charge. Ok – I’ve seens these in some more progressive cafés, but never as standalone bookbanks in the middle of a street or park. There’s one on Poppelsdorfer Allee that draws quite a crowd on Sundays. I met an American chap there who appears to be its self-appointed guardian – making sure that if you take a book, you leave one, too, unless, of course, you’re a visitor to the city and didn’t know the rules! [And yes, people still wait for the green man to cross the road.] Interstingly, he is writing a book about these book stops and the characters they attract and the emotions they bring out in people. I don’t think I quite caught everything he was saying, but he managed to spin me a tale of mystery, mafia, and melancholy that might just make me buy his book, if it is ever translated to English.

There’s another one up by the University – this time housed in a red British phone box which was donated to Bonn by the University of Oxford. Right beside it is a signpost showing the distance to Oxford in kilometres, and the distance to Budafok. Is that my Budafok, I wonder? And, curiously,  the local wine is known as Drachenblut (Dragon’s Blood), a fine competition for Hungary’s Egri Bikavér (Bull’s Blood).

Both book stops are near to huge, open park areas with plenty of park benches – it was so nice to see so many readers out there doing their thing! All in all, not a bad way to spend an afternoon.