Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A little familiar

It is a lovely Sunday morning in Berlin. This sentence might predictably be followed by a description of a bustling street filled with buskers and street art and large umbrellas shading café tables. Actually, though, I am sitting on a concrete slab of a balcony looking out from this concrete slab of an apartment building onto the concrete slab of a supermarket opposite. (The supermarket is like a library. The aisles are quiet and well ordered.  The building is low and unimposing and speaks accurately to the lack of tiny bottles of expensive and exotic food inside. Exotic to Germans, I mean, because of course to me even the most budget leberwurst is a little exotic.)

World Clock on Alexander Platz
Nonetheless, it is lovely. The sun is shining and the expanse of grass separating this Soviet style collection of shoebox apartments from the road has been freshly mown. This is an example of something that has occurred to me a few times in the two weeks we have been in Berlin. The sun shines less here than in Montpellier – the streets are less picturesque, less romantic – and the city wears its fraught history on its sleeve, on its walls and behind its windows. And yet, it is immediately closer to my heart than the pretty, carefree Mediterranean city we have just left. 

Perhaps this should have been obvious because of Berlin’s proximity, not so much geographically as socially, culturally and historically to my Hungarian roots, or I could take a bit of a self-centred-psychoanalytical approach and say that the past and present morally and socially chaotic nature of this place resonates more with my personality and my history than Montpellier did. Writing this, though, it strikes me that it’s probably simply that there are places you connect with and ones you don’t so much and if I wanted to subject you all to my philosophical ramblings on the subject I likely should have warned you (sorry).

Anyway! All that is not to say I didn’t like Montpellier. The streets of Montpellier (in the centre at least) are nearly all beautiful and summer is a wonderful time to be there. One of my favourite parts of our time there were the free classical music concerts put on by Radio France. For two weeks, I had the opportunity nearly every day to enter the cool air of the concert hall Le Corum just minutes from our apartment, at noon and in the evening, and listen to young prodigies or more established talents play beautiful old works as well as more challenging (or, let’s be honest – to my ears, nearly unbearable) contemporary pieces.

I was especially happy to have heard Debussy’s Claire de Lune played in a French concert hall and to have an older French lady sitting next to me lean over and say c’est merveilleux! The same pianist played an encore that was an enchanting piece previously unknown to me by Franck – I’ve since listened to this link played by Hungarian Gyula Kiss countless times (typical to Hungarian artists, he plays the piece at least twice as slowly as most other pianists and therefore lends it a very endearing melancholy). Since we’ve been travelling I’ve experienced that clichéd feeling that possessions aren’t important (with the exception of a few essentials, e.g. passport, camera, toothbrush or at least some breath mints…) – they get lost or broken or left behind and life goes on. This feeling and (probably more importantly) the baffling weight of my suitcase has left me uninspired by souvenir shopping – but I feel like that short piece of music is a treasure found in the city that I can take with me.

Just up from Le Corum a staggered set of stairs leads to a leafy park/boulevard where we used to enjoy our Friday nights. The city puts on a wonderful (again, free) festival where each week wine, food and music are on offer.  For five euros each we’d pick up a festival wine glass and our three coupons and join the hundreds of other wine “tasters” mobbing winegrowers from around France. Once we became seasoned in the art we abandoned the wine tasting and instead brought our own bottle of wine to share among the other evening picnic-ers sprawled on the grass, nodding our heads along to the beat of the covers band on stage and sampling the paella, enormous oysters and salami rolls on offer. The highlight for me each week was the makeshift stage set up for ballroom dancing, apparently random couples coming and going or individuals pairing up, some wearing dancing shoes and others jandals, moving in sync with a tango or some tune from the 20s.

It was so hot the entire time in Montpellier that jackets and jeans became a distant memory (it’s funny how quickly this feeling appears). Our charming little flat had lots of big windows that could coax a breeze through the rooms, but the best respite from the heat were trips to the beach or river. One day a friend M had met years ago took us to Pont Du Diable, an old arched stone bridge sitting over a river where we joined the kids and old folks in the cool water. In our first two weeks we stayed in a small hostel/homestay where we’d sometimes accompany the owners on a drive to Palavas, the beach town just a few k’s from Montpellier. This was everything I hoped for from my first experience of the Mediterranean sea – blazing sun, white sand and warm (very salty) water. A later weekend saw us train and bus to the nearby town of Sete, where yet another free festival invited beach goers to enjoy DJs and beer stands in between sunbathing and swimming.

When it was too hot to make the hour-long journey by tram to the water, I came to love the – until then completely foreign – idea of sitting among other wilting patrons at a café on the main square, Comedie, being sprayed with misty clouds of tiny icy water drops (I did spare a though for the people I love freezing in Wellington). 

(Naturally I also became a regular at the local English language bookshop/cafe. The book lover part of me can’t help mentioning my delight at the impressive collection of English language novels found in our rented flat. More than a few stifling evenings were spent reading/discovering/being enthralled by LP Hartley, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ian McEwan, Alison Lurie and even that controversial book The Help … honestly, I really loved working my way through that mini library. I feel a bit embarrassed about this, maybe because books are sometimes seen as a way of travelling or experiencing without getting up from your armchair in your suburban house with a picket fence, and why waste time on that when you are “out there” in the world? But for me, (good) books have always been more of a lens, like a kaleidoscope that can make squares look like triangles or hexagons just by changing the angle. They offer more than a story – by pointing out or exploring the assumed or the unobserved, they invite me to do the same long after I’ve finished reading – whether at home or on the road. In other words, they enrich whatever's going on around me. That might be why I like McEwan when others find him banal … like maybe this paragraph is becoming?)

Leaving Montpellier brought an end to our affair with France. We chugged along through the night by train and found ourselves, for the first time in nearly six months, somewhere with a tinge of familiarity. Both M and I have spent time in Germany before but this is the first time we’ve seen Berlin. Here we met yet another of M’s old friends (M is a very friendly guy), who lives about 20 minutes from the centre in old East Berlin, where I’m writing from now.

Where to start about Berlin? As I said, I connect to the place partly via my Hungarian side. The remnants of the Iron Curtain are visible in the same way in the style of some buildings and more imperceptibly in people’s attitudes. (Also in the hairstyles of the middle-aged check-out women at the supermarket.) In many ways the effects are much more noticeable here due to the way they’re contrasted – while Hungary’s economy/politics are considered “generally” post-Soviet, here there is a continued disparity between wages in (old) West and East Berlin, in the same city, same currency, same jobs, nearly a quarter of a century after the Wall came down. I suppose this is the less romantic equivalent of parts of the Wall itself that remain standing, invariably decorated with graffiti or street art, or chips of it that are sold in plastic pouches. But neither Hungary nor Berlin can be defined simply by this small part of their history – the food, in particular, is also similar and I have delighted in finding Hungarian favourites in the supermarket (e.g. Pick salami and "tévé paprika").

My NZ side has also been nourished though. One Sunday brought back especially vivid memories of Wellington when we went to a cafe/music venue called St. Gaudy's to hear Mara Simpson and Hollie Smith play. I first came to know Mara's music through the bars like Havana in Wellington, dimly lit and buzzing with activity while local artists (my brother included, at the time) pour their dreams and disappointments into a microphone. In Berlin the difference was that the audience was seated, distracted only when taking a sip of beer, but there were enough Kiwis there to feel like we were at home. It was the first time I'd seen Hollie Smith live and she was as fantastic as she's famed to be, and down to earth (or maybe just "Kiwi"?) enough to have an easy chat with beforehand.

We also discovered a place named Kiwi Pub and it is just that. Drinking Monteiths and talking to bar owner John from Papatoetoe (a pretty classic Kiwi bloke) was just what we needed to help ward off that mid-year homesickness. A week later we met a fellow couple of NZ travellers on a similar mission to our own while watching a Bledisloe Cup game at an Irish pub at midday with a couple of beers in hand ... we took them back to meet John and cruised our way through the evening swapping stories about travel and about home in equal measure. Choice.

As for Berlin in general - it is as vibrant and vivacious as I'd heard. To me, the way the city confronts its history has been especially impressive ...The slightly ironic way the security booth that separated the "American" sector from the "Russian" at Checkpoint Charlie remains in tact next to what is now a huge McDonalds. The incomprehensible mass of stone cubes to represent the Holocaust and its victims (somewhat desecrated by sunbathing or cube-jumping young people - does this mean something sinister, is it disrespectful or forgetful? Or is it just natural, inadvertent? Or maybe it's some kind of triumph of normality/joy over horror?). The "Topography of Terror" at the site of the old Gestapo building, an outdoor exhibition that traces the (many) darker parts of Berlin's recent history, in one long, seemingly endless straight line.

One of my favourite experiences where the city's history and its present state are juxtaposed has been Sunday at Mauerpark. Mauerpark literally means "Wall park" and it is a huge grassy area flanked on one side by a large section of the Wall that still stands (pictured above). A footpath follows the Wall, dotted with wooden benches and with single wooden swings here and there. Swinging on one of these means being flung backwards towards the Wall and then forwards, away from it to look over the whole park. On Sundays the park fills with picnic-ers, sunbathers, lovers and a massive flea market where crafts, clothes and knick-knacks from way before the Wall went up can be haggled for. The best part though, to me, is the mass karaoke that takes place each week. Hundreds of people sit in the sun on a semi circle of steep stairs in front of the Wall to watch complete strangers try their hand at the Backstreet Boys (etc). Below them a DJ sits on the stage with some speakers and a microphone under a sun umbrella. Everyone laughs, cheers and sings along - when we went, "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" was a big hit. (Not to worry though, we also heard an old German hit that was apparently very popular.) I was completely besotted with this casual and awesome expression of unity right up against the symbol of the city's recent division.

I've also loved discovering Berlin's quirky cafes, wandering Museum Island (although the lines/admission prices have so far kept us admiring from the outside) and enjoying the makeshift beaches that pop up randomly throughout the city. One of these was next to the Spree (the river running through Berlin), but another, quite similar one, is simply in otherwise the concrete laden Mitte (centre district) - hut-style bars surrounded by inexplicable sand and beach umbrellas - as strange as they sound, very charming!

This is where I'll finish. We have quite a bit of travelling planned for the next couple of weeks so there'll be lots more to tell next time - until then, viele liebe as always.

P.S. I can't believe I nearly forgot ... the beer and bratwurst in Berlin are, of course, phenomenal (and frequently enjoyed).