And they all lived happily ever after.
Yeah, look, there’s only one train in this story, but if you thought I was not going to follow up the Isherwood reference of a couple of days ago with another (on the flimsiest of bases) then you have badly overestimated my creativity (or underestimated my laziness).
Nor is it much of a story, frankly. We caught a train, full stop, the end. From Carcassonne to Barcelona. The Pyrenees were attractive. It’s nice to be back in Barcelona again, but we’re all tired, and ready to head home.
Full stop, the end.
A day in la Cité de Carcassonne. Some reading up on the Albigensian Crusade (C was a redoubt of the Cathars, I learn) and a short lecture is delivered in two versions for the boys on the feudal system and mediaeval military logistics, then we’re off to the walled city. Which is every bit as magical etc, etc, even the tat merchants seeming somewhat subdued – the obligatory dungeon experience easily swatted away, the boys largely uninterested in replica weaponry. A tour of the keep offers wonderful views of the surrounding countryside, the later part of our stroll along the battlements marred somewhat by the testing of the sound system for the music festival that runs throughout July, a test that sounded to me suspiciously like AC/DC played at a volume that ought to have satisfied any of the band’s legion of fans. It didn’t last, merci à le bon Dieu.
We paused in the Basilique de Saint Nazaire, attractive and, unlike a great cathedral in a major city, a comfortable, welcoming size. As we sat outside afterwards, a male quartet, unannounced, suddenly filled the space with song, Russian sacred music, stunningly demonstrating the acoustics of the space. They were advertising their CD, of course, but I dashed inside to catch what I could.
Back for a rest, I went for a walk in search of the picturesque heart of town, and learned that it isn’t to be found down any of the eastern half’s run down, sun-baked and lifeless streets. I was forced to find what encouragement I could from the street names, which honoured, along with the inevitable Racine, Molière and Diderot, the Joliot-Curies, Evariste Galois and a number of names unknown to me but described as “Martyr” or “Resistant”, with dates of death in the early 1940s, and dates of birth not many decades before.
We returned to the cité in the late afternoon – at what would have been dusk ten degrees further south, but even here in the south the sky does not darken until past 10pm. Dinner at Restaurant Adelaïde and, yes madame, we get many Australians. Adelaide is a town there, no? Quoi? Un million des personnes? Une grande cité.
Watching Anna wrestle with a decision about whether to spend A$1,000 on a sheepskin jacket is awful, so I close my eyes until it’s over. When I open them, we still have the money and she seems comfortable with whatever rationalisation she has settled upon. All is therefore well as we return to the apartment for our last night in France.
I have left this too long, partly because it was such a waste of a day. Forewarned that Schönefeld Airport is a national joke and to be early to allow for inevitable delays, we were early, and were evitably processed with efficiency and rapidity. That left us with the best part of three hours to pass, in Terminal B, waiting for our budget flight. I’ll say this for corridors in airports without much in the way of facilities – you get to watch people. People like the male American student being grilled by an El-Al staffer, who looked very much like he wasn’t used to having extended talks with beautiful young women of about his age and that it was excruciatingly typical of the damn universe that he had to spend the entirety of this interview convincing her that his intentions towards the state of Israel were entirely honourable.
The flight uneventful, the highlight of the journey was conducting a conversation entirely in French, a first for the trip, with the taxi driver. Nous avons arrivé de Berlin. À Carcassonne. Non, merci, nous avons des billets pour le train, SNCF.
While waiting for the train, I dragged the boys into the street of Toulouse nearest the station for a drink. That strip seemed to have no brasseries or cafés, just bars. The first one I found without a sign indicating that enfants were interdit we plonked down in. Called Le Winger, the walls were covered in posters of the All Blacks. With an Australian’s natural ability to find all things New Zealand familiar and ripe for appropriation, I cheerfully tipped the Parkinsonian barman a couple of euros for our sodas and received his “c’est gentil” with due magnanimity. It was only after I was half way through my Coke that I noticed that:
- Everyone in the place was a youngish man, dressed in very inexpensive, mostly black muscle shirts and jeans. A couple of slightly older guys seemed to be, in some almost imperceptible way, in charge.
- Several more lads were outside leaning on powerful motorcycles.
- A couple of the outdoor types were smoking something that Pepé Le Pew would have found a bit on the sharpish side.
- An older man had just turned up and was distributing the full double cheek kiss routine to the more senior hangers on.
- Absolutely nobody cracked any sort of a smile, whatsofuckingever.
I leaned over to Raf and said, sotto voce, in English, words to the effect of “I think we should drink up and leave, quietly and without making any fuss. I’ll explain in a minute,” and to Seb the four word version of the same message. We drank up, and we went.
The Avignon train was fullish but we found seats and, feet on luggage, made it to Carcassonne, Seb asleep with his head in my lap, Raf’s head on my shoulder, this being one of the bits of the trip when I was in favour with my increasingly critical older boy. Anna’s train arrived minutes after ours and we put the band back together. Into Carcassonne, right under the famous walls, which promised adventure on the morrow.
The way to do museums, with kids, is hit ’em early, while they’re still waking up. Also, audio guides.
“That queue will be at least an hour,” said some bloke to some bloke I met in the queue, who relayed the message. Bloke didn’t know what he was talking about, blessedly, and about half an hour later we were inside the Pergamon Museum. We managed to stay better than two hours. Audio guides, I tell you. Winners. Seb was happy as Larry going from exhibit to exhibit, dialling up the narrative – produced with an adult audience in mind, mind you. Raf did a few, and today I wasn’t minded to push it – if he wanted to spend some of the time sitting on a bench waiting for us, that was his business. He did see the Ishtar Gate with us, and we all marvelled. The other highlights, for me, were some Hittite artefacts – a light on the early first millennium BCE I hadn’t previously had shone for me. The Assyrian friezes were impressive again – again, because the best pieces are copies of those we saw in the British Museum.
Then to see Cara one last time and we picked one of the items from her list of suggestions so kindly curated for us. The boys had had enough history, so we did art instead: some immersive pieces at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. Martin, it turns out, is the uncle of Walter, and another architect. Perhaps no city I know so celebrates its architects and has so little to show for all that effort, and if I am to believe what I’m told, we do not have allied bombers to blame for that as much as I thought – a lot of the city survived the 1940s just fine and what survived are a bunch of boilerplate neo-classical pseudo-temples and the ubiquitous European four/five storey terraces that someone seems to have hit on in about 1780 and no-one has improved on since. I asked Cara where the centre of the city was. “Nowhere,” she said. I asked where the pretty parts were. “Nowhere,” she said, after a second’s thought. This turns out not to be true. Later we sent to a street fair in Bergmannkiez, and bits of that were quite pretty, as long as one looked up from ground level. Only you couldn’t, because you risked stepping on a broken bottle.
At the M-G-B we did serious art. In a white floral shirt I stood out in a flock of twenty-somethings all in black, but it didn’t matter because the first exhibit required us to don black jumpsuits to which were strapped flashing and vibrating lights, then goggles that fogged our vision, and we were then squirted into a multi-occupancy womb consisting of several darkened rooms, empty but for a handful more LEDs, intermittently visible as glowing blurs. I quickly lost everybody and then myself in musings on art’s attempts to mimic drug states. Perhaps I have that backwards, and all amphetamine chemistry has been an attempt to recreate van Gogh and Dalí directly in the brain. Be that as it may, I found the piece quite soothing, and would have found a corner to curl up in had I not been nominally responsible for two children, both of whom I had just lost in a darkened room full of trippy sounds and fuzzy glows in a foreign country. When my fairly lazy conscience finally pricked me, I found the guide rope and made my way out.
That was certainly the most diverting of the pieces. I found a screen showing what seemed to be actual simulations of merging black holes, which triggered an interesting conversation with Seb, which boiled down, as it has before, to, “we don’t know, because we lack a quantum theory of gravity,” and you try saying that in terms a seven-year-old can grasp. Another work seemed thematically related, using a water tank to conduct the single-slit experiment of yore, projecting the edge-vortices onto the ceiling, a hydrodynamic effect I’d not previously seen. Was it Art? I don’t know. I couldn’t dance to it.
We finished with a virtual reality movie, a standard dystopia and invitation to free your mind, man. Raf enjoyed it. If the engagement of a twelve-year-old was the artists’ aim, they succeeded.
Finally, the street fair on Bergmannstrasse, near the Marheineke Markthalle, where the kids bouncy castled over and over. There I met Andi’s friend Torsten, wife Sibylle and little Fritzi, the last of whom I think I mortally offended. Remembering that I’d been told her age earlier, and filed it away as “only one year different to Seb”, I asked if she was six. She is, of course, eight. I will apologise if I ever see her again.
We weren’t at the fair long enough for me to pump Torsten for embarrassing stories about his childhood friend, as the kids were starting to flag. Final goodbyes, and we were off back to the hotel. One moment of panic as the U-bahn doors closed with Raf on board and Seb and I still on the platform, but a fellow passenger hit the button in time and he was restored to us. The next train, we all made it on, and back to Nollendorfplatz for the last time.
Overall impressions of Berlin? I have felt comfortable here. It seems to have norms and mores similar to those I’m used to. It wears its contempt as unselfconsciously as its amusement. It seems, genuinely, to have no functioning centre and is a patchwork product of its history. If it would be a less fun place to be young with money than Rome, it seems at least that it might still be a vital place to be young without money. The soundtrack, I think, would still be punk. No harm in that, but I am used to thinking of punk as something a person – or a city – outgrows. If I come back in decade, will it still be punk, or elevator pop?
To travel by U-bahn is to be deceived. Overground, Berlin sprawls.
I had promised the boys the day to do as they pleased, including to sleep in as long as they wanted. They took me at my word, and we slobbed about until after 11am, Seb and I making it all the way across the street to achieve breakfast, Raf content to lie in and be fed on our return. We all deserve breakfast in bed occasionally.
Eventually, we were off to the Mall of Berlin, solely because it advertised a spiral slide that ran two floors from top to bottom. We got there and I had currywurst, because this is Berlin. The boys slid. Once. Bored with that, let’s go. Where? No idea, Dad.
OK, so back in the driver’s seat, I took us to Alexanderplatz and the television tower. An hour wait, but this is Germany, where you wait by taking a number – none of this tedious standing in line – so we went and had ice cream, and then went back, and up, and took photos. My strongest impression? The Tiergarten is bloody huge. Due to the weather, we’ve still never set foot in it.
Down again and I dragged us one bus stop, in the suddenly soaking rain, so I could take a photo of Marx and Engels, presumably (like the tower) residues of the former communist state. To do so, we ducked under a bridge, walking by a group of men who sleep there, shouting at each other (and us, for all I know), men old enough – if they were locals – to remember communism, and with no reason to think terribly much of the system that replaced it.
The number 100 bus down Unter den Linden which I wanted to take was, according to its electronic bus stop, “delayed due to demonstration”. Whatever it was, it didn’t make the BBC News website, so I assume Chancellor Merkel’s government is in no imminent danger. To my surprise, the boys decided that they wanted to go into the museum that is the nascent Humboldt Forum, the institution that is to occupy the revivified Stadtschloss. The “museum” is one room dedicated to the process of rebuilding the palace, which contains a paper model of the area surrounding it as it appeared in 1900. The model curiously includes buildings, parks, fountains, even horses, carts and a handful of motorised vehicles, but absolutely no people who might be horrified to be informed of what the terrible twentieth century would bring to their city, or to live in some magically resurrected Belle Epoque when the work is complete. Here, perhaps, is what the city planners are trying to achieve by recreating an imperial building that was destroyed decades ago in a democracy that cannot house its people – a Berlin as it would have been, had its fortunes not included defeat, devastation, era-defining evil and deadening tyranny. A Berlin as it Should Have Been. If so, they will fail. And should fail. All the ghosts, all the people impoverished in the name of solidarity enforced at gunpoint, all those still living under bridges in one of the richest countries in the world, will defeat them. Sticking Mickey Mouse ears on history and declaring the past over and safe is dangerous nonsense, as I thought Germans, of all people, knew very well.
With no buses, I asked the boys to walk down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburger Tor. It should have been a stirring walk. Instead, it is a building site, the Champs-Élysées with the plumbers in and bits of the dishwasher all over the carpet. We got to the gate, photoed, turned the corner to see the Bundestag (all flags at half-staff, presumably for Helmut Kohl’s funeral) and caught a bus. To see a bit of the city, I went further than we needed to, all the way to the Zoo, taking us, without realising it, back to the U-bahn stop where we first surfaced in Berlin three days ago. And now, at last, I saw the other Berlin – the pristine streets, the shopping district, the first world capital of an economic power that I had subconsciously been expecting this whole time. I had seen it, of course, in the mall this morning, but in one isolated spot it made no impression. Here we drove though West Berlin, every bit deserving of the capital letters, five kilometres and many euros away from the bridge under which we had walked to meet the author of Capital. The Brandenburg Gate, the Tiergarten and the whole length of Unter den Linden now seemed less a cultural precinct than a cordon sanitaire. There is still a wall, but now it’s built with money, not concrete.
All foolish maunderings of a naïve and ignorant foreigner, no doubt. But if I’m right, I finally understand why this city gives me a sense, now and then, of what tastes a bit like righteous anger. Why I learn of a sit in by leftists over a building lease that needs hundreds of police to break up. Why I should not in the least be surprised to learn, a year or a decade from now, that Berlin has spawned more serious political violence, or transgressive and transformative art, or just possibly both.
I know the story. You know the story. Charles Babbage invented machine computing, but the technical sophistication of the time wasn’t up to realising his dream. Alan Turing worked out the theoretical basis for computing during the day; while cracking Enigma, and incidentally laying the foundation for the hardware, at night. Then the Americans invented the transistor, the mouse, gooey skeuomorphism and the internet. In that entire time, the country that invented the automobile, made rockets practical, produced Siemens and BASF did – nothing, right?
Ha. Who writes history?
Until yesterday, I had never heard of Konrad Zuse. I had no idea that he built a Turing-complete machine in May 1941 and designed the first high-level programming language before 1945 was out. His company survived into the 1960s. The Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin has a reproduction of his first machine, the Z1, built by Zuse himself. The original was designed and built between 1935 and 1938. He didn’t call it the Z1 at the time, he called it the Experimental Model, or VersuchsModell 1 – V1 for short. After the war, not so much. Whatever it was called, and however well it worked (the Z1 was, apparently, unreliable, unlike his later machines) it was the first programmable machine using Boolean logic and floating point arithmetic. It was also, at least its reproduction is, absolutely beautiful (see above). The original was bombed to bits in 1943.
We met Cara at the Technikmuseum. I enjoyed it. The boys – Seb particularly – found a display in which one formed the binary equivalent of various decimal numbers fascinating. They weren’t much seized by the rest. I wish I had got to the space part, because space. But the kids wanted to move on to the Spectrum Science Centre, because they so very much want to have another experience like Questacon in Canberra. In vain. The centre attached to the Technikmuseum here is bright, modern and all hands on. But, in the boys’ opinion, it lacked the magic of Questacon. Perhaps it just lacked a vertical slide.
I had left it too long after breakfast to get some food into the boys, I think, because the next step was a long sulk from Seb after he interpreted (correctly) that his brother (pretending to) play a game on his tablet was designed to tease. He clocked Raf and then wouldn’t eat. It was a long and very tedious negotiation to bring him back to us. We got there eventually.
Across town to Museum Island, me pestering our native guide at every unfamiliar sight (which was, of course, all of them). I ridiculed what I saw as the antiquated ticketing system, depending on semi-legible stamps from a machine that is always at the wrong end of the platform. Cara advised that inspectors regularly prowled the train, and they did not wear uniforms. As if summoned by incantation, two young men in severely fashionable haircuts, tight jeans and an energetic – even muscular – physical presence appeared and demanded to see everyone’s papers. The one who approached us was bearded. I half expected to be told that while my ticket was adequate, it was inferior to a more difficult to obtain one handwritten by a poet I’d probably never heard of. When I mentioned my impression of hipsters to Cara, she frowned, and suggested that gangsters might be closer to the mark.
The architecture of the city leaves me with a lingering sense of the unusual. The large Lutheran cathedral loomed over the Lustgarten, as ornate and domed as anything in Rome, the new German Protestants apparently at ease with the grandiose. Schinkel’s Friedrichswerdersche Kirche looked like someone had described a gothic cathedral to a 19th Century industrial engineer who had never been in one, given him a pile of red bricks, and told him to have it ready by Friday. Its clean lines look towards modernity, but it also looks squarely backwards, as chimerical a building as I have ever seen, and as ugly as all two-faced things. One might admire it, but I cannot imagine anyone worshipping an awesome God in it. Apparently the Berliners felt the same, for I have since learned that it was deconsecrated and later closed indefinitely due to structural damage from building works nearby. They are rebuilding the Stadtschloss, knocked down by the DDR in the 1950s and replaced by the Palast der Republik, knocked down in its turn by decree of the reunified parliament in 2003. Disney Berlin, Cara calls it, with what sounds like amused contempt. If there is also anger, she keeps it to herself.
So we were standing in the former East Berlin – a place that for the first 20 years of my life was, in my mind, a prison camp stuck in a slightly twee and embarrassing past – a sort of 1950s German Scarfolk. Now it was a boring bus stop. I realised that I must have wandered across the former border a dozen times and never noticed, and despite what the guidebooks say, I had not noticed the change in architecture, or not attributed it to political history, because even in the western parts of the city that I had seen, it had felt like a patchwork that didn’t quite fit together. Potsdamer Platz the day before had been a soulless wasteland, its shops merely low rent versions of the ones I was to see the following day in the Mall of Berlin, about 100 metres away. Unsurprisingly, there was no-one there. We could walk sterile blocks in the centre of the city on a workday afternoon and see no-one, nor get any sense that pedestrians had been factored in to any plans. Other parts of the city were as messy and organic as sex, or a migraine. At the time it made no sense. I would really only see the border – the real border, or one of them – the next day, this afternoon, as I write.
The Neues Museum was our last stop, and only a short one as Raf had had enough. Negotiating a too brief visit and agreeing a meeting spot with him, the rest of us dashed into the museum, headed like an arrow for its party piece, the bust of Nefertiti. Like an arrow, that is, which is shot, bounces off a wall, drops to the ground, is picked up by a passing child, carried to another town and finally sent back to its original target by mail. Getting lost was our good fortune – we saw, albeit briefly, much of what the museum had to offer, the most interesting of which was a range of bronze and early iron age artefacts from central Europe, creations of the so-called Hallstatt Culture and its predecessors. Helms and weapons, of course, but also domestic implements, torcs, symbols (and stores) of wealth and signifiers of status. My first sense of a real people for whom the rise of Greece and Rome was distant news, and occasionally trouble on the southern border.
In, at last, to see the bust, and it is breathtaking – quite a different experience in reality from the impression you will receive from pictures. The sense of a real person, so much more than any monochrome marble, is overwhelming – intelligent, confident in her position both as a semi-divine ruler of a great people and, certainly, a very beautiful woman – that more common condition but no less transcendent. The gap of time over which those eyes stare back at her audience is 3,300 years, and never to me has such a gap seemed so tissue thin.
A day for the boys, at least the first twelve hours of it. Their pick was Legoland at Postdamer Platz – which is exactly what you think: a Lego shop with a Lego exhibition and a café attached. Two full hours for the boys to run around and play in an all-plastic, primary colour, indoor setting. The coffee was adequate, sold to me by a Sydneysider who is “stuck here, because my girlfriend is German”, which may or may not bode well for the relationship.
The highlight was definitely the “4-D movie”, a fifteen minute short with the characters of The Lego Movie triumphing over whatever we’re supposed to triumph over these days – copyright infringement and the gig economy, by the looks. Unlike at the Centrepoint Tower, their claim to the fourth dimension rested not only on occasionally turning on the sprinklers but also flashing lights in our eyes and, on one occasion, spraying us with spume. The movie was, natch, far too loud and in German (“ohhh, man, das ist nicht gut”). Accordingly, if you closed your eyes, the experience was of someone shouting at you in a foreign language while lights – clearly visible through the eyelids – flashed on and off for no obvious reason and at random intervals you were sprayed with a range of substances until you were moist. I found the whole thing strangely relaxing.
Further observations of Germans (or at least Berliners and their city):
Contrary to previous observations, in fact they smile and laugh just like normal people, regularly and uninhibitedly. It is possible that they just don’t smile at ignorant foreigners who are approaching them, obviously about to ask for help in their only language – one the native Berliner learned the hard way, in school.
Berlin, or the parts I’ve seen, is not a rich city. The Hauptbahnhof is the anomaly – the rest of the city is not clean and free of graffiti and does not look like it teleported in from a utopian Star Trek-style future. It looks very lived in indeed. When it rains moderately heavily, as it did today, the U-bahn walkways flood with muddy ooze, which they try to vacuum out with equipment at least 20 years old. The U-bahn itself is probably a shade grubbier than in London or Paris.
The former East Germany pops up in the unlikeliest places. Tonight we ate with Andi’s friend Cara, her sister, Eva, and Eva’s young daughter. Eva works with a political foundation connected with the Left Party, a coalition of western radical leftists and the successor grouping of the former ruling communists. On its staff, she tells me, are former academics and politicians of the old East, including the last communist premier, Hans Modrow. Also survivors from the east are the Ampelmännchen – the little green men who indicate when it is safe for pedestrians to cross a road, which is weird, because they’re oddly anachronistic in their gender specificity and headwear, and have only one, disturbingly oversized, arm apiece. Astonishingly, also a former communist innovation since adopted in unified Germany are green traffic light arrows allowing right turns against the prevailing red light – remembering here that Germans drive on the right. Apparently the idea that people might safely nip round while not interfering with other traffic simply never occurred to the people who have, for scores of years, built most of the best known quality motor vehicles on the planet. Clearly, whatever their shortcomings on the economic management front, and the not turning your country into a secret police-ridden paranoid shithole front, East Germans knew a thing or two about traffic signals.
Dinner was at the Markthalle Neun, on Eisenbahnstrasse – my first look at Kreuzberg. This feels like a real place lived in by real Berliners, no souvenir stalls or kitsch bars, the graffiti complaining of gentrification. But my impressions are limited by the need to form them through rain-obscured glasses, trying to leap the deepest puddles while dodging cars, because the forecast showers have made themselves at home and become a steady, soaking drench. By the time we get there we’re all squelching as we walk and Raf very sensibly kicks his sodden shoes off altogether. It’s wonderful to have some adults to talk to, and I shamelessly bribe the children with an extra dessert to buy myself another hour. They nearly keep their end of the bargain, too, but too soon we have to wrap things up. Plans are made to do the Technikmuseum tomorrow and that is that, save for a further squelch back through the fading light, towards Schöneberg and bed.
And now it’s the boys’ time – Anna is off to the south of France while the merry men head east. Gare du Nord is surprisingly familiar – I had completely forgotten that we were there about 65 hours earlier as we got off the Eurostar. We’ve packed a bit into those hours.
In any event, Thalys 9437 takes us out of Paris and, in short order, out of France, into and out of Belgium and into Germany – Brussels, Liege, Aachen and Köln, and while I trust I’m not the sort of poseur who goes on about Firenze or München when they have time-hallowed names in English, calling it Cologne just seems weird because that’s not English, it’s French, and the city isn’t. It matters little what we call it anyway, because we’ve just time for a traditional slice of cheese-crust salami from an authentic little charcutier called Pizza Hut before dashing onto the Deutsche Bahn’s Inter City Express, which is German for “inter-city express”, service 953, to Berlin, via Wuppertal, Hannover and a couple of other cities which would be big enough to have English names if anyone felt the need.
Our seat-mate on the first leg was Daniel (I believe – I gleaned the name from a friend of his addressing him), a Canadian marine biologist of perhaps 70, recently in Australia in connection with an adjunct professorship he is taking up at one of the Perth universities. On the second leg we were in a row by ourselves, not round a table, and thus made no new friend, to my regret.
Eight hours travel has never been so easy or comfortable. I am already regretting that I booked a flight to get us back to France in a few days. Clinging to my aim on this trip of turning the Germans, in my mind, from a bunch of clichés and stereotypes into real people, I worked resolutely to ignore the businessman in the row in front of me who kept looking around to see who had the temerity to be on the phone in what he, erroneously, believed was the quiet zone of the carriage – his mistake being explained to him when he sought to raise the matter with a passing uniform. It was thus, I thought, simply unfair that the man who served me in the dining car – after fawning revoltingly over the blonde 30-year-old ahead of me in the queue – stared at me with open hostility while I tried to order in English, told me that coffee was no longer available, and did so while bearing a truly remarkable physical resemblance to a certain famous Chancellor of the 1930s and 1940s, needing only to trim his moustache to complete the effect. All of which made his subsequent and quite unexpected production of a pair of toy trains and kids’ magazines, handed over with a mumbled “for the boys”, downright disorienting.
Another shock is the language. While I do not speak French, I can stumble along in it and, more importantly, I know its cadences and tones – I can often guess at meanings by catching a few words or even syllables, combined with expression or gesture. With the exception of one of the cabin staff, a round, friendly woman in her thirties who wished us an enjoyable stay, I am yet to see much in the way of facial expression from any German. This robs me of clues that I desperately need, because, to my surprise, the language is so much white noise. I expected to know few words, but to be unable to guess more than a few vowels is to find myself drowning. The problem is shown up acutely when I am, in fact, addressed in English – I must concentrate closely to make any sense of a language – one in which I have been fluent for forty years – seemingly unmoored from the phonemic pilings with which I am familiar.
No doubt I will get some linguistic bearings in the next day or so. While I do so, a familiar task awaits – to become conversationally fluent in the local transportation system. Berlin Hauptbahnhof is impressively clean, modern, spacious and attractive – eclipsing the previous titleholder on this trip, St Pancras International. Its space and seeming efficiency may have intimidated me slightly, and I found myself lost trying to turn Google’s advice for getting to our hotel into action. In my defence, no other city has presented options including three different train networks (local rail, S-bahn and U-bahn) and a bus system, all for getting 10km across the city centre. I asked for help, and was given it, in English, efficiently and unsmilingly. I was sold the appropriate tickets, went to the platform directed, and looked about for the machine with which I was advised I needed to stamp the tickets. At that point, a kindly man took pity, and indicated the small, unmarked, wholly non-descript little box into which I was required to insert the slips of paper. Once on the train, the confusion on my face as I studied (more accurately, scanned without taking anything in) the rail map must again have been obvious, as he politely asked if he could assist. In response to my enthusiastic encouragement, he showed me how to find Berlin Hbf, the Zoologische Garten (where we were required to change to the U-bahn) and Nollendorfplatz, our eventual destination. He guessed my nationality as English – the first person to do so on this trip. I gave him the ten word version of my autobiography. We chatted about his work as a lobbyist in the area of environmental policy and he informed me, as one might tell a friend about a piece of lettuce in his teeth, that Australia needed to do more to reduce its very high per capita carbon emissions. I muttered something about the dispersed nature of our population, but he was right, of course, and I conceded as much, producing another first – the only time so far that I’ve felt called upon to apologise for the embarrassment that is the Australian government. This must be what Americans – those who can count and spell – feel like much of the time.
While still on the ICE, Raf looked up our hotel, the Sachsenhof on Motzstrasse. The only review we could find giving it less than four stars was from one punter who complained that it had “clean and spacious rooms … RIGHT IN THE GAY DISTRICT”. Said punter is absolutely right. Our room is airy and full of character while having everything we could want. The leopard print carpet is gorgeous. It costs less than half what we paid for our cramped attic in Paris. As for the district – “gay” is a fairly timid appellation. Right across the (broad, tidy) street is a bespoke tailor, whose sign says they specialise in leather and rubber but whose (chic, expensive-looking) shop window includes a number of items in very finely worked chain mail, to be worn, apparently, over a G-string. Leaving Raf to unpack, Seb and I go out to find a bite. When we do, it’s a plate of sweet-and-sour, basic but just what he needs, for €5, and I’ll repeat that, five fucking euros.
I have a good feeling about this town.
I don’t really remember the Place de la Concorde from my childhood visit, or if I do, it was filed under “incomprehensible”, because it’s enormous. I take one photo from one corner, and then flee. Up the Champs-Elysées to the statue of Charles de Gaulle, an opportunity for a history lesson on the subject of “France in the 20th Century”, number about 4 in a series, some syllabus overlap with “Germany in the 20th Century”, a series of which we’ve had the introduction, the later lectures to be delivered in Berlin. Along the way we pass Avenue Franklin Delano Roosevelt, lesson 5. I hope Raf’s taking at least some of this in. If we get home and he denies all knowledge of la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale, I will pout for days.
Before we get to within decent photographing distance of the Arc de Triomphe, we’ve all had enough, frankly – kids bickering and Anna and I snapping at each other. I try to negotiate the purchase of some telecommunications with Orange, and fail. In the end, we buy a €10 phone for Anna and a cheap SIM, and hope that’s enough. Then to the Marais, where the Museum of Magic has been recommended by a friend. Unfortunately, it’s not open, but the area round the Rue Saint Antoine is pretty and fun until it starts to rain. To escape the rain, we jump on a bus which I think is heading back towards the centre. It isn’t, because north is that way, not that way, and by the time I realise the mistake we’re well on the way to the suburbs. Pas de problème – off the bus and onto the metro to the Île de la Cité or, as we know it, Gaulish Lutetia. Round the corner and that, lads, is perhaps the most famous cathedral in the world. Yes, inside it looks pretty much like every other Catholic cathedral we’ve already dragged you into and no, we won’t make you stand in line to have a look. Alright, one Orangina, and then we can go back to the hotel.
Everyone crashes, so I take a walk, down to the Rue de Rivoli, to see if I can find the hotel in which my mother and I stayed in 1984. I find one near where it must have been, just past the Hôtel de Ville – the Hôtel de Nice, which may or may not be the place. Back to our hotel on the Rue de la Ville Neuve to gather the gang for dinner. Seb demands sushi and nothing but, so he and Anna head off thusly. But I, on my ramble, have discovered Rue des Petits Carreaux/Rue Montorgueil, a cobbled strip of café life, so Raf and I get a pizza among crowds of the fashionable and the sociable.
Once back, everyone crashes again, but I can’t sleep, so I sneak out for a final look around Paris. A walk to the Seine, the Eiffel Tower striping the sky with its lighthouse beams, the Palais du Louvre, then back on the metro. Nearing midnight, the true nature of the neighbourhood is more apparent – I am propositioned twice by professional women within fifty metres. My first would-be friend is an attractive Asian woman in chic clothes who backs off at a shake of my head. The second encounter is with a couple of solidly built black women, both dressed so as to leave no doubt as to their intention, who head towards me quite agressively. One tries to take my hand, and it takes a repeated, stern “non!” to shake her off. As I turn the corner into the street where our hotel – quite a fashionably turned out place, certainly no flea pit – nestles, I notice that the little cinema a few doors down is of a specialist variety I had thought rendered extinct by the internet. But then I thought that of streetwalkers, too, which shows how little I know. What I do know is that in this neighbourhood, a lonely man might find it very easy to have that loneliness sharpened exquisitely, at the cost of a few euros, and some human dignity.