The first view of Germany was a confusion of woods and sparse villages.
We had just crossed the border from Holland into Rhineland- Westphalia, surrounded by frozen mud fields and a pale sun, dulled by clouds, at a grim, austere, Bad Bentheim station.
Here the Dutch engine on our train was unwanted – removed – replaced by a fitter, stronger, more German DB Bahn Deutscher engine. Proud, rousing, Germanic efficiency.
Sadly, however, Bad Bentheim is a station where passengers have to enter or leave the station house building through the rather comically undignified process of hauling of themselves, and their luggage, up through one, small, open window.
I was told this was because the rail company had previously raised the platforms of the station, but hadn’t thought to raise the buildings, so the new higher platforms blocked any of the doors from opening.
The uniformed officious men on the platforms didn’t seem to want to talk about this absurd way of entering the country, as I stepped off the train to stretch my legs on our 15 minute stop over. Shameful, unmentionable, Germanic blundering, I suppose.
The polizei passed through our train. 4 uniformed officers swaggering along, bumping into every seat – and every head at bottom level – through the carriages without a care. They stood and posed and stared, but only asked to see one man’s passport. The one black man on the whole train.
I walked through the carriages myself, as we started into our second country out of England.
It had been fairly empty all the way from Amsterdam.
But one carriage I entered which was completely full. Every seat taken. Bodies stood in the aisle. And a great fug – an overpowering smell – of booze in the air.
It wasn’t a party scene. It was quiet, civilised. But everyone had some sort of drink – a large beer or a brandy or wine – in their hand – bottles and cans scattered on the small tables. And only in this carriage.
There were no signs in the train to say that drinking was only allowed just in this carriage. Alcohol was allowed everywhere on the train. But all the drinkers had seemed to gravitate together in this one place. To sit and drink, and not talk to each other.
And to watch the grey landscape of old marshland pass. Slowly irrigating themselves, imbibing through Lower Saxony and the Emsland.
We left our bags and went to sit in the dining car, watching the German diners eating soups and good hearty sausage abendessens off good, proper, white, dining plates.
A dining car. With tables, and a tall, trim, man in a smart uniform serving. A great train institution from yesteryear. And more than you’d ever get on British rail services, with their dismal ‘on board shops’ of sandwiches and plastic cups of tea.
This one though, sadly, was still a little modern: spotlights in the ceiling – no chandeliered lamps. An elegant woman playing a game of cards – Patience – but on her tablet screen.
I sat and studied the train timetable, like I was unravelling a great mystery of riddles and hieroglyphics on some old scroll.
I slowly started to believe I had worked a way to get us into Berlin 20 minutes earlier than we were due in on this current train.
By changing on to another Berlin-bound train that would arrive a few minutes after ours at Hannover – but which would then overtake this now redundant and suddenly undesirable to me, train – I’m sure we would get there faster.
I was inordinately pleased with myself and my discovery.
However, our train was running 10 minutes late – 10 minutes late… A German train. Unthinkable! – and so I kept bustling along the corridor, every few minutes, to where the pretty young Head Conductor was cooped up in her dark, tiny, lamp-lit, cupboard room.
Would this train get in before the later one behind it, I kept asking.
I told her I had important calculations riding on it. Would the late running affect my plans?
I filled her in with, satisfied air, on my stratagems, on the whole of my 20 minute scheme… Perhaps no one else had ever thought of it? The pretty conductor sat looking at me, listening, nodding.
She then turned to the microphone to talk the train.
“Wir kommen jetzt Hannover…“
We were here already?
I hollered down the carriage, to the dining car, to Passepartout that we had arrived. We were here. And we had to get off the train.
And I started pushing my way down the carriages.
Squeezing past podgy Germans, apologising, shoving.
I had to get to our bags, get them off the train.
And I managed it. Collapsing out, with our things, onto the platform, as the high pitched bleeping ended and the doors closed behind me with an unnecessarily loud thud of finality.
Hunched over the bags, panting, I looked up, to see my travelling Passepartout, faithfully with me all this way, still behind the thick glass. Stuck behind a large elderly lady – resolutely not moving – taking up the whole of the train’s corridor.
Passepartout’s aggrieved face – and the lady’s hindering bulk – slowly pulled away in front of me in a gradual increasing motion, as I remained bent, looking up, staring.
And then I was left.
On Hannover station.
On my own.
I stood on the long platform, as new hordes of train travellers started to join me, pouring up from the stairwells.
The platform was high up, above the dark city: I looked out at a huge domed church glaring back at me, and thought: I guess I have to wait for the next train then. The train I had so cleverly planned for us to catch, to come in, while Passepartout was ferried – slower or faster, who cared now? – to Berlin, off down the line.
I sat on the bags for a bit. Looking at my feet, despondent.
Eventually I reached down into one of the bags on the floor, and pulled out an old creased manila envelope I knew I had in there.
Inside were several old letters my father had once sent to me, 27 years before.
My father had taken a journey like this of his own once. He had driven towards Berlin, across Europe, attempting, hoping, like me, to see the city capital of East Germany – at the very time that communism was crumbling outwards, unstoppably fast, from Gorbachev’s Moscow.
As he drove, back then, in 1989, he would listen to the radio. Listening to reports detailing how the regimes that had once seemed so rigid, so everlasting, were being pulled down, every day, as he got closer.
Every mile he progressed, getting closer to the Wall, was answered across the analogical airwaves with a report of how Berlin – how Communist Europe, how the world – was being changed beyond comprehension.
I took the first letter out and read:
We left London on Friday 22 December…
– This came as a small sharp shock: the VERY SAME date that I had left from London –
We called into Bruxelles to obtain currencies and the next day, crossed into West Germany via Liege and Aachen, negotiated the complex autobahn systems of the Ruhr industrial cities and pulled into a motel just outside Hannover, unmistakeable from the trees festooned with Christmas lights.
I looked around me at the cold December night hanging over present day Hannover, as I waited on the station. And my train to Berlin was marked up on the board above me with its delay.
I continued reading the letter sent by a distant – in many ways – father, over a quarter a century earlier, as we waited in the same German city.
The news is devoted to the uprising which seems to have spread to Romania and resulted in the arrest of President Ceausescu and his wife.
As I write this, we are a few kilometres from the border with East Germany and we are going to sleep wondering how all these fast-moving events will impinge on our journey.
My brilliantly planned – but quite irrelevant now – fast-moving train, from Köln arrived. I boarded. Took a seat in the modern, sleek, crafted carriages. And carried on reading.
We crossed the border today at Helmstedt. Ours was the only vehicle making the eastward crossing. The road to Berlin was more-or-less empty for the next hundred kilometres. We drove slowly to minimise the effects of the pot-holed surface.
We passed through residential areas where people looked out at our black BMW and seemed to avert their gaze quickly, as though we might have been officials who could cause trouble.
We saw large allotments, full of produce, and what in England would have been rickety sheds where tools are kept were here quite substantial constructions, smartly painted, outside of which people were eating and drinking together; it all seems an obvious form of creative subversion against a system which must confine real life to drab apartment blocks that overlook these arcadian plots of bourgeois pleasure.
The road is getting worse.
I dimly remembered receiving these letters as a gawky suburban 14-year old and finding them by turns alluring and exotic and quite incomprehensible.
As I passed, alone in the busy carriage, along the rails through a dark Jerichower Land, I read the next letter. Sent from my father, what felt lifetime ago.
Approaching Potsdam I took a very wrong turn and found we were obviously driving through a Russian military camp. A group of men wearing hats the size of small bicycle wheels took notice of the car. Soon two East German police drew up next to us. We showed them the documentation from the East German Travel Agency – issued weeks ago from a small office up a small side street back in bustling Holborn – which indicated that we should be checking into a place called the Cecilienhof Hotel in Potsdam.
They seemed to be very impressed by this and insisted that we should follow their car.
I hadn’t realised till we got here that the Cecilinhof Hotel was where Churchill, Stalin and President Truman carved up post-war Europe.
We were able to park just outside the front door.
I looked out the window at the outskirts of Berlin and turned over the letter and continued reading.
I am writing this later in the oak-panelled luxury of our room. I am uneasy. Given the number of dignitaries who must have stayed here I wonder if the Russian and now the East German apparat might not have bugged the room.
There is no television or radio. We are isolated from events going on in the outside world – and ours are the only voices in the room. Paranoia has set in. We are being very careful of what we say.
I rolled my eyes at my father’s hyperbole – a terrible family habit. Got off my long, streamlined, bullet-shaped, DB Bahn train at Berlin Hauptbahnof – which had served, in a previous life, as the final station on the West German train line, and was then cut-off completely by the Berlin Wall and left in decaying wilderness.
Now it had been rebuilt, re-branded and is the largest station in Europe. Rows and rows of platforms and lines upstairs and downstairs, a cathedral of glass, shopping, restaurants, 1,800 trains arriving and departing each day.
And somewhere in this cauldron of travel I had to find the train from Amsterdam arriving with – hopefully – my Passpartout still on it. Unless she’d already got off and headed back to Hannover of course.
It was very hard to work out which platform a train coming from Amsterdam would arrive at.
I was given much exact, and kind, help from the DB Bahn workers and passing-by passengers. All advice quite conflicting with each other.
I think I have the right platform. I sit down on the bags. I wait. And pull out my father’s final letter.
At dinner in the hotel we made friends with the middle-aged East German couple seated opposite us at our table – Werner and Liselotte.
The following day they sort of tagged along behind us (I wondered, unworthily as it turned out, whether they could be part of some security detail) as we walked towards a crowd that seemed to be heading towards a river crossing. This, it turned out, was the Glienicke Bridge – the renowned Bridge of Spies.
West Berliners had only been allowed to cross into the eastern sector two days before. The crowd was largely made up of well-dressed, affluent-looking individuals, we assumed that they were Wessies exercising their new collective right to pass back and forth across the bridge. But there was no noise, no laughter, almost no conversation; the mood was sombre and hushed as we all quietly walked the length of the bridge.
There were some soldiers around and Werner was visibly uncomfortable in taking the exit giving access to those parts of the city he had never seen before. In fact, as the day went on he seemed to hanker after the familiarities of the East.
Earlier today we walked to the Brandenburg Gate – a few people wandering about – and then we moved to the River Spree where we came across a large group of people, this one was younger, gathered round a section of the wall.
Three of four men were steadily trying to knock down a large section. Chunks of concrete fell to the ground where other men worked to break them into smaller pieces. Members of the crowd filed slowly past, looking at the pile, occasionally picking up pieces, and then silently moved away again. Again, there were no words, no laughter, no sounds of jubilation, just the sound of hammers working against the strength of the wall.
I picked up two small pieces. Both painted light blue, one has black writing on it.
I looked down the still empty platform. Hoping to see the train arrive, still slightly unsure I was in the right place. I didn’t recall ever seeing my father’s pieces of history. He certainly didn’t hand one on to me.
I couldn’t work out how a couple like Werner and Lise – so established within their society and yet so incurious, frightened almost, of the newly-opened neighbouring aspects of their city – would have decided to stay in such an ostentatiously grand hotel for Christmas, unless they consider it a sort of patriotic duty to attend such a symbol of their civic traditions.
Certainly the East Berliners have preserved their public buildings in seeming defiance of the glass and steel constructions thrown up on the other side of the wall.
There was an addition to my father’s letter, on a separate piece of paper.
Perhaps the question was answered today.
Werner and Lise told us they own a chemist shop and this afternoon they proudly showed us. The shop is a single storey building with a door and a window opening directly on to the road. Inside, two rooms. The shop contains shelves with a few pots of face cream and one or two apothecary containers in brown glass. And that is it.
Werner beckoned me over to a small counter, unlocked a drawer and invited me to look. Lying in the drawer were three packets of Gillette razor blades. Nothing else.
And at that moment I realised that we hadn’t got the slightest comprehension, absolutely no understanding at all of the lives of these people.
There was nothing to suggest that they were or had ever suffered, they seemed happy and content, open and willing to please – and yet, the success they felt in their lives must have been measured by the treasure secreted within that locked drawer. Behind the shop was their living accommodation – one room with a bed, table and chairs, and a sink – the toilet was outside.
I looked up in the cavernous hall of glass, new, shining like a pin. I looked along the line as the untroubled train, that had raced through the country, boring through where old East Germany had lain, glided down to stop next to me. I crammed the letters back in my bag.
Well-dressed Berliners, pulling suitcases, loaded with Christmas presents, marched purposefully down the platform or hugged family and friends who waited for them. A spiralling and spreading crowd. A confusion of modern, cocksure, travellers.
And at last, there, small amongst them, a rather cross looking Passpartout.
Reunited, we walked out into a modern, confident, Berlin.
The Greek connection was there once more.
Passepartout had heard a Greek friend of a friend of a Greek friend that might have an apartment in Berlin we could use. But first we had to meet another Greek in Berlin to get the keys.
On a dark corner where Afrikan Strasse met Londoner Strasse, we waited for an age. The cold was biting. People passed with coat collars turned up. We peered at the faces of shadowy strangers in the deserted street. Is this him? Is this him?
“I’m not the man you are looking for…”
A dark passing figure hissed the words as he passed.
And lowered his hood, and cackled. Rocking back on his heels, he roared with laughter at his joke. He was a great bear of a man. Fokia was his name. It means seal in Greek. He hugged both of us, enveloping us in his arms.
He carried on telling joke after joke, talking and talking to us, roaring with mirth, we hardly said a word.
Then a huge explosion went off.
A deafening blast from somewhere just behind us.
We all crouched, cowering into our shoulders. A silence rang out afterwards, across the streets, a dog started barking, a whining in our ears. We slowly raised ourselves up again.
Then Fokia erupted into laughter once more.
“A bomb! They’re always finding bombs! An unexploded bomb from the Second World War! The find them all over the city… You never know when they’re going to blow one up!”
And with that he thumped me hard between the shoulders again, knocking all the wind out of me, and boomed with laughter once more.
We got the key and headed south to the Neukölln area where we found the flat on another dark, quiet street.
Famished, we left our stuff, and turned the corner onto Hermannstraße and entered the first kebap place we saw.
There was a private party going on in the back. A young girl was having a birthday party surrounded by family, 10 or 15 members, the women in bright head scarves, the men and thick, rather old fashioned suits.
I apologised and asked if the place was closed. Should we leave?
“No, no,” said the man behind the counter “Come, join us…”
His name was Hashem, he was from Palestine.
“I’ve been here in Berlin 22 years,” he told me.
Is everyone here Palestinian, I asked. Is this your family?
“Well , yes. And no,” Hashem replied, smiling, his teeth like roughly-hewn tombstones.
How do you mean?
“They are not my family, no. They do not come from Palestine. They are from Syria. But they have war in their country. You know this I think, yes? So, in a way, they are my family…”
We sat down at the party on the kebab shop bolted-down plastic chairs. Feeling fantastically awkward, while Hashem spent an age preparing our kebabs, whistling to himself, back in the window at the front of his shop.
I smiled a weak smile at the family group. I asked if anyone spoke English. Great smiles, but blank faces, were returned.
The birthday girl cut at her fairly meagre-looking cake. The family cheered and a mother and some aunts kissed at her face.
She offered us two slices.
I felt a huge wave of sadness roll over me.
An uncle, in one of the badly-cut suits, bustled off and brought us back two glasses of strong, bitter, black tea.
I couldn’t think of what to say, sat here in the kebab shop on my first night in Berlin with these people who had fled a war – perhaps taking the very route we were taking to Greece, but in reverse. I felt hopeless.
“Salaam Alaikum,” I said.
“Alaikum salaam!” they replied as one.
Alexanderplatz is open, grey and vast. As is the Berlin sky. Unusual for a major city, it doesn’t seem hemmed in at all. The aspects are all big and expansive. The iconic tv tower – the Fernsehturm – stared down on us from on high.
We walked past a group of refugees asking for spare change. They had laminated i.ds to show they were official refugees. I watched several Germans inspecting these lanyard-ed documents, one man even putting his glasses on and studying the small print, before the handing over of a few coins.
We walked down the main boulevard, the Unter den Linden which – rather sweetly and a little tweely for such a stately avenue – literally means ‘Under the Linden Trees’.
Berlin was – still is, after all this time – being constructed, rebuilt.
Cranes were everywhere. Great gaping holes where buildings had been knocked down.
The unfinished U5 metro extension linking the main station through the sightseer attractions of town halls and museums, all the way to the Brandenburg Gate, lay dug deep into the street, like some colossal dead snake. Almost like the Berlin Tunnels themselves.
Past the Cathedral, past the Deutsches Historisches Museum, we walked the imperious street to the end where we come across the very grandest gate on the East-West border: the Brandenburg Tor.
And for us, now, it was still a barrier.
The New Year celebration preparations meant the gate was boarded, fenced off, guarded by unco-operative police. No way through.
We skirted round the back anyway.
Past an empty Reichstag. Where I can then walk Passepartout through the Tiergarten.
The blockades meaning the huge park were now deserted, just for us. Past the wild flowers and the stone gardens, round to the other side of town.
Where we hit the Wall.
What’s left of the Wall is obvious in places like this, or in the graffiti decorated long stretch on the east side of the Spree. But sometimes fragments of the Wall sneak up on you.
You turn around in an unknown, uncelebrated spot of the city and suddenly find the Wall there on your shoulder. And you struggle to understand how this particular spot fitted into the divisions, or on what side you would have been on.
We carried on through the centre. Down Friedrichstraße.
From the posh shops, further into old West, where the buildings become markedly, and strangely, more shabby and unattractive. Only 10 minutes’ walk from the very centre of Berlin – and you’re into deepest Tottenham or Walthamstow.
We walked on into Kreuzberg – now we’re back into Shoreditch – and we headed down dark side streets (Berlin seems very wide and very grey in the day, closer and darker at night) to avoid the more modish, hipsterish, bars.
And we ended up sitting and drinking in the window table of ‘Das Hotel’. A fairly hidden, flaking-walled, candlelit bar, with the young drunk of Berlin. Beautiful, sweet master-race, boys drinking off the top of broken old pianos. Girls, posing, kissing, singing.
Later, we take great bratwurst at a stand-up stall – Curry 36 – just outside Merringdam station and then back to our neighbourhood for a final drink at the tiny Circus Lemke bar, where time has stopped in 1931.
Dirty plaster frontage, crammed inside with tarnished valuables. Dark orange light, music from an old radio set, the bar man with slicked back hair and a bow tie pouring cocktails, dishevelled locals drinking schnapps perched on stools.
“Berlin is about pleasure” the bar man, in his rather stiff shirt collar, tells me. “Dancing. Hedonism. It always has been. The decadent cabarets of the Weimar Rebuplic, you know this yes? All the way to the empty warehouses and those brutalist designs in the city as we had techno parties in the 90s after Wall came down.”
He didn’t especially look like someone who would clutch hedonism to a sweaty body. But he insisted he was.
Why do you think it is, I asked him.
Without stopping to even think, polish a glass, holding it up to the light, breathing on it, rubbing it again, he replied “It’s unifying.” He smirked. “You might know that unity is quite an important thing here, yes?”
The crackly 1930s jazz tinkled in the dark bar.
Your English is very good, I said. Have you studied it? Have you ever been to England?
“No,” he said “I just watch a lot of Monty Python.”
At the end of our road we were staying on lay the old Tempelhof Airport.
Once the iconic airfield of the Nazis regime. Later, after the war, when West Berlin was blockaded in by the Soviets, it was here that the Berlin Airlift took place: the Allies dropping supplies for the people of West Berlin during a year-long city siege.
Now it has been closed and turned into a huge manicured park – the bizarre sight of couples pushing prams along the old vast wide aircraft landing strips.
But now the colossal airport building has been been turned into a refugee camp. Refugees rising up from Greece. We walked into Berlin for a final time, before we said goodbye to it.
Before we headed down towards Greece.
A Trabant car – the noisy, East German-built, two-cylinder cars belching out exhaust fumes – puttered down the street past us.
I was rather excited to see one. This one driven by two hipster dudes though – grinning, hoping to be noticed. I pretend I hadn’t.
The Konzerthaus Berlin. Situated on the Gendarmenmarkt square, between the striking sight of the almost twin, grand, French and Germans churches.
Years ago, playing with the Thessaloniki Orchestra, my Passepartout had once played violin in this great hall. She wanted to see it again.
However, there was a Christmas Market in the square. There would be a Christmas Market haunting us in pretty much every city and town we hit on this train journey down to Greece. None of them ever seemed to hold any appeal whatsoever.
The Gendarmenmarkt one seemed hugely popular though. We tried to walk across the square, just to get a view of the concert hall. A hand was pushed onto my chest. A barrier was brought down.
“Oh we don’t want to come into the market. We just want to get a view of the Konzerthaus,”
“You pay one Euro.”
“But we don’t want to go in. We just want to stand… there,” I pointed a few feet ahead of me. “Just for a second.”
“Ja. You pay one Euro.” I’m pointed to a cash register. A small crowd started to build behind me.
“I don’t think you understand…”
“OH DON’T ARGUE!” a very high pitch, strangulated German male voice came from the crowd behind. A genuinely aggravated howl.
I didn’t know how to respond to this. I felt torn between the anger of the pig-headed officiousness of the guard, and an amusement at the display from the crowd of German disgust of anyone questioning the rules.
I managed to stop myself saying something hopelessly crass and Fawlty-esque, like “This is exactly the sort of thing that got you in trouble last time around…” or mention banality of evils or anything like that.
So we left. Me with a face of thunder. The self-policing crowd having dealt successfully with my terribly un-German small display of dissent. And we never really got to see the beauty of the Konzerthaus, looking at us face-on. Where Passepartout had played, in a different life.
Charlottenburg district. Affluent, elegant.
We stopped for supper at a place we spotted called Gasthaus Lentz.
It was full of the students of ’68.
Now in comfortable late middle-age, the ’68 students still sit in this great-looking café, arguing – politely – lost in their broadsheet Neues Deutschlands or Die Zeits. Kaffees and glasses of beer on the white marble table tops.
A very tall Russian-hatted man with a thin beard came in and wandered to each table selling his revolutionary literature. The crowd of ’68, sitting around, lowered their designer glasses, smiled. And wafted him away.
I ate sauerkraut, white Bavarian sausages and black German bread.
Afterwards we walked down the Kurfürstendamm. Towards Berlin Zoo. Onto Budapesterstraße – Budapest still a long way down the street for us.
We paused at the Gedächtniskirche – a dark stone neo-romanesque, tall-spired church.
On November 23rd 1943, the church suffered a direct bombing hit. The spire was saved and now stands in its ruined state as a reminder of war, a vestige, a shadow. ‘Der hohle Zahn’ – the hollow tooth – the Berliners call it.
The broken, spectral spire in the dark is a moving, slightly unsettling sight.
And then we came up short, tripping over a carpet of candles and flowers on the floor.
We didn’t know where we were, or why, or what the significance was. But I started to have a horrible idea…
There was another of those endless Christmas market in the square below the spire and the stained-glass new church built next to it.
And it was here that Anis Amri – the wanted face we had seen beamed onto the tv screens in Liverpool Street before we left England – it was here that he drove a truck into the Christmas stalls and crowds, on 19 December 2016.
12 people dead, 48 injured.
We decided this time of course not to quibble, to pay our euro. To walk the market, to buy a mulled wine. To stand and drink and make some sort of thin, propitiatory tribute. To hope that this was good enough somehow.
The market was doing good business, crowds milled. But stopping short, like us, at the flowers.
The stalls which had been knocked down and crushed, but had already been put back.
Busy women selling the big, shrink wrapped traditional, Lebkuchenherzen heart-shaped gingerbread treats with the icing Christmas writing on.
There was no real indication of the horror that had happened only a few days earlier.
I marvelled at the German ability to recover, redress, reconcile. No melodramatics. Moving forward.
I also dwelt on the triumph of commerce over reminiscence and remembrance.
But who was I to comment on the disposition of another country, another people? I was just travelling to observe, passive, recording, not judging.
So we moved on, in a sombre mood, to catch the S-bahn from the near-by Berlin Zoologischer Garten Station.
Before the Hauptbanhof, this was the main station for Berlin.
The ‘Zoo Station’ has lost its importance now, and looked rather small and sad compared to the glass and steel beast of the Hauptbanhof. But only 10 years ago it used to have trains departing its platforms for Siberia – the Sibirjak train.
We were not taking anything as grand or enduring as that. But the 13.03 tomorrow from the Hauptbahnof would take us due south. To Prague.
And from Prague we were heading the right way back to Greece: the continuing journey.
27 years ago, my father left the opposite way. The way we had just come.
During the drive back through Germany we overtook large numbers of Trabant cars. They were all heading west like ants spilling out from a disturbed nest. They were still plentiful in Holland. The last one we spotted was puttering along the motorway between Antwerp and Ostend.
Full of families, set faces, packed possessions.