Clearing out my hard-disk, I found a file containing the following text. It was the beginning of what was to be a complete journal of my first trip to Berlin, in November 2014. As it was, I only got around to writing up the first day. Here it is…
We set off from Sheffield at 6am, driving down to Birmingham in just about the heaviest rain I have ever experienced. Fortunately it cleared up just before we got there, and the flight left on time. On board, I read John Le Carré’s “A Small Town in Germany”, because what better way to prepare oneself for the Berlin of 2014 than by immersing oneself in the Bonn of 1968?
From Berlin Tegel airport I had intended to walk to the apartment – a 90 minute walk, by Google Maps’ reckoning – but I immediately ran (walked?) into a problem: there seemed to be no way out of the airport on foot. This is something I’d never considered before, but airports are fortresses, and they seem designed explicitly to prevent access and egress by people walking. So I gave in and headed for the bus stand. Here I hit upon a whole new set of problems. The ticket machine accepts cards. Yes! But no Visa. No! I got some cash out of the airport machine: guessing that the exchange rate would be ludicrous, I only withdrew €50. The ticket machine accepts notes. Yes! But not fifties. No! I visited the airport’s Burger King and traded my fifty for a child’s portion of burger, chips and coke, plus a good selection of Kleingeld. Finally I got my ticket and caught the bus.
Got off the bus and with surprising ease found and got into Henry’s flat. After a quick potter, I got the bike out and cycled into town. Noticed a wild hop plant curling around the wire-mesh fence on a street corner. Heard distant chanting – a football match, or a demonstration? And found myself cycling through the Mauerpark, where every 100m a band was playing or a juggler was drawing a crowd. There was a distinct festival atmosphere.
I headed further out East, stumbling on a little park with some monumental bull sculptures, and then a third park, full of families barbecuing and people engaged in every kind of physical activity imaginable.
As the sun was setting, and I didn’t entirely trust my dynamo-powered lights, I headed back West. It felt so late, but was still so early – not even 5pm – so I had a herbal tea and read a chapter of my book before venturing downstairs to Heinz’s bar. I felt rather out of place at first, and despite understanding 90% of the words Heinz and his friends were saying, I could only grok 10% of the sentences: there was always some crucial noun or verb, on which everything else hung, which still eluded me. All the same, the patrons began counting me in on rounds of gin, which knocked my mind sideways. Soon I was joining in the conversation despite being unsure of quite what I was conversing about.
After three beers and three schnaps I had never felt more at home. My new best friend (the village idiot), who spoke no English, kept congratulating me on my wonderful German. At around 9pm (though it felt more like midnight) I left. Popped back to the flat before going for a late-night walk. I suppose it was Sunday, but even so 10pm in the world’s liveliest city really felt like a deadzone. I was hungry, but chickened out of visiting any of the Turkish kebap joints down my way; instead I ended up back at the flat, throwing together everything I could find – which turned out to be spaghetti, garlic, herb salt, pepper and olive oil – into a midnight feast. Crashed, drunk, happy.
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