Cold comfort city?

You don’t have to spend more than a few minutes on the streets or public transport of the German capital to come up against someone in need. Be they homeless, disoriented, crooked or hurting, one thing a city of Berlin’s size, popularity and trajectory serves up with aplomb is a diversity of fates.

Immersed, as we so often are, in the ado and to-do of our own lives, the response to the sight of those publicly in need often seems to be to turn a resolutely blind eye. I’ve been guilty of that. But more often than not, I do stop to give, to offer a helping hand, a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on.

And I see others doing it too. Not everyone always, but frequently enough to make me think this is a city that for all its reputation as place where gruffness trumps friendliness, is also somewhere that people know how to rally. Read on or listen.

Category: Writing

Berlin and beyond: Building bridges

It’s a cliche alright, but as I stand on the banks of Berlin’s Spree River looking up at the Kanzleramtssteg, or chancellor’s bridge, a certain Simon and Garfunkel song snakes through my mind. The overpass is a contemporary slip of a thing, built between two chancellery buildings and too high to be anything other than removed from the city over which it offers what, I’m sure, is a brilliant view.

But as it’s off-limits to the public, that sense of division was clearly by design. Visible but out of reach. Maybe that symbolism was less provoking when the structure went up over a decade ago, but given the troubled waters of the nation’s political present, a bridge of more solid parts, built closer to the ground and those who walk it, might be more reassuring. And it’s not as if this were a city dry on example. Listen or read on…

Category: Writing

Berlin and beyond: Back to the Berlin Wall

Sunk into a busy four-lane road in front of the Wollankstrasse railway bridge on the former border between East and West Berlin are two lines of cobblestones that depict where the Berlin Wall once snaked through. I set out from there thinking I could follow their path all the way to an allegedly long-lost forgotten section of the historic partition. How wrong I was. No sooner had I found the double row of stones, they stopped.

Relying instead on a map of the 43 kilometers (27 miles) of what the East German authorities used to term the anti-fascist protection rampart, I headed up a slope into an empty corridor of land flanked by a railway embankment on one side and tenements on the other. I was on the death strip. Listen or read on…

Category: Writing

Berlin and beyond: The art of tipping

The first time I realized just how alien the rules of Germany’s tipping culture are to me was at the end of a less-than-glorious camping trip. When presented with the bill for my plot, I was so glad to be leaving that I handed over the money with an apparently hasty “danke.”

Had I waited a moment longer, I’d have been given 8 euros in change. As it was, I later found out, the act of saying “thank you” at the moment I did, meant there was no change. At least not for me. Lesson learned. Two lessons, in fact, as I’ve not pitched a tent since.

I have though, periodically wondered about the who, when, where of tipping in this country… To make things clear before I go any further, I’m not a gratuities grump. Far from it. I just think it helps to know the rules. Listen or read on…

Category: Writing

Berlin and beyond: Blast from the past

In the final days of last year and the first of this, I made a pact with myself to spend more time on foot. To take long walks as a means of creating time to ponder at my own pace, to slow life down. I like the idea of slower. So I’ve been loyal to my promise. Been walking like I mean it. Hit my stride, so to speak.

At the weekend, I took it — my stride, that is — and my kids out of town into Brandenburg, the state that surrounds Berlin. After misreading a map to nowhere in particular, we pulled off the road into a village perched on the reedy banks of a silent lake. At the turning, beside a red-brick and flint church, was a large sign showing a drawing of emaciated figures in blue-and-white striped shirts.

It was in tribute to the 6,000 prisoners murdered by the SS as they were forced to march northwards from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on the outskirts of Berlin during the very final days of the Second World War. Read on…

Category: Writing