broken connections

I’m sitting in a second-class sleeping compartment drinking red wine looking forward to leaving the train in Mannheim. It was supposed to be first-class. A sleeping compartment but one with washing facilities, more space, better. It was supposed to be white wine but the bottle fooled me. From Kaiser’s at Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof. It was supposed to be Paris but the whole of French rail, as well, one presumes, as the Metro, is on strike, has been for several days. Buses will cover the remaining distance from Mannheim to Paris. And it was supposed to be a full night’s sleep on the train, arriving in the morning at Gare de L’Est at 9:30. The buses will pick us up at 3:10 am and arrive in Paris at 11:30 am. Altogether not ideal. We will see.

Berlin today had ideal weather for tourism. Which we kind of accomplished. By bike, courtesy again of Fat Tire Bike Co. After a false start at a shady Prenzlauer Burg bike-hirage place where the guy would accept neither my driver’s license as ID or deposit, nor my mastercard and I was not carrying my passport. He had that insipid hippy liberal exterior with that humourless and basically mean interior which seem to go together as flavours of personality, the latter also a characteristic of those who deal with tourists: flint and petuli.

L. acted as our tour-guide today. Not quite the legato ramble we had planned. But worthwhile nonetheless and notwithstanding the final rush to return our bikes by 3:00 pm. We cycled the length of Marx-Engels Allee. Through the beautiful austerity of the Palaces for the People, apartments for the apparatchiki, nomenklatura and Party favourites. Imposing in scale, a mile or so, down both sides of the street, with pillared balconies, Soviet classicism, going up seven or eight storeys, with domed towers, in one of which the widow of the architect was alleged still to be resident. A continuous building, symmetrical from left to right across the chestnut-tree lined boulevard, with architectural breaks for movie houses, styled in a more modernist Soviet idiom. Sci-fi-like, a failed futurism.

We went into the area famous for squats after the fall of the Wall, Friedrichshain, now rapidly gentrifying and cute and cobbledy, with low-rise old-style apartments painted in muted shades, cream, beige – or, as the Germans say, ‘yellow’ – through rose and russet. Here we stopped for lunch. An excellent toasted bagel, with red onion and jalapeno chopped up in the cream cheese and coffee.

From there, over the Spree back into Kreuzberg, the old Turkish part, throbbing with life, low life, second hand boho life, and sour-looking Turkish men shouting at us on our bikes from passing delivery vans. Then into the park I used to run around. In its middle a series of buildings something like a disused wooden railway station, covered in graffiti, with sofas and comfy chairs outside, and a very chill looking crowd drinking beer or coffee and smoking, in the sun. It looked like a giant student barbeque, except that it was clearly catered to by enlightened businesses.

We got as far as Kottbusser Tor, an area I remembered, before we had to get the bikes back. We returned at great speed to make our deadline and making it had a brief look around the Marienkirche. Beautiful 12th century vaulted nave, de-catholicised at some point, a group of children on a field trip walked all over the altar, climbed into the pulpit, lists in their hands of the art on show, which was impressive. Especially, in the portico, a faded mural showing a dance of death, the death-figures alternating with lords and ladies in medieval dress, those funny doughnut hats with veils hanging from them in dark greens and reds. In the centre of the dance a crucified Christ, disappointed that he couldn’t join in, tapping his toes and drumming his fingers. The death-figures looked more like aliens than traditional skeletons, or human lavae, white aetiolated bodies. Cadaverous and otherworldly.

We left Prenzlauer Burg the way we came in, from a park, with the thousands of synchronised breeders trained by their uniformly aged brood to come here and watch them play in the sand, on the swings, on the roundabout, on the climbing-frames, with their generic bikes and flotillae of prams, a mass site for what is called at the Reichstag Der Bevoelkerung. Europe’s engine of generation. A sort of signature public space this one, the Spielplatz Berlin. A close relation to that other dance this one.

Like that bronze outside Friedrichstrasse station, the happy train and the sad train, the train of life and the train of death: happy children holding hands arriving at life; sad children loaded up on the death trains.

I didn’t feel the joy of a re-unified Berlin, didn’t really dig the style of the city. I saw a young guy in the foyer to the DDR Museum – as far as we had time to venture in – buying a book called more or less, The Peaceful Revolution. Its subtitle struck me: The Only Successful Revolution in German History.

I can’t tell you wherein its success lies. I get a commercial rehash of the trash generated by the vanquished culture and society. A coming-closer by acquisition – to the East. Which is only possible because the East is no longer. A rapprochement by way of consumption. All the way to fetishizing products from the East. Poor lost lines of products. I saw a shop today on the window of which was written: Repairs to DDR Devices. Poor lost and broken things.

Put back together.