Friday, 24 July 2015

Walking the City 2 – Central Berlin

Hackescher Markt station Berlin

Arriving in a strange city for the first time, my perceptions operate in the usual way, registering light, warmth, colour, words and smells – but they exclude meaning. I have to learn how to interpret, how to make sense of what I'm seeing. First concentrate on what is immediately before my eyes. It's no use sweeping the scene in front of me. (Though I do, of course). The meaning only arrives later, as if some tight-fitting glove has been taken off or has worn away. And before that happens, all the sounds and sights and language, they are all fragmented, things don't join up, and it is in connecting after all, that things make sense, that form a supreme uber-perception, arching like a rainbow, up and up till it goes beyond what we can see with our eyes, what we can understand with our intellect, but takes us with it in terms of meaning.

Exploring Berlin for the first time, and trying to follow the guide book's instructions, the neat diagrams on the page did not match the vast scale of wide streets and towering buildings, both old and modern. So I put it the away, decided to follow my feet rather than the guide book.


I got off the S Bahn at Hackesher Markt and, purely by chance, discovered the Hackeshe Höfe. These are a series of courtyards, enclosed by beautiful tiled buildings, and small shops. In the heart of the city, they are a place of peace quiet and beauty, away from the noise and traffic on the busy main streets.


Hackeshe Höfe

I found the plaque on Bebelplatz which said that it was here that the burning of books took place, in 1933. From France, Klaus Mann noted grimly that his books were included in the destruction. (As were his father's and his uncle's, Thomas and Heinrich Mann.) Shortly before this, he and Erika, his sister, had been warned that they should leave Berlin, which they did. The rest of their family had already left Germany.


Colourful pillars and pipes mark the former border strip dividing the city into  east and west.

The difference, when I arrived in Berlin the second time, was that I had walked the streets and gardens, taken buses and the S Bahn, I had linked up at least parts of the city with my body and mind and I slipped into the meaning of it. That is joy.
Connaître, c'est reconnaître, said Annemarie Schwarzenbach in The Mountains of Tetouan.

In this second arrival, this time from the east, the Warsaw train moves slowly through the stations at the city's extremities, passing through the heaped sand banks, fences, ploughed-out crevasses, and digging machines near Warschauer. From there on into the city centre, moving infinitely slowly, passing through without stopping, Jannowitzbrücke, Alexanderplatz, and Friedrichstrasse, on its way to the Hauptbahnhof.

Jannowitzbrücke and Fernsehturm (TV tower)


It glides in a regal fashion, as if showing the city, as if to say – look, you walked on these pavements, at the foot of these enormous, imperial buildings, limping like a flightless bird, hardly daring to raise your eyes to the soaring cupolas, the perched sea-nymphs, angels and warriors standing on lofty pedestals, looking – no, not even looking down on you, but looking across the vast expanse of city, on a level with the Fernsehturm and all the needle-like masts of modernity, as if to nod slightly in greeting – say – yes, welcome to the upper reaches of the skies, you newcomers, new gods, while we – have been its denizens for centuries, but there's room here, we are not jealous of our elevation. Humans assign the name of gods to anything that's elevated, or invisible, or which they cannot understand. So here we all are, angels of liberty or victory, needles of radiant, linking technology, all of us mighty, elevated, and worshipped. 

You slender towers, newly given godhood, you may thicken into tyranny (humans have a tendency to turn what offers them pleasure and freedom – whether movement, thought, access, understanding – into something oppressive and controlling) or you may vaporize from the excess of too much energy. Or you may rust and crumble and break down – or you may be lovingly polished and preserved, who knows what you will be in the future, but for now, we all attract lightning, and have the best view of the travelling storms rolling over the earth's surface.


Siegessaule (Victory Column), Tiergarten

Look, whispers the train, as it pauses at Friedrichstrasse, on a level with the upper storeys of buildings – you look down on the streets, from – if not from the height of the angels, at least from the level of the carriages of emperors and kings whose love for this most imperial of cities was inscribed on their hearts, which is another way of saying – on that überperception which extrudes, like a flower from its stem, growing out of the linking and connecting that creates meaning, the flower, with its array of petals, showing that a point comes where you cannot continue upwards indefinitely but you burst out into something else, radiant, colourful, sensuous and succulent, reach out in a circular motion, out and up, out and across, ray out into invisibility, where form touches formless.