Ich bin ein Berliner

President John F Kennedy delivered that line in 1963 at the height of the Cold War, confirming to everyone that he was a donut. Berliners were no doubt surprised, as I was upon arriving in the city.

Liz was joining me from London, having found a good apartment in a funky part of town. The clue there is “funky”.

Over the years, I’ve been very pleased with all my self-booked travel. This time, my jaunt through Seville, Yorkshire and Berlin featured many mistakes with days, dates and times.

“No, you said Monday,” Liz said.

“Really?”

Hmm….she was right, so a night at the famed Circus Hostel was in order. It seems I made two other bookings and forgot to cancel them, so my cheap €40 night turned into a €120 night. See what I mean – mistakes!

Brandenburg Airport is rather spartan but it works. Out the door, around the side and onto a bus that would take me to the U-bahn at Rudow where I rode the subway to Neukölln. Google Maps said, “Exit at Hermannplatz”. Thank you, Google maps, for a 20-minute walk wheeling my suitcase over cobbles only to find an U-Bahn station two streets from our apartment.

Note: cobbles wreck your suitcase wheels. Birkenstocks and their imitators are also problematic when it comes to cobbles. (And in Rovinj, where the cobbles are worn to a lethal shine, you risk life and limb if you don’t walk with purpose).

Almost every building is tagged with graffiti, some of it very high up which made me wonder whether they have very tall taggers or the taggers carried ladders. Google describes the area as "Known for its international feel, Neukölln’s busy boulevards are lined with hummus joints, Middle Eastern pastry shops, and discount stores. Students and artists live on quaint side streets dotted with vintage shops and hip bars and cafes." A very apt description.

Public transport in Berlin links up. Yes, I hear you say, the benefits of a big city/large population, but I think that’s a cop-out. Why shouldn’t it link up in a city of 50,000 as well as one of 5 million? Berlin does public transport brilliantly and getting across town was easy. A seven-day pass and you’re away.

“Hmm,” said Liz, as we walked back to the apartment, noticing the strong ethnic flavour and tagging. The front door of our building was a sight to behold.

A few days later, our “Hmms” turned to “Let’s try here” and “Look at the breakfasts” and “An Indian restaurant!”.  The hot chicken shop on the corner – half a superbly rotisserie-cooked chook with supermarket salad = fantastic meal. Especially with the lime-infused gin Liz bought. I’ve been told by a friend in the know that “lime-flavoured” indicates I am a peasant and that the correct term is “infused”. I bow to her superior knowledge. We had gin in the garden. Garden is a bit of a stretch; it’s more bare earth with weeds, trees, some garden furniture, and a glimpse of the sky. Oh, and one Sunday evening, the unmistakable sounds of….well, I don’t have to spell it out for you.

Our part of Berlin was alive with café culture with good coffee, good food and very friendly people. “So many people speak English,” I remarked to Liz. And then I mentally kicked myself. Last time I was here was 1982.

The supermarkets were fun. They reminded me just how much I rely on my local back home; I know exactly where to find things. Here, we searched and searched and searched for Schweppes tonic. Finally asked….and it was right where we’d been looking. Different bottle shape, unfamiliar size, etc.

“You must do a Trabi tour,” said Tanya, the agent for my apartment in Lucca. You drive old Eastern European Trabant cars (Trabi) around Berlin. Liz was game, so I booked us in.

Here’s how it works. You practise with column-mounted gear shifts on a wall. This helps those who’ve never driven a stick-shift and those of us for whom it’s a distant memory. Martin, our fearless leader, divided us into two groups – German-speaking and the rest. “The rest” included Liz and me, a couple from Tunisia (her birthday treat), four Romanian guys (known forever as Romania 1 and Romania 2), an Irishman with his son, and two other women. Two people to a car, switch drivers halfway through.

“Do not touch any other buttons,” said Martin. Liz and I understood that perfectly.

We drive in convoy with Martin communicating by radio. “That way, nothing goes wrong,” he said. “And do not touch any other buttons.” Remember this.

Starting a Trabi is great – noisy, belching smoke and slight rocking. Out onto the street and I’m already wondering whether the Berlin police, council or any other bureaucratic body is ok with foreigners driving around in old Russian cars like this. Very touchy brakes, corners like a brick in thick soup, and you need to keep the pedal to the metal to avoid stalling.

There’s an established circuit, but not this Sunday. This was the week Norway and Sweden came to town to talk “informally” about joining NATO, hence the van-loads of armed police all over the centre of Berlin, hence many street closures. The normal route is off and Martin leads us through central Berlin. The man must have a death wish. He mentioned Tunisians and their inability to stop at red lights. Romania 1 stalls, Romania 2 stalls. Note here that the women drivers DO NOT STALL AT ANY point.

Every time R1 or R2 stall, Martin has to make us all pull over, he races back down the street for half a kilometre in the heat to get R1 or R2 back up and running, and then he runs back. Turns out that R1 and R2 can’t resist the buttons, and when the car stalls, they were hitting a button that…..cut the fuel supply. At the end of the trip, they cheerfully admitted what they did.

Liz and I had thought of a walking tour of old East Berlin but our revised route took us into the old Eastern sector.

Berlin is full of roadworks and building sites. “There are 100,000 building sites in Berlin,” Martin told us. Cranes everywhere, new buildings going up, and…..a still frenetic rebuilding of things that came down in the war.

Liz and I had marvelled at the historic buildings, many of which were spotless. What good care they take of their buildings, I thought, so clean, so pristine. Duh – they’re replicas. With 80 per cent of Berlin’s buildings coming down in the war, they’ve been rebuilding them since, often as facsimiles.  The result is an amazing combination of “new” old, old and new buildings.

Berlin city centre is huge but without a centre like London or Auckland or Milan. Some of it still looks the old East Germany and Martin said that even with the offer of newer, modernised housing, many people still preferred their old apartments.

Was a week enough? It was for the first visit, but I’d like to go back. We did the Holocaust Memorial and the museum beneath where they used the stories of several families to show what happened to Jews during WWII. I left, glad I had seen it, but somewhat saddened. The Geography of Terrors – such an interesting name – put us beside a section of the wall and alongside the old HQ where people entered and never left. Primo Levi put it succinctly: “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen anywhere”.

We saw the Angela Merkel photographic exhibition; she’s been working with the same photographer since she was a young woman. We literally saw Angela grow up and see how she became Chancellor. Nothing else was open – renovations delayed by Covid.

We did the cathedral, missed out on the rooftop dome at the Reichstag, wandered through town, thought about a river cruise, took buses to Charlottenburg Palace where the ballroom was a fabulous show of excess. We took the train to Potsdam to see the eco world dome, ate curly fries and drank beer in the Dutch area of Potsdam. We walked along the canals and shared giant slices of excellent cake.

We had schnitzel with potatoes and “would you like white asparagus with that?” asked Melanie, our lovely waitress. Of course, we would. Oh, that many asparagus! And covered with buttered breadcrumbs. We could have shared one plate. We did our best. You must eat curried wurst. Ok, we’re game. Giant sausage covered in what appeared to be smoky BBQ sauce with a sprinkling of curry powder on top. It came with fries which I ate with gusto; fries are a rarity in Lucca.

We wandered through Viertel, the four streets and square which mark the settlement of Berlin some 900 years ago. The church offered a trove of historical items during the post-war rebuild and they’re beautifully displayed.

There was still so much more we could have seen, but there’s a limit. You just can’t take in anything new.

Our last night was a cracker. The little café across the road changes its menu weekly – Indonesian one week, Mexican the next, etc. We scored a table and our host turned out to be a Mancunian, married to a German. “I’m still surprised I have a German daughter,” he told us. We had fish tacos that were to die for. His selection of hot sauces was excellent. We praised the food so much he offered us a small bottle of each, but even being 100ml and small, neither Liz nor I were convinced they wouldn’t be seized. Britain still does the 100 ml max in one bag thing and my bag was rather heavy on account of overpacking.

Back onto Ryanair for Pisa, a quick train ride and a short walk and I was home.