After two and a half days in Berlin, we left this morning to take another six-hour train to Warsaw, The trains are definitely changing; the Intercity service turned out, pleasingly, to be organised into old-school six-person compartments with doors that warn sternly, “UWAGA! WAGON KLIMATYZOWANY!” Our companions within so far have included a Polish nun, who has spent most of the journey on her mobile. This is not the land of trains with wi-fi and power points. I think both of us had better take up meditating before the Trans-Siberian.
We are still largely in the process of adjusting – fending for ourselves slightly more, doing our own cooking and washing, and reminding ourselves that arriving exhausted in a strange city is no longer a good excuse to jump in a cab and let someone else navigate. Both of us also continue to fight off the nagging feeling that we should be doing ‘something productive’ with our time.
I like the vibe of Berlin; arty, open, cheerfully anarchic. I can’t explain what I mean by the vibe of a city even to myself, but I know when I connect with it. We stayed in a small, quiet and highly rated hostel in the creatively shabby Prenzlauer Berg, which suited us well, having both mostly aged out of pub crawls. Having arrived exhausted late on Tuesday, we only really gathered ourselves for activity on Wednesday, when we spent most of our day at the remains of the Berlin Wall, and the various memorials associated with it. A long stretch of Wall down by the river has been repainted as a collaborative art project with numerous unofficial additions by the public, and another – along Bernauerstrasse – has become a memorial and information centre. A stretch of the ‘border strip’, with its guard towers, pits and spikes, has been preserved between the inner wall and the twelve-foot barrier between East and West Berlin. We checked out the Berlin Aquarium thanks to our joint fondness for giant fishtanks (and my past as a naturalist at the San Francisco Aquarium of the Bay), but it’s disappointingly limited compared to, say, Lisbon’s. I think we would have been better off with our second choice, the Computerspielenmuseum. Thursday, we spent quietly chilling at Strandbad Wannsee – where the river running through Berlin creates a bend big enough to serve as a lake with a beautiful sandy beach.
I think my abiding memories will come from the Wall at Bernauerstrasse, where an absurdity was created; people’s houses suddenly had front doors that opened into the West, and back doors where you exited in the East. I think about the West Berlin fire brigade, who stood on duty in Bernauerstrasse for weeks after the border was sealed to catch people who jumped from the windows, and the people who spent months digging tunnels from the West back to the East to try and create an escape.