Blitzing cities

Day 4 - Berlin

>A restless night's sleep hadn't left Matt best disposed towards a long drive (my standing offer to take a turn still being rebuked) but I'd wager me and James felt worse. Matt likened the car to a hearse given the state of his two passengers. I drifted in and out of semi-lucid dreams, my consciousness on the melting edge of reality. 6 hours passed until I stepped out, blinking into a dusty car park somewhere in the Mitte district of Berlin. I'd long heard naught but good things about the capital and of all the places on the original itinerary it was the one I was keenest to visit. The itinerary, however, was evolving and we'd set ambitious targets to steam through Europe in a grand arc. Coincidentally it was exactly 5 years since my first road trip through the continent from Istanbul to Italy. How many countries had I seen since then? How many thousands of miles travelled by plane, car, train? On bike, boat or on foot? How many experiences since that first nervous journey into the unplanned? It becomes a habit, an all-inclusive to a Spanish island doesn't satiate the expanded curiosity travel gives. The sort of intrigue that makes an atlas just a list of places you haven't yet been, a dartboard of intention. The wanderlust that finds you saying things like 'yeah but the western part of Iraq is probably OK to visit'. The need for the real that chases those C-beams in the dark.
A small round plaque at my feet marked one of the fallen. A person died here trying to cross from east to west. A doomed attempt to escape the constricting control of the German Democratic Republic and the Stasi. Any country with the words democratic or republic in its name fairly often isn't. It is disconcerting to think this took place during our lifetimes (well not James') and I do have a vague recollection of the wall coming down. I think I remember the news showing people stood atop the brutalist symbol of their oppression feverishly smashing it with hammers, sickles nowhere in sight. We walked around a still intact section of the wall. Here and there parts of it were wreathed with vegetation grown tall in 25 years. The green leaves swallowed the graffitied and eroded concrete and reminded me that nature cares nothing for our perpetual attempts to partition the earth. We can clear it, poison it, burn it but it will ripple our boulevards and creep through our deserted halls long after we've gone. I hadn't realised that Berlin had been a tiny island in East Germany closer to Poland than to the rest of its country. I wonder which side of the wall felt more besieged? The contrast with the present day is stark, where we don't even slow for international borders. I can't be persuaded that distance from Europe is needed, that the EU is a failed idea. I don't pretend to have a comprehensive understanding of the economics of it all but I take the more philosophical viewpoint that when a people strive to define themselves as fundamentally, irreconcilably different from another group of people it opens the way for very bad things to happen. The holocaust memorial is, at first glance, an impenetrable abstraction of that scar on the human race but find your way inside and it becomes a wholly different thing. Grey and remorseless concrete begins to rise on either side and the ground slopes downward as you walk. Faceless and metronomic and utterly without sympathy soon it towers above your head and there is no clear route out. The din of civilisation falls away and voices softly echo between the pillars. You can't see where they come from which gives them an ethereal quality as though from people long gone, lives long extinguished. I found it very evocative, I suspect many will have a different experience, certainly mine was different from the guy stood on the tallest pillar with a selfie stick.
We took in Checkpoint Charlie to round out the evening which was the crossing point from the American part of West Berlin into East Berlin. It is now just a small hut in the middle of a busy road but it was once the limit of the western world and the scene of momentous events including a David Hasselhoff concert. I can't help but feel that Berlin needs a museum of fun or a monument to irreverence to provide respite from the dark chapters you see all around.

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