Berlin 2015: Middle of winter

Libby, Sergiu and Phillip in our Berlin apartment

The end of Week 1 in Berlin, so time now to record some of the activities of the past few days and reflect on them. I’m here with Libby (from SA) whose son Phillip lives here with his partner Sergiu. a Romanian ballet dancer and choreographer.

Our grey block building -very typical architecture

I’ve decided that this city is not for the faint-hearted, at least not in the middle of winter. It’s a grey, heavy city with reminders everywhere of a history that’s raw and brutal. There’s nothing soft, gentle or whimsical about Berlin….unlike Paris, Barcelona or Edinburgh. All the apartment buildings throughout the city (east and west) are similar…. square, solid, functional…not pretty. And the major historic buildings are huge and imposing.  Even sculptures and statues are big and strong with icons like warriors, eagles, Marx and Engels.  The streets are wide with very efficient trams, and there’s also a busy network of underground and overhead trains.  It’s a city that works, but one that’s highly aware of its history and fiercely determined to resist any threat to its freedom in future.

With Marx and Engels

So it’s a highly mixed city – street art and graffiti everywhere , presumably as symbols of freedom of expression – and probably to add colour to the otherwise starkness of the buildings. But as for the theatre,  music, nightlife and clubs that Berlin is noted for, Libby and I have hardly scratched the surface and I can’t say yet that I’ve felt the buzz of a wide-spread flourishing music and art scene.  However, we did experience an amazing musical performance a couple of nights ago, with free tickets , courtesy of a friend of Phillip and Sergiu.  All the audience were given thick woollen blankets and socks before entering the performance space, and then we all had to find an individual platform-type ‘bed’ covered with artificial grass on which to lie down with our blankets.  The lights were dimmed, then completely turned off and the whole concert continued in pitch blackness with the musicians making their way through the maze of ‘beds’.  The music was very contemporary – all stringed instruments – and quite surreal in the dark.  It was one of the strangest experiences I’ve had in a theatre,  but intensely sensual and rewarding.  We also have tickets for an a Capella singing festival next week.

The Reichstag building

I think my current impression of Berlin as grey and foreboding is a reflection of the places we’ve visited and seen this week …. The Reichstag  (Parliament) building, two museums about life in the former Soviet East Germany, the Wall, the Jewish holocaust memorial, the last remaining Soviet watchtower and a modern art exhibition in an old concrete air raid bunker.  Also the Deutsches History Museum and the Cathedral.  Maybe next week we’ll seek out the bright lights and happier places.

Inside the Boros art gallery – an old bunker

The Boros collection in the bunker was well worth seeing, as much for the venue as for the art. In fact, apart from a few stand-out pieces by highly acclaimed artists (whom I’d never heard of), the art was not to my taste. But the bunker was something else.  A huge solid concrete construction with 3 metre thick walls and roof, massive steel doors, the remains of old signs on walls and mostly bare, raw, grey interior walls.  Since its construction in the early days of WW2 as a Nazi air raid shelter, it has had many uses – as a prison, a warehouse, a hard-core techno-punk music club, to name a few.  The millionaire, Boros, who now owns it had it converted for its current purpose as an art gallery, with a penthouse on top. It’s all concrete and steel with harsh bright lighting … not my idea of a cosy place to call home.

The Reichstag – modern part of the Parliament) building

The Reichstag warrants a better description than I can probably give. This is the home of the German Parliament (called the Bundestag), where Angela Merkel and other eminent politicians work.  Like all the government buildings, it’s huge.  It’s also a mix of old and new, having been bombed, burnt and rebuilt at various phases of Germany history.  Its massive glass dome stands out across the city, but the interior is a maze of corridors and closed doors, except for the reception areas and the actual great chamber where parliament sits under the wings of a huge eagle sculpture.  The architecture is decidedly minimalist, with almost no art works or colour on the walls – unlike Parliament House in Canberra.  But what it does have in a couple of sections are the graffitied names of Soviet soldiers who marched into the city and liberated it from the Fascists.  This, along with the war-damaged walls, is yet another stark reminder of the all-too-recent history.  I had to keep reminding myself that this all happened in my lifetime.

Brandenberg Gate

From the Reichstag, it’s a short walk to the monumental Brandenberg Gate and the wide Avenue,  Unter der  Linden, which leads from it, along which Napoleon marched with his troops a century or so before the Allied armies who liberated Berlin at the end of WW2.   The bunker where Hitler committed suicide is somewhere close by too.

The Jewish holocaust memorial

The Jewish holocaust memorial is a particularly chilling place.  The museum is underground with photos and stories telling of the systematic, programmed way the Nazis went about rounding up millions of Jews, Roma and Sinti  (gypsies) and killing them in the streets and concentration camps.  Above this is a massive space filled with grey coffin-like concrete boxes stretching almost as far as you can see.  You can walk between them on narrow paths and get completely lost within. It’s an extremely solemn and moving memorial.

The big Deutsches History Museum was full of information and objects from medieval times through to WW1 and WW2.  Germany has certainly had more than its share of battles, uprisings and attempts at domination over the centuries.  Heavy stuff, but interesting

The Cathedral is much like every other big European cathedral inside, but outside looks more like a mosque. It’s all domes, not spires and steeples.  But the saints and angels all around are a Christian giveaway. 

Old watch tower – still plenty of reminders of the Wall

I know everything would lookand feel better in the spring time.  At present the trees are bare, the roads are wet and it’s very cold.  The 5 euro fur coat I found in the op shop is getting lots of use.  We’re going out somewhere every day, even if only to explore other districts like Pankow or Prenzlauerberg…. and we’re always coming upon interesting sights  We just stumbled upon the big old brewery complex that’s now been turned into a cultural arts Centre.  It looked a bit bleak in the wintry weather, but it would be full of life in summer, with several theatres, restaurants, bars, cinema and shops. Also one of the ‘Day in the Life’ type East German  museums

Early in the week we found the East Side Gallery which is a 1.5 kilometre open air art gallery with huge paintings all along the only remaining part of the Berlin Wall.  Originally facing the East Berlin side, artists started painting very soon after the Wall fell. Very colourful and impressive, though somewhat spoiled in my opinion by the extent of common and mindless graffiti scrawled over many of the paintings  This whole city seems to be an open canvas for graffiti artists.  There are some fantastic wall murals covering high walled buildings, but also lots of decidedly unartistic efforts on walls, stairways, doors etc.

Enough for now. There are still 2 more weeks of living in Berlin. And still lots more wonders to discover.  I’m looking forward to some fun stuff sometime!

Week 2:

What a difference sunshine and music make!  Berlin turned on both this week… milder weather, no wind and a pale yellow sun that made the city sparkle. It’s still chilly, but people aren’t as hidden away in their big coats and woollen beanies.  The children still look like little snowmen in bright parkas, boots, mittens and pompom hats … very cute.

Libby and I have enjoyed a week of art, music, museums and good food … starting with a lovely dinner on Monday evening at Philip and Sergiu’s apartment in Neukollin.   The boys have only been in it a couple of weeks and have lots of work ahead to bring it back to its old world graciousness – which they will.  They’re both talented and artistic young men. Sergiu’s a dancer and choreographer, working with contemporary dance companies here. He’s Romanian and well-travelled with his dancing.  After dinner we went to a modern dance performance… a solo dancer performing Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring. Quite strange. Even Sergiu seemed critical of the approach –  but it was certainly something different that I ‘ll be unlikely to see anywhere else.  It was also a great opportunity to see another part of old Berlin by night

Berlin Philharmonic concert hall
At the lunchtime concert

Tuesday brought more music …. a free lunchtime Schubert concert at the Berlin Philharmonic.  These weekly concerts seem to be extremely popular. There were hundreds there, with many having to stand.  We arrived in time to find a perch on one of the staircases and had an excellent view of the trio…a violin, cello and piano.  The concert was in the spacious entrance hall of the Centre. The whole building is a beautiful modern structure, all angles and arcs and yellow bricks. 

With so much of Berlin having been destroyed in the War, many of the major city buildings are relatively new.

Another spectacular state-of-the-art building not far from the Cultural forum (concert hall, art galleries etc) is the Sony Centre …. all glass and steel, a work of engineering art. Under its massive glass ceiling is a central courtyard with a fountain, restaurants, cinemas and space just to enjoy.  This area of the city, Potsdamer Platz was almost completely flattened, so it’s provided architects and designers an opportunity to go all-out in the long reconstruction process

Potsdamer Platz is also not far from the Jewish Holocaust Memorial, so after the concert ( & feeling uplifted!) I went back there for a while. Libby chose not to.  It’s such an incredibly significant place that I wanted to make sure I took in as much as I could, and remember it.  It’s impossible not to be moved by it, and appalled by the sheer horror of what happened. It should be completely inconceivable that anything like the Holocaust could happen again, but the world, it seems, is somehow always vulnerable. 

Checkpoint Charlie
Reminder of the division of Berlin into 4 sectors after the War

The international political situation since WW2 was emphasised for us by a visit to the interesting museum near Checkpoint Charlie.  (For anyone too young to remember when Berlin was a divided city, Checkpoint Charlie used to be the only crossing point into East Berlin for diplomats and foreigners when the Wall was standing. I remember going through back in the 60’s).   Now, the site of the old Checkpoint is a bit of a kitsch touristy place where a guy dressed like an American soldier poses for photos. But for old time’s sake, I got Libby to take one of me with him.  However, the Museum was good – with photos, films, old newspapers etc explaining the political background to the end of WW2, the division of the city into 4 sectors managed by the Allied victors, the creation of the Wall, the many escape attempts and the subsequent demolition just 25 years ago.  But most informatively, the museum put the events before and since into a whole world context. I learned more than ever before about the impact of the Cold War, the super powers, other wars that followed  (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan etc) and the current threat of terrorism.  It’s all linked through history, ideology and, in  my humble opinion, the sheer stupidity of men in charge

(Oops …. Feel as if I’m heading back down the depressing side of Berlin again right now … so will get back to the fun stuff that we’ve enjoyed this week…..)

On Wednesday, we spent early all day at the enormous, wonderful Gemaldergalerie, the huge art gallery that houses an outstanding collection of European Old Masters….. Rembrandt, Botticelli, Vermeer, Bruegel to name a few.  A complete walk all around the gallery is about 2 kilometers and it’s impossible to take it all in in one go. But to top it off, there are other galleries and special exhibitions under the same roof too.  We gave it our best shot and thoroughly enjoyed it all.  Interesting to note that most of this huge collection was taken away and hidden for safe keeping during the bombing blitzes of the war.

Then, as if we hadn’t had enough for the day, we sought out the nearby Weinhaus Huth, the only building in Potsdamer Platz to survive the bombing.  Apart from being a lovely little building (on the site where the Brothers Grimm were born), it houses a superb collection of modern art.  The current exhibition showcases Willie Baumeister, a highly esteemed German artist. It was absolutely fascinating, not only because his work was so great, but because his personal collection of paintings given to him by friends such as Chagall, Matisse, Miro and many others were also on display.  Such a wealth of fabulous stuff… and it was free!

It’s been good to have time to explore and compare many of the districts of Berlin. They all have their own special characteristics and sites of interest. For instance Neukolln, where Philip and Sergiu live, is now an up and coming district, described somewhere as “Berlin’s latest frontier of hippiness”. It has a high multicultural population, with Turkish markets, middle eastern restaurants, trendy shops and cafes and a even a well preserved village of cottages built by Czech refugees in the 1800’s. 

Schoneberg is similarly a mix of cultures and lifestyle – the original gay centre of Berlin still with rainbow flags and posters, plus some fairly way out hard core leather and rubber shops displaying interesting windows, but also lots of attractive, individual shops selling handmade jewellery,  quirky fashions, books, maps and so on.  A nice place to wander around for a couple of hours.

Charlottenberg Palace

Charlottenberg is very different again. Definitely the high class area of Berlin, it has beautiful apartment buildings, wide tree-lined boulevards and charming restaurants and bars. And Charlottenberg Palace, the summer residence of Queen Sophie-Charlotte in the early 1700’s.  It’s said to be the largest and most beautiful of Berlin’s remaining royal palaces, and retains much of its original grandeur, as well as lots that has been superbly reconstructed and crafted since .  Some entire rooms and sections of the palace were destroyed in 1945.  It’s completely over the top with its gold and mirrors, tapestries and porcelain, exquisite furniture and hundreds of grand paintings.  But we did it all and enjoyed the background stories provided on the audio-guide.. I can’t remember all the history now, but followed with interest the various King Friedrichs through the centuries while strolling through the ballrooms, bedchambers and boudoirs.  Queen Sophie-Charlotte seemed to have been a pretty special monarch too, devoting much time and support for music, art and science

Across the road from the grand palace courtyard were more museums. Berlin is full of them; over 600 I read somewhere.  We chose to visit the one with a collection of surrealist art… Dali, Max Ernst, Dubuffet etc. Libby appreciated this more than I did, but I found the adjacent exhibition quite fascinating.  It was a collection of paintings and sculptures created by people in a mental hospital at the beginning of the 1900s, the so-called ‘mad’ people.  Fortunately some enlightened collector recognized the beauty and significance of these works of art, and they’ve survived, and in the process, had a great impact on the development of the Surrealists.  Many of these same pictures were exhibited in the 1930s in a display of “Degenerate Art”, as a kind of propaganda exercise by the Nazi government.  I’m glad I got to see them.

The next district for another day out was Kurfurstendamm, the glitzy central shopping centre of the city. All the top name stores and brand names were here, as was half the population of Berlin, it seemed.  Clearly there’s money around and the Berliners enjoy spending it.  Not really my scene, but fun for a bit of window shopping.  However, the K’damm district had other things to offer as well.  The Katthe Kollwitz gallery is well worth a visit.  One of German’s leading female artists in the 20th century, Katthe Kollwitz recorded portraits and etchings of mothers and children,  poor working class families and the poverty and hardship that so many people had to endure before, during and after the two World Wars. She lost her son in the first World War and her grandson in the Second. Beautiful, heart-wrenching works in a gracious old gallery

Kaiser Wilhelm church in central Berlin

The other major nearby site is the bombed ruin of the Kaiser Wilhelm church right in the middle of the busiest intersection.  The shell of its structure remains, with a series of photos inside to show what it once looked like…and right next to it has been built a beautiful modern church with thousands of small blue stained glass windows. Just as we entered and sat down to look around, a group of 5 men started singing in front of the altar.  How lucky were we!

And now to finish this week’s diary….

Fabulous night at this concert

One of the  absolute highlights of the whole time we’ve been here happened last night… a fantastic , amazing
A Cappella concert at the old Brewery (the one that’s been turned into a cultural centre). Three groups performed – two from Holland (Pitch Control ; The Junction) and one from Germany  (Delta Q ).  They were all BRILLIANT!! Superb harmony singing with choreography to match. This form of entertainment is apparently becoming very popular in Berlin…not hard to see why. To make it even better we had seats in the front row, next to some beautiful young German guys!  The one next to me translated some of the commentary, though most of the songs were in English.  Getting seats at all was a miracle because half the crowd had to stand. But Libby wandered around looking and found 2 free ones right in the middle of the front row.

It was a night of laughing, clapping and just sheer enjoyment.  Watch out for A Capella choirs in future!

Week 3

Berlin… Week 3

I’m sitting at Schonefeld airport waiting for my flight to Bristol, UK.  A bit of time to reflect on the past week’s activities in Berlin


The day after the A Cappella concert, Libby and I made a trip to the outskirts of the city…to the old medieval village of Kopernick.  It’s a popular day trip for Berliners. Probably more so in summer, though we obviously weren’t the only visitors enjoying the old streets and buildings and the pleasant walk along the Riverside.  Because it was Sunday, most of the shops were closed but we found coffee when needed and did some window shopping in the old part of town.  The most impressive building in Kopernick is the old Rathus  (Town Hall)… a solid red brick structure with a high, decorative clock tower.   All in all, it was a pleasant but uneventful way to while away a few lazy weekend hours


Well I didn’t get far with the diary –  now it’s two days later, and I’m in England.  Berlin already feels a long time ago. However, just for the record, I’ll try to recall the events of last week….


 I remember Monday because that’s when the Black Eye happened.  I was running for the train and tripped on the top step. Went flying through the air and landed heavily on the platform, face first!    Over the next few days I looked increasingly like like a zombie with massive bruising and swelling, but fortunately it didn’t stop me from doing anything.  I got a few funny looks wearing big sunglasses in bleak and grey Berlin – but even more stares when I took them off!  (Now a week later, there’s still a bruise on my cheek bone, but the eye’s looking better).  The crazy thing is there was no need to dash for the train…they come every few minutes. But when the rest of the crowd hurries, you just go with it.

In our kitchen

We were going out that night for dinner with Philip and Sergiu,  so just caught the next train and got on with it. Went to a great little French place – super food and classy liqueurs by candlelight ….so no problem with the eye.

Other highlights of the week included a concert at the Berlin Philharmonie. This time (unlike the free lunchtime concert) it was in the main concert hall.  We had great seats with a fine view of the orchestra and soloist, Gil Shaham, an Israeli violinst whom Bronwen and I heard play in the Adelaide Town Hall a few years ago. He’s actually marred  to an Adelaide concert violinist.  His playing was sublime. The ovation went for at least 5 minutes.  The orchestra followed up with a Shostakovitch Symphony. ….very dramatic with lots of clashing cymbals and gongs. A fabulous evening

Took in another interesting art exhibition on Wednesday in yet another area liberally sprinkled with galleries. This one was a collection of works by all female international artists – paintings, sculpture, photography, video.  The weather had turned colder and drizzly by this time, so we enjoyed more good coffee in the comfort of the gallery café.  We made the most of lots of excellent cafes and bakeries throughout our time in Berlin …with apple strudel, cinnamon buns, cheese cakes, cherry torte and many more cakes that I don’t even know the names of.

One day Sergiu invited us to watch a rehearsal of the piece that he’s currently choreographing, in preparation for a performance towards the end of February.  It was just him and a beautiful female dancer on this occasion. The third member of their team had had to go to Sweden to sort out his visa. It’s truly a different world in this environment.  After watching Sergiu and Maria move effortlessly around each other for about half an hour, we went for a break with them to the café at the arts complex where they were working….a series of spaces and venues in an old tram station.  The café consisted of a couple of rooms and an old bus cobbled together, fitted out with rustic timber benches, old sofas and armchairs.  My black eye didn’t look at all out of place here.
All very cool….

On the day before packing, cleaning and moving out, we visited two great local markets. Didn’t need anything of course, but still managed to spend some money, and of course enjoyed our obligatory daily coffee fix

There’s probably more that I’ve forgotten, but my head’s now in UK mode and I’m looking forward to the next couple of weeks in my latest home exchange place. It’s a 5 star apartment overlooking Torquay Harbour and the sea.   What a life!