Sleepy in Berlin
The night train leaves Paris Est at 2020. Already, it is too dark to see much of anything through the cabin-size picture window at the foot of the bed made up for one. And luckily so. In cabins beside me, women and men are stacked up to the ceilings; I hope and assume they know each other – or will do, come morning. The toilets are blocked. It may be a long night. The Man in Seat 61 recommends the night train and reserving a cabin. Indeed, it is why I have booked. I am little-kid excited. I flit around my coffin-sized room, touching buttons, turning things off and on. Empty platforms, wildly lit, whiz by. The tall, bare backsides of houses. The most constant view is myself reflected in the window, relentlessly chewing small packets of M&S cheese, waiting. A large-fronted man with a tiny gold hoop earring serves beer and wine from his little kitchen, and he is popular with the travellers; I hear them ask for “a bottle” again and again until it is late. They are avoiding their cabins, no doubt. But I am not.
I have a little sink, a little pocket on the wall to hold headphones and iPod, water and warm white wine. The distances between stations increases, leaving flat, dark terrain and the occasional lights of steeples, war memorials. You cannot help but think of war – or perhaps that is just me. We stop and wait at Mannheim at 2:30 am. I did not think I was asleep but realize, upon awaking, that I was. But that is the end of sleep. It is no smooth ride, this. The train groans on tracks, the folded-up bed above me rattles and threatens to open. Doors shimmy and shake. But then, perhaps it is also the anticipation of it, the Christmas-morning-feel of it. When was the last time you went somewhere all on your own, just because you wanted to go? I spent much of my 20s travelling, going places just because I could. Then all those jobs start. My last trip for no good reason was years ago, an overnight train stopping in Portland. (Is this a theme emerging?) Travel is for business, for family, for sun. How lucky am I that travel is also for writing.
Dawn breaks pink in the east, toward Berlin. We stop in Hamburg, let sleepy-eyed travellers off. The little kitchen serves teas and coffees, crusty white rolls and cheese paste. One toilet remains unblocked. Mist hugs the fields. Pale cows bend to eat. Clumps of dark woods, ripe with fairy tales, run along the tracks, trunks thin and twisted as a witch’s finger. Suddenly the woods and fields give way to suburbs, and we are in Berlin Spandau then Berlin Haupbahnhof, the “largest crossing station of Europe.” Adolf would have been so proud. The lockers are big enough to accommodate massive suitcases. 5 euros means I’m free to wander until my room in Alexanderplatz might be ready. I stagger, stinging eyed, to the Reichstag, the bird cage glass dome peeking out from behind the battle-scarred building. Crews dismantle a stage from Sunday’s marathon and tourists queue. I push on for Brandenburger Tor, the verdigris Quadriga, once stolen by Napoleon, facing East again in the spirit of reunification. To my shame, I go to Starbucks.
Tea encourages me onward, toward Denkmal fur die ermordeten Juden Europas, “Peter Eisenmann’s field of stelae”, the 2711 undulating concrete blocks that range in size from sarcophagi to slabs to walls. They pitch and jut across a city block. It would probably be quite a moving memorial, but I am in the midst of a massive game of hide and seek. The players seem surprised to keep finding me, when they are giggling and intent on finding each other. It is probably a good and life-affirming use of the space for bus-bored teens “seeing Europe.” What good are these references for them? What use are physical metaphors?
You cannot see how the ground dips and ripples in the photo – it is disconcerting, disorienting. You cannot see how each concrete pillar has its own level and angle. You cannot hear how they scream and laugh here.
Potsdamer Platz, remnants of the wall, the brand-spanking new Sony Centre and the Film Museum, with rooms of Marlene Dietrich, Metropolis and Expressionism, Leni and the Nazi films. Under a broad glass atrium there are preserved portions of The Grand Hotel Esplanade, preserved behind glass.
It is as if a life-sized dollhouse has been tacked onto a hi-tech wonderland. It is as surreal as anything here, a city that is constantly referencing its history while trying not to let it stand in its way. I have come in search of this history. I have no idea what I will see here or how it will matter to my story. I only know that I am watching and waiting. As I type this, the sky has turned black. Bright green neon from a shop next door glows beneath the mighty Fernsehturm that rises its 1207 feet beside me. I am glad to be in a hotel beside it – I will always be able to navigate my way back. Now that it is dark I will go to the 37th floor casino and peer out at the night lights of Berlin. Lucky, lucky me.