the new and old East
My last full day away took me on a circular tour west of Alexanderplatz in old and new East Berlin. First up, a touristy breakfast of croissant and sour cherry jam in the sun at a cafe’ in Hackescher Markt, then a trawl through the artisan shops (albeit touristy ones, now) in the courtyards of Hackescher Hofe. This was certainly a different “East” to the one walked through yesterday – with chain stores in abundance – but off the main drags there was still history and absence. From here I wiggled my way along the atmospheric streets of Sophienstrasse, with its craft workshops and gallery/performance spaces, and Gr. Hamburgerstrasse, where the remains of Berlin’s oldest Jewish cemetery also mark a deportation site to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, beside a modern Jewish school, heavily policed. Another found “absent place” is the Missing House, an installation by Christian Boltanski. You can just see plaques on the white wall where a house used to be – the plaques show the names of former Jewish residents, their births, deaths, and locations of their apartments within the missing building. It is all the more poignant for being a bit hidden itself – you have to know it is there to know what it is. I then took a lovely sideways stroll along quiet Linienstrasse to Scheunenviertel and Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz.
A pleasant emmentaler toastie was had in yet more sun beside the majestic Volksbuhne, East Berlin’s epic theatre of the people. (And from here on, it also turned into a bit of an unplanned theatre crawl.) I first saw the Volksbuhne at the LIFT festival in London many years ago, and have remembered how well the company balanced the fine detail of individual work with a stylized and unified vision. Sadly, I picked Monday night to decide I wanted to go to the theatre and the only show on offer was a new book launch. Next trip, I will pay more attention to the calendar. A quick jaunt up Schonhauser Allee leads to Prenzlauer Berg, “East Berlin’s most beautiful borough”, says Time Out, quite contentiously. I can vouch for a bounty of cake shops, second-hand clothes shops (selling the wrong size boots, may I add) and a remarkable number of women wheeling copious children on handlebars and in baskets of treacherous bicycles. But then, Prenzlauer Berg is the district with the highest concentration of babies in Berlin, also sayeth Time Out. Maybe it’s the cake. Whatever, it certainly is a lovely, pleasant, easy-going, family-oriented neighbourhood, one that anyone could imagine slipping right into.
At this point, however, I was only thinking of Brecht. If you’re like me, you have a love/hate kind of relationship with Brecht. I just didn’t get him at university. I thought he was pompous, over-worked, and, alarmingly, I thought that his leaving Berlin made him a coward. I didn’t understand WWII or Berlin at 18, I admit it. I thought it was his duty as a playwright to stay and work, and that leaving to “save his skin” compromised his work. Now that I am older and my own work is that much more important to me, I do wonder what I would have done in his place. Would I also have left to have the freedom to write? That is the luxury of viewing your life and priorities through someone else’s war, but as a playwright, I cannot help but be influenced by Brecht and German theatre in general. I am now a huge Brecht fan and just missed a new version of Mother Courage. Bah. I had to settle for a slim play about “how the Threepenny Opera came together”, for 2 actors + piano + violin. This was staged in the foyer, more marbled and chandeliered than I can imagine Brecht being entirely comfortable with. That is a terrible picture, it must be said. But it’s the only one I took.
What else can I say? In the morning I pack my maps and leaflets and cables and adaptors and go home, to write, to work. I told many people, before I left for Berlin, that I didn’t know why I was coming or what I was looking for, but that I would know it when I saw it. Of course, I have been most moved and influenced by what I didn’t see. I was worried that a week wouldn’t be near enough to scratch the surface of Berlin. But tonight, I sat in a wine bar beside the Berliner Ensemble, waiting for the show to start and doing an LA Times crossword puzzle. (Thanks, Mom!) Already, being here is ordinary enough that I can just sit and “be”. Whilst sitting, I was able to eavesdrop on a couple of ex-pats living here, and they could only talk of how much Berlin had changed, how much New York had changed, how much the world kept changing. True, they were speaking more in terms of the price of real estate, but even so. The world is changing. Husband emailed about “terrorist worries in French and German cities” and it was lovely that it was not even news here, or at least the shouty kind of news I’ve come to expect in Britain. For all that has happened here, Berlin feels safe. Feels free. It feels like the kind of place that I absolutely knew I couldn’t write about blind. I am no expert, by any means. But I have been a guest for a week; I have been delighted and informed and shaken. And in coming here, I know my main character in a way that I could not have done, so for that I am grateful. It looks like my flight is confirmed so I’ll leave you with the new and old East, on the very same building, side by side: