Monday, 26 March 2018

Where Are We Now?

Berlin Wall remnant at Niederkirchnerstrasse

In another life, I broke up with my girlfriend in 1980 and, abandoning the safe, career-oriented track I had begun to follow, went off to spend a decade among the squatters, activists, writers, and musicians of Kreuzberg in West Berlin, in the process polishing my schoolboy German into fluency. I was there, a face in the crowd, when the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989, and this turned out to be one of the peak experiences of my life. It could all so easily have been that way.

However, in this life, none of the above happened, and I have just returned from three days and four nights in Berlin, my first ever visit to that city, and now have a lot to digest and to process, including over 350 photographs, which, for me, is a lot. Suffice to say, the Berlin of 2018 is not the Berlin of 1989 and, not being remotely an expert on either version of Berlin, any reflections I have to offer are ill-informed, speculative, and almost certainly wrong. It seems my spoken German is not as good as it might be, either.

Notably, I spent a lot of time poring over the map looking for and failing to find the Bösebrücke mentioned in David Bowie's song "Where Are We Now?", Bösebrücke being the first border crossing to be opened under popular pressure by the East German guards on 9th November 1989. I had wrongly imagined it to be a river bridge somewhere in the city centre (there's a lot of water and a lot of bridges over it in Berlin). But, as it happens, we were staying on Osloer Strasse, in the slightly scruffy, largely Turkish area north of the centre known as Wedding. And it turned out that Bösebrücke was the name of the bridge over the railway lines at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing, which was just a short walk down the street from our hotel. It also turned out that it was not called "Evil Bridge" (the literal translation) but had, in fact, been named in 1948 after Wilhelm Böse, an anti-fascist executed by the Nazis.

Oh, and while we're with Bowie's song, there's also KaDeWe. Now, that's just the locals' initialism for Kaufhaus des Westens ("Department Store of the West") and, well, it's just a shop. A very big one, but no more special, to my eye, than, say, a large branch of John Lewis. For example, I needed a fresh SD card, and – to my amazement – they only stocked one brand. I mean, really? But then, I'm probably not the constituency for judging the merits of a department store. I expect their range of underwear is just wonderful. Unlike Bowie, I was not so much lost in time near KaDeWe, as lost in space; for some reason, I found Berlin incredibly confusing to navigate, and found myself engaged on a number of unintentional Debordian dérives.

So much to learn, so little time... I enjoyed myself a lot, but three days is no time at all to explore a major city. Like London or Paris, getting to know Berlin is probably a lifetime project; it has changed, and is still changing so much. I do have some tentative things to say, however. But, meanwhile, here are some pictures.



Wall remnant beneath Bösebrücke


Anonymous said...


I don't know how good your proficiency in German is - but here is a hilarious piece about Berlin. What spoils the fun for me a bit is that the conditions in my hometown are similar.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Thomas -- yes, I can manage that, no problem. My *reading* knowledge is pretty good, I only have problems buying a U-Bahn ticket... I'm reluctant to sign up to Die Zeit in order to read it all, though.

I must say Berlin is a curious mix of the half-built, the luxurious, and the downright run-down. But the same could be said for any major European city: the London of my youth has vanished beneath empty glassy monuments to corporate greed.