Walk VIII: Prenzlauerberg to Savignyplatz

August 17, 2016 § 1 Comment

What can I say: the West is not as interesting.

The areas of East Berlin are more vital. It’s almost as if West Berlin has had too long to get civilized.

Savignyplatz has the reputation of being one of the nicest neighbourhoods of Berlin. I walked the nine kilometers there with my dog, Hasi. She was curious as well; she’d only made the acquaintance of Eastern canines up to this point.

I didn’t take any pictures of Savignyplatz. Nothing to see there. Which must sound insulting to those who built it and live there today. But really. Nuthin’.

It’s a quaint European neighbourhood but I expected it, as a wealthy West Berlin area, to be positively Parisian in its beauty. Nope- one finds prettier parts of Berlin in the former East.

My highlight was the view that I captured in the following photo. Post-pubescent Berlin, in the midst of large-scale transformation. DSC_0160.jpg

Behind the fence lay a gargantuan hole in the ground, though not for long. I appreciated the how long is now staring at me from the other side of the abyss. I wish I had a clever answer, but I’ll go with the obvious: forever.

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Walk VII: Kreuzberg

August 17, 2016 § 2 Comments

Kreuzberg’s one of those interesting areas in Berlin found in every major city: half trendy and gentrified, half not. I remember growing up in Sydney and hearing about several suburbs that were going to “come up” as the next ultra-chic urban paradise. But they never made it.

That’s a good thing. The alternative is to have a city where only the affluent live within a 10-kilometer radius of the center. Not only is that unfair, it also changes it into a…

The best term I can think of is multi-function polis. For those of you fortunate enough to have never heard this term, it describes an artificially-created modern city built for business and government interests. In Australia, we heard it a lot in the eighties when government was trying (and still is) to spread the population and business beyond the two major cities.

It never took off. I wonder why: who wouldn’t want to live in a sterile, steel+concrete+glass “city”, thrown up in the middle of nowhere with absolutely no diversity of culture?

While rich inner-city districts aren’t quite to that level of heterogeneity, they do lose vitality when only peopled by the wealthy.

Kreuzberg will definitely become trendier and more gentrified but, due to stringent tenant laws and awful Eastern housing blocks that rich outsiders won’t want to move into, will probably always retain the kind of mix we need in our cities.

The picture I’ve included today fascinates me and reminds me of the beauty of the human spirit. Look at the exterior of this housing block! My privileged mind shouts “how can someone live here?” Well, of course they do. And they seek beauty like everyone else. Yet how can those flowers in the window compete with the leaden grey that dominates?

They don’t have to. It’s enough that they’re there. If this area were completely gentrified, the story of this picture wouldn’t exist. DSC_0158.jpg

Walk VI:Tiergarten

August 16, 2016 § 1 Comment

I’ve lived in four international cities. Three of them have a wonderful central park, one of which is called Central Park.

The other two? Sydney, with its lush, sub-tropical Centennial Park and of course Berlin’s Tiergarten*.

First order of business: I’ve urinated publicly in all three.

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Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. There is a secret pleasure in veering off the path, finding a wooded area unseen to one’s fellow strollers, and contributing to the local soil composition. The best moment is heading back into general population, physically at ease and feeling that you’ve gotten away with something. Small pleasures.

I got lost during this walk. My initial plan was to walk around for a while and then begin the trek back to Prenzlauerberg. However, I was soon turned around; at that point, I gave up trying to concretize direction and simply wandered, enjoying the surrounds.

What does it mean to get lost? As I felt my mind let go, ceding all struggle for the right way home, I was reminded of the essential nature of surrendering destination in order to get involved in the present.

My daughter does it effortlessly and, at this stage of her intellectual development, thankfully has no choice in the matter.

But there’s getting lost and getting lost. Let’s look at the Oxford definition:

Hang on. There is no definition for lost as an adjective. I’m amazed. It only refers to the past participle of lose. 

Okay. We soldier on.

I’m not advocating a lack of direction in our lives (although there’s time for that as well). There’s a difference between being lost and being adrift.

Getting lost in creative tasks, wandering down creative alleyways, is food for the soul.

Based on observations of my bubba, it seems to be our natural inclination. Every morning, my wife and I marvel at how, post-nappy change, she needs to “get to work”. This consists of being put in her playpen and playing with her toys. But what does playing mean in this context? Incredible: simply the act of picking things up, perusing them, entertaining the notion of them, feeling them, shaking them, colliding them with other objects.

These actions could describe almost anything we do.

I wandered off the path and gave up trying to go home. Fuck it felt nice.

*Side note: the other city, Los Angeles, does have excellent hiking trails and some green spaces but, as it is technically 88 different cities, I’ll cut it a break. 

Walk V: Down the streeet

August 15, 2016 § 1 Comment

A lazy one yesterday. One can’t be a roaming warrior all the time.

Yet there’s always something to see. As with every big city, Berlin is many things to many kinds of people. Here’s one demographic that’s well served:

Children.

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This is, simply titled, the Museum for Kids. It’s half a kilometer away from our front door, and it’s a hybrid playground/learning center for ankle-biters.

The best part: parents are not allowed in. They can sit on the perimeter and watch, but once the kids head off to play, the only adults who can communicate with them are the teachers.

What do the kids learn? Well, the unique element in this playground is that it is a constantly growing, evolving space being built by the children. The supervisors show the kids how to make fire, build structures, plant gardens, etc.

This is the kind of wild, imaginative space that goes deep into us as children, creating memories that remain as long as we’re sentient.

And it’s free. No document proving you’re a resident of the neighborhood, no special form to provide. Just be a human child and you’re in.

Berlin is increasingly appearing to me to be a wonderful place for a child to grow up. Which is no guarantee that my wife and I plan to stay here. But it weighs strongly in the argument.

Walk IV: Schloss Charlottenburg

August 14, 2016 § 1 Comment

There may be those who are disappointed by the absence of Schloss Charlottenburg images in this piece.

My thinking is that one can google it and find any number of pleasing photos, sketches and paintings of the building.

Additionally, I actually didn’t find it that impressive. The feeling of the entire space – grounds and structure – is pleasant. Maybe it’s because we’re spoiled in Europe, with so many classic castles, cathedrals and palaces.

No matter. These musings are focused on the journey to and through different areas of Berlin, and I found the almost-10 kilometer walk from Prenzlauerberg delightful.

The predominant feature was the river. The Spree runs through the heart of Berlin and allowed my friend and I to travel much of the way along the shoreline.

DSC_0145.jpgRivers and large cities go together to make an irresistible recipe. I come from one of the great beach cities in the world; the problem such places (as profoundly felt in LA) is unless you happen to live near the water, the town just doesn’t feel like a beach city.

Rivers are inherently democratic- usually highly accessible, running through affluent, less affluent and industrial areas and finally (and most importantly), usually able to be enjoyed without traveling by car to see them.

A river breaks up a city’s rhythm in the most pleasing way; it re-stimulates senses overloaded by traffic noise and buildings that obliterate sunlight and space.

Rivers also have the incredible aesthetic advantage of having boats pass through them and small, charming bridges hang over them, bridges where one can do the age-old meditation of leaning against the stone railing (what’s the word for that?) and taking in both city and water simultaneously.

Beaches are fun, rivers are contemplative. Beaches are sex, rivers are romance. Beaches are cocktails, rivers are fine wine, gently savored.

In the case of Berlin, our river performs a lovely function. It softens the city and helps it to retain a sometimes elusive element: loveliness.

Walk III: Planterwald to Neukölln to Prenzlauerberg

August 13, 2016 § 1 Comment

I got on the wrong train.

My intention was to take the S-Bahn ‘ring-train’, which circles Berlin, to the Neukölln. Upon noticing that the stops were no longer matching my map, I realized I had hopped aboard the S-Bahn 8 train, which heads directly out of central Berlin.

I jumped off and checked the stop: Planterwald. Never heard of it.

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Within a couple of years, this will be a trendy bar. In the meantime, I enjoy tasting a mix of past and present.

It turns out I was only 5 km off my intended route. So I started to walk. Not much to say about Planterwald. Very suburban, lush, dotted with more East German housing projects.

But Neukölln? A gem.

This is what Berlin can offer: a trip into the past. In previous pieces, I’ve touched on the issue of gentrification in other great cities like New York and San Fransisco. Neukölln makes the argument for a limit on how enriched a neighborhood should become.

The main thoroughfares are Turkish, middle-eastern. Then one heads into the back streets and sees a fascinating mix: a mother in full black arabic regalia, laden with shopping bags, dragging her children home; a hipster with a beard Nostadamus would have envied; Africans, older white families speaking French, on it goes.

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Construction on the main drag, but I hope the remnants of what came before, the Kino and Oper houses, remain in place.

 

The trendy parts of Neukölln spring up in pockets: I found myself walking down a pretty downtrodden street, only to find a platz with cool cafés and bars on each corner. This may sound strange, but these kind of Berlin neighborhoods in summer remind me of New Orleans. The close streets, the lush canopy of trees pushing against the facades, the feeling of cultural freedom and festivity.

This feeling is the emotional engine of a city. It can’t occur on perfectly manicured streets with chain stores lining the main boulevards. It can’t occur when the buildings are full of wealthy yuppies and finance people. I may love refined, elegant Prenzlauerberg- but a vibrant city needs its Neuköllns pumping life into its core.

Walk II : Moritzplatz through Alex

August 12, 2016 § 1 Comment

Berlin is the city of what might have been.

Berlin is the city of what could be.

Berlin is the city of what is no longer here.

Berlin is the city of what remains.

DSC_0137.jpgIt strikes me as unique among the European capitals I’ve visited. A sometimes discordant mixture of the aforementioned four elements. Lovers of classic Europe often don’t feel Berlin- its grittiness, its urbanity, its metastasized graffiti spread democratically across the city.

The mind can struggle: how can one look to one’s right and see old Europe, then in one turn behold the moribund, ruthlessly uniform sight of the East German housing projects?

Berlin can fill a visitor with longing for the invisible past: a time when the city had boulevards lined with centuries-old architecture, when Berlin wasn’t the odd, edgy outsider.

Yet, in 2016, once again the world looks at Berlin and sees a European capital about to fulfill its promise. Potential realized. Is it possible? Or will circumstances again intervene?

As a resident of the city, I’m aware of the tension between those of us who are cheering on Berlin’s expansion, and those who remember a wall and the benefits that came from isolation. Locals speak of some kind of a post-mauerfall paradise, of pathetically cheap rents, abundant work and an exploding street life.

With the arrival of international cosmopolitanism, those elements are threatened. We’ve all witnessed what has happened to metropolai like New York and San Francisco: corporatism and scorched-earth gentrification have changed their culture and raised the barrier to entry, both in terms of literally entering them as a prospective resident and gaining access to various fields of endeavor.

Berlin is a long way from that problem. In the meantime, may the Dark City continue to grow and have it day.

 

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