Every Breath You Take

All too soon it was our last morning in Berlin.

We continued our exploration of the East, taking a metro, a train and a bus to Hohenschönhause Prison. The prison was the main Stasi centre for internment, interrogation and research into surveillance methods. It used to be a factory away from the city centre; it had road and rail links. The area was left completely blank on maps of the city at the time; no one knew it was there.

We arrived around 10:00. We had a bit of time to look round the courtyard before our guided tour – in English – began at 10:30. Our guide was a historian who had studied human rights and became interested in what had happened in the prison. She was extremely knowledgeable and informative.

We began with a short film that explained a bit of background to the prison. The tour proper began with the oldest parts – here the cells were very basic; below ground level and the only light was from small windows at the top of the walls, which had frosted glass bricks so nothing could be seen. The basement had a couple of cells that were no more than cupboards where a person could just stand up. People were put in there for days. There were also water torture cells, the same as we’d seen used by the KGB in the Baltic Republics a few years ago. A prisoner would be left to stand in ice-cold water in a freezing, damp cell for days on end. As the DDR became more paranoid, the number of prisoners grew, the level of surveillance and the amount of interrogation increased. The newer cellblocks were a little more pleasant, but not much. We saw a delivery lorry, marked as a bakery delivery but used to carry prisoners. Those inside couldn’t see out, long circuitous routes would be taken to ensure no one knew where they were taken. There was a hospital on the site, prisoners would be driven there from their cells, taking an hour long drive around the city so they thought they were elsewhere.

As well as the usual catalogue of physical tortures, the Stasi put a lot of effort into perfecting techniques to unsettle prisoners mentally. Favourites included choosing a room with décor as close as possible to that in the home of the prisoner (same wallpaper) and offering the prisoner a drink and ensuring that their favourite brand was on hand without asking them what that was… just to show that they knew a lot about you. Even the layout of the interrogation rooms was carefully considered. The interrogator would always have their back to the window and sit higher than the prisoner. The prisoner could see a little of the outside world to remind them what they were missing. Furniture was always angled diagonally to unsettle the prisoner. They were forced to sit on their hands – this allowed a good sweat sample to be collected from their chairs which could be used as a scent for dogs in the case of escapes. When the prison finally closed in 1991, a lot of files were opened to the public. You could find out who had denounced you to the Stasi. The guide asked us if we would have wanted to know. ‘Consider’, she said, ‘that one woman found out it was her husband – and divorced him immediately’. A young man was betrayed by his late father who would never be able to explain himself.

After a fascinating couple of hours, the tour finished with the guide reminding us that although the prison closed 25 years ago, there are still many places in the world where similar activities – and worse – are still going on and that we shouldn’t forget that.

The ‘reunion’ of Germany was seen as a very important political and social priority. The former East is still much poorer than the West. Billions of Euros are spent every year in trying to close this gap. Despite all the changes since 1989, there is nostalgia among some people – particularly the older generation – for the DDR, known as Ostalgie. The reasons include ideology, nationalism and a lost sense of social status and stability.

Our final destination was the Russian War Memorial in Treptower Park in the south east of the city. We retraced our steps to the bus and train, carrying on a few stops further to the south of the river.

Russian war memorials are never subtle but this one is larger than most. There are three in the city; this one commemorates 7,000 of the 80,000 Soviet troops that died in the Battle of Berlin. The entrance is through two huge dark marble portals. Beyond this, two lines of stone panels depict scenes of Soviet servicemen, peasants, heroes and leaders. At the end, there is a massive statue of a soldier on top of a small mound overlooking the whole site. He holds a sword and a German child, at his feet is a broken Swastika. It was a grey morning, a few people wandered around, some Russian, had they lost relatives here? Maybe just interested in their country’s history.

Against the clock, we hurried back to the apartment to collect our bags.

The journey home was quick and easy. The change in time zone and flying to City airport got us home at a good time – we’ll be doing this again, soon.

We could be heroes

Saturday 24 June 2017

I don’t think we saw or heard anyone else the whole time we were in the flat. Which was a little un-nerving. Maybe I’ve read too many cold war books. Which reminds me, if you haven’t read Stasiland yet, you should. The book and its author received a frosty reception in what was East Germany in 2004. I digress. But only a little. Things would have happened in this building where we were staying. Listening devices would have been planted in some of the flats.

We left the flat just in time to board the tram towards Mitte and especially Distrikt Coffee. We got there right on opening time (there was a queue!) and got a great breakfast (which for me may have involved a poached egg and avocado) and great coffee. The interior was trendy in a cool relaxed way and the staff was friendly.

Fortified, we walked through the atmospheric Friedhof Sophien II cemetery to the Berlin Wall Memorial. There, at Bernauer Strasse, we found a complete section of the wall still intact – with the no man’s land and one of the three remaining watchtowers. This is where the wall was first erected. In what used to be East Germany, apartment blocks were right against the wall, and early on people used to escape to West Germany through the windows. Some of these buildings were later condemned and demolished. The outdoor exhibition shows some of the successful escapes. It also tells of unsuccessful ones. People who saved their lives; people who saved others; people who took risks. The stakes were high; soldiers were under orders to shoot escapees.

The museum has more stories, some echoed the stories we’d read about the previous days. Some people had made some very difficult decisions – either informing on their friends and neighbours or helped bust escape networks.

Sure, it’s easy to be judgmental now. What would we have done in similar circumstances?

It cannot be as simple as heroes and villains.

I spent a few minutes listening to some of the audio recordings – people who had been interrogated by the Stasi; soldiers who had been told to keep guard along the wall to protect the East from the West (but soon realised that the danger was most likely internal).

There were some more uplifting stories too. Families meeting across the wall when originally the wall was just a small partition, showing off newborns or just waving to each other. Families torn apart, yet trying to keep some sense of normality.

I remember stories from my childhood. Bear with me on this one. My maternal grandmother’s brother was married to a woman. He died. She remarried. She died. Her husband remarried a younger polish woman who had escape Poland just before or just after the iron curtain. She had made the ultimate sacrifice; she’d left her family behind. Over the years, she exchanged many letters with her family – she had no doubt that her letters were censored as the ones she got from her loved ones were heavily censored. A few times, she asked for special permission to go and visit her relatives. Each request was refused. My memory is hazy here, but I think one of her later attempts was successful. She was beyond joy. My maternal grandmother kept in touch with her and her husband and this is how I know that her marriage was a happy one. She led a contented life in France. She and her husband had adopted two siblings. I remember she taught me how to pluck a chicken amongst other things.

These thoughts were circling in my head the whole time we were at the Berlin Wall Memorial. That was intense.

With mixed feelings, and some relief, we made for our next destination. Walking around Mitte was a welcome treat: the architecture is lovely and it has many cool bars, restaurants and boutique shops. Lunch at The Klub Kitchen was followed by a browse in Paper and Tea and a shop selling wrapping paper and stationery goods (a dream!). We picked up some tasty cinnamon buns from Zet fur Brot (another queue!) and returned to our sightseeing.

First on the list was one of the Alexanderplatz’s most well-known sights, the World Time Clock. Constructed in 1969, it weighs 16 tons and is 10 metres tall. The revolving cylinder has 24 time zones with the names of major cities in each zone. And, you can see the current time in each zone. I loved it.

A short walk away, we visited St Marienkirche. Only a small portion of the famous dance macabre fresco was visible, as the western portico is undergoing renovation. Very little is known about it. It’s suggested that local citizens commissioned it and that it aimed to ‘demonstrate the transience of life on earth’.

Not far from the St Marienkirche, we found larger-than-life statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the authors of the Communist Manifesto. Another reminder that Berlin was one of the capitals of the communist world.

We took a bus to our next stop, the Room of Silence near the Brandenburg Gate. The room is located in the gate’s northern wing and it offers visitors a place to meditate, reflect and ponder in what is one of Berlin’s most touristy monuments.

We walked as close to the Reichstag as we could – big flags on display, including a huge European one. We hadn’t booked (free) tickets to enter so we made do with the monument to the Memorial to the Murdered Members of the Reichstag.

Our next memorial was the memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism. Centered around a pond, it is quite understated yet peaceful.

Not memorialed out just yet, we made for the Holocaust Memorial which commemorates the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. It is akin to a giant field of stelae. It contains 2,711 sarcophagus-like concrete slabs, which vary in height on undulating ground. It is stunning and poignant… as long as you ignore the kids and young tourists playing hide and seek (seriously, sometimes I don’t get people!).

There was a lot to absorb and discuss, and we did that over a craft beer at Kaschk back in Mitte (all pale ale). The décor is cool, as in Scandi-it-looks-like-you’re-in-a-homemade-shed cool. During the day, they serve coffee and baked goods there.

And then we thought we’d go back to Hops & Barley because the beer is really nice there! We sat outside, and shared our table with friendly locals. Every time a new drink was purchased, a merry round of ‘prost’ rang around.

Just for one day…

Friday 23 June 2017

Quick breakfast in our apartment… going back to an old theme – breakfast tacos with scrambled eggs and avocado.

After breakfast, we headed for one of the things I’m looking forward to most in Berlin, a tour of the Hansa recording studios where David Bowie recorded Heroes.

We took a train to Potsdamer Platz metro station, with just enough time for a very nice flat white from ‘The Coffee Shop’. I managed to order in German, at least until she asked whether we wanted it to go.

The building housing the studio used to be a tradesman guild hall and dance hall. It somehow survived the wartime bombardment that flattened almost everything in the surrounding area. When David Bowie was there in 1977, the Wall was visible at the end of the street from the studio control room, inspiring the lyrics about producer Tony Visconti’s affair with a backing singer.

And the guns shot above our heads,
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall

The tour started outside with the history of the building. We then went inside to the large room on the first floor where among others, Bowie, U2, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, R.E.M. and Depeche Mode have recorded. The tour was biased towards Depeche Mode because of the concert the previous night but we still got to hear a bit of Heroes in the room where it was created which was an emotional moment for me.

After the main room, we visited the more modern control room on the top floor which was added after Bowie was here but was used a number of times by Depeche Mode. Hearing some of the music through the studio desk at high volume was quite an experience. We also got to play a few notes on a piano used by Bowie and DM.

Our guide, Thilo, from Berlin Music Tours was very knowledgable about the studios, their history and all the bands that played there. He grew up in East Berlin and saw Depeche Mode when he was 14 when they were one of the rare western bands allowed to play in the East of the city.

After the studios we walked to the WestBerlin Cafe for lunch. Very tasty sandwiches and salads, coffee and juices and lots of books and magazines to read.

Berlin is obviously full of recent history and our next few hours were devoted to two of the major aspects of it.

Checkpoint Charlie was one of the main crossing points between East and West Berlin. On the American side, there’s a small wooden sentry hut and some sandbags – you can have your photo taken with a fake GI. On the Eastern side, there were observation towers, two sections of wall and a 50m strip – snipers alley – between them. A small exhibition explains the significance of the checkpoint and tells the story of attempted crossings, successful and otherwise. Here in October 1961, the East and West came about as close to war as ever happened, both sides had tanks pointing at each other down Friedrichstrasse, fortunately neither side really wanted it and found a way to back down.

A few hundred yards down the street, a long section of the wall remains in place but here an earlier episode of the city’s history is documented. The area housed the majority of the Third Reich government ministries, The ‘Topography of Terror’ exhibition explains the Nazis rise to power, their ways of controlling and suppressing the population and their ultimate defeat. The enormity of what happened is too large to convey in one exhibition but it does a good job of giving an overview of major events. One image of particular interest showed how the Nazis had used the 1936 Olympics for propaganda purposes; it was taken in the stadium we had been in the previous evening, apart from a new roof it remains almost as it was then.

We walked along the side of Hermann Göring’s Air Ministry building (a minimal 1940s construction) and up towards Unter Den Linden and the Brandenburg Gate. The city is very good at explaining the history everywhere and doesn’t shy away from the worst of it. We passed the location of the Nazi Reichstag opposite which was Hitler’s bunker where he shot himself in 1945. Traces of the bunker remained for a long time after the war but it has now been completely obliterated. Unter den Linden is one of the main arteries of the city, a broad multi-lane street with large grand building along its length. At the western end is the Brandenberg gate completed in 1791. The gate was just inside the Russian sector, the wall passed right behind it.

Paris Platz, immediately to the east of the gate was largely destroyed by allied bombing during World War Two. It has recently been rebuilt and is home to the French and US Embassies, a luxury hotel and a Starbucks.

We took a bus and metro back to our apartment for a quick shower before dinner. It seems that everywhere we want go in Berlin – in any direction – is about 30 minutes away.

We took a metro back to the Kreuzberg area and walked through Checkpoint Charlie again to our restaurant. Tim Raue trained at Noma which is a good enough recommendation for us. His restaurant is one of the best in the city. We chose the 6 course vegetarian tasting menu with a few German wines to help us along the way. The food was very very good – lots of interesting colours, flavours and textures, all beautifully cooked. My highlight was a desert of smoked banana, one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

After an enjoyable three hours we walked back into the former Soviet sector and took a thirty minute metro ride home.

Where’s the revolution?

Finding that bit of the Berlin wall in Tirana makes for the perfect transition to our recent Berlin weekend break.

Our Berlin stories.

Thursday 22 June 2017

We left home fairly early and made our way to London City Airport – destination Berlin.

Flying from City was on Andy’s list. It is our nearest airport and it seems ridiculous that we never make use of it. Especially when you can be in a place like Berlin in no time (we were in the air for an hour and twenty minutes).

I guess we just needed an excuse!

We landed at Tegel and got the bus TXL to the terminus, Alexander Platz. From there, we got the metro U5 towards Hönow and got off at Frankfurter Tor.

Our airBnB apartment was located minutes from the station, in Friedrichshain. The views from the windows are exceptional, looking out towards the towers of Frankfurter Tor (formerly Stalin-Allee & Karl-Marx Allee). It doesn’t get any more East Germany than this.

The building of the apartment is a historical monument. It was built in the 50s together with the avenue Karl-Marx Allee (in the past called “Stalin Allee”). In the GDR it was a very significant and monumental avenue. The building has a special glamor of spy movies of the Cold War.” (From our host).

We dropped our bags and headed out to lunch.

The neighbourhood’s friendly and just on the right side of trendy. After a tasty lunch at Aunt Benny (a lovely place with delicious coffee, minimalistic interior and friendly service), we shopped for supplies and made our way back home.

And then it rained. Heavy rain.

So we staggered our journey back to the flat, taking regular shelter in doorways. We had checked the weather forecast so often leading up to the weekend, and rain hadn’t really been part of the agenda. Oh well.

Waiting for the rain to ease up, we finalised our itinerary for the forthcoming days. And ventured out again mid-afternoon.

We started with a walk along ‘Karl-Marx Allee’. This boulevard is allegedly 89 metres wide and two kilometres long (we’re not convinced). The style is over the top socialist classicism. The buildings are impressive.

From there, we headed towards the Spree River where we walked along the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall (1.5 kms). And it’s incredible what memory does to you. Straight away, footage from 9 November 1989 came to mind. These were incredible scenes. History in the making, and here we were… at the wall.

The East Side Gallery – as that stretch of the wall is known – is an open-air gallery. Over 100 artists from all over the world were invited to paint a section of it. The most famous section of it all is probably “The kiss of death” with Brezhnev and Honecker kissing.

We walked across the Oberbaumbrücke – the bridge connects Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, two districts formerly divided by the wall. Architecturally, it’s an old interesting bridge, made a lot more interesting for serving as a pedestrian crossing between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. We spent ten minutes or so walking about what was West Berlin, and retreated to the East.

Walking back towards our apartment, we stopped at Hops and Barley for a swift pint of incredible craft beer. ‘We’re coming back here, right?’, asked Andy. Oh yes. Definitely.

Dinner was a quick affair at Il Ritrovo – dead cool waiters and tasty pizzas – before our next date with history.

We made our way to the Olympiastadion, about 40 minutes away. This is very much a modern stadium now; one of the world’s top entertainment venue. But there is some murky history there.

Walking past the Olympic rings, we went in and took our seats (thankfully covered). The sky darkened. There was lightening in the sky followed by thunder. Rain fell hard.

It didn’t matter much… because when Depeche Mode are on stage, little else matters.

Now, I would happily have brought the day to an end here, but Andy asked me to expand on the concert… so here goes. The set was pretty much the same as the one we had on London a few weeks ago with just one different song. The crowd was mental, the way Depeche Mode fans are pretty much everywhere in the world apart from the UK. And consequently, the band had fun.

We got away from the stadium quickly considering how many people were about, and got a couple of metros back home. A few people in our carriage were very soggy. Soaked through. Yet everyone was buzzing.