Berlin and beyond: Building bridges

It’s a cliche alright, but as I stand on the banks of Berlin’s Spree River looking up at the Kanzleramtssteg, or chancellor’s bridge, a certain Simon and Garfunkel song snakes through my mind. The overpass is a contemporary slip of a thing, built between two chancellery buildings and too high to be anything other than removed from the city over which it offers what, I’m sure, is a brilliant view.

But as it’s off-limits to the public, that sense of division was clearly by design. Visible but out of reach. Maybe that symbolism was less provoking when the structure went up over a decade ago, but given the troubled waters of the nation’s political present, a bridge of more solid parts, built closer to the ground and those who walk it, might be more reassuring. And it’s not as if this were a city dry on example. Listen or read on…

Category: Writing

Berlin and beyond: Back to the Berlin Wall

Sunk into a busy four-lane road in front of the Wollankstrasse railway bridge on the former border between East and West Berlin are two lines of cobblestones that depict where the Berlin Wall once snaked through. I set out from there thinking I could follow their path all the way to an allegedly long-lost forgotten section of the historic partition. How wrong I was. No sooner had I found the double row of stones, they stopped.

Relying instead on a map of the 43 kilometers (27 miles) of what the East German authorities used to term the anti-fascist protection rampart, I headed up a slope into an empty corridor of land flanked by a railway embankment on one side and tenements on the other. I was on the death strip. Listen or read on…

Category: Writing

Berlin and beyond: The art of tipping

The first time I realized just how alien the rules of Germany’s tipping culture are to me was at the end of a less-than-glorious camping trip. When presented with the bill for my plot, I was so glad to be leaving that I handed over the money with an apparently hasty “danke.”

Had I waited a moment longer, I’d have been given 8 euros in change. As it was, I later found out, the act of saying “thank you” at the moment I did, meant there was no change. At least not for me. Lesson learned. Two lessons, in fact, as I’ve not pitched a tent since.

I have though, periodically wondered about the who, when, where of tipping in this country… To make things clear before I go any further, I’m not a gratuities grump. Far from it. I just think it helps to know the rules. Listen or read on…

Category: Writing

Berlin and beyond: Blast from the past

In the final days of last year and the first of this, I made a pact with myself to spend more time on foot. To take long walks as a means of creating time to ponder at my own pace, to slow life down. I like the idea of slower. So I’ve been loyal to my promise. Been walking like I mean it. Hit my stride, so to speak.

At the weekend, I took it — my stride, that is — and my kids out of town into Brandenburg, the state that surrounds Berlin. After misreading a map to nowhere in particular, we pulled off the road into a village perched on the reedy banks of a silent lake. At the turning, beside a red-brick and flint church, was a large sign showing a drawing of emaciated figures in blue-and-white striped shirts.

It was in tribute to the 6,000 prisoners murdered by the SS as they were forced to march northwards from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on the outskirts of Berlin during the very final days of the Second World War. Read on…

Category: Writing

Berlin and beyond: Choosing my religion

When I was talking with friends about religious education a couple of weeks ago, one of them, a Catholic, suggested it would be hard for teachers to give any true insight into a faith they don’t live by. Perhaps that’s the thinking behind Berlin’s school system, which doesn’t have comprehensive classes to contrast and compare different beliefs, just voluntary lessons in a single religion. In a society where tolerance and mutual respect are clearly pivotal, such a narrow approach screams missed opportunity.

Because, let’s face it, how many people are likely to take the individual initiative and go off and acquaint themselves with half a dozen religions? My guess is not a lot. I know I haven’t. Which is not to say I have no interest in the fabric of faith. On the contrary, I find religion fascinating. From a distance, at least. Up close though, its dogmas and calls for devotion unsettle me. So I have stayed on the sidelines where I’ve allowed my own ideas to form and my patchwork spiritual vein to throb with its irregular pulse. Listen or read on…

Category: Writing

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