Category Archives: Berlin

Corset wearing Berlin

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Here’s a little column I wrote for DW recently. About Berlin, natürlich!

Berlin has a reputation as a city where anything goes, day or night. But does it really? Tamsin Walker is willing to risk the wrath of the Szene set, and beg to differ. Just a little.

It was a decade ago that the mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, famously declared his city to be poor yet nonetheless sexy. His words were immortalized on the very breath which gave them life, and have since served to attract a flow of sexily impoverished stragglers and strugglers looking for a cheap new home and preventing the slogan – and by extension perhaps themselves – from going out of fashion.

Wowereit’s statement was prompted by a question about the relationship between sexiness and money. He held Berlin up as an example of how the two things need not necessarily be mutually inclusive. But what exactly constitutes a sexy city?

I’m told it’s all about “cheap rents” and an “anything goes” way of life. The latter includes the freedom to sunbathe naked in public places, croon karaoke on the former East German death strip, tango on rooftops, trip out to techno everywhere, or watch impenetrable performance art in the cellars of un-gentrified buildings where the only thing stopping anyone smoking is moisture dripping atmospherically from low-hung ceilings. Read more…

From the arctic to the vernal

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So the snow is back. And with it, a very grouchy public. Too easily were we seduced by the prettily coloured primroses and pansies suddenly on sale on every other street corner. Too willing were we to believe that global warming was drawing winter to an early close. What fools we are, because people – this is Berlin!

This is the city where the winters are long and longer by far than the longest of its speciality long nights (next one is museums this weekend). The city where spring often doesn’t turn up in earnest until days and even weeks after the vernal equinox that officially heralds the start of everyone’s favourite season. But it is also a city that can, when it so chooses, wear winter well. A little like spring with icing.

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Category: Berlin, In the park, Seasons | Tags: , ,

Of Books and Berliners

I have a small child who likes to rearrange my bookshelves. It’s a habit that involves pulling as many volumes as possible onto the floor before I intervene. As it happens, I like the game as much as her. Albeit for different reasons. While she thrives on the anarchy of the moment, I am excited by the way that anarchy fills the room with the very real possibility that I will find an old letter or a thought scribbled on a scrap of paper and carelessly filed away between the pages of books. Last week I found a newsletter from a bar in Putney I evidently once went to – so long ago, however, that the phone number on the back bears the old London dialling code and a complete absence of any digital identity.

And then a couple of days ago a book I have not seen for ages and didn’t remember I had, landed at my feet. It was a skinny little “guide to the Germans” I received as a Christmas present during my earlier days in Berlin. I didn’t exactly devour it at the time, and I doubt I will now, but I did flip through it, and read the apparently compulsory chapter on sense of humour.

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“The Germans take their humour very seriously,” it begins. “It is not a joking matter.” It goes on for a couple of pages about how German jokes don’t translate into English, about how irony is not part of daily life, and how humour is not only prescriptive but often pre-scripted.  “Disorderly humour is not only nothing to laugh about,” the section concludes, “it is often not even recognised.”

The generalisations are, of course, greater than the reality. I was thinking about that reality yesterday, when  ensconced in my local cafe for some quiet writing time, a rather nervous looking man in his mid-thirties walked through the door. There were plenty of free tables, and he hovered around them for a moment before choosing the one immediately to my left.

He came up close, pulled out a chair,  then tutted to himself, and moved to the table on my right. This time he was there for the duration. He dumped his stuff  – coat, hat, scarf, briefcase etc. – on the bench and asked me if I would keep an eye on it all for a moment. “Like a hawk,” I promised with a smile, as he strutted off towards the toilets. And although nothing was going to happen to his stuff during his absence, I watched it… a small black mound of inanimate objects. They looked so dark and dull, and I was suddenly hit by an overwhelming desire to hide – just temporarily – one item. Sadly he was faster than my thought, and was back before I could act on my impulse.

When he approached our corner of the café, he looked at me questioningly. “It’s all still there,” I told him. He nodded his approval or his recognition of a job well done and took off his suit jacket. “Although I did consider hiding it,” I confessed. He did a kind of double take before releasing a limping bout of wooden laughter  into the gap between his table and mine.

It hung in the air for a moment, before he cut it off dead, turned to me square on and said: “That wouldn’t have been a good idea.” And somehow, judging by the look of earnestness gripping his face, I don’t think he was joking.

Bleak Berlin and a bunker

Berlin in February is not Berlin at its best. The snow is gone and the sky, a pale shade of grey, is thick with a cloying nothingness. I went out into it this morning, hoping a jog would stir the air for me, fill me with new thoughts and ideas. But as I ran, all I could feel was a lack of inspiration. Nothing. Nothing at all. So I started to wonder if that lack of inspiration could be turned in such a way as to become inspiring itself. And that question led me to Oracle Night, in which Paul Auster’s protagonist writes his own protagonist into a hole – a bunker – from which there is no easy way out.

It’s a literary scene that my mind seems to enjoy recalling more than I recall enjoying it – not because I didn’t like the story, but because I didn’t, and don’t, like the idea of getting so absolutely stuck either in writing or life, that the only solution is to unpick and start over. Today, though, I welcomed the bunker images from the book, as they dissolved the heavy Berlin sky that hovered above my head, and took me into the infinite realm of interpretation and association. And once there, I received another literary visitor in the form of Jim Crace’s Quarantine. But that, as they say, is another story for another time…

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A typical Berlin February sky

Going slowly

You know how when you acquire something new and seemingly unusual – might be a purple bicycle or a blue pair of shoes – and then suddenly start seeing the same item everywhere around you? Well, I have something like that going on with walking frames on wheels, or rollators, as I now know they are called. I haven’t gone out and bought one, but I did have an encounter with one the other day. An encounter that makes me look at them differently…

I was pushing my zero suspension pram along one of Berlin’s hobbledy cobbledy narrow pavements, when I saw a crooked old lady with a rollator (that word again) inching her way towards me. One of us was going to have to stop to let the other pass, and it made sense that it should be me. I watched and waited, but instead of continuing on her way, she stopped too, and looked up at me, her frown giving way to crinkly warmth.

“Do you keep getting stuck too?” she asked. “This surface is terrible for my wheels.” Realising she was referring to my pram, I told her it generally managed all right. But it seemed from her expression as if that she had hoped I would give her a different response, and that she wanted us – regardless of our age or situational difference – to have something in common. So I let her have it.

“I sometimes get stuck in the park though, on all the protruding tree roots,” I ventured. She sighed. “The park! Oh I can’t even go into the park.” Perhaps she had not been seeking commonality after all. Perhaps it was me that sought it. I wasn’t sure where to take our exchange next. She was poised to shuffle off, but it didn’t seem right to say nothing more, so I offered her an admittedly lame: “Go slowly.”

She raised an eyebrow, rearranging her wrinkles in the process, and said: “I don’t really have much choice.” And off she went, leaving me with a new awareness of elderly ladies on wheels.

Category: Berlin | Tags: , ,
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