Friday, 10 March
Last week I dreamt I went to Berlin again...
Actually, unlike the narrator of Rebecca who made a nocturnal visit to her former home Manderley, I did physically return to the city where I once lived. It just felt like a dream.
For more recent readers, some background: from 2013 until mid-2019, my husband David and I split our life between Paris and Berlin. It was during those years that this photo-essay, originally entitled A Paris-Berlin Diary, was conceived.
I hadn’t been back to Berlin in over three years, and right from the minute I stepped off the train at the Hauptbahnof my head was in a swirl, a dazed state between past and present, memory and reality. Even the city’s geography spun around uncertainly in my head.
We stayed at a friend's in Mitte, not far from the first flat we rented, and it was a perfect spot from which to reset my bearings, visit old haunts, itemise what has and hasn’t changed in the last four years.
Certainly the building frenzy I chronicled on multiple occasions back then (for comparative photos, click on the links as indicated) has only intensified.
Our old Kiez of Alt-Treptow, for example, is in full construction mode. The project for two towers, on a site that was once grassland and prime dog-walking territory, had already begun in the months before we left. I don't know what's taking them so long; they're still only on the foundations.
Work on the extension of the Autobahn that will pass a mere 100 metres/yards from our old house continues.
But I wasn't expecting that the Real (pronounced Ré-al) hyper-market, to which I bizarrely beelined upon each return to the city, would be closed, as are most of the other shops in the shopping centre. I ate my sandwich on a bench and watched the lingering spirits float by. The colossus is, I imagine, destined for destruction - no aesthetic loss for the city, just a mnemonic one for me and surely many east Berliners for whom it was a cornerstone.
Meanwhile, across the river, on the Straulau peninsula, every available centimetre has been built into identikit housing and office space, with only one lone hold out (an internet search did not reveal what antibodies allow this old codger to continue fighting off the development virus).
One day I took the S-Bahn to Plänterwald, so I could run in the woods where I spent many hours with the dogs. I visited some old friends...
...and checked on the 'renovation' of the abandoned Spreewald amusement park that used to loom out of the trees like a hallucination. The old rides (that wheel!) and attractions have now been almost entirely removed...
In some ways, however, Berlin hasn't changed at all, seems in fact to grip tenaciously to its old self. A surprising number of our regular restaurants, for example, from the early days on the Almstadtstraße have survived unchanged.
The U- and S-Bahn stations remain firmly of their time, and as a user without a pass, you are still only able to buy paper tickets in batches of four, tickets that are laboriously spit out of a clunky old machine and validated in another.
There continue to be many (I'd say more) down and out people...
And since Berlin is too big for developers to rebuild simultaneously everywhere, there are plenty of areas that feel frozen in time.
The last day I took a tram to the end of the Hohenschönhausen line, where Plattenbauten, the massive post-War blocks built in the former GDR, still dominate the landscape.
It's not beautiful, but I found it reassuring, being amongst buildings and people who have been Berliner for sixty plus years, have weathered many of the city's changes from the same spot. Beyond the trendy centre where English has become the municipal language, east Berlin is still East Berlin.
When we moved here in 2013, even if the push and pull between the past and future was already apparent, the city felt more rooted in the war and division of its tortured 20th century. Today, the shift into the 21st has picked up speed, but the city, with all its incongruities and quirks, still induces a dazed and dreamy state, even at the end of a week's visit.
Perhaps that is what makes Berlin Berlin.