Berlin is like one of those postcard strips which fold out to reveal a dozen snapshots. No matter how much exploring you have already done, each time you turn an unfamiliar corner, a little square, or a park or church will pop out at you. Here are some snapshots of my weekend, as I think back over it, wrapped in a blanket, with the cat at my feet, rolling a bouncy ball over the floor.
Friday night, 4.30 am Burger King, Friedrischshain
I am remarkably unaffected by the five shots of Kräuter Schnapps, one Amaretto and apple cocktail, and two bottles of beer I’ve consumed. But still, there’s nothing like a greasy bag of onion rings and packet of chips given the circumstances. The lady behind the counter has grey hair and steely eyes and a face full of resignation. I immediately feel guilty for being somebody that makes it worthwhile to keep Burger King open at this hour. I am exceptionally polite when I order. Behind me, two homeless men, with colourful floppy hair and both on crutches, are slurring their words as they address her co-worker, a stylish man with black eyes.
“Why don’t you point at the meal you want?”, he suggests, as if this is a standard cure for those who can’t articulate. The men look at the pictures of slimy bacon double cheese burgers and chicken nuggets and make a selection. “Would you like a drink with that?” the sever asks.
They can’t think of a response for this one. Suddenly I feel something against my leg. One of the men has started to prod me with his crutch. I jump to safety. His companion defends me:“Hey man, don’t do that, she’s a girl. Stop..”
As I am eating my onion rings, one of the men collapses. His burger flies to the ground. The cheese soaks into the dirty grey tiles.
Friedrichshain Park, Saturday, 3 pm
There are two enormous concrete elephants in the park. A little blonde girl is colouring them in with chalk. She’s not wearing any shoes, and her socks are pink. She’s totally engrossed in her task. She paints the elephant’s trunk green.
On the far side of the green, heart-shaped balloons tied to trees are dancing in a light breeze. A group of twenty-somethings are having a party. They’ve set up a little barbecue and are serving sausages and potato salad on paper plates. Suddenly they all put down their plastic forks to sing Happy Birthday to their friend.
A young man with a black pony tail and tired eyes is sitting on a bench, bent over his Border Collie, caressing it slowly, with a large brush. The collie stands patiently, looking straight ahead, bending its knees when required and responding instantly to the man’s gruff “Setzen.” There is tremendous dignity in the collie’s profile. It looks as though he is smiling politely, as large tufts of his black and white fur fall to meet the dusty ground. After several minutes, the man puts the brush away. The collie lifts his head to look into his owner’s face, with deference and expectation. “Na, geh,”the man with the tail concedes, and the collie, still for so long, now bounds away. He meets a Labrador on the way and they sniff each other’s bottoms.
Sunday, 5 pm The Topography of Terror
Today, exploring the area around Check Point Charlie, I landed at a stretch of the original Berlin wall. A little sign revealed that this was the “Topography of Terror.” There was a visitor’s centre at the site. I went in. And I saw pictures of Jews being paraded round their hometowns wearing signs with words designed to humiliate them. And documents authorising handicapped children to be used for medical experiments. And I listened in to a guide, who was telling a school class about the big companies that had donated money to Hitler during the war.
Suddenly an old man, who had also been listening in, blurted out “I’m not responsible for what my father or grandfather did.”
The teenagers turned their heads.
“I’m innocent! It’s not my fault. I don’t even know if my father or grandfather did anything bad.”
“We’re not talking about blame,” said the tour guide, a curly-haired polyglot, whose first language was not German.
“I didn’t do anything wrong!” the old man repeated, in an accent I now recognize as Berlin, and which most people suppress, because they think it “undesirable.”
“Maybe we can talk about this later,” said the guide. The man stopped talking. The guide finished his tour and told the teenagers never to stop asking questions in order to find out the truth.
As the schoolboys trotted away, the guide approached the old man and shook his hand.
“I’m sorry,” said the old man.
“Don’t worry,” said the guide.
“I’m innocent,” said the old man, his face folded with guilt.