This afternoon, a red-faced Berliner with a moustache reprimanded me for committing a traffic offense on Unter den Linden. My crime: staying put when I saw the red man.
I know that there are a lot of things I don’t understand. Many of them I have written about here before.
But of all the enigmas with which I have battled, nothing remains as clandestine as the reason for pedestrian traffic lights occurring at the same spot as a zebra crossing.
Granted I had been walking along the narrow central stretch of the beautiful tree-lined promenade, instead of the wide pavements designed for walkers, but I had good reason for it. From the middle, I had a wonderful view of both the Victory Column ahead, and the Brandenburg Gate behind.
I had stopped with the intention of crossing over to have a look at the Russian war memorial. I almost pulled a muscle in my neck with all the looking left, then right, then left again I was doing. Ligaments have the right to rebel when called into use after periods of benign neglect.
It may have been a zebra crossing, but the light was red.
To be honest, I was charmed by the iconic red traffic man, with his wide hat and purposeful stance. Even if he had been green, I probably would have stopped to stare. Anyway, something about my immobility irked the balding motorist with whiskers sprouting from his nose. He beeped and growled at me as he drove past.
On I wandered down Unter den Linden anyway and turned off at the corner to have a look at the Schloss Belvue, the residence of the new Federal President, Joachim Gauck. On Monday, when I took a bus tour of the city, the lady guide quipped that it was Germany’s “White House”.
I found it pleasant to look at and unusually unguarded. You’d know it was a ceremonial role.
When I got to the end of Unter den Linden, I reached the Siegessäule or “Victory Column”. This monstrous tower was erected to celebrate defeats first against Denmark, then the Prussians and then Austria. I remembered that the guide had mentioned the number of steps to the top but I had promptly forgotten the number, which is in line with my tendency to not see the trees for the wood.
It didn’t matter. As I was climbing higher and higher up the spiral staircase, I considered the number to be infinite. With each loop, I looked upwards with expectation and to my horror found the distance yet to be conquered to be increasing.
At one point, I stopped and considered the possibility of failure. After all, if the column celebrated success over adversaries, I may as well be monument to its victory over foreign invaders.
As I was gazing upward into the infinite abyss, I embarrassingly caught the eye of a German champion who had made it and was gazing patronisingly downwards. Her laugh echoed down at me and I boomed a nervous one back.
As I climbed higher and higher I was struck powerfully by my absolute solitude. If I were to fall, nobody would know. The only people to accompany me during my last breaths would be a group of exuberant southern Germans too busy in the big smoke to care, and a Spanish couple, so visibly in love, with their linked arms and communal tickling, that my death might even pass them by.
I huffed and I puffed and I made it. I had a breath-taking view of the city covered in mist. The TV tower to the east fought with the clouds and together they looked like a clumsy mass of candy floss.
Church steeples and colourful concrete blocks, and in between a glass dome, or a power station: the city’s skyline is a muddled testament to its troubled history.
I took a few photos and implored an Italian man to take my picture.
That’s the funny thing about travelling without companions; you’re much more forward about approaching people, even if you risk inferring that you wish to become a shareholder of Sparda bank.
After I had made it down safely, I sat at the base of the Victory Column and considered my next move. I could go to the Zoo, but I probably wouldn’t have time to see all of the 15,000 species of animals. Or I could go to the Pergamon museum, but I wouldn’t have time to look at every specimen of Athenian artefact on display.
So I thought I might as well head west back down Unter den Linden and check out the beautiful Gendarmen Square, which I had read about in my trusty guide.
Alas, that plan was destined to fail.
I had just reached Humboldt university when I spotted a bookstall set up outside. Given that I’ve a penchant for independent booksellers, I wandered over to browse the titles.
I picked up a hardback copy of Hermann Hesse’s Der Steppenwolf and a translation of Gabriel Garcua Marquez’ A Hundred Years of Lonelienss.
The vendor, a bearded man with glasses and wearing a black hat, took them from me and said: “Ich bin beeindruckt”.
I smiled. He had told me he was impressed with my selection.
This man reminded me of the type of person I thought I would miss from Ireland.
He was an unconventional and incessant talker, belligerent one moment and benign the next.
He talked to me about socialism and National Socialism, about Gunther Grass and Johann Goethe, about the student movement of the 1960’s, and about anti-Americanism; about a Japanese girl he had sworn at because she had dared haggle over a Hermann Hesse book and about a journalist at the Berliner Morgen Zeitung, who gives him hundreds of newly-released titles for free because he is inundated with copies to review.
The man was an intriguing blend of madness and intellect. His depth of knowledge on all matters of political, historical and cultural importance impressed me, his unflappable loquaciousness did not.
I was making polite one or two word responses to his tirade against anti-intellectualism, when a lady with a tight bun and pursed lips interrupted.
The direct translation of what she said was:
“Would you ever give me some attention and quit your incessant blabber about nothing?”
He didn’t so much as glance in her direction when he beamed at me and said “This lady thinks I talk too much. She’s right!”
I tried to make a dash as he was completing her transaction but he continued to speak,now about Theo Adorno, looking me directly in the eye.
It was getting dark.
“I would like to introduce you to my friend in the Berliner Morgen Zeitung”, he said. “I am absolutely certain he would fall instantly in love with you. He’s a very brilliant man; a philosopher”.
“That’s impressive”, I mumbled politely.
“He is in his sixties”, he added, by way of explanation.
After one hour and five minutes, he leaned over and shook my hand.
“You’ll come back, won’t you?”, he asked.
“Yes”, I said.
Because I feel his gift of the gab might be newsworthy.
When I returned home late this evening I told my flatmate what had delayed me.
“Why didn’t you just say you had to go?”, he asked.
“Because it was utterly impossible!”, I cried.
“Then you should have just thrown a book at him”.
To add to my woes, I saw someone on the U Bahn today with my totally unique Rittersport chocolate bag. And as if it couldn’t get any worse, I just googled Gendarmenmarkt and found that it is home to the biggest chocolate house in the world.