Westalgie in the qi gong changing room

There were three of us, in various states of undress. I was the youngest. Hardly surprising, given that we were getting ready for qi gong, the slowest form of exercise imaginable.

“You’re not from here?” one of the women said.

“No,” I said, “I’m Irish.”

She wasn’t German either, though she sounded it, having moved here from Greece as a young child. Her name gave it away though: Althea*.

The other woman was from Bavaria. Her name was Heike*.

“Some friends of mine were moving to Berlin,” she said. “So I went with them on a whim, planning to stay for a few months. That was 50 years ago.”

We chuckled.

“But oh, how West Berlin has changed,” said Althea, who came here long before the wall came down.

“Oh yes,” said Heike. “It used to be quite something.”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“West Berlin used to sparkle,” she said. “It was a very special place.”

Althea nodded enthusiastically. “Yes,” she said. “It positively glowed.”

Everyone knew each other, they told me. Walled off and with a constant perceived threat of Russian invasion, it was an unconventional type of person who chose to come to West Berlin.

“It was full of pacifists,” Heike said, referring to the young men who came to West Berlin specifically to avoid conscription. A quirk of the city’s division was that the West was technically under the rule of the Allied occupiers, allowing residents to legally bypass the draft that applied elsewhere.

There was a schizophrenic aspect to the city too. It wasn’t just conscientious objectors smoking cigarettes while they mused about changing the world.

Wealth mattered. And flaunting it was a conscious choice.

No building typified it more than KaDeWe on Kudamm. These days, it looks like a regular fancy department store.

But back then, it was an icon of capitalism and the freedom many asso

1280px-berlin_schoeneberg_tauentzienstrasse_21-24_kadewe

KaDeWe – source: Wikipedia Creative Commons

ciated with it.

“There used to be a cafe nearby,” said Heike. “You couldn’t go there without meeting someone you knew. There was this one wealthy man who would pay for everyone …  they were good times.”

The concept of Ostalgie – nostalgia for the former East Germany – is in common parlance in German.

It evokes the sense of a simpler time, far from the Ellenbogengesellschaft (literally ‘elbow society’) of today, characterized by citizens nudging each other in the race to get to the top.

(Before you get too warm and fuzzy, it’s worth remembering that it was also a time of totalitarianism, operated by a network of tyrannical officials and served by tens of thousands of informers masquerading as friends and lovers.)

But the idea of Westalgie – the yearning for the walled-off West – was new to me. Proof it existed could be found in the qi gong changing room in Schöneberg.

*names have been changed

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On bombs and sock drawers

“When will we open the bottle of wine?” Frau Bienkowski asked.

We agreed we’d have it the next time LSB came around.moser-roth-edel-bitter-85

“I was very sad over Christmas,” she said. “There were many times I could have cried.”

Then, probably changing the subject, she continued: “I think someone stole my chocolate.”

I was pretty sure I could fix one of those things. I began opening drawers tentatively.

Frau B has recently developed the habit of finding elaborate hiding places for her personal items.

They’re so good she often can’t find things herself afterwards.

I got lucky after rummaging through her sock drawer. Three bars of Aldi’s Moser Roth, buried deep within a knot of nylon tights.

“Well, there you have it,” she said, retracting her accusation of theft by implicature alone.

“Now, tell me about Alicia*!”

Alicia is my six-month-old niece. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee and charmed practically the entire island of Ireland with her visit at Christmas.

Nothing makes Frau B happier than hearing about her.

“You must have some photographs,” she said, pointing at my phone.

I did. Alicia and her parents in front of the Christmas tree. Alicia dressed in red sitting on an armchair with her grandfather looking on benevolently. Alicia playing with wrapping paper. Alicia with her aunt Kate Katharina.

Frau B sat in her wheelchair, the phone clasped in both her hands, her face lit up in delight.

Babies have that effect.

She told me about her son, Uli, born in 1940 as the bombs were falling on Berlin. Her husband at war, she stayed for two years, taking cover in the cellar during the raids.

Then, in 1942, mother and child moved to the safety of the countryside in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

They stayed in a guesthouse until 1945.

“If it hadn’t been for the war,” she said, “I would say they were the happiest years of my life.”

She and her husband exchanged countless letters.  I wonder what became of them but don’t ask. Frau B has spoken before of the pain she experiences thinking of all the possessions she parted with when she moved into the home.

In Mecklenburg, she became friendly with a protestant priest. He got on famously with Uli, perhaps on account of the affection he had for his mother.

“He told me that if my husband weren’t to survive the war, he’d marry me in a heartbeat,” said Frau B.

“Yes,” she continued. “I could have married three or four times in my life.”

In the end, it was just once. Her husband came home, injured. And the priest was killed in cold blood when the Russians arrived.

*not her real name

Istanbul’s beautiful fragility

In his memoir Istanbul, Turkey’s most famous writer Orhan Pamuk describes the particular kind of beauty strangers encounter in his city:

“A crumbling wall, a wooden tekke – condemned, abandoned and now fallen into neglect – a fountain from whose spouts no water pours, a workshop in which nothing has been produced for eighty years, a collapsing building, a row of houses abandoned by Greeks, Armenians and Jews … none of these things look beautiful to the people who live amongst them; they speak instead of squalor, helpless, hopeless neglect. Those who take pleasure in the accidental beauty of poverty and historical decay, those of us who see the picturesque in ruins – invariably, we’re people who come from the outside.”

Last week I had the pleasure of being an outsider in Istanbul. The beauty I encountered there was unlike any I’ve experienced before.

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Sunset in Istanbul

There is the obvious beauty of the city’s magnificent skyline – particularly at sunset, when the silhouettes of mosques and ancient towers merge with the starker contours of the skyscrapers and cranes– and everything , including the glittering Bosphorus, is bathed in an orange glow.

But there is a different kind of beauty too – a fragile kind, which makes you feel that the entire city is held together by the most delicate of threads and that, if you were to tread too hard or in the wrong place, the entire metropolis could crumble before you.

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Istanbul at dusk

This fragility is everywhere. It is in the wooden houses, with their crooked windows and shabby fronts and the chipped paint on the doors. It is in the young waiters outside restaurants, who – having failed to lure you in with a flashy smile and cheeky soundbite, return with resignation to the car-racing games on their mobile phones.

It was in the way our taxi driver whizzed through the city without a seat belt – getting lost in the old town and shouting at other drivers for directions yet saying nothing to us. It was in the way young boys wove through the heavy traffic selling bottles of water in the searing heat.

It is in the chaos at the Grand Bazaar, where the individual spiels of hundreds of vendors selling you the same wares are at once farcical and endearing. It is in the way they make you feel special though you know you are not.

At the waterfront, the cries of men selling Hugo Boss perfume, corn-on-the-cobs, selfie-sticks and even, apparently, Viagra,  compete with the blare of the ships’ horns on the Bosphorus.  It is a clamour suggestive of both hope and despair.

Pamuk ascribes Istanbul’s peculiar melancholy to the decline of the Ottoman Empire – to a collective mourning for what was and never again will be.

If the source of Istanbul’s  beautiful fragility lies in its history – it is nevertheless in the scramble of every-day life on the streets where it is best preserved.

Fragility can take many forms.

Before I went to Istanbul, I consulted the websites of several countries’ embassies to read their advice for travellers. In the days before my trip, there had been violence in the south of the country and gunfire outside a palace in Istanbul. There was also, apparently, a specific terror threat to the city’s public transport network.

Controlled explosion at Taksim Square

Controlled explosion at Taksim Square

As so often happens, my fears dissipated as soon as I set foot in the city and became distracted by its magnificence.

But as I approached Taksim Square for the first time, my unease returned. The area had been cordoned off and was encircled by police vans. Crowds had gathered to watch a man in a bomb suit make his way towards the towering statue of Attaturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

The explosion terrified the pigeons into flight

The explosion terrified the pigeons into flight

The man carried out a controlled explosion – terrifying a flock of pigeons into flight. Its power sent a shiver coursing down my spine.

Moments later, the police were gone

and the square was once again teeming with people. It was if nothing had happened.

Prora – second chance for a dilapidated Nazi resort?

It’s breathtakingly beautiful here, with the leaves glistening as they catch the sun and the ocean shimmering beyond the forest clearing.

Prora beach

Prora beach

Turn the other way –  away from the sea – and you encounter something else entirely.

Crumbling concrete blocks with glassless windows, as far as the eye can see.

Row upon row of grey, with the occasional scaffolding dotted in between.

This was supposed to be Nazi Germany’s holiday paradise.

I’m on the island of Rügen on the Baltic Sea. More specifically I’m in Prora, a haunting beach-side idyll between the holiday towns of Saasnitz and Binz.

In 1936, an architect named Clemens Klotz was commissioned to design a holiday resort here. The project’s slogan was “Kraft durch Freude,” which means “Strength through Joy.” The purpose was to offer ordinary Germans two weeks of seaside rest and restoration so they could return refreshed to their primary function: serving Nazi Germany.

The 4.5 kilometre stretch was to accommodate some 20,000 people and every bedroom was to have an ocean view.

prora

Roadside sign pointing to Prora

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“Model homes” advertised

But the War got in the way and building was abandoned. In later years, parts of the complex were used by the Soviets as an army barracks.

A symbol of both Nazi ideology and post-war Soviet aggression, Prora’s image is nothing if not tainted.

But things are changing. 80 years since its inception, Prora is once again in the midst of aggressive development.

On the cycle there, I passed countless signs advertising “Muster Wohnungen,” or “show homes.”

contrast

The completed refurbishment in the middle contrasts with the buildings on either side.

Follow them and you get to a Portakabin. Inside, you can view the plans for Prora’s future. The new holiday homes mirror the charmless Plattenbau style of the originals. The biggest difference is their pristine white exterior – a stark contrast to the drab appearance of their predecessors.

Those interested in buying can avail of a private tour of a nearby block.

There was nobody around so I wandered into the dilapidated building. With holes in the walls and dust everywhere, the glossy display boards featuring images of fancy holiday apartments added to the surreal effect.

Inside the building

Inside the building

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Before we got kicked out. Photographer: LSB aka Berlin Boffer https://andrewchayden.wordpress.com/

It wasn’t long before I got caught though. A middle-aged man with a booming voice charged in – demanding to know whether I could read. Apparently the sign outside clearly described the site as a private property.

I left, but not before capturing some shots inside.

Later, I wheeled my bike along the strand all the way back to Binz. The sun was setting; the light was glorious. A few children were paddling in the water – wading around abandoned sand sculptures and heaps of shells.

A group of teenagers were playing a game of volleyball – their laughs competing with the lapping of the waves.

This, I thought, is how Prora is supposed to be.

sunet at Binz

sunset at Binz

Frau B takes on “the modern condition”

“Nice haircut, Frau B!”

She pats the sides of  her head, self-conscious and pleased. “Like it? You’re the only one who bothers to notice.”

There’s a knock on the door. A young woman, slight and dark-haired, sporting a pale green uniform, walks in.

“Julia!” says Frau B. “Now you can finally meet Katechen, my little Iren.”

Julia and I greet each other.

“Julia comes from Spain,” says Frau B. “Don’t you?”

“Yes, ” says Julia and hands us both a cup of coffee.

“She speaks very good German,” Frau B says after she’s left. “She came here because there were no jobs at home. Just like you did!”

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00134 / CC-BY-SA via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00134 / CC-BY-SA via Wikipedia Creative Commons

We talk about mass unemployment and the effect it has on the political landscape of Europe. Frau B was a child when Germany was in its deepest ever financial crisis.

“1929 and 1930 were the worst years,” she says. Even my father was unemployed for nine months. People said that if he had no work, it meant there really was none.”

“What did he do?”

“He was a precision mechanic. He was very good with his hands.”

“Something you inherited!”

“I sure did. I got his feet too. He had tiny feet, for a man.”

Screen grab from Daily Telegraph article of 27 January 2012

Screen grab from Daily Telegraph article of 27 January 2012

She takes a sip of coffee and continues:

“Hitler would never have come to power were it not for unemployment. See, he re-built the army and got people back to work.”

I tell her about Ireland’s Republican party, Sinn Féín, and how they’re currently enjoying a rise in popularity.

We agree that mass unemployment and disillusionment add to the allure of extremism.

Sometime later, when we are done talking about politics, Frau B mentions her grandmother who was born in 1838.

As a child, Frau B would spend long afternoons reading the Bible in her grandmother’s rural home. But it is a detail related to her Oma’s appearance rather than any biblical verse, which has stuck most in Frau B’s mind.

“My grandmother used to be bothered by a few little hairs, which sprouted above her lips. She’d tear at them with her hands until they came out,” she says.

Now Frau B notices a few hairs growing above her lips. “It comes with age,” she says. “I pluck at them when I can’t get to sleep.”

“Some people believe vanity is unique to the modern condition,” says Frau B. “It’s really not.”

As I observe Frau B rearranging her hair-do, and think about the events which led up to the horrors of World War II, I feel both comfort and unease at how relatively small our 70-year age-gap really is.

“You’re not thinking of marriage, no?” asked Frau Bienkowski.

“So we have a new pope,” Frau Bienkowski said, as I handed her the bag of medium-sized apples and two packets of sugar-free sweets she’d ordered.

“He could have been a black man,” she continued. “It wouldn’t have mattered.”

“No!” I said.

“But there was something irregular about Benedict’s resignation, wasn’t there? Popes don’t just resign!”

I agreed it wasn’t their custom.

“Could you get us some coffee?” she asked, pushing her stroller over to me. “You can put the cups at the front!”

I pushed the Zimmerframe down the corridor and passed three ladies in wheelchairs. One of them had a remarkable face, like a gazelle. They were staring straight ahead. One of them was saying, “You could write a novel about a life, if you just think back to all your encounters. You could write a novel. You really could.”

I placed Frau Bienkowski’s cup in front of her, and she pushed one of her sugar-free sweets towards me.

“So tell me, how has work been this week?”

I told her I’d been busy and that the new pope was creating a lot of work for us.

“It’s good you’ve got work,” Frau Bienkowski said, “especially as you’ve booked flights to see your boyfriend!”

“I couldn’t agree more,” I said.

“You’re not thinking of marriage, no?”

“Well, it would be difficult logistically since we live in different countries,” I said, apologetically.

She nodded. A few weeks ago she’d told me that she thought German president Joachim Gauck really ought to marry his long-term partner, since she travelled with him in an official capacity.

A little later, we got talking about Germany. “We’ll never escape our past,” she said and paused.

“They could have just removed the Jews from official positions. But there were good Jewish doctors, good workers. Sending them to concentration camps, killing them was wrong.”

For the first time, I felt uncomfortable around Frau Bienkowski.

“Of course it was,” I said.

Frau Bienkowski presented me excitedly with a fashion catalogue. “Look what I got in the post!” she said.

We spent some time leafing through the pages and commenting on the clothes.

“I like that,” I’d say, pointing at a blue and white striped cardigan.

“Yes,” she’d reply, “It’s pretty, but look at the pattern on that blouse .. it’s a bit much, isn’t it?”

We looked at a model in high-heeled shoes. “Do you like them?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” she said.

“Did you wear such high shoes when you were younger?”

“Oh yes!”

“And could you walk in them?”

She smiled. “If you wear them, you walk in them!”

We read some more of the story about the cantankerous 100 year-old living in an Irish convent.

I apologised that I wouldn’t be able to see her next week.

“Don’t you worry!” she said. “This should never be an obligation. And tell Andrew I say hello!”

Berlin versus Vienna: a Capital Battle

After spending four months in Berlin, I took a holiday in Vienna.

If, as some claim, Berlin is a city going through puberty, then Vienna is its older, more responsible sibling. On the surface the family resemblance is clear: the beautiful Altbau (literally “old building”) style of architecture, much of it restored since World War II, can be found in both cities, though it dominates more in Vienna, where significantly less of it was destroyed.

Altbau houses are typically painted in tasteful shades of blue, pink or green and are decorated both outside and inside with elaborate plasterwork. They are tall but not imposing and, while very pretty, not particularly remarkable. In Berlin, in the fortunate neighbourhoods where Altbau buildings dominate, their charm contrasts reassuringly with the gritty Soviet blocks, which are usually within sight. In Vienna, on the other hand, where every street corner boasts yet another impressive feat of architecture, they merely add to the provincial, sophisticated feel which characterises the city.

Altbau in Berlin

While both cities boast an efficient underground transport system, in Vienna the stations look like Duplo models. They are easily navigable, childishly labelled, pristine and absolutely identical. In Berlin, they are different colours, often garish and grotty and full of musicians and homeless men with long, wild beards rooting through bins.

Both places are made for easy living. You can get around quickly until late at night and you can visit galleries and museums or lounge comfortably in the vast open spaces which surround them. In the summer, both cities set up rows of deckchairs beside their rivers. Little kiosks selling peanuts, crisps and beer pop up nearby. In Vienna you can fill your bottle with ice-cold water at Trinkwasserstations, which occur at regular intervals throughout the city. In Berlin, both the young and the old prefer to travel with a bottle of beer in their hand.

While Berlin and Vienna might share roots, their character couldn’t be more different. Vienna is stylish and self-contained, while Berlin is anarchic, vigorous and care-free.

Viennese Coffee Culture

In Vienna, the sophisticated coffee shop culture and well-dressed middle-aged lady reign supreme.

In Berlin it’s the punk bars and anybody inside themthat claims to want to fight the system.

In Vienna, most of the art is kept in museums which charge a high entry fee. In Berlin it’s all around you and changes at the whim of the latest anarchist movement.

The street-corners in Berlin are alive with fire-breathers, hip-hop dancers and human statues covered in body paint. In Vienna, the police politely ask the street musicians for their papers and the latter move on without complaint when they fail to produce the right ones.

Vienna is a city that no longer has much to fight for and whose history has been tastefully, expertly painted over. Berlin is attacking its raw wounds with an aggressive, momentous vigour.

Berlin is growing up. If it develops like Vienna, in a few years it will mourn the loss of adolescent ideals, which many of us too grow up to grieve. And there’ll be fewer beer bottles for the homeless men to collect.