One of the disadvantages of choosing a lifestyle that forces your children to ‘grow up global’ is that there is every chance they will end up living in a different country from you.
One of the advantages of choosing a lifestyle that forces your children to ‘grow up global’ is that there is every chance they will end up living in a different country from you.
Which is why I have just had the good fortune to spend a weekend in Berlin with Sam, who has been living there for almost a year.
Last time I visited, it was as a family with hard-to-please teenagers. We did, inevitably, the typical tourist things – the open-top bus tour, Unter Den Linden, Checkpoint Charlie, the Holocaust Memorial, the Olympic arena, Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. We ate synthetic sausages with curry sauce and drank green beer. This time I came alone and did none of those things, staying, as Sam advised in a leafy, cobbledy rather Parisian area called Bergmannkiez. Instead of picking a cloned Ibis or Travelodge, I went for a hotel with curved staircases, high ceilings and wide windows that open inwards. Hotel Riehmers is a stone’s throw from Mehringdamm U-bahn and peaceful walks along the Landwehrkanal canal. It’s where Berliners live.
It is always a privilege to visit a place with a local. It lets you step into their life for a while, eat what and where they eat, visit their favourite cinema, discover a festival they read about online and take much more interesting routes, on foot, to much more interesting places.
Sam took me to the Mitte district and to Do You Read Me, a shop that sells hundreds of short-run magazines I’d never set eyes on before. One had a washing up sponge in a clear plastic bag taped to the cover and just contained photographs of sponge art. Another was called Toilet Paper, then there was the very cool Flaneur, that focuses on a city per issue. Fascinated by food and writing as I am, to find a beautiful magazine called Lucky Peach, that contained over a hundred pages dedicated to the Vietnamese soup, pho, was irresistible. The shop was packed with browsers. This was clearly a cool place to be. Increasingly, I too found the city to be cool – übercool.
It was between the covers of Flaneur that I learned about Stolpersteine, or stumble stones, a 1992 initiative by a German artist, Gunter Demnig, to preserve the memories of the 55,000 Jews deported from the area. Small square brass plaques have been cemented into the pavement on the thresholds of the buildings from which these people were taken. The stumble stones almost trip you up, but somehow don’t. Instead they force you not to simply walk on by, oblivious. On each a name, a concentration camp, and, mostly, the date of death, fixed forever amongst the cobbles and the fag ends.
Just as Berlin is about those who left, it is also about those who came. Most recently, the refugees. Like Sam, they have been here about a year. What they have achieved is remarkable. A Food Festival, held in an old market hall at the seedy end of Kreuzberg, was dedicated to refugee food initiatives. There were those who were making iced mate, selling it in bottles with labels promoting the cause, meals with rice, lots of rice, freekeh, stuffed vegetables, lamb and delicately spiced chicken wings. There were dishes rich with aubergine and tomatoes, vegan tacos, Syrian style, dairy free cookies, Japanese black sesame ice cream served with waffles, spinach dried and fried til it looked and almost tasted like seaweed and a fine range of flatbreads. A group of musicians pitched up and began to play, soon drawing a crowd of people of all nationalities, singing, clapping, tapping and smiling along with the music. There was a flyer for a concert by the Syrian Expat Philharmonic lying on the table we shared with some Americans. When rain began to pour in through the ceiling, two resourceful locals found a wheely bin and raced to place it beneath the unexpected waterfall.
As we wandered miles through the streets, along the canal, through fleamarkets, round art exhibitions and past hundreds of people eating at coloured tables outside cafes, I heard a range of languages being spoken. When they closed Kantstrasse around 7.30 pm we stood, listening to the sound of the tabor being drummed and watched as rivers of rollerbladers took to the road. The day before the same had happened with cyclists.
It seems that it is on the street that today’s Berliner is found. It is here that they bring their music and their food, their language, sport, graffiti-art and soul. And still there, among the cobbles and the fag ends the memories of those who went before still linger.