The faces of Berlin

In between leaving Sweden and arriving in Australia, we spent 3 weeks crossing Europe. Our journey lead us through familiar places like Paris, stunningly beautiful areas in Switzerland and Provence and a last remnant of the Holy Roman Empire. Before sinking into the sun and warmth of southern France and Northern Italy however, we visiting a city more marked by history than most others we’ve seen, and absolutely unlike any other: Berlin.

What do you think of when you picture Berlin? The Wall? Checkpoint Charlie? The alternative scene? The crumbling Reichstag with a flag waving from the ruins? These aspects can all be found, in fact it can be difficult to avoid the ambulance chaser view of history, gawking at the scars and horrors that are left on show, for the benefit of locals and visitors. At least that was the impression I got as we spent our days on the streets, and I’ll get into some of those literal scars later.
Much of our first impression was formed by the place we stayed, and the neighbourhood we were based. The lovely, high ceilinged and artistically decorated apartment in Neukölln (breakfast included!) was an example of the two-faced feeling of Berlin. The creaky stairs, moulded cornices and antique furniture seemed to be from a pre-War world, but the graffiti, hipsters and constant feeling of newness and change told a different story. We didn’t spend much time in Neukölln, but it seemed as though gentrifiction was well under way, the formerly lawless borough sheddding gangs for hipster cafes and bars.

From the trendy outskirts of the city, it was an easy metro ride to the centre, and a short walk down Unter den Linden to one of the symbols of Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate, sitting between banks and embassies, is the only remnant of the old monuments in the square that it dominates. Under the eyes of the foreign embassies and behind the endless selfying crowds it’s still tall and imposing, the quadriga with the goddess of Peace posing defiantly on top. Displays showed the wreckage after the War, with only the Gate standing and in photos from later years it peeped over the top of the Wall, part of a no man’s land. Either because of what it is or what it symbolises, it’s become enmeshed in the history of the city. Which also makes it a great place to start free tours.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

We joined one of these on our second day, following a former tourist turned local like ducklings around the city. After a history of the Gate, we were taken to the Michael Jackson Baby Dangling Hotel (do a quick google if you’ve forgotten this sadly historic moment), and then continued the theme of tragedy, triumph and contemplation. We went to the carpark that now stands over the bunker where Hitler died, past a former Third Reich ministry building turned Gestapo headquarters and now tax office, graffiti strewn remnants of the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This is a large area full of concrete pylons, the ground sloping down as they grow taller, and you feel as though you are lost in a forest of concrete, while at the same time able to see a way out.

Within the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Within the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The guide prompted a surprisingly serious discussion for a free tour, which seemed to me a part of the weight that Germany has carried for all these years. The tour ended at Bebelplatz, somewhere that I have had in my mind to visit for as long as I’ve known about it. It was where 20,000 books were burned in May 1933, and for me is always associated with the Heinrich Heine quote,

“That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”

Under the square is a memorial, a room of empty bookshelves to symbolise those destroyed that day, as fitting a memorial to the death of ideas as I can think of.

A memorial to the Nazi book burning

A memorial to the Nazi book burning

The tour also opened our eyes to signs of history that had been before us the whole time. At every street crossing, the shape of the green/amber/red men differed depending on what side of the wall the crossing had been on while the Wall had stood. Politics aside, I think the one of the East side looked more fun. The dividing line and occasionally remnants of the Wall also became more obvious, appearing as a brick line running across streets and through pavements, so easy to miss that it was hard to imagine the size and disruption it caused.

The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall

No doubt there were other signs, but these were the only ones I saw that showed where the city had been divided not so many years ago.

As so much of the city had been destroyed in the War, there are many areas that have an almost sterile feeling, a newness that seemed strange in such an old place where people were trying to look ahead rather than backwards. One place where this was not the case was the Museum island, where we went as soon as possible. I’d been looking forward to seeing the Pergamon Altar for a while, but due to renovations it was closed. As we walked around the island we saw why renovations might be needed. Along one column lined walkway, round holes had been chipped out of the stone, and on the wall behind, similar holes dotted the wall, with clear spaces in the shadows of the columns. Elsewhere holes covered entire huge walls and columns had been replaced with new stone. Even in this place war had come, perhaps not surprising when you think of the buildings in terms of survival and defense rather than refuges for antiques and history.

Inside I noticed that plaster and paint had given way to brick and stone in patches, and frescoes were partly destroyed. I asked a guard why this was, and he matter of factly told me that the museum had stood open to the elements for many years, without a roof, so snow and rain had cracked and peeled at the beautiful paintings and fine decorations.

What's left of Baldur

What’s left of Baldur

Rather than replicate how it had looked, the museum now stands as its own exhibit, an example of the destruction of war.

Signs of destruction ancient and modern

Signs of destruction ancient and modern

While the bombs had been falling and the War was drawing closer, many of the most treasured artifacts were hidden away while others were taken by the victors. Some of those that haven’t returned are the pieces found by Heinrich Schliemann at the site of Troy, and are apparently still being held in Russia. What does remain includes the famous jewelry modeled by his wife, which is just as stunning as the old photos showed. There was some irony in the fact that the pieces now listed as stolen by Soviets were originally stolen from Turkey, but maybe not that the people at the museum enjoy.

The big diadem

The big diadem

Elsewhere there were mysterious Celtic golden hats, an exhibition about beards, heaps of wonderful ancient Greek and Roman stuff and one particular item from Egypt. You will have seen her, even if you don’t know her name. There is no picture here because photography was not allowed in her private room where, apart from a model for the vision impaired that you can touch, she stands alone. Even after more than 3000 years, Nefertiti is serene and breathtakingly beautiful. Even with only one eye, she seems supremely confident to stare down the millennia to come as she has stared down the last 3, hopefully without losing a single perfect line or blemish that gives her so much personality.
It’s fair to say I’m a little bit in love with her, but who can blame me.

We visited another museum the next day, this one looking forward rather than back at the losses of the past. The Berlin Technology Museum is wonderful, and we spent hours poking and exploring, and being far too amused by the section about jewelry production (Schmuckproduktion).
On our last day, rather than spend time in museums and galleries, we went for a long walk in Tiergarten, a huge area of forest just outside the Brandenburg gate. It was filled with joggers, picnickers, people walking their dogs and intricate gardens, following a maze of paths that twist around the forest.

Peace in Tiergarten

Peace in Tiergarten

In the centre, in the middle of a roundabout that lines up with the Gate, is the Victory Column, built to commemorate a Prussian victory in the 1860s.

The Victory Column

The Victory Column

The gold statue of Victory still stands, and the bronze reliefs that had been removed in 1945 have been restored. They are riddled with bullet holes and shell damage, the horseback soldiers missing arms, heads and legs, and the grieving or celebrating women with holes in their heads, in a sort of parody of war. It was comical, if it was not for the deaths that would have taken place there.

A war damaged soldier

A war damaged soldier

Elsewhere in Tiergarten is a statue of a queen, standing on a platform amid well tended gardens. Nearby is a photo of the same place in the 1940s. The statue is there, looking down, but the ground around her is a morass of mud and scraps of trees, a wasteland that standing amid the trees and peace of today seems impossible. Only 60 or so years stand between us, but if not for the shrapnel pits in the base of the statue, it would seem a different world.

A queen in Tiergarten

A queen in Tiergarten

This was the impression that I left Berlin with, a city that acknowledges and bears its history, both awful and proud and is looking to the future. Which seems to be a good way to live.

Advertisements

2015: Travels and moving forward

So 2015 is now in the past, and while like any year it creeps along at walking pace while living it, looking back it seems now to have been very full and sometimes reaching a sprint. It has been a year of travelling (7 different countries!), big steps forward (my own business) and important decisions.

It started, as all years do in Sweden, with fireworks and then a trip to Stockholm. Later in the month I met my mum in Copenhagen and traveled around with her, as we showed each other our lives in the North, both past and present.

As the darkness and cold continued to set in, there was a trip to sunny Malaga, a brief inoculation against the winter that has also left me in love with Spain.
Time passed, fear came to my home town, and then Easter and the turning of the seasons. I continued to work, relief teaching at schools and gathering private students, learning as I went. That fear seemed to grow throughout the year, rising from under the surface and at least right now it doesn’t look as though it’s going to recede any time soon.

More trips around the Nordic regions followed, including a cruise across the Baltic and a short stay in Aarhus, Denmark. Summer arrived, and with the holidays I left a beloved school, experienced my second Midsummer picnic and attempted indoor gardening. Other hobbies included joining a flamenco choir, trying to make it to a language café in between teaching and tasting the brews made by my partner.

As summer passed we flew to Malta, experiencing long sunny days, chaos, sea and incredible history. Back at home work continued to increase, with more and more private students and work through a consultancy. I found less time for writing and reflection, and for the first time since I started this blog, the gaps between posts became 2 weeks or more rather than 1. As my focus shifted, I set about making the most of the change, and formally set up my business, including a website and a business plan.

With the end of the year almost upon us, we visited London, a place I’ve long considered as a home that I’d not yet got around to visiting. It met, surpassed and left my expectations far behind, giving me yet another place that lurks invitingly in the back of my mind whenever I’m feeling restless.

Finally we returned to Australia for family, christmas and a holiday of sorts. It was intense, as any trip home to family, friends and real life is bound to be. As well as the various pressures and commitments, the days of the festive season were for the most part relaxing and enjoyable, filled with food and love. I also got a bit of a tan, though you wouldn’t think so if you asked the repairman who came to fix our dryer. I’m fairly sure I let him down a bit.

Then the year came full circle, with fireworks in the cold, cheering and friends, and a return to the long, dark wait until Spring. 2016 is still new and fresh and full of potential, and no amount of guesswork can tell what might happen. A few things are certain, and will be shared in their time, but mostly the year is unwritten, and we shall we what we shall see.

When is Summer not really Summer

There has been a lot said on my blog lately about our holiday in Malta. There is much left to be said, adventures to be relived and ponderings to be considered. For now, for this week, however I’m going to take a break from the holiday and let the blog settle back into daily life.

Freshly baked daily bread

Freshly baked daily bread

Despite us just having recently passed the peak of Summer, the two things that usually sum up that time of year in Sweden do not apply at the moment.
Most of the locals, our workmates and friends have disappeared to sunnier climes, or popped up on sunny beaches on Facebook or sporting a tan from weeks in Spain. Even businesses are taking a break, many stores sporting ‘semester stängt!’ signs on the doors and promising to be back in August. Our own tans fading, we have returned to work and the usual comings and goings of the non-holiday year.

No doubt it was like this last year, during our first full Summer, but the long sun-filled days and fine weather distracted us from the absences. We have not been so lucky this year. Rather than open itself up to endless blue and those tiny, puffy clouds that are so nice to stare at while lying on your back after a picnic, the sky has opened to release rain, and a lot of it. When we returned from Malta we arrived in time to enjoy the third of three properly Summer days, and since then we’ve all had to suffice with mornings and afternoons here and there, scattered and fine enough that we feel grateful whenever we feel the warmth of the sun. It does teach you to enjoy it when it comes, and staring out the window at the blank white sky and drizzle, I don’t think I could ever take fine weather for granted again.

A semi-sunny day at the lake

A semi-sunny day at the lake

So we sit inside, and when we’re not working my partner gets on with his beer and cider brewing while I design labels and help with the bottling.

A few of the bottled brews

A few of the bottled brews

My projects in the meantime have included making elderberry cordial and raspberry syrup from scratch, and tinkering with the idea of prettying up some old clothes. In short we’ve adopted Swedish winter habits, keeping our hands and minds busy while the world outside gets on with its unpleasant business, whatever that may be.

Raspberry syrup waiting to be tasted

Raspberry syrup waiting to be tasted

So, while our tans fade and the days shift inexorably to Autumn, we are occupied with creating and experimenting, taking a morning or afternoon to enjoy moments of sun, and looking forward to enjoying the fruits of our labours when the dark seasons properly set in. And vicariously enjoying the sun through those whose holidays still continue.

Elderflower cordial ready for Autumn

Elderflower cordial ready for Autumn

A sunny day by a lake

I feel as though every time I post something on Facebook or this blog it’s just the latest verse in a rhapsody about Summer. It’s so all encompassing here, from half the country taking the season off for the yearly holidays, lakes and the sea crowding with swimmers and the long, light nights. In comparison my memories of Australia make it seem like one long Summer, punctuated by a brief rainy period with the occasional minus degree night to blisteringly hot days at the other end, and with endless, cloudless blue skies in between. With nothing to really compare it to, I got bored of Summer and longed for a change, and a change is what I got. Having lived through an Autumn and a Winter here I feel like I’m experiencing Spring and Summer for the first time, and trying to make the most of it.

Ducks in a sunlit dam

Ducks in a sunlit dam

Since we returned from our roadtrip, the holidays have continued for a little while. My partner returned to work and I returned to looking for work and trying to fill my days with usefulness. Before we properly returned to the old swing of things, we did something that I had been hankering for since Summer started; we went to a lake.

The lake in question was packed the day we visited, every patch of grass taken and the sandy shores covered in wobbling toddlers and sunbathing teens. There were even cement diving boards, the highest around 6 metres, and as full of people jumping and splashing as the rest of the lake we had seen. We continued around the shores, hoping to find a free area where we could spread out our picnic blanket and hopefully bbq without covering our neighbours in smoke.

The trusty bbq

The trusty bbq

After walking some way we came to a non-grassy section, the lakes shore lapping on rocks rather than sand, and trees and bushes divided by small paths. Among them was a tiny clearing next to a large rock, the perfect height for a bbq, and just above a sheltered bay. We quickly grabbed it and settled in, spreading out the blanket and getting the bbq going. While my partner happy fiddled away with the bbq, I stripped down to my bathers and went to test the waters. They were cold and muddy, but on a hot Summer day, with a cold cider and a tasty meal on the way, it was perfect and I was soon making my way in, trying not to embarrass myself in front of any of the natives who seemed happy to jump straight in without even a gasp.

A  little island

A little island

My partner soon joined me, as well as a few curious fish who flickered around our feet. Though the mud and reeds were a bit strange at first, it was nice to remember that inland Swedish lakes have a significantly lower risk of sharks, stonefish or jellyfish than WA beaches.

Friendly lake dwellers

Friendly lake dwellers

Food was soon cooking, spreading delicious smells around the area, and we ate and drank under the shade of the birch trees, treating ourselves to the raspberries we had picked the day before.

Berries! Plus unsatisfactory rosehips

Berries! Plus unsatisfactory rosehips

After food we decided to swim to a little island about 100 metres out, my speed assisted by the return of my fear of seaweed and unknown depths. On the island we joined a host of others basking in the sun, and at some point we fell into a doze, and were woken up by clouds drifting across the sun. Now that we were dry and warm, we slipped back into the lake and paddled back to our little bay and then decided that we needed icecreams.
I think there are few more pleasant ways to spend an afternoon than sitting on a rock in the sun, by a lake, eating icecream and listening to music with your favourite person.

The clouds roll in

The clouds roll in

After a time we packed up and walked further around the lake, finding abandoned boats, more swimming places and berries, and then went back to the bus stop and home.

As mentioned earlier in this post, we had collected quite a few raspberries prior to the lake visit. The largest haul was from a stretch of bushes near a small lake. We had gone for a walk to explore our new neighbourhood and come across a trove by accident. Since then we’d grabbed handfuls here and there, some of them making it home though mostly not, though as quickly as they appeared the raspberries seem now to be disappearing. They are being replaced by blackberries, though we have yet to find a hoard as large as those of the raspberries, and even the occasional smultron (tiny wild strawberries). Soon there should be blueberries, though we have yet to see any sign of them.

Our first hoard

Our first hoard

Next year I hope that we can get out of town, go somewhere with untouched and dense berry bushes and just go crazy eating them. Some may even survive and end up as jam, who knows.

Time since then has blurred slightly into busy days and quiet days, as we prepare for work and study and shake off the lazy Summer days. I hope that even if the berries don’t last, these long, warm days will stay with us for a while yet, at least until I can get one more dip in a lake.