My Neck of the Woods
Over the weekend, it got progressively colder, which is as it should be of a Berlin January.
It was so cold on Saturday that on the square expanse of wind-whipped Alexanderplatz a young couple, laughing, hunkering down by the U Bahn entrance pulled fleece pink and black and white spotted hooded animal print ‘onesies’ out of two brown paper carrier bags and put them on over their clothes. They had just bought them in the huge Primark store across the way. Thanks Penneys.
Over in Hackescher Hof, a posse of Dorgans was waiting. This is only a mere sampling of Dorgans….there are many more where these fine men came from (Cork’s North Side, though few of the dynasty still live by the Lee.)
We talked of ships yes, shoes yes, sealing wax – in terms of letters – cabbages yes, and kings….or those who would be king. Theo, the poet, always has a bon mot, for that is his trade, but this time, I took away a saying of one of his brothers – can’t remember which, for there are too many. Talking of the harbour towns of West Cork he said “In Schull there are two types of people: the Haves and the Have Yachts.”
By the time we had bade European goodbyes on the street (kiss kiss) it was snowing. Berlin is beautiful in the snow, for there are three things in particular which mar this most wonderful of cities: the scars of demolition and development, dog pooh and graffiti. Snow covers all three. The light was low, Spree water slow, the skyline stark, the streets deserted and the traffic hushed.
Berlin is a place of gardens, parks and open spaces. On Sunday we went for a walk in Treptower Park, an area cleared in the 1860s to make a leisure facility for locals. In 1896 the Berlin Industrial (and decorative arts) Expo was held on the site. In 1919 – the year of their murder – Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg assembled a rally of 150,000 striking workers there. When the river in many places formed part of the boundary dividing the city, Treptower Park was a popular recreation ground for citizens of the East and in 1987, was where the UK band Barclay James Harvest played the first ever open air rock concert behind The Wall.
In all seasons Treptower Park is beautiful and beloved. On Sunday afternoon, the park was monochrome….stark leafless trees against a grey sky, boughs heavy with snow, the licorice river. All around were the tracks and signs of play; of snow shoes, skis and runners; children being pulled in wooden sleds, dogs delirious with excitement, twig-fingered snowmen (for I saw none with boobs) couples embracing, two young men playing table tennis on a concrete board.
On 23 acres stands Berlin’s largest Soviet memorial, built by the Russians at the end of the War and providing both a burial ground and a commemoration for the soldiers who lost their lives in the Battle for Berlin. Some sources quote their dead at 100,000. German casualties are estimated at over 458,000 and civilians who died at 125,00. Figures vary for the actual number of Soviet soldiers buried in Treptower Park, but it is certainly between 5,000 and 7,000. At its centre is a massive, 70 ton, 11metre high bronze statue of a Soviet soldier holding,in one arm a rescued child, in the other stabbing a sword into a smashed swastika at his feet.
This is a sacred place, for good men died to free the city, good men are buried here. But it is often referred to as ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Rapist.” When the Red Army entered Berlin in the spring of 1945, the men raped hundreds of thousands of women. The exact figure is unknown, but in a 2004 introduction by Antony Beevor to the book “A Woman in Berlin” written by an anonymous author from notebooks chronicling events at the time, it is put at between 95,000 and 130,000. Thousands of those women could not live with the agony of these repeated rapes and subsequent pregnancies, and committed suicide.
Dusk was falling as we walked through the trees from the memorial, past the Archenhold observatory and planetarium (housing the Great Treptow Refractor telescope, the 12th largest in the world) where, in 1915 Albert Einstein presented his first lecture on the theory of relativity.
Through a formal row of tall pruned poplars a young woman was prancing for a camera, backwards and forwards on high spindle-heeled platform boots. Her hair was yellow and she wore a black bodice, lace shawl and knee length crinoline skirt.
On Monday a big yellow taxi took away my old man and he sailed up up and away, into the clear blue sky….the sun shone, but it was not enough to melt the snow, for it was – 9 centigrade.
It is Berlin Fashion Week and through the Brandenburg Gate, facing up from the boulevard of Unter Den Linden at the side of the Tiergarten, is a massive metal and plastic tent structure, emblazoned with the logo of the auto manufacturers Mercedes Benz. Tiergarten park however, is untouched by fashion and, almost deserted in the white cold of a January Tuesday, probably looks a as it did over the centuries since around the early Seventeen hundreds, after Fredrick Wilhelm I cut down some of the dense woodland – it had been a royal hunting ground – and built roads and plazas to create a forest park for the populace. (The was further deforested during and after WWI when the trees were used for firewood and the land for growing potatoes.)
We walked – Elaine and Oliver and I – through the 500 snowy acres, stopping by woods for a coffee at the restaurant close to the Embassy quarter. Outside, by the frozen lake where in summer boaters in boaters boat, a brazier blazed, fed with logs from the park. Inside, four wood stoves warmed the large-windowed room. At the next table, hearing two men speak a familiar tongue, Elaine asked “Are you Irish?” and so began an encounter leading us from two youths, from Westmeath and Galway at Athlone Regional Technical College decades ago, making a pact to get together on a business venture when they made it in the world.
Decades passed and Ireland passed into the twenty first century and the two old college friends did come together on a business venture: in the glory days of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger they bought a couple of apartment blocks in Berlin, and now, the investment having trebled in value, and they not getting any younger, they were sitting over a nice pot of tea, discussing the sale of one of the buildings.
Celtic Tigers and Irish property developers do not have a good reputation, but there was a consciousness of good karma and conscientiousness about these two men. They did not come in and pillage the land and leave; they have a great affection and respect for Berlin where they spend as much time as possible and cycle all over the city….that is, when they are not keeping an eye on their respective dispersed children, restoring old mills on the Shannon as artists’ colonies, or renovating and sailing a clinker built boat on same said waterway. (I did not quote “…..the soft and dreary midlands/With their tame canals/Wallow between sea and sea/Remote from adventure” because I am too polite.)
Reluctantly….in the same manner as the Dorgan boys had slipped off late into the evening….. these Irish boys left late for their lawyers meeting, just as the restaurant staff lit a line of candelabras in the window and the sunset splotched pink behind the trees.
In the darkness of moon on snow we picked our steps over the narrow Lichtenstein bridge crossing the Landwehr canal, from which, and into whose waters, the body of Rosa Luxembourg had been thrown having being rifle butted and shot in the head, 97 years ago this week, on January 15th 1919. We spoke of her politics, determination and great intellect, still quoted today, and for which she died.
And people ask me “Why do you like Berlin?”