Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Don't mention the war.

We pulled into Prague on the day Michael Jackson went to live with Elvis. I haven't got much to say about this fascinating city, except that a) its drivers are horrendous, incompetent fools who obey road rules to the letter; b) don't go there in June or July, because you'll be drowned in tourists and high prices; c) the museum is great, and even has a mammoth, and d) it has the best thunderstorms.

So, after a couple of days, we boarded another train for Berlin. The Titanium one had gone troppo in Prague, and was kitted out with a most magnificent range of fabrics and those fiddly things women like to acquire to adorn their ears, necks, wrists and the like - all silver and crystalline chunks of ultra-compressed carbon. I bought another hat.

The train journey, which wound its way along the Vlatava River (which, when it reaches Germany, mysteriously becomes the Elbe), was a delight. It took all day, but it was one of those trips that never becomes a burden. The scenery changed around almost every bend in the river, taking us past farms, through forests, and, at one point, between Teplice and Decin, along a grand gorge with towering, incandescent sandstone cliffs that were eerily similar to the Hawkesbury sandstone of the Colo valley where I live. It was magnificent, and reminded me that the best part of travelling is the travel itself. Just as when I was a twelve year-old train enthusiast, hopping on and off trains all over New South Wales, this trip was enchanting; every turn of the track revealed something new and wonderful, and often enigmatic.

Like this: we were coming into Germany, and, in a field by the railway line, was a post and wire fence that was about two feet tall. It went for kilometres. I was intrigued - what the fuck was its purpose? Was it keeping hordes of feuding dwarves at bay? To this day, I have no idea. It seemed completely useless, but for some German farmer, it was an integral part of the infrastructure, as it was obviously well-maintained (like everything else in Germany, of course). I don't know - I suppose one of the German readers of this blog will enlighten me eventually (although there are probably several dozen fewer of them now than there were a few weeks ago. Don't worry guys - wait 'til I start telling you about England - you'll realise I'm an equal-opportunity curmudgeon, for sure!)

We stopped briefly in Dresden, scene of the British and American Air Forces' own Holocaust in WWII. Of course, Dresden has been rebuilt, but there were several monuments to the carnage left as they were, as a reminder to all and sundry that war is just about the stupidest project on earth. Interestingly, Churchill's rationale for the fire-bombing of the city was that they were trying to wipe out the railway marshalling yard. And they certainly succeeded in that. There was just the small matter of the 100,000 to 200,000 civilians whose barbecued remains ended up as collateral damage. Nice one, Winston.

With this grim reminder of humanity's utter collective insanity under our belts, we moved on, through spindly forests of ash, or elm, or some other types of trees at which, as an Antipodean, I was at a loss to identify, until we arrived at the most exquisitely-designed railway station I've ever seen - the Hauptbahnhof of central Berlin.

Opened in 2006, the Hauptbahnhof is a magisterial comportment of steel and glass. Its architectural beauty lies in its transparency - from almost anywhere inside the structure, one can look at all of the platforms, and all of the tracks, on multi-levels connected by vast escalators; it is almost as if the station floats in its own sea of glass. It said, more plainly than anything else, welcome to Berlin, welcome to modernity.

A bus whisked us efficiently and promptly to the Berlin Youth Hostel, only a mile or so from the city centre. Distinct from the YHA residences of Turkey and Greece, the Berlin outfit was all simplicity and (here comes that word again) efficiency. We were in our room in three minutes flat, had a shower (no enormous cockroaches evident), and were back out onto the street to hunt for victuals in no time at all. A blazing curry later, we sauntered back to the hostel and sat on the lawn, me demolishing a six-pack, and the T.P. fending off invitations from Adonisian young men to cast a critical eye over the robust collection of etchings they were hoarding in their rooms. (Just kidding - only one such Adonis made that sort of approach, and when I cast a quizzical eye at him he pretty quickly realised, from the gaunt visage of your correspondent's face, that an assignation with the T.P. might be biting off a fair bit more than he could chew, so to speak. Mind you, as an aficionado of all things comical, I would have paid good money to witness such an encounter.)

The next morning we took a walking tour of the city. There is still a neat divide between East and West Berlin, and it reflects the post-war priorities (and ideologies, if you want to get all politically historical) of the British-American and Soviet blocs. On the East, the Soviets preserved and maintained as many of the pre-existing structures as they could. And so, you walk along the great boulevard and see row upon row, block upon block, of 18th and 19th century apartments, shops, and, down further, palaces, museums and state buildings. It is simply wonderful. On the western side, however, vast spaces devoid of anything, with interspersed 'modern' buildings, testify to the Allies' penchant for knocking down anything that was vaguely damaged in the bombing. Vast edifices, legacies of the 1960s, ugly as only that period of architecture can be, confronted and appalled us at every turn. We headed back east, to the museum district.

The Pergamon Museum, built to house the collection of ancient relics pilfered from the famous Greek city in Turkey (to which we'd paid a visit just a couple of weeks before) stood, like a Parthenon, amidst the crumbling walls and buildings of East Berlin. The street on which the Pergamon stands was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting as the Soviets forced their way into Berlin at the end of WWII, and the legacy of that fire-fight is stark, brutal and disturbing. Shell and bullet-holes cover the walls of buildings; even the Pergamon itself didn't go unscathed, with great, gouging holes blown in the fluted marble columns. I earnestly hoped, as I wandered along the street, that these would never be lost, never be cosmeticised, because they too, like Dachau, like Dresden, were a reminder of the ferocity of war. If stone, brick and concrete could be so scarred, and so massively, what was happening to the bodies of boys and young men?

Back at the hostel, young men and women gambolled on the spacious lawns. A bunch of boys, fifteen or sixteen years old, dressed in bomber jackets and jauntily-angled baseball caps, effected a swaggering sort of pimp-roll past us, speaking in German. These kids were attempting to fast-track cultural evolution. I half expected them to turn black and begin saying "Yo" before my eyes. Of course, I've seen the same thing in Sydney - it was just a trifle more amusing to see Coca-Colonisation proceeding in German. Ce'st la vie, as they say in !Xhosa.

The next day, on the Potsdamer Platz, I approached a German military officer who had a little table set up next to a big, heavily-graffitied chunk of the Berlin Wall. He was offering, for one Euro, to stamp passports with a variety of Cold War-era permission stamps. I happily found Checkpoint Charlie and a couple of other such paraphernalia embossed inside my passport. He told me that there was a movement going on to reclaim as much of the Wall as could be done, and his little effort was helping to raise money for the project. "So, where is most of the Wall now?" I asked.

"In people's lounge-rooms," he replied straight-faced.

We continued perambulating down Unter den Linden, to the Berlin Cathedral - another fine example of the temporal largesse that can come from convincing people of the efficacy of howling at an empty sky - and, on that sunny June day, lay on the grass beside the fountain on Museum Island, admiring, once again, the class of Europeans generally when it comes to the realisation of space in their cities.

But now it was time to go to Hamburg, where we had a date with destiny in the form of two outrageous Americans and a week of debauchery. Liver, don't fail me now...

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