Berlin is not what you’d call ‘chic’. A lot of the city was flattened in the war and the subsequent Wall drama kept it on its toes, driven by practicality rather than aesthetics. It’s fairly square and industrial, with huge signs of corporations stretching over streets and into the sky. Occasionally, however, you find an old building that remains un-bombed – a relic from another age. I was there last weekend, with two old friends, Bex and Charlotte. Our apartment was in one of these old structures, above an Indian restaurant. Inside, there was a wide, shallow-stepped staircase, hidden by huge heavy oak doors.
Our host, Gesine, emerged from the darkness of the flat with a runny nose and sore throat.
‘I feel like shit,’ she said. ‘Also the apartment is very historical. Look at the bullet holes in the door. They are from the second world war.’
We dragged our cases back out to look at the holes. There they were. Then we dragged everything back in.
The flat was small and massive at the same time. There was a tiny, low-ceilinged hallway, full of piles of miscellany everywhere. Sewing equipment, boxes of beer, creepy dolls with cracked faces – if Gesine owned something, she stacked it, normally under something heavier. But if you could break through the hall, you reached the rooms prepared for us, which were huge and light but still weird, with cinema seats and paintings of wobbly fruit.
‘I did the bathroom myself,’ Gesine said. She had, as well. She’d signed the painted tiles with her name and gave us a bucket to take into the shower. I’m not sure why.
But we didn’t come all the way to Berlin to look at tiles and wobbly fruit. We came for food and culture and more food.
Charlotte’s boyfriend, Andy, is a good cook who is picky about where he eats. He refuses to go to restaurants that have pictures of their food on posters outside or on the menu. In Berlin, Andy would starve. If it wasn’t a photograph of schnitzel, it was a portion of fries, or a burger or a pizza. Every restaurant in Mitte, it seemed, threw photographic evidence of their cooking at you. Of course, it’s our own fault. We can’t speak German. If they told us they served Hähnchen or Kartoffeln or Eintopf, we wouldn’t know what the hell that was, so of course they have to label everything. This became a recurring theme of the trip: language shame. The locals looked at us, knew we were English and started to speak in English. I’d downloaded Duolingo on my phone, brought a phrasebook with me, but I kept getting zwei and drei mixed up and they had to go back for another glass. I was causing pain and confusion, making everyone’s lives difficult, but still I persisted because I am English and ashamed.
The waiting staff were using a lot of English – the English seemed to be the only people out. The streets were wide and deserted. We walked a few miles a day, from one landmark to another, without seeing many people. Then we’d stop for lunch or dinner and hear someone at the next table order ‘two ham and mushroom pizzas, please.’ So where were the Germans? Probably inside because it was freezing. It was only the English, in their bobble hats, clogging up the Straßen.
It got me thinking about the ways people are the same and the ways people are different. When I lived in Paris, I met a guy from a tribe in Indonesia. He was in my French language class and wanted to show us pictures of the particular kind of batik (dyed cloth) his tribe were famous for producing but he couldn’t because the projector wasn’t working. He pressed a few buttons, shrugged and sat down with his arms folded in a way that reminded me of the boys at my high school in Lincolnshire. Now, when I travel, I like to spot the domestic arguments in languages I can’t understand. Mitsuko having a go at Akihiko because he’s put the hand sanitizer in the wrong pocket of the rucksack and now she can’t find it, daughters getting ratty with their fathers in Swahili. It makes me feel good, the idea that no matter where we come from or the language we speak, we’re all basically the same. It makes me feel good but I don’t know if it’s true – not anymore.
A lot of things have happened recently that have made me think my comfortable truth is a lie. I was in Paris when the Brexit vote was announced, had a depressing meal out with friends where we all stared into our pizza and wondered what the hell was happening. And now, thirty years after the Berlin Wall came down, we have a man in America trying to put another one up. We’re not all the same. People think insane things, do terrible things as a result, and from the outside, it’s sometimes difficult to tell who they are.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is just along the road from the Brandenburg Tor, so we did both in an afternoon. The Memorial is next to a building site which, to be honest, is the same for most things in Berlin. It’s a load of grey blocks of various shapes and heights, assembled in a dip so they look more or less level from the top, with a museum underneath.
‘The vibe’s a bit off,’ Charlotte said, as we stared out at the cubes. A group of tourists were taking selfies as they stood on the blocks. ‘It’s a bit weird. The way it’s just here, in the middle of everything.’
On the other side of the monument I could see the light of a Subway sandwich shop. We went down into the museum and it seemed clear, then, that that was the point. The people getting murdered were ordinary and the people doing the murdering were ordinary too. You stare into the faces of these people and you see shop assistants, student, doctors, teachers. Then you come out of the museum and you’re back on Ebertstraße, buses rolling past. We like our evil at the edges of the city, where we know where it is, but it walks among us, sits at the next table, gets on the train behind us. You’d think we’d have learned by now that evil doesn’t come in a uniform. It’s in that moment, when we reduce a person to one thing, rather than a load of contradictions, that we do the damage.
The more you learn about nationalism and monarchy and all that, the more you realise what a huge mess it is. On our final day, we went to Charlottenburg Palace which is basically the German Versailles and was even built by the same architect, Dutchman Johann Friedrich von Eosander. Charlottenburg was built in the 17th century under the instruction of Sophie Charlotte, wife of King Fredreich I and sister to George I of England. It’s just the one family tree, you see, spanning the whole of Europe. It gets even worse when Queen Victoria starts having children, planting them in every royal dynasty she can. They all copy each other’s interior design skills too. It’s all impressive, but there’s no escaping the fact that these palaces do look the same. They share architects, employ the same engravers, all dabble in chinoiserie and have whole rooms devoted to their porcelain. One room in Charlottenburg resembled Gesine’s flat, with chinoiserie ornaments piled high one on top of the other, duplicated a million times over by the mirror panelling and reflections in the golden gilt.
‘I’m just waiting for it all to come crashing down,’ Charlotte whispered.
Up at the top, near the ceiling, was a stuffed stag lunging down the wall towards the vases. No placard or segment in the audio guide – just the corpse with glassy eyes.
Upstairs, there was an exhibition about the origin of the Prussian royal family. In order to pad out their lineage, they made up a person called Otto who was a great fighter and won a load of battles. There were painting and engravings in his honour. He was amazing, Otto. He just didn’t exist which, when you’re establishing a royal house, apparently doesn’t matter.
Finally, on our way to the airport at the end of the trip, I got my domestic argument. Behind us on the train was a woman with two small wailing children, one of which was brandishing a fully-functioning toy shop till, complete with flapping receipt paper. At one point, the woman, who I assumed to be his grandmother, grabbed it off him and shouted. When this did not silence the children, she FaceTimed a man who must have been their father or grandfather, who screamed at them in Arabic. She then shouted at them again and they disembarked with us at the airport, till training behind. Perhaps us the kid was going to charge us for his screaming? We got a move on before we ran up a bill.
If there’s one thing that’s going to unite people, it’s bad service from an airline. Our airline of choice seemed keen to strip everything right back to basics, doing just enough to keep you airborne, while a member of cabin crew wheeled a trolley of cut-price cologne down the aisle. Before we even boarded, they told us our flight would be delayed, then that it wasn’t, then kept us all cooped up in the tiny area beyond security for an hour. When we finally got on the plane, the ice on the wings had to be thawed. They did this slowly, with a truck that seemed to be powered by a single AA battery.
‘They charged us an extra thirty quid so we could sit together,’ the couple in the row in front muttered to the German woman next to me. ‘We’re never flying with this lot again,’ they said.
‘We always say that and yet we always do,’ said the man next to them. He’s right – we’re all the same really. Except for the ones of us that aren’t.
About the author of this article
Ellen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelleon Twitter.