First encounters with Berlin

Gleisdreieck, Berlin. February 2005.
Gleisdreieck, Berlin. February 2005.

I can recall with peculiar clarity my first visit to Berlin. It was a week-long study trip during the winter half-term break in mid February, and an important component of the postgraduate art history course I was then enrolled on. Our schedule included visits to the Neue Nationalgalerie, the Berlinische Galerie, the cavernous subterranean rooms of the Hamburger Bahnhof, and the Bauhaus Archiv. Unfortunately for us, our visit coincided with an extensive renovation programme that had closed the Brücke museum in Dahlem. We flew from Bristol late one afternoon, and arrived after dark at Schönefeld Airport, formerly the main air terminal for Communist East Berlin. When we stepped out from the airport arrivals lounge, we were confronted with a brutally cold February evening.

I nearly didn’t make the trip to Berlin, for I had been incapacitated with a severe bout of the flu that had confined me to my bed, right up until two days before my departure. During this two-week-long illness, I endured restless and feverish nights of anguish in which, on at least one occasion, I suffered from vivid hallucinations. I can recall waking one night, drenched in sweat and shaking uncontrollably under my bedcovers, convinced that I had some sort of metal corkscrew-like contraption trapped within my chest. An infernal device that was slowly expanding as it unwound itself, and threatening to tear me asunder. I lay there, tossing, turning and unable for a long time to think coherently enough to realise that all I need do was reach over and take another paracetamol tablet. I can still recall how swiftly the relief came, as my temperature lowered and the delirium subsided. It was only on the day prior to my departure, when I awoke from the first deep and untroubled sleep that I had had in a fortnight, that I felt confident enough to make a trip that I was all but resigned to missing out on. I suspect that, had I consulted a doctor on the issue, he or she would have sternly advised me against making my excursion, coming as it did so swiftly after a debilitating illness. And they would probably have been right, for I felt extraordinarily frail and tired during that week in Berlin, so much so in fact, that I retired to our hotel each day after lunch, whereupon I slept soundly throughout the afternoon, before emerging in time for dinner.

My physical deficiencies, combined with the fact that, throughout the entire week the city was covered by a veil of dull and murky weather, meant that I saw very little of Berlin during that week-long visit. And yet I would counter that my fragile state, which existed in both a corporeal and an emotional sense, allowed me to experience Berlin in a profoundly raw, powerful and real manner. I felt like the storyteller of Edgar Allen Poe’s Man of the Crowd, who, while convalescing from his own debilitating illness, sat in the window of a London coffee shop with his cigar and newspaper, watching the thronging crowds mill past outside. Poe’s narrator acknowledged the strength that was slowly returning to him, and the joy of his recovery filled him with an unparalleled keenness and inquisitiveness, an interest in all things in life, a genuine joie de vivre. As I, accompanied by three fellow students, travelled by taxi from Schönefeld airport to the hotel on that cold February evening, I myself, and despite my continued fragility, felt a tentative sense of excitement, akin to that which Poe had described. As we moved silently through the near-empty suburbs of Berlin, I found myself looking out upon a succession of darkly lit streets, buildings, road signs and advertising hoardings, all of which were alien to me. Gropiusstadt, Buckow, Britz, Tempelhof, Schöneberg. These strange names, glimpsed on street signs of unfamiliar colour, typography, shape and size. This alien cityscape, comprised of buildings with façades, roofs and proportions with which I was unaccustomed. This unfamiliarity instilled in me once more a simple fervour for living. It emptied my mind of all its prejudices and preconceptions, ensuring that, in the coming days, both my heart and my mind would be seduced and intrigued by this enigmatic city.