An exceptionally frosty morning in London, increasingly and worryingly unusual in this present era, called to mind the winter I spent in Berlin, in 2008-09. That winter was a bitterly cold one, the coldest I’ve yet experienced. On New Year’s Eve, the temperature in Berlin’s centre and in the Viktoriapark, where we embraced the warmth of the crowds while dodging fireworks, hovered around minus 6 Celsius. I few days later, when I recommenced my studies at the City Library on Breite Straße, the temperature had dropped to minus 20. For six weeks the mercury stayed below zero. The Spree froze over, and any snowfall quickly turned to ice, transforming the untreated paths of the Tiergarten into skating rinks.
Those few weeks were a magical time to be in Berlin. Looking back, it seems to me now that for the whole of January and much of February, the city was cloaked in darkness and silence. The effect that snow can have on an urban environment is truly wondrous. In Berlin it created a blanket of whiteness that, in the half light of sunrise and nightfall, created unearthly contrasts with the shadowy grey façades of old buildings, the leaden sky, and the milky haze of the streetlights. The snow also draped the city in quietude, muting the persistent urban buzz by keeping cars and all but the most determined pedestrians off the streets.
I don’t know what it is like now, but back then, towards the end of the first decade of the new millennium, Berlin could be an almost deserted city during the winter months, even at its very centre. It was as though the city’s residents had gone into hibernation, and only the most intrepid (or foolhardy) tourists were determined to visit. Now that the Christmas markets had packed up and the decorations had been taken down, the streets were empty and desolate.
Some of the open spaces I walked through in the evenings were achingly beautiful in their eerie tranquility. On Schinkelplatz, which was a particularly barren site at the time (in the wake of the demolition of the Palast der Republik and prior to the construction of the Humboldtforum) the famous Prussian architect and his two associates stared down at me in the silent gloom, their black figures silhouetted against the shadowy form of the ‘Bauakademie’ behind them. The scene was monochromatic and other-worldly, an anthesis of the brightly coloured displays and crowds of the previous November’s festival of light.
On another evening, while hurrying back from the City Library to the U2 station at Hausvogteiplatz, I was caught up in a heavy snow shower, and the combination of the dark night sky, the looming façades of the surrounding buildings and the dense flurries of swirling white flakes left me disorientated, and feeling as though I’d stepped into one of Lesser Ury’s nocturnal Berlin portraits.
Everywhere, the same phantasmagoria. At Zoo the city bustle strove to make itself heard above the silence of the snow, while the sweet, warm aromas of cinnamon and sugar that wafted up from underground station dragged me away from the bitterly cold air outside. On Potsdamer Straße students huddled together in groups outside the Staatsbibliothek, chatting, smoking and laughing, frozen white breath clouds hanging above their heads, before returning inside to the warmth, words and warm tones of the Library’s reading rooms. And then in Moabit, close to home, along the Holsteiner Ufer between the Moabiterbrücke and Lessingbrücke, where the lights of the Spreebogen on the opposite side of the river scattered spectral reflections across the ice, and cast shadows through the lifeless branches of the willow trees.