Monday 23 September 2013
Alec found the flat he would be sharing with Günter for the coming 12 weeks easily enough above a clothing store in a small street tucked between the huge Alexanderplatz and the supposedly trendy Hackeschermarkt in the Mitte district of former East Berlin. It was perfect in every way from his point view.
This was to be an extended stay in Berlin in a serious attempt by Alec to improve his German, which was still school-boyish. He’d be spending normal working/studying hours either in language classes at the Goethe Institute or on a cultural programme of lectures and excursions organised by the Institute. His home base would be Günter’s flat.
Alexanderplatz offered all the facilities Alec needed for his stay: a host of shops, including a discount store located in a shopping mall next to Berlin’s old red stone “Red Town Hall” for his weekly groceries, an electronics specialist, and a department store (the Galleria) for most other requirements.
A transport hub also operated there, carrying passengers to all parts of the city by suburban trains (S-Bahn), the underground (U-Bahn), trams (a relic of Communist days, but still a useful one) and buses. Alex, as Günter called the vast square, also boasted the city’s famous TV Tower, a world clock, a church, a multi-storey international hotel, an education building decorated with a mural by one of East Germany’s best known officially approved artists (Part 17) and a sculpture of Karl Mark and Friedrich Engels.
Staff at the Goethe Institute tried earnestly to persuade Alec that the Hackeschermarkt was one of the most fashionable places in Berlin to eat and drink. He wasn’t convinced. True, it was convenient for a quick coffee and a snack; it had a reasonable choice of cafes, small restaurants, and boutiques. But it was far from traffic-free, S-Bahn trains passed frequently and noisily overhead on their way between east and west, and there wasn’t much greenery in the immediate vicinity.
It was an easy walk for Alec from the flat to sights such as Unter Den Linden, Karl Marx Allee and the gentrifying eastern neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg, that he was already familiar with (Part 3). One final locational advantage of Günter’s place from Alec’s perspective was that it was within a few minutes’ walk of the Goethe Institute. He had time to pick up a bread roll and a piece of cheese, take it back to the flat and have lunch between morning and afternoon activities.
Günter was a pleasant man of about Alec’s age. Alec liked to think they built a friendship during his 12-week stay and left a bottle of Günter’s favourite spiced rum in the fridge when he left just before Christmas.
His host invited him to his allotment in late summer and to the Christmas Market in Gendarmenplatz in December with his (Günter’s) girlfriend. He also took his guest for “the best currywurst in Berlin” at a station snack bar. It was disgusting.
Günter had retired from an engineering factory making white goods in West Berlin and was now living in the Mitte flat, where he acted as caretaker for a Munich investor who had bought the property following German reunification. He supplemented his income by taking in lodgers like Alec for the Goethe Institute.
Günter was fortunate to live there, and Alec to lodge there. The building had escaped the bombing of the Second World War and retained the best of its original features along with a modernised kitchen. It dated from a golden age of German architecture, the era between reunification under Bismarck at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the European disaster of the First World War under Kaiser Wilhem II in 1914.
The period was known variously as the Wilhelmine (after Kaiser Wilhelm 1, not his warmonger son) and mainly applying to the arts and culture, the Second Empire or sometimes Kaiserreich (but not commonly so, for diplomatic reasons in all senses of the word) and most frequently as the Foundation Era (the Gründerzeit) marking the (first) unification of the country. German history was complicated, Alec was starting to discover.
The building housing Günter’s flat was a so-called Altbau (old build), dating from the Foundation Era, elegant and spacious, in contrast to the Plattbau prefabricated blocks that had been thrown up in East Berlin after the war. Günter’s furnishings were in what Alec’s inexpert eye took to be a comfortable Biedermeyer style.
Günter had two rooms at the front of the first floor and Alec had one large bed-sit at the rear. They were separated by a corridor and shared a kitchen and bathroom. Alec noted with a mental nod of thanks to the Goethe Institute, which had arranged the accommodation, that Günter spoke no English.
Old Berlin: The St Nicholas Quarter and Neukölln
Asking a Berliner where the city’s historic centre is to be found is rather like asking a Londoner the same question of his capital: is it the city or is It Westminster? Günter had no doubt that the centre of Berlin, historically and in almost every way, is in eastern Berlin, and specifically in Alex and the adjoining St Nicholas Quarter.
Not that Berlin is old by British or even Newcastle standards: no Roman Wall or even early medieval remains. A tribal leader of the Cherusci known to the Romans as Arminius, to the Germans as Hermann and to Alec’s Latin master at school as Hermann the German, had ended Roman expansion east of the Rhine when he defeated the Emperor Augustus’s legions under Publius Quinctilius Varus at the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest in 9AD.
The area around Alex has a history going back to the 13th century but got its name during the Napoleonic Wars. Tsar Alexander I visited Berlin on 25 October 1805 (four days after the Battle of Trafalgar) and to mark the occasion King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia named the square in his honour. The name has stuck.
The adjoining St Nicholas Quarter has perhaps an even greater claim than Alexanderplatz to be the original heart of old Berlin. Tucked away between the Red Town Hall and the River Spree, it dates from around 1200. The late Romanesque church after which it gets its name is Berlin’s oldest. The church and surrounding historic houses were damaged during the war and restored in the 1980s.
The other, very different, district to date from Berlin’s earliest days is Neukölln, in the city’s south-eastern quarter. Neukölln is a dense inner-urban area with a working class, Turkish and other ethnic minority population. Squats and other forms of protest and disturbance are occasionally reported in local newspapers such as the Berliner Zeitung. The district’s high street retains the name Karl Marx Straße (not to confused with Karl Marx Allee (Part 20).
Join Alec next time as he signs in at the Goethe Institute, discovers the sociable tradition of the Stammtisch, visits the district of Kreuzberg and asks himself whether the paintings of the East Side Gallery are art or graffiti.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to sign Parliamentary petition calling on the Government to make it easier for schools to organise European trips.
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