Wednesday 25 September 2013
Alec took the short walk from the flat he shared with Günter, where he already felt at home, to the Goethe Institute, where he would spend the next 12 weeks studying German language as well as the country’s turbulent 20th century history and its fascinating, often revolutionary culture. His route took him into a quiet inner courtyard, up a flight of stairs and into a crowded hallway. People of all ages and complexions milled around; many of them looked as nervous and bewildered as Alec felt.
Soon a brisk middle-aged woman entered the room, clapped for attention, and ushered everyone into a lecture theatre. There she explained that they were to sit short written tests to determine which class they should be in. Alec was reasonably pleased to be placed in Class CI, second highest of six levels under the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). He had evidently remembered something from his ‘A’-level German all those years ago as well as his month studying German in “Casting Alley” three years earlier (Part 3).
There followed a short tour of the Institute, which consisted almost wholly of teaching and lecture rooms, apart from a café-lounge. It had been a full morning, with a lot to take in and think about, and Alec was relieved when he was given a classroom number, a timetable, and a programme of optional cultural opportunities. On entering the classroom, he immediately dropped a clanger, assuming that the middle-aged woman standing there was the teacher: no, she was a fellow student from Argentine. Oops. He made up for his gaff by inviting her for coffee, which she accepted.
Wednesday 30 October 2013
Alec seemed to have spent the entire month mastering just one German word and its various forms and meanings. How many separable prefixes could one verb take, he wondered: there was the simple lösen (to solve), then there was ablösen (to loosen or take over from), auflösen (to dissolve or disappear), auslösen (to cause, set off or trigger) and einlösen (to redeem or fulfil). Erlösen meant relieved or freed, he learned, but was not separable.
It was almost a relief, Alec thought that day at the end of October, to be told that he was moving up to C2. It seemed counter-intuitive, but surely things could only get easier from now on.
In his new class, with the lively 40-ish, switched-on Heidi as his teacher and fellow students closer to his own age – though he was still the oldest – Alec started to relax and think about the cultural programme that the GI offered at no extra charge, apart from the cost of any necessary tickets.
His first cultural visit was to a Kneipe – a pub. Just like home, he thought. Berliners (and perhaps Germans elsewhere) have a very comradely tradition according to which friends gather at the same table (Stammtisch) on a regular basis for beer, food perhaps, and conversation. It strengthens community cohesion, Alec thought.
Some offers on the cultural programme he decided to miss; the following evening’s ballroom dancing class, he didn’t think, was quite for him. He wasn’t much interested in climbing that Soviet vanity project, the TV tower in Alexanderplatz, either. But a guided foot tour of the Kreuzberg neighbourhood looked interesting.
Saturday 2 November 2013
“Just take care in Görly Park (pronounced Girly),” advised Heidi. Görlitzer Park was struggling to maintain its reputation as a pleasant retreat for families, at least during daylight hours. The drugs dealers and addicts who had for some time controlled it after dark were now brazen at all hours. It didn’t take long for Alec to spot them, and he quickly moved on.
For the most part, though, Alec liked Kreuzberg. He recognised it was not to everyone’s taste and that he didn’t have to live there. It was a working-class area which had been just on the west side of the Berlin Wall before it came down. Life must have been tough and doubtless remained so for some. But it was bustling and fashionable now, especially around the U-Bahn station at Kottbusser Tor and the boulevard (Kotbusserdamm) leading down to Hermannplatz in Neukölln, and was gradually starting to be improved (gentrified, critics might say). Certainly, newcomers seemed to be moving in to add to the large existing Turkish community.
Alec was particularly attracted, perversely perhaps, by the overhead-underground trains (if the reader gets the idea), which he always thought provided a striking urban aesthetic in whichever city he met them, including his own home of Tyneside (think Byker and South Shields).
Kreuzberg is also home to Bergmannstraße, location of the finest stretch of ethnic restaurants that Alec knew of in the city; his favourite was a little Vietnamese place. It made the not inconsiderable U-Bahn journey from the city centre worthwhile.
East Side Gallery
Sunday 3 November 2013
Is it art? Is it graffiti? Whatever the answer, the East Side Gallery is certainly one of Berlin’s most striking, idiosyncratic, and popular sights. Alec and his fellow students took a ride on the S-Bahn of just three stops’ south-eastwards from their local Hackeschermarkt station to Ostbahnhof then made the walk of a few minutes through a modern shops and luxury flats development to reach the unique gallery.
The East Side Gallery is the longest remaining single section of the Berlin Wall stretching 1,316m along the east bank of the River Spree northwards from the Oberbaum Bridge towards Alexanderplatz. After the fall of the Wall, it was covered in 105 paintings by 118 artists from 21 countries with scenes and portraits designed to commemorate the almost three decades that the Wall divided the city.
The most famous shows a kiss between the East German leader, Erich Honecker, and his Soviet counterpart and political master Leonid Breznev. And by a kiss between the two old men the author does not mean a manly embrace but a big sloppy one.
The Gallery has in the past been threatened by developers but is now an officially protected heritage landmark. It has been made famous by an appearance in Wolfgang Becker’s film “Goodbye, Lenin!” and various other cultural and sporting settings. Today it attracts around 3m visitors a year. Definitely art, not graffiti.
Join Alec next time as explores more of the Mitte district on foot, with its fascinating mix of shops, places of entertainment and institutional buildings.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to sign Parliamentary petition calling on the Government to make it easier for schools to organise European trips.