Diary of an Expat, Part 38
Abandoned places and times
I spent today biking around Berlin, which is a lot of fun. Sort of.

I still don't exactly understand why it takes a Berliner so much more time to get from Berlin-Mitte to Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg than, say, to get from Berlin-Mitte to the Maginot Line. Biking means tagging along behind people who, for all intents and purposes, are on stationary bikes even if they don't want to admit it (Berliners, I'm told, really like stationary bikes, so I suppose that shouldn't be too confusing).

The worst sinners from a biking perspective, so far, continue to be people pushing strollers, who see no great shame in walking in bike paths two-abreast, which has the effect of shutting down the entire path. But even if you find someone who hasn't decided to expose their spawn to the joys of having an American curse at them, you'll eventually wind up being an ordinary Berlin biker, and most of them creep along.

In a Darwinian sense, this has also affected the pedestrian population. Like the Dodo, they're vulnerable and weak, easy prey — accustomed to bikes that move slow enough to see well in advance, and avoid. A friend of mine and I were biking up Warschauer Strasse at a reasonable clip, and I watched someone step out in front of him, jerk back, then try to do the same thing to me, twenty yards behind him. Her friend grabbed her by the arm and yanked her back bodily — but it's not really their fault; they have no experience with any bike they couldn't keep up with by power-walking.


I wound up going down to the Spreepark, which is (as it sounds like) a park that adjoins the river Spree. At one point in time, it was the home of an amusement park, which has been abandoned for about ten years; in that time, what's left has become incredibly overgrown, so that from the side of the bikepaths there's just a ferris wheel reaching up towards the sky, and also a handful of decrepit swans.

It's very interesting.

I like abandoned places a lot; I find them fascinating. It's always interesting to have that sense of looking at a snapshot of someone's bit of history — it's even interesting (in my opinion more so, actually) when it's something more prosaic, like an old school or a factory or a warehouse.

If you like abandoned places, man, Berlin has those in spades. A lot of this, I think, comes from the fact that the city doesn't know exactly what it wants to do with itself, so many of the old industrial areas are being shut down. No small part, also, comes from the old division of the city — so for example Berlin has two zoos, one from the old DDR and one from the GDR.

You'll just be walking down any random old street in Berlin and discover, suddenly, that the building next to you has been abandoned to squatters. When you're biking, particularly in East Berlin along the Spree for some reason, there are a lot of old warehouses and factories that are slowly, slowly being given over to nature.

Berlin, and perhaps Germans in general — I don't know — has an interesting relationship with history. They compartmentalize it highly; there are things that are acceptable to talk about, and things that are not, yes — but more than this, there are times and places to remember any given element of the past.

as I've said before, Berlin is not entirely comfortable with its reunification. Some of that is practical — it took a lot of money, and a lot of social upheaval around these parts. That goes without saying; twenty years after the unification they still collect a tax to help pay for it. Fine. But some of it is because, here at least, they've begun indulging in fond remembrances for the old East Germany (ostalgie is the term).

The Wall itself is not something that people really talk or think much on — I'm sure everything that needs to be said (or was going to be said) has been said already. The people who built the wall and manned the guard towers are still alive; Berlin twenty-somethings still remember living in a divided Germany, at least vaguely, and the majority of folks here would've experienced something about that division.

So rather than it being the overwhelming sort of thing you'd imagine, it's cordoned off into its own little museum areas, and it doesn't really stray from there. If you weren't keeping your eye out for the architectural changes and you didn't happen to find the exhibition-museums on Bernauer Strasse, you might be excused for thinking that all the most somber traces of that rather somber history have been expunged, to be replaced by cheery fedora-wearing Ampelmannchen.

In this context, the abandoned buildings make some sense to me. Berlin hasn't figured out what it wants to do with all the old apartments and train stations and failed experiments yet, and until they can be woven into the city's complicated historical narrative they'll continue to lurk in the background, slowly being consumed by the weeds.

Of course, not everything is old and abandoned. If you're down in Treptow, you have the opportunity to take a look at the Soviet War Memorial there, which is an artifact of the occupation and not, I think, something that Berliners would really have taken it upon themselves to build. It is done in suitably grandiose Russian style, and features stone reliefs of soldiers alternately looking heroic and, I think, suffering. It's pretty enough.

I don't, honestly, have a whole lot of time for war memorials; empires beating the shit out of each other and then pausing to commemorate the human toll of their imperialism as though they actually cared is not especially compelling to me. In this I am indulged by my fellow Berliners, who mostly sprawled through the park today, enjoying this lovely spring day — the first of the week. Fortuitous that it fell on a weekend.

One of at least two Soviet-constructed suchlike sites here in the city.

I'll be back with more next week, when we can talk about this thing called 'football' that seems to have snared everyone's attention. I guess?
15.06.2012 - 8h50
Comrade Alex
16.06.2012 - 2h57

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