As you probably know, I was at Metropol Con, a new SFF convention in Berlin, last week. And I had a great time overall and met lots of old and new friends, though there were a few hiccups along the way.
I encountered the first hiccup as soon as I was seated in the ICE train from Bremen to Hannover. Because as I was waiting for the train to depart, the public address system announced that there was a powerline failure between Bremen and Hannover and that the train would be delayed by twenty minutes. And because my connection time in Hannover was only about twenty minutes that meant there was a high chance that I might miss my connecting train in Hannover. In the end, I did catch my connecting train to Berlin, because it turned out that the Berlin train was delayed as well, so the delays cancelled each other out.
That said, it was very kind of Deutsche Bahn to remind me why I don’t use them all that much. Because Deutsche Bahn has a lot of issues. The trains are beset by delays and there was a massive fifty hour strike planned for Monday and Tuesday, i.e. the day before I was due to travel to Berlin, which was only cancelled at the last minute, after plenty of people had already changed their travel plans. What is more, I had booked tickets for the ICE high speed train for my trip to Berlin. However, on the Bremen to Hannover route, the super-fast ICE train (the fastest they ever went was 406 kilometres per hour and they go over 300 kilometres per hour on regular journeys) used the same tracks as the regional train and trundled through all the small town stations like Achim, Baden, Verden on Aller, Nienburg, Neustadt am Rübenberge, etc… and traveled at the same speed as the regular regional train would. The only difference was that the ICE didn’t stop at the various small town stations, whereas the regional train would. Still, why did I pay the premium for the ICE again, when it’s not actually any faster than the regional train? And in fact, I had been considering getting a 49 EUR per month Germany-wide public transport ticket to get to Berlin, which is good for public transport and regional trains, but decided to go with the ICE, because it’s faster and requires fewer train changes. And indeed, on the longer Hannover to Berlin route, the ICE actually did go 352 kilometres per hour.
In the end, I arrived in Berlin only a few minutes later than I normally would have, because the train driver apparently made good time on the Hannover to Berlin route. However, the next challenge awaited me once I reached Berlin, because the layout of Berlin’s newish multi-level central station is very confusing – worse than the old East and West Berlin central stations it replaced – and while there were maps for regional train networks, I had a hard time finding either a map or a signage for the city public transport network.
In many ways I was reminded of one of my first visits to Berlin in the spring of 1990, when the Wall was already open, but East Germany still existed as a state. At the time, we decided to walk from the Victory column in (West) Berlin to the Brandenburg Gate. Because the Wall and the Gate were open, we just walked through and had our passports stamped by the friendliest East German border guard I’ve ever seen and just kept walking into East Berlin, walking along famous streets and buildings we knew existed, but had never actually seen, until we reached Alexanderplatz (BTW, I tried to walk that memorable route again from the other side and gave up halfway through, because it’s a very long walk and I’m no longer 16), got tired and decided to take the train back to West Berlin. So we went to Friedrichstraße station and looked at the network plan on the platform, only to find a huge gray hole where West Berlin should be. So I went to a train attendant and told him, “We need to go back to West Berlin to Uhlandstraße station [at any rate, I think it was Uhlandstraße], but West Berlin doesn’t exist on your map, so which train do I need to take?” The East Berlin train attendant apologised for the maps – they hadn’t gotten around to replacing them yet – and told me which train to take.
My difficulties at finding a public transport map or even signage where the public transport trains were led me to grumble, “Thirty-three years later and a brand-new central station and you still haven’t put up a bloody public transport map.” I finally did find the public transport platform and had another surprise, because the S-Bahn trains (regional above-ground trains in Berlin and other German cities) still looked very much like they had thirty plus years ago. Friedrichsstraße station, where I had to change from the S-Bahn to a subway train also still looked very much like it did back in 1990 (and probably way before), though the extensive passport control area (Friedrichstraße station was also a border crossing point) has been replaced with shops and fast food restaurants. The station also still didn’t have escalators, so I was extra careful, because I had sprained my ankle lugging a suitcase up and down the many stairs at Friedrichsstraße station during my first visit to Berlin about a month before the fall of the Wall. This time, I did make it into the subway without injury. Now the Berlin subway isn’t nearly as deep as the London tube, but it is still weird that there are comparatively few escalators.
My hotel was in the Wedding neighbourhood near the con venue and was hidden behind Kurt Schumacher Hause, the Berlin city office of the Social Democratic Party SPD (built in 1961). The SPD signage was a lot more prominent than the hotel signage, so I almost missed it. Wedding used to be a traditional working class neighbourhood of Berlin and was part of West Berlin from 1945 to 1990. Nowadays it’s an immigrant neighbourhood dominated mainly by people of Turkish and Middle Eastern origin. The hotel itself was okay for a budget hotel and the fact that it was so near to the con venue was definitely a plus.
Once I got to the hotel, my room wasn’t ready yet, so I dumped off my suitcase and went exploring. I had deliberately planned to arrive on the day before the con, so I would have time to see a bit of Berlin. The first thing I did was – guess what? – hit the bookstores. Well, the interesting ones, that is, because Berlin has a lot of bookshops.
So I made my way back to Friedrichstraße station. I made a little detour, because I took the wrong exit and suddenly spotted the distinctive signage atop of the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, home of Bertolt Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble on the far side of the river Spree. So I walked over the nearest bridge to take some photos.
After this little detour, my first stop was Kulturkaufhaus Dussmann (literally “cultural department store Dussmann”), Germany’s biggest book and media store. The store has five floors of books, CDs, DVDs, magazines, stationery, etc… and is located in a prominent location on Friedrichstraße in the city centre. It has an interesting backstory, too, because founder Peter Dussmann was the son of booksellers. He eventually founded a company which offers facility management, cleaning services, security services, etc… and became one of Germany’s wealthiest people. But he never lost his love for bookselling and when his company built a new corporate headquarters in Berlin in 1997, he also added the five floor bookstore.
Kulturkaufhaus Dussmann is a great store with a huge English language section, which is divided by genre. They even had a table for modern gothic fiction, which I found very prescient, since we seem to be seeing something of a gothic revival going on at the moment. Much as I enjoyed browsing, I womanfully limited myself to buying only two books. Dussmann have even got a sphinx – a real sphinx that dates back to 1495 BC and is on loan from the nearby Egyptian museum.
By now it was around noon and I hadn’t eaten anything since a yoghurt at six in the morning, so I had lunch (a salmon poke bowl) in one of the many hipster restaurants around Friedrichstraße. I also caught my only glimpse of Berlin’s newest tourist attraction, the anti-climate-change activists calling themselves the Last Generation, who are mostly notable for the tendency to glue themselves to streets and to pour paint and other liquids on artworks and luxury shops. Now I happen to think that the Last Generation folks are idiots, who are certainly not helping the cause they claim to serve. But based on media coverage, I had expected that you couldn’t take a step in Berlin without stumbling over a Last Generation activist. And apparently they were protesting and blocking roads somewhere in the city, while I was there. However, I only saw a small cluster of activists on Friedrichstraße, holding up a banner. I was a bit confused, because that part of Friedrichstraße is a pedestrian zone, so if you want to block motorised traffic, that’s about the worst place in the city to do it. However, it turned out that the activists were picketing the office of the Deutsche Bank on Friedrichstraße. Which I actually don’t mind, because they weren’t actively stopping anybody from going anywhere, though if you wanted to go into the bank (I didn’t), you had to walk around them and listen to their shouting. And besides, Deutsche Bank very likely had it coming.
Regarding the pedestrian zone in part of Friedrichstraße, this is actually a huge battle in Berlin at the moment, big enough that the rest of Germany is aware of it. After actually seeing the pedestrianised part of Friedrichstraße, the whole thing seems like a lot ado about very little. For starts, they only turned a few hundred meters of Friedrichstraße into a pedestrian zone – most of the (pretty long) street is still open to motorised traffic. And while I don’t think turning Friedrichstraße or part of it into a pedestrian zone is a bad idea per se, the execution doesn’t work IMO. Because the pedestrianised part of Friedrichstraße is basically a canyon flanked by mostly post-1990 office and commercial buildings some seven or eight stories tall. Several of those buildings are banks or offices or otherwise not really of great interest to average passer-by. A large part of the street is taken up by a brutalist slab of concrete that houses a Russian cultural center, a legacy of old East Berlin. There are some high-end shops, but no cafés or restaurants. In short, it’s not a particularly pleasant stretch of road – in fact, the still motorised parts of Friedrichstraße are much nicer with many beautiful nineteenth century buildings and cafés and restaurants. They did dump a few artsy looking benches onto the street, but there are no planters or trees to provide shade and the sun glared down onto the tarmac. So in short, you can sit down, which is nice, but it’s not a very pleasant place to sit. And since they only banished cars, but not bicycles, you are also at risk of having a bicycle run over your foot. Finally, the whole experiment is extremely expensive, costing approx. 213000 Euros per year. Having seen how unimpressive it actually looks, that’s an enormous waste of money.
After lunch, I returned to the hotel, because my room was finally ready. Then, after a brief rest, I headed out again. This time, my destination was the Kreuzberg neighbourhood, famous for being both an immigrant neighbourhood as well as hippest neighbourhood in (West) Berlin in the 1970s and 1980s. Kreuzberg is also notable, because its inhabitants resisted the destruction of Victorian neighbourhoods in favour of Brutalist apartment blocks in the 1960s and 1970s and thus changed city planning in (West) Germany for everybody’s benefit.
My destination was Otherland, a great SFF specialty bookstore in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood. Once more, I womanfully restricted myself to buying only two books and also explored the area, while I was there. I found a comic shop, which alas did not have the comic I was looking for, and an extensive indoor market. There was a great spice and herb shop at that indoor market, but they didn’t have filé powder a.k.a. sassafras leaves, which are nigh impossible to get in Germany.
By that point, I was finished with what I absolutely wanted to do and yet it was still early in the afternoon. So I decided to do some tourism and revisit sights I hadn’t seen in many years. I made my way back to the crossing of Friedrichstraße and the famous boulevard Unter den Linden and strolled down Unter den Linden in western direction towards the Brandenburg Gate.
The first time I was there in the summer of 1990 (Unter den Linden was in East Berlin), I thought Unter den Linden was something of a disappointment and a far cry from the famous boulevard that even has a song by Walter Kollo dedicated to it (sung here by Harald Juhnke). Because unlike the bustling boulevard from the song, where young men stroll along to pick up women, the actual Unter den Linden was wide street lined by lots of embassies, ministeries and other official buildings. There were almost no shops, restaurants and cafés in those days, just big, old and rather grimy buildings with lots of colums. Nowadays, all of the big old buildings have been cleaned up and restored and there also are a few shops, mostly souvenir shops, and cafés, but the street itself is still quite boring. The bustling and lively Unter den Linden that Walter Kollo describes in his song must have died sometime in 1945, if not before. Though interestingly, I did walk the exact same stretch of Unter den Linden that Kollo mentions in the song – from the crossing of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstraße, site of the long since defunct and destroyed Café Bauer, to Pariser Platz, the area in front of the Brandenburg Gate – which is as long as it took Kollo’s protagonist to pick up a woman. I did not, however, try to pick up anybody of any gender.
I walked through the Brandenburg Gate and paid a visit to the Reichstag, home to the German parliament. A rainbow flag was flying on one of the turrets of the Reichstag, which made me happy. I briefly considered walking onwards to the Victory Column, but it’s a long way and my feet were beginning to hurt. So I got on the subway (I had a day pass) and headed back in the opposite direction to pay a visit to the Red Townhall (so called, because it’s built from red bricks), Berlin’s townhall and one of my favourite buildings in the city. At university, I even wrote a paper about the Red Townhall, though I don’t remember all that much about it.
The Red Townhall is still a stunning building and in the immediate neighbourhood, there’s also the beautiful Neptune fountain and St. Mary’s, the oldest still active church in central Berlin (the nearby St. Nikolai Church is older, but has been a museum since the 1930s). Because by European standards, most of central Berlin isn’t actually very old. Apart from St. Mary’s and St. Nikolai, the oldest buildings in the city center date from the early 18th century, i.e. they’re about three hundred years old. Most of the pre-1700 neighbourhoods and buildings in the city fell victim either to various city planning and remodelling attempts over the centuries or to WWII.
Looming above the Red Townhall, St. Mary’s and the Neptune fountain is the Berlin TV Tower, completed in 1969 and still Germany’s tallest building. And yes, Germany’s tallest building stands in what used to be in East Berlin, which must have annoyed West German architects to no end. The TV Tower is one of Berlin’s most famous and reconisable sights and while I’ve seen it from the ground several times before, I’ve never actually been up on the observation platform nor in the rotating café and restaurant inside the sphere section. I briefly considered buying a ticket for observation deck, but wasn’t willing to pay 22.50 EUR or wait an hour for the privilege of looking down on Berlin from above.
So I trotted past the TV Tower towards Alexanderplatz. The first time I saw Alexanderplatz in 1990, I found it a huge disappointment, because it’s basically just a huge windswept expanse of concrete surrounded by modernist buildings that certainly did not live up to its legendary reputation as the heart of the bustling Weimar era Berlin. BTW, if you’ve seen Babylon Berlin, which has a lot of scenes set on and around Alexanderplatz, it hasn’t looked like that since 1945 and the Alexanderplatz scenes are actually CGI mixed with close-up shots of buildings which look kind of similar to what would have been there in 1929/1930. For example, the close-up shots of Berlin’s long gone central police headquarters on Alexanderplatz are actually the Red Townhall, because both buildings had red brick facades. It’s still very obvious to me, because the Red Townhall is very recognisable, even close-up.
Alexanderplatz has changed quite a bit since 1990, though not necessarily for the better. They’ve just added a few more large buildings which house department stores, shopping malls, a cinema and the like and covered up some of the East German murals with advertising. Besides, the World Time Clock was edging towards 6 PM, so I decided to go back to my hotel. Though I did buy a mug from a souvenir shop as a present for my Dad first. My Dad is one of those people who are notoriously hard to shop for, but he drinks coffee, so I usually buy him a souvenir mug. I found a nice one with a cartoony drawing Trabant car breaking through the Berlin Wall.
Back at the hotel, I rested for half an hour or so and then headed back out for dinner. I found a great dumpling restaurant very close to the hotel and had a combination platter of assorted dumplings, a tofu bao bun and fries with hoisin sauce.
After dinner, I headed back to the hotel, checked my e-mails and went to bed, ready for Metropol Con to begin the next day.