“Is there any misfortune which is not made more bearable by Berlin?”
—found on a poster in Unter den Linden.
I was lured to Berlin with the promise of a bubble bath and a glass of whiskey. It might not sound like much, but in Amsterdam space is at a premium and a bathtub in my accommodation an unheard-of luxury. As for the whiskey, Ulrich has the finest taste in alcohol of anyone I know.
Berlin was a surprise. He had told me it was big, but I was still unprepared. For mile after mile, street after street, the city extends. It’s not charming like Amsterdam, sure of itself like Singapore, or dazed and dreaming like Adelaide, but it has something I had almost forgotten could exist in a city: space. In Berlin, the sky goes all the way to the ground.
The other thing Berlin has a lot of is history. Any British schoolkid can tell you that history starts in 1066 (the last time anyone successfully invaded). For me it stopped in 1939 and, worse, at the edges of my country, thanks to a forced choice between physics and history classes at the age of 14. Coming from an island nation marks physical boundaries very clearly, but no one ever told me that it created bigger mental boundaries. The modern history of one’s own country is not hard to pick up — the evidence of it is all around — but my teenage choice of vectors over victories has left me in embarrassing situations in other countries.
Potsdamer Platz contains the Sony Centre, looking like a scale model of Mount Fuji, but it was cold and we had to keep moving. I shoved my hands in my pockets and walked with Ulrich along the edge of the Tiergarten. Ahead, I could see something glinting in blue-and-white uplit glory.
“That’s a big statue,” I remarked.
There followed a sound as of a German biophysicist trying desperately hard not to laugh.
“That’s the Brandenburg Gate,” he eventually said, in the tone of voice a kindergarten teacher normally employs.
Despite my utter ignorance of pre-war statuary and post-war politics in Germany (“Gosh, this wall goes for miles!”), Berlin enfolded me. Among its courtyards and under the lime trees, I found a city worth caring about. And in its capacious heart, it made room for one more, randomly connecting me with Ulrich’s diverse collection of friends, who laughed at my jokes, needed someone to talk to, invited me to cookie-baking parties and drowned me in hospitality.
I may have gone for the whiskey and the bubble bath, but I’m returning with much more. Freshly baked cookies, for a start.