Friday, March 03, 2006

Of Berlin, Walls and Frozen

Berlin. That's where I was over the last week or so. To meet my wife, who's doing a course in German there. There are really only five things I brought back with me.

1) Berlin is cold. I'm not saying cold as in Bangalore's pathetic winters where people where shawls and sweaters and monkey caps when it's 18 degrees celcius. I'm not even saying Delhi cold where you feel a little chill down your spine and it's like FOUR degrees outside.

I'm saying cold as in -10 degrees with a further wind chill factor. When the air is so cold you take a long deep drag of air and your lungs go *clink*. Where you remove your gloves to take out money from your pocket and by the time you've gotten to that 1 Euro coin your hands are frozen stiff. When you know that you don't have to be dead for rigor mortis.

And we froze. Luckily everything inside anywhere was heated. Which meant that we would rush to the U-Bahns and the S-Bahns, which I will talk about, and even into supermarkets and coffee shops just to get a little happiness watching our fingers thaw.

2) Berlin has history dripping out its nose. Really. You can trip over it on the pavements. Literally. There's a project called Stolpersteine ("Stumbling stones") where people insert brass plated stones into pavements, inscribed with names of jews that lived nearby and who died in the holocaust. The stones are slightly raised above pavement level so you would trip on it and then look. (read an English review)

And that's just on the pavements. Every place in Berlin has a history, and I'll go about it in more detail when I have photos uploaded. There's the wall of course, and at Potsdamer Platz you can see parts of it lying around aimlessly with little placards describing it's gory history. And all around it lies some of the most magnificent icons of capitalism you will ever see. Lexus and the Olive tree indeed.

There's Checkpoint Charlie, the Jewish museum, Babylonian reconstructions, Palaces that were broken down by communists, communist palaces that will be broken down...and more. Later.

3) Public Transportation means something. Not "walking" which is what it is in India. Berlin has S-Bahns and U-Bahns - metro train systems that actually work and have timings that have a distinct connection with reality. And trams and metro buses. And you can buy a single ticket that allows you to travel on all of them - or buy just tickets for a certain distance.

Unlike Washington D.C. and some other systems I know, you can just walk into a Bahnof - a train station - and get in on a train. There's no barrier or "insert-ticket-gate-opens" kind of system. What happens is that two guys get on the train. When it gets moving they announce, loudly and in German, that Bush is an idiot. No, wait, wrong story. They announce that they want to see your ticket, and you show it to them or pay a stinking huge fine at the next station. This happened exactly once in my week long stay - which means there aren't enough Indians there, yet. (Yeah, you can mail me your stinkers. It's a bloody joke.)

4) Rascists exist. I've not made that in bold because it'll ruin an otherwise good experience. I was on a U-Bahn with my wife, and suddenly a man in the compartment started muttering somthing in German. My wife, knowing German, realized he was swearing at us and calling us, of all things, pigs. I take offence at that, because pigs are generally way overweight and eat just about anything. Wait. Er. Okay I take offence at that because this guy was smelling like one and trying to pass it off on me.

Anyhow I didn't retaliate - I didn't know how to, not knowing German - and overall, no one else in the compartment did anything to help. That's because of the "German angst" - they don't get involved unless it's their own hand getting chopped off. He muttered things at us, came close to us and suddenly announced that he didn't want to be in the same compartment as us and went somewhere else. That was a sum total of two minutes, and I think he got out in the next station.

I'm a little pissed with myself about not reacting. When the guy came close I did bunch my fists to ensure I was going to get one in, at least. But that's not the same as getting up and saying "Fuck you, you racist bastard." I wish I'd done that...but I didn't. And that pisses me off.

5) I can't end with that point. So I'll just say this: Berlin is beautiful. There's a life and charm to it that somehow makes it alive. Even beggars walk around with nice shoes and sometimes with a dog, and ask for money in a way that would appear they're asking for venture capital. It's a polished business proposal which people listen to patiently, on trains and pavements, and then hand over their change. It's fascinating.

How they survive in that cold without a home is frightening. As much perhaps, as is the thought that the homeless in India face the summer heat. But why compare: it's not the same thing, it'll never be. The biggest beggars in India are of the Sachin Tendulkar type anyhow.


Blogger qaminante said...

1) This made me laugh, someone sent me a joke about Lapps turning the heating off when the temperature reached 10° - when it so happened that I had just turned my radiators off when the (outside) temperature was about 10° (I've had to turn it back on as it is now about 4°)! Our perception of heat and cold depends so much on what we are used to. But it is true that in Central Europe (which is where I consider Berlin to be), you seem to get this biting wind blowing all the way from Siberia...
3) Ah, I remember when people didn't use the S-Bahn because it belonged to E. Berlin. Your post made me want to revisit Berlin which I haven't seen since before 1989.
4) I'm afraid it hasn't changed in this respect, although I am surprised anyone was as blatant about it as the guy you describe.
Thanks for a great post!

4:13 AM, March 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

4) Never felt racism outside of India. Have felt more in India, from people I call friends. Some things strike me as funny. Your wife knows German - why didn't she tell him she understood what he was saying in German? Something like "Please, I understand what you are saying. I would prefer to be treated with respect." No aggression, no drama just a statement. Bunching your fists and getting one in first - seems a little childish. Why do you need anybody else to do anything about this? It's your call, you take it.

11:17 AM, March 06, 2006  
Blogger Deepak Shenoy said...

gaminante: thanks. The S-Bahns are in vogue now, having gone through the broad gauge conversion. And the siberian winds - we got a feel of them on the last day I was there, and was it cold!

anonymous: Yeah, I wish we'd all done something. Bunching fists wise: it was only to get one in in case he attacked us, an intention his approach seemed to indicate. About others butting in - I've seen it done, in other places including India, where people have helped.

Racism is quite prevalent in India and very blatant, I agree.

12:20 PM, March 06, 2006  

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