From time to time, my sister, who is something of a world traveller as part of her job, sends home wonderful letters that she allows me to share. Here’s her latest, the first of four that take her through Berlin, Amsterdam and Copenhagen:
It’s been 15 years since I’ve been to Berlin, a memorable trip where I swam in the lake of a city park on Mother’s Day. At that time, the political and economic delineation of East and West was still palpable. Forgive me, the ones who know this, but the wall did not go in a straight line. And despite having been down for over a decade then, you could still tell when you had crossed from West to East, by the grey, oppressive Soviet era architecture, buildings designed to ensure that few people dared to dream dangerous dreams.
Now, 15 years later, I am staying in the heart of East Berlin, at the Rosa Luxembourg Platz, in case there was any doubt. But the vibe is completely different.
I am staying in the Berlin outpost of that chain of the ever so cutting edge, the Soho House. I got a good rate, the rooms looked nice, and I figured that even though I might face that common scenario where young, beautiful staff of trendy hotels feel that all they need to do is be young and beautiful, I figured I’d risk it, and so far I’m pleasantly surprised. I got here late thanks to a flight delay but the lovely young beautiful people at the front desk upgraded me from a “medium” room to a “large”, and large it is. It has an enormous bathtub more or less in the centre of the room, from which I could watch tv on the giant screen, whilst sipping my choice of fancy teas and eating the homemade cookies left in the tin. The shower room (and it is a room) is also a steam room, so for those of us who find hotel room air dry, voila! I got a little carried away and all my papers and books are a little limp.
The building used to be a department store before the Soviet era, and it manages to still have some historic grace in the face of its bearded clientele. The toiletries are of better quality than the ones I brought from home. Around 6 pm, a troupe of three hotel staff knocked on my door, came in, efficiently turned down the bed, brought ice and fresh cookies, hung up my coat (that’s where it went), left bottles of water and were gone in about 30 seconds.
So, dinner. You can eat on the roof, where the pool is, and I thought that sounded nice. But alas, every seat and then some was taken by a member of the noisy creative class eating Turkish mezes, and who would want to eat, much less swim in that environment. Not me. So I went downstairs to the main dining room, which was less crowded. Shortly after I sat down, two men in their 30’s took the table beside me, one quiet, German looking, and one impossibly handsome, very tanned and boorish. Turns out Mr. Handsome is from Botswana, and used the table accoutrements (salt, pepper, etc.) to describe the extent of his estate there, assuring that there would be plenty of room for the German and his whole family to come for a visit, maybe do some hunting. Then Mr. Handsome talked about how he is in the market for a number of drones (!!) that he is planning to use for security reasons, but this is not so straightforward in Botswana, and requires some discussions and changing of hands of cash with members of the military. So, you are welcome for this useful piece of information. Once again, a person can learn interesting things when one is invisible.
After dinner, a walk. Berlin is as incredibly green as I remembered. I smartly timed this well….the leaves and lilacs are in full swing here, so I have missed the worst of the pollen, and hopefully they will all be coming out this week at home while I’m away. When coming in from the airport on this warm sunny day, there were, as there were 15 years ago, lots of mostly undressed (and surprisingly chubby) Germans lolling on the grassy banks of the river, turning rather vivid shades of red. Perhaps Merkel is so open to immigrants because she is aware that all the blonde hair and blue eyes will soon be carried off by melanoma. 15 years later and they still seem to be disdainful of sunblock. East Berlin may be lush and green, but it is unmanicured…the grass on the dividers down the boulevard grows wild, the weeds emerge through the sidewalk. It will be interesting tomorrow to see if this is the same in the west.
East Berlin has changed in 15 years. It has been revamped by hipsters and money. The graffiti that spoke of anger, fear and despair is now all edgy irony and witty ennui. The cafes serve artisanal coffees and craft beer, there are countless organic food markets and vintage clothing stores. There is a store that sells typewriters, of the kind my grandfather had in the 30’s, and another a few blocks away that sells phonographs. Not turntables, phonographs. Some of the buildings have been spruced up with colour and planters, and on some corners new apartment buildings have been built in the style of the late 1800’s. It’s rather quiet out tonight, so I noticed the elderly gentleman in the stylish shoes and long tie dyed gown sipping his coffee while holding an armful of lilacs. (It’s likely I would have noticed him regardless.)
And so this brings me back to my luxurious room, where I am wrapped in my fuzzy robe, curled in the oversized chair debating about which bath salts to use. The fondness for phonographs extends to my room….I don’t know what I am supposed to do with it, since there are no records to go with it, and I didn’t think to bring any.
Tomorrow, off to wealthy Establishment West Berlin to go to work…..