Thursday, December 1, 2016

- The Iron Curtain Ramble: Brandenburg Finale -

A wall of thick frozen fog divides the two-hour journey between the East and the West of Europe. Indeed, the sterile lines of the urban landscape of the Bulgarian capital fade behind and give way to the young dynamics of Berlin, which I reach in the middle of the night.

Austerity and modesty ooze from the simple yet efficient network of rail transport taking me from Schoenefeld Airport, floating across small cottages crowned by small wooden houses that grow busier and more lit as the complex new architecture of the city centre approaches.
I reach the hostel at midnight, the cold air blowing through the narrow streets of Kreuzberg whilst the last traces of bright yellow carriages, the late metro services of the Berliner evening soar over the Spree suspended over concrete bridges.

In the morning, a thick layer of fog turns the city into a grey urban conglomerate in which aggressively-built concrete apartment blocks rise against the bleak sky, demarcated by grids of streets religiously separated into pavements, footpaths and cycle tracks.
Sleepy Berliners queue for coffee at Potsdamer Platz. Tourists march at unison hoarded by guides and teachers wiggling their heads as they glance the many historic places scattered around the city centre,  the German capital being the epitome of reinvention: from dereliction, to Nazi boom, to destruction and finally, to become what is is now, a modest sized city, efficiently located in the centre-East of Germany and seat of the most powerful nation in the world.

The Holocaust Memorial automatically invites to reflection. The concrete blocks solemnly lined and erected in a small square, surrounded by buildings enclosing ministerial offices and embassies in subtle German art nouveau lines.
Brandenburg Gate is where I call the end of the 'Iron Curtain Ramble'. The end of a journey encompassing five countries, from the sterile urban landscape of Kiev, through the Romanian Alps and finally to this important (though underwhelming) monument to reunification.

Berlin is a city that was once divided by the infamous wall. The wealthy West prospering under the capitalist American wing, the East modestly growing under Soviet rule. Two credos blended together on that eventful 9th November 1989, when citizens declared the end of arbitrary immigration sanctions and decided to move forward as one single entity. As such , the city is prosperous yet very austere.

In fact, Berlin would not have the shine and glitter of Dubai, or the historic megabuildings of Beijing, or the pristine harbour of Sydney. Instead, it is a city in which public transport is widely used, immaculate cyclepaths are shared by jolly commuters carrying their groceries in clip-on baskets and, despite the wintry weather, parks are used for jogging and morning strolls.
I switch from the obvious, flicking through the sight of Checkpoint Charlie, which now lies smothered amongst fast-food chain signs and tourists and, following the original outline of the wall, proceed to walk through the quiet streets of East Berlin, silently watched by the bare trees now succumbing to the chilly winter winds. The apartment blocks around me timidly opening their blinds to the outside world, inviting thoughts of basic homemade goulash boiling in iron caseroles, warm soda bread ready to be sliced and an afternoon reading a book being 'as German as you can be'.
A broth served with soda bread is enjoyed at a cafe owned by a gap-toothed woman from Istanbul. Not a word of English but a very complex version of German spoken.

The remnants of the wall can be seen at the East Wall gallery. A graffiti-covered and rather thin concrete structure extending for miles along the River Spree. Passports can be stamped for a handful of Euros for a lasting souvenir of the city.
My last hours in the German capital are spent in Friedrichsain, at the shade of enormous apartment blocks similar to the ones housing middle class Muscovites some thousands miles upstream.
Night falls as the train to Schoenefeld reaches the suburbs and mocks the streets which are now at a standstill flooded by an ocean of flickering car lights.

The chill wind turns the airport terminal into a refrigerator and several low-cost airline flights are called in the crowded terminal at the same time. Some two-and-a-half hours separate me from home in the Emerald Isle along a straight line drawn in the clear skies, stars shining like frozen crystals over the scattered fluffy clouds of winter, ending a ramble across the edge of Europe.

The Iron Curtain once symbolised the massive Soviet efforts to isolate itself from Western influence, a thought crushed by the end of Cold War. Economies have since opened and the European Union has left a mark in some of the countries in which this former imaginary line ran across.
Nonetheless, Cyrilic is still widely used in their adverts, Russian-built Tupolev aircraft still park in their aerodromes and Lada cars still converge in the heavy traffic of their capitals. An unique and eclectic version of Europe is then unveiled, Soviet tones embracing Europeanism whilst sitting at the edge of Asia.