I confess I have a peculiar-ish habit. Before travelling to distant climes, I like to read popular books based on that place.
So, before visiting Moscow, I devoured Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park and Arkady Renko, Irina Adanova and Jack Osborne became shadowy figures whenever I passed the actual park.
When I visited South Africa. Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country was waiting. In Johannesburg, so were gentle, unforgettable Steven Kumalo and his son Absalom, as were John Jarvis and his dead son and Reverend Msimangu. By then, there were changes, and black people were so violently angry that people travelled with baseball bats in their cars and tried not to stop at traffic islands.
New York had Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities and it’s description of its night courts, the Tombs, the South of France unerringly calls up Somerset Maugham and the The Three Fat Women of the Antibes. It also has one of the best descriptions of defiant eating! Crusty bread, fried potatoes, lashings of butter, cream and jam. My mouth always watered! But, you get the picture.
When our German holiday was planned with a start in Berlin, Christopher Ishrwood’s Berlin stories came to mind immediately. Everyone has seen Cabaret and for me, the film was significant because it was based on Goodbye to Berlin and the story of Sally Bowles and her friends and set in the 30s as the country lurched towards full blown Nazism.
But, first I did a check to see if I should read anything else more current and, hence, reverted to The Guardian for its 10 best books on Berlin list. Imagine my delight when I saw that Isherwood (Herr Issysoo, his landlady keeps calling him) is still top of the heap. So I loaded my Kindle and started reading. And, last Monday night, on my first night (but second visit to the city), my beloved device, now seven years old, packed up. Leaving me devastated, but still reading on my phone which is where I am writing this now.
The changes since 1993 are tremendous. For one thing, the shocking physical differences between East and West Berlin are now not even a memory. We are staying close to Berlin Mitte and this used to be in the East. Mitte itself couldn’t be more happening with cafes and smart shops and supermarkets bulging with produce, while the Mall of Berlin at the Potsdamer Platz is a wonder to behold.
But, as I write this, I am already looking forward to Nollendorfplatz, recommended by my friend Yatin Ahluwalia who lives here for three months every year. It’s a marvelous rainbow district and somewhere there is a plaque commemmorating the gay and lesbian people killed by the Nazis for their sexual orientation. Somewhere, there is also a plaque commemmorating Isherwood’s connections with the place.
I have even had a mildly thuggish experience of neo-Nazism at a small store run by what looked like a Vietnamese family. Also the new Berlin. Thankfully, there seem to be plenty of stern reminders of past history in many places. At the Jewish Museum, of course, which charts the history of the community. On the walls of its irregular spaces are the names of the countries they fled to. Bombay is one of them.
At the Reichstag, there is a jagged arrangement of 96 granite slabs in honour of the 96 members of the Weimar Republic who were killed there. And even the Mall of Berlin has reminders of divided Berlin in a permanent exhibition.
As I write this, I am preparing for a Berlin Walk which will focus on the Wall which is now a memory. Checkpoint Charlie still has resonance. By the time this appears, I will be in Baden Baden, taking the waters, don’t you know! I should be re-reading Maugham or Austen, or W M Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. But without my Kindle (oh traitorous friend), I will just have to call it up in my mind!
-Former journalist, now media educator, still curious about everything.