Berlin’s a mess. A total mess. I think it’s always been a mess but right now, it’s really messy. There is no architectural ensemble to be found, it’s a bold mix of old and new, tradition and modernism meet on every corner. Unter den Linden, however, the grand old Prussian boulevard from Berlin cathedral to Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag, has kind of lost whatever was left of its old splendour. Temporarily, I mean. Unter den Linden translates to Under the Lime Trees, but at the moment, you won‘t find any limes there, at least, I don’t. Right now, everything and every place is one single construction site. First of all, they’re building a new subway line right under it, then there’s our last Kaiser’s palace, Wilhelm II’s Stadtschloss, that is being reconstructed like a phoenix from the ashes, and if that wasn’t enough, several other buildings are being renovated, updated, uplifted or rebuilt, like the Staatsbibliothek, the old Prussian state library which has one the nicest courtyards ever, it once was full of climbing vine, all these beautiful leaves, turning red in autumn, bright as fire, were giving the classicist façade such a lush expression, and don’t ask me what all the other bulidings are called that are undergoing all this trouble. But when you blend it all out, all that noise and pounding, and just focus on the beautiful spots, you find nothing but intact Prussian splendour. Berlin is every bit a feast for life as Paris. Believe you me.
Picture it: Frankfurt, early 1980s. On a day like any other, my mother and I passed the Frankfurter Rundschau building, the Frankfurter Rundschau was in these times for Germany what, say, the Washington Post was for the United States, in other words a very important newspaper and former employer of my mother (the blonde on the right), when we ran into Martina (the brunette on the left), a good friend and ex-colleague of my mother’s who was in charge of the newspaper’s women‘s section, the “Frauenredaktion”, in the changing political climate of the 1960s and ’70s, she was commenting on women’s lib issues and the legalisation of abortion as well as reporting from the Paris fashion shows. In 1966, when the cold war was still a major issue, she fell in love with a Russian when reporting from Kazakhstan. A Russian that turned out to be a spy. The very moment, she met her “Romeo” in Alma Ata to marry him, she was arrested for espionage, microfilm had been hidden by her fiancé in her cigarette pack. For 138 horrid days she was imprisoned, first in Alma Ata, then in Moscow’s notorious prison the Lubyanka. But she survived. On December, 23rd, 1966, she was finally freed because her boss, Karl Gerold, founder and editor-in-chief of the Frankfurter Rundschau, had moved heaven and earth to have her exchanged, exchanged for a real spy, Alfred Frenzel, a German politician that had been working for Russia. Anyway, on this less important day in the early 1980s, my mother, just like Mrs Dalloway in eternal repetition, had bought the flowers herself but was missing a vase, I guess either me or one of the cats had broken the ball-shaped vase my mother had in mind for her tulips and so she asked Martina where to get a one. “Lorey.”, Martina replied, “They have Lalique.” Lalique, okay, sure, why not replace a vase for ten bucks with Lalique crystal? For years, this was a running gag. Martina had kind of a Jacqueline Kennedy-ish approach to life: always the best. You rarely saw her without an Hermès scarf. I found all of that very intriguing, and as my mother still has no high-toned crystal at home, I have to blame Martina for all the money I’ve spent on Lalique vases.
One day in Hamburg, I couldn’t wait for lunchbreak, couldn’t wait to leave my desk at DDB Hamburg, that is Doyle Dane Bernbach, the agency famous for their work for Volkswagen’s beetle in the 1960s, Lemon, they shouted, Think Small, they advised, and by this they made it to eternity, advertising as it should be, whereas I, well, I hope it wasn’t too bad what I did on this day in 2012, anyway, I digress, I couldn’t wait to leave my desk, a desk with a fabulous view on Hamburg’s Speicherstadt and the Elbphilharmonie that was still being constructed, splendid architecture by Herzog & de Meuron consuming 866 million euros, but I digress again, anyway, I couldn’t wait to get the cup I had fallen in love with the other day, after hours of course, leaving me to wait for it a most inappropriately long amount of time, like Prince Bolkonsky had to wait for Natasha, a day or a year, where’s the difference, my Meissen coffee cup was even more alluring than Tolstoy’s Natasha, it had a green dragon on it, green being a favourite colour of mine, spitting little orange flames, embodying riches, chinoiserie at its best, as ornate as a cup could ever be, and most importantly, it was on sale at John Montag on Ballindamm, a store that had to shut down some time later after it had burned down, anyway, being on sale meant that it was still way too expensive but it made me think I was about to get a bargain, and so I did, in this lunchbreak in 2012, my concentration at work was way better in the afternoon, I can assure you, there’s nothing better than saving money during luchbreak.
Grand-Duchess Anastasia of Russia, the false one, the one Ingrid Bergman played so well she was presented with an Oscar, tried to drown herself in Berlin’s Landwehrkanal, in the Spree, a river so widely spread all over Berlin nobody takes really notice of it. What a sad story. What a miserable choice of ending one’s life. If I were to drown myself, I’d choose the Seine. It plays so much more important a role, it’s a question of belief whether you live on the left or the right bank, Rive Gauche or Rive Droite, old money or nouvelle vague, Yves Saint Laurent named his prêt-à-porter collection accordingly, it’s so much more elegant a river, Rudolf Nureyev lived on one of its quais, Quai Voltaire, all these names say it all, it’s steeped in history, style and splendour, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn took a walk next to it, Marie Antoinette and Napoleon, Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, Ernest Hemingway and F.Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, Romy Schneider and Alain Delon, Claude Chabrol and Claude Sautet, they all crossed it, back and forth, looked in it, spat in it, I’m sure, Hemingway did it regularly, he always looked like a big spitter to me, I could go on for hours, this river has seen them all, and although none of my heroes drowned in it, by chance or on purpose, I’d still choose the Seine over the Spree, but alas, I’m not suicidal at all, I’ll just go on crossing it, over all these beautiful bridges, again and again, loving every second of it.
Stalin, like any other dictator, had a thing for grandeur, and it spread, every satellite state wanted to contribute to his glory, and so, in the 1950s, Berlin, the capital of the GDR, had its Stalin-Allee constructed, a magnificent architectural endeavour, let’s no longer praise God or anybody in power by His grace, let’s praise Stalin, our real saviour, and let’s do it in style, midcentury neo-classicism with a touch of gingerbread, somehow reminiscent of Karl-Friedrich Schinkel, a reflection of proletarian power, adorned post-revolutionary self-importance rather than self-confidence, miles of praise of somebody who soon would be politically incorrect, even in Russia, but let’s not worry about that, there’s still Karl Marx to be proud of, philosopher, economist and saint to the communists, a saint who stated religion was the opium of the people, let’s honour him and have the boulevard renamed. Today, long after the Berlin wall has come down, long after communism has failed entirely, it’s still called Karl-Marx-Allee, the magnificent bookshop on it bears his name as well, it made it even into a favourite movie of mine, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Life of Others”, which won an Oscar for best foreign language film in 2007, but I seem to digress, anyway, Stalin’s persona non grata for all eternity, but Karl Marx is still among us, as he has never killed anyone, let alone millions, and so the communist era still hasn’t lost its splendour, at least not on Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee.
We’re open, it said, in plain English. A stairway, more than a hundred years old, was obviously leading into Berlin cathedral’s vaults, not to the part where all these dead kings and queens are resting in their sarcophagi, I was hoping, that’ll be all too gloomy, especially on this foggy November morning, so I lingered, indecisively, sat down at one of the tables outside, I was the only one of course, had a cigarette, watched some school kids with their teacher on their excursion day, they looked all so very French and reminded me of Louis Malle’s “Au revoir, les enfants”, just until my hands had frozen, leaving me unable to light another cigarette, my feet, however, were still working, I reached the cathedral’s downstairs café before turning into a pillar of ice, I didn’t want to end up like Mrs Lot, salt or ice, where’s the difference, and ordered caffè latte, medium, and American cheesecake, in a slightly overheated agony, this was the worst interior ever, how could they do this to such a beautiful spot, Berlin’s cathedral is such a splendid sight, I had just taken dozens of pictures, but this looked like a gas station’s espresso bar, on some lesser frequented route nationale, somewhere northwest of Lyon, I think the children from that French school had put me into a French catalogue of reception, anyway, the cake was really great, the coffee not so much but drinkable, and I left as soon as my body temperature allowed. If you like American cheesecake, I can really recommend the place.