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Chapter 1: BERLIN
Day 1: Sunday 28th April
I am in Berlin and it’s very warm for this time of year, a hot Spring Sunday. I jump into a taxi at the station and give the driver the address of where I’ll be staying this week. He drives off but I’m sure we’re heading in the wrong direction. I check again with him, in English this time. After ten minutes, he stops to check his A to Z street map and, between us, we cannot find the address. He thinks he might know and we go back in the opposite direction, past the Hauptbahnhof where we had started. We find the address a few blocks behind Alexanderplatz, one of the main squares in Berlin, the one with the TV tower and the big S-Bahn station. It’s a back street. The building we stop in front of is draped with plastic sheeting. Construction equipment, portacabins, rubble shoots, materials and other building junk block the whole of one lane of the street. As we sit there confused, Frau Kaltz appears from behind a stack of breeze blocks to meet me. I pay the taxi driver. He drives off looking confused and rightly so. I told him this would be my accommodation for the week.
Apparently five single room apartments are still functioning amid the chaos of the construction. I follow Frau Kaltz into the building, through a plastic sheet where the front door will eventually be, and up the stairs to the second floor. She shows me to my basic room and tells me that the hot water will be turned on tomorrow morning by seven o’clock, when the builders and other tradesmen arrive. She wants to chat about her son who lives in London somewhere, but I want to get a sense of my surroundings. Is it possible I am actually allowed to stay here in the middle of a construction site?
I notice a typed letter on the table. Of course, it’s written in German. I’m actually here in Berlin for a week of German lessons. I successfully finished a week’s course in Munich earlier this year and I’m determined to improve my German. Germany has been my home for the last two years. I also worked here for two of the four years before that, flying in and out every week. The problem is that all my work was conducted in English, the international language of business, so most of my interactions remain in English. The Germans are good at speaking English, so even when I try speaking in my pidgin German, they usually respond in English. I would really like to fit in more by being able to speak German.
Frau Kaltz translates the letter. She tells me the workers will need access to my room at seven o’clock on Tuesday morning to replace some of the bathroom equipment. Well, that’s just great! Frau Kaltz leaves and my welcome party is over. I look around the room and then back out in the corridor. There’s construction dust everywhere and the room is very hot. I check the windows and low and behold, they are locked shut. The curtains don’t fit properly and there’s a construction walkway directly outside my window. But, what can I do? What are my alternatives? Berlin, like the rest of Germany, shuts down on Sundays. To calm myself down, I decide to sit down on a wooden chair and take some deep breaths. I try to convince myself it will all be fine. After all, I’ll be out at lessons every morning and for the early part of the afternoons. If the construction is too noisy, I’ll just spend the afternoons wandering Berlin or finding a Brauhaus to sit in and do my homework. I dump my bags and go out to get some air.
Berlin takes a number of visits just to cut through the atmosphere. It’s not a city you can enjoy until you get past the history, the atrocities and the craziness of the place. It doesn’t have the attraction of the other big German cities such as Munich, Cologne or Hamburg. It also does not have the ‘everything in its place’ sense that everywhere else in Germany has. To me, Berlin is an acquired taste. It doesn’t represent Germany in the same way that London doesn’t represent the UK. Berlin has a rebellious attitude and a bohemian atmosphere that juxtaposes completely with its military and political history. As a visitor, you have to get under the skin of this city to enjoy it.
My first visit to Berlin was six years ago and I was a much different person then. I’d flown in on business class from Denver to present some wonderful new business process or training material (God knows what), stayed for a day or two, jumped on a quick sight-seeing tour that the company I worked for had arranged, and then flew to London to do the same thing there. That person at the time was, or so he thought, happily married with two beautiful teenage daughters, living in the Cheshire countryside and on top of the world.
In those six years everything changed. My marriage collapsed, in fact, imploded in the most bizarre and crazy circumstances anyone could imagine. After dissolving the marriage and then seeing her sister diagnosed with, and, ultimately passing away, from cervical cancer, my ex-wife was imprisoned for nearly two years and proceeded to run a custody battle from prison. This, of course, ripped the heart out of everyone involved and my daughters were unfortunately used as puppets in a court battle. Even though my daughters lived with me (I had managed somehow to keep my job and the house running), the events caused chaos in our relationships. My eldest daughter blamed me for the situation, as if I was the one who’d broken up the family and the one who had broken the law, and to this day we do not speak.
During the same period, I had three surgeries on the same knee, finally having my cartilage completely removed, plus one shoulder surgery. The shoulder surgery was difficult for me. Ten years previously, my father had died of cancer which was first found in his shoulder. My mother found a lump in her knee and, after much back and forth with specialists, it was thankfully diagnosed as not cancerous. Also, my sister had a hysteroscopy at this time too. (She was only in her early thirties). Even though I was a single parent caring for my daughters, my company posted me to Munich, then to Newcastle, for a short while to nearby Liverpool (where I am from) and then to Düsseldorf. Looking back, it’s not surprising that my health deteriorated. I put on weight and drank way too much. Finally, toward the end of all this, I ended up in the Priory Hospital diagnosed with exhaustion, stress and depression. The financial divorce settlement got agreed not too long after I was released from hospital and I gladly paid a fortune to my ex-wife to get out of the mess, even though she was still in prison. It was the most expensive and, yet, the best decision I have made in my life. (I would have paid double at the time).
Amazingly at this time, amidst this chaos, I found the love of my life. They say God sends his angels and He (or She!) sent me mine in the form of a stunningly beautiful German woman. We worked for the same company and somehow found the most incredible connection and found it quickly. We worked together for a very short time on assignment in Munich. If we could, we would escape work early and walk through the English Garden or have dinner in the beach restaurant on the River Isar. This was at the start of the madness and, at this time, I was with my daughters only on alternate weekends and so, on my free weekends, I would try to stay in Germany and spend time with mein Engel. Every now and then, we would manage to get a heavenly weekend somewhere in Bavaria, but mostly work and life got in our way. However, our souls were bound together. Mein Engel was also going through a horrendous divorce after her marriage had failed, one of our many points of connection. Being each other’s support mechanism brought us closer together.
There was more pain. Mein Engel had foot and shoulder operations too and her mother also had a cancer scare. To add more sadness to our lives at this point, one of the closest friends we had together died in a mountain biking accident, which was unbelievably hard to take. I couldn’t get to the funeral because I had one of many court appearances for my divorce or the custody battle and to this day it hurts that I missed it. Somehow through all this, my relationship with mein Engel not only survived, but prospered. The worse things got, the stronger we would be for each other, particularly when it was difficult to see each other when I was caring for my daughters full time as well as working full time. I have tried many times to express my thanks to mein Engel for appearing in my life at this time and for supporting me like she did (and still does), but basically I have no way of articulating this, except to say that I would not still be on this planet if it wasn’t for her.
Two years ago, on her mother’s release from prison, my eldest daughter immediately left my home and care to go to live with her mother. She was old enough to make such a decision so there was nothing I could do. The custody arrangements for my youngest daughter rumbled on, despite the fact that my ex-wife was still serving her custodial sentence. Both my youngest daughter and I were being torn in every direction, to the point where something had to break. I knew I couldn’t go into the Priory again as I’m not sure I’d have got out again if I did. I could also see the weight and the pressure building on my daughter. She was witnessing her family being ripped apart and neither of us could do anything about it. The push and pull was being played out through the courts with unsupportive, unpractical and useless helpers, such as child services’ experts and psychologists, appointed by various solicitors and judges. Bizarrely, with my ex-wife in prison, I had been losing the custody battle in the same way I had lost the financial settlement. Who says crime does not pay? Between us, and in testament to my daughter’s maturity and sanity, we agreed that she would live with her mother, initially for a few days a week and then full time if everything went well. I would stay in the family house for a few months until she was settled and until the house was sold. Having had to re-mortgage, it made no sense to keep the big Cheshire house for my sole occupancy.
So, for two months my daughter went back and forth between us and, once she settled, I sold the house and escaped to Frankfurt, Germany to live with mein Engel. It was fight or flight for me and my fight was done. My daughter was always welcome to come to Frankfurt and I travelled back to the UK every second weekend for eighteen months from whichever city my company assigned me to. Now, she is seventeen and my trips back have gradually reduced as she makes the most of her teenage social life. It means my life is less frantic but even now, when I leave her, a piece of me dies inside.
I wore a suit on that trip to Berlin. Now it’s six months since I last wore a suit! It feels good. I’ve worked like crazy over the last two years, taking assignments I didn’t want and working on some of the worst projects I’ve ever experienced, solely to build my financial wealth back up from its catastrophic state. (At one point in the divorce, the demands from my ex-wife’s solicitor would have resulted in me not earning anything for myself in a working week until after three o’clock on a Friday afternoon, once taxes, national insurance, child maintenance and spousal maintenance had been taken from me. Why would anyone work in these circumstances? Luckily my ex-wife’s criminal activities meant this scenario never played out). Over the last six months my employer and I have grown tired of each other. I got tired of asking them to help with my family circumstances or my health issues and they got fed up either trying or having to refuse to help, and both of us with the longevity of the mess. So this is my last official week at work, as four weeks ago, my termination package to leave was agreed. It feels quite appropriate to be in Berlin learning German in my final week at work and, as I said, I’m a very different person than I was.
I’m now completely free. I have no house, no family, no job, just mein Engel. I don’t have any possessions either, having completely divested my all non-essential things to move to Germany. I’ve got time and I’ve got money (having regained what I had lost in the divorce), but what I’ve got the most of is fear. I’ve somehow gone from being a single dad and a working man to this. I replaced the taxiing, the cooking and the cleaning with work. The divorce battle, the solicitors’ letters and the court demands disappeared and I replaced them with a protracted negotiation to get out of my job. Soon the child maintenance remainders will stop too if I’m not earning. Right now, nobody really knows my address. I’ve not even signed on the dole yet. What will I do with my life now? I can taste freedom and the future, but they are new and scary and big and I have no idea how to handle them.
What I do know is that I’m tired. My exhaustion in the Priory was like a boxer resting between rounds, knowing he has to get up for more punches. I needed deep, intense sleep to be ready to go again. Now I feel like I have completed the last long race of a runner whose career is over. There is no more ‘going again’. It’s a different tiredness. I don’t know when the next race will be or even if there will ever be one. I am tired right down to my bones.
My father worked as a printer for one company for most of his life. He never left Liverpool and, in his working life, the company he worked for only moved locations three times. My mother was a teacher and only ever worked in four schools, the last one for over twenty years. My generation is the one between theirs, with the stability of a working life, a job for life, and the latest generation where everything is temporary and disposable, where careers don’t matter quite as much and there is an acceptance of change. Families are now spread around the globe. I have done twenty-five years without a break and I have worked in nearly as many cities as the years I have been working; in more cities than my mother and father have ever travelled to. Their daily commutes were twenty minutes each day by car. For a lot of the last fifteen years, my commute has been by plane at the start of the week and back at the end of the week. I desperately need this escape and I need a different perspective.
I realise I have wandered the streets of Berlin for almost two hours and I’ve spent the whole time stuck in my head. I haven’t noticed a thing around me. I’m pleased that I have seen Alexanderplatz, the Reichstag, the Berlin Wall, the Brandenburg gate and Checkpoint Charlie before.
Day 2: Monday 29th April
I wake at half past six by the arrival of the first of the workmen. Thankfully there is hot water for my shower. I leave the building two hours earlier than I’d planned to escape the noise of the construction, which has already commenced. I find a small café for some breakfast before my lessons start.
At the language school, I answer some questions, fill in some forms and am told by the administrator that I’ll be in the beginner class. I accept this but I also remind her that I have already completed the beginner class in Munich. This fact seems to surprise her, even though both schools are part of the same company and I had included this on my booking form and again in the forms I have just handed back. The polite lady disappears somewhere and I wait whilst other students, mostly youngsters, filter past toward their classrooms. I’m still waiting as the sound of chatter quietens, the classroom doors close and the lessons begin. The administrator returns, apologises and then directs me to my class. Before going, I explain to her the state of my apartment, which has been booked through the language school. She tells me there are no other alternatives as everything else has been booked. I walk along the central corridor looking for my classroom in the silence. It feels strange. In Munich, there was a more relaxed feeling; it was more like a college. This is like a school and I am late for class without a note. All the classroom doors are closed and there is no sound apart from my shoes on the bare floor.
Nervously, I enter my designated room. It’s small and rectangular, neatly laid out with just one long table and a small teacher’s desk in front of a large white board on the wall. By the reaction of the teacher, it’s obvious that I am not expected. When I explain that I have been sent to this class, the teacher, an old German woman, leaves the room to go to check on this. Whilst she is gone, I introduce myself to the only other student. Lin is a young Chinese woman who already speaks perfect English and who is a secretary in a Chinese company doing business in Germany. Her company has sent her here to learn German. The teacher returns with a big smile and warmly welcomes me to her class. The lesson begins and she explains her teachings in English and then uses the white board via her laptop to provide the German. Lin and I take turns to practice the German and the teacher patiently corrects our pronunciations as necessary. I can keep up. It’s good.
Before the day’s main session is finished, the teacher introduces a new concept that she says we should already know and, as she quickly recaps, I realise I don’t understand it and so I tell her so. This stops her in her tracks. There is a look of confusion on her face but then this is quickly replaced by smugness. She leaves the class and quickly returns with the administrator. I am asked to show them both my class workbook from Munich. There is a heated argument between them in German and then I’m asked to leave the class. I’m asked to wait again in the reception area. I miss my lunch break waiting. I’ve been very patient but I’m starting to be concerned. This morning’s confusion does not bode well. I have booked intensive lessons, which is an additional hour of conversational German to supplement the morning’s lessons, and finally I am told which classroom to go to. A young, male teacher joins us and he immediately speaks to me in German. I look to the other two students to help me as I don’t understand what he is asking. I get no help. The teacher speaks louder and aggressively. I tell him in English that I don’t understand what he is asking. He tells me in English that English is not allowed in his class and he returns to his aggressive German questioning. Finally, I guess that he is asking me why I was not in the class this morning and, as I have no clue how to say it in German, I say in English, “I was having a fantastic lesson with a nice teacher, but I got thrown out of it in a fit of rage and ended up here with you in the stupid class.” He sees I am upset and so he ignores me for the rest of the hour.
The first day of lessons is over. It has been a pretty poor day so far. As I arrive at my building site lodgings, I realise I’d completely forgotten about the construction work. There is a loud, constant drone of mechanical equipment in operation. I’m asked to wear a hard hat to get in the building by means of sign language through the din. Sitting in my room, I hear a deafening cacophony and I race to the window to see a dumping of rubble, brick and other materials through the nearest white chute from the top of the building directly into the skip on the ground. The sound echoes as the material hits the metal base of the container. This is my cue to leave the building and to wander the streets of Berlin.
I walk along the River Spree toward Museumsinsel, the island containing the museums in the heart of Berlin. I am drawn to Berliner Dom, the cathedral that dominates the skyline and which sits in an orderly grassed area. I pay my entrance fee and savour the calmness inside that contrasts with the grating interrogation by my German teacher and the constant commotion of my building site. The construction of the cathedral was completed in 1905 as a protestant counterweight to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Like much of Berlin, it was heavily damaged during World War II and it remained closed during communist times and only reopened after restoration in 1993. I climb the two hundred and seventy steps up to the viewing gallery and enjoy the views of this great city.
According to Terence Roth’s article in The Wall Street Journal, within forty eight hours of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, two million East Germans poured through the open border into West Germany and after a week, more than half of the country’s sixteen million population had crossed the border to witness what it was like in the West. Goods never sampled in the East flew off the shelves and the one hundred Deutsche Marks given to the citizens of the East as welcome money was quickly spent. In the months that followed, the West German government would initiate an incredible set of financial and social subsidies to allow for the reunification of a country divided for over forty years.
Theo Waigel, who was West Germany’s finance minister at the time, recalled later that no one had any idea of what the conditions were like in the East. Investigations in the months that followed exposed failing industrial facilities, a crumbling infrastructure, environmental hazards and a productivity of East German workers that amounted to less than half of that in the West. Incredibly, waiting lists for the Trabant, the East German manufactured car, could stretch to over seven years.
From my vantage point, I can make out the Berlin Wall Memorial and, in the opposite direction, the shiny glass corporate skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz. This area was left to ruin after Allied bombing in World War II and, as the square is located between the American, British and Russian sectors, it became a no-man’s land until it was flattened for the construction of the Wall in 1961. I walk back via Alexanderplatz.
There’s a shop that sells tours of Berlin by Trabant, or Trabi as they are affectionately known. Things have certainly changed in this city. In the last one hundred and fifty years, the city of Berlin was the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia (1701 and 1918), then the German Empire (1871 and 1918), the Weimar Republic (1919 and 1933) and also of the Third Reich (1933 and 1945). Both World Wars have had a transformational effect on the city too. After World War I, Berlin became the third largest municipality in the world and, after World War II, the city was divided and East Berlin became the capital of East Germany. In 1998, Berlin was rechristened as the capital of the reunified Federal Republic of Germany and the government moved back here from Bonn. Perhaps it’s a good city to be in with all the changes going on in my life.
Day 3 : Tuesday 30th April
I wake up before seven o’clock to be ready for the invasion of the plumbers, as advised by Frau Kaltz, but nobody shows up. I decide to head to school early to find out what class I’m in today and what work I need to catch up on after yesterday’s mess.
I have to show the administrator my class workbook again. She tells me the problem is that I’ve completed Sections 1 to 4, but not 5 to 8. As I had no idea that Sections 5 to 8 even existed, as I’ve never done them, I don’t see why this is a problem, but there’s no class available for doing Sections 5 to 8 this week, so she sends me to the beginners’ group.
This is completely different to yesterday’s enjoyable first lesson. I’m the ninth member of the class and we have to squeeze into a small classroom. We have the same male teacher as I had for the intensive hour yesterday. We look at each other with horror. He refuses to speak English in the lesson and so we have a game of charades for every sentence he tries to teach us. At one point, he opens the door, goes out, comes back in and closes the door again. We have to guess what the German sentence he’s written on the board means that goes along with his demonstration. I write down, ‘He goes out and comes back in’. My neighbour to the left has written, ‘He opens the door and closes it,’ and the neighbour to my right has written, ‘He comes and goes’. This could be a long day. It is painstakingly slow. Every word or phrase is acted out and we take turns to repeat the German and add our own English translation. We take turns at getting it wrong until he gives a loud ‘ja’ and then we move to the next phrase. Halfway through the morning, a new student with an Australian accent joins the class. In English, the teacher asks him which bar he left last night, at what time and how the night was. The lesson then carries on as before in German.
In the break, I politely ask him why he doesn’t teach us a different way. I use the logic that if we knew how to understand German already then we wouldn’t actually need to be in the class and so explaining things in English would be very useful. In English, he explains to me that it is school policy to use German only in class. I tell him that the teacher in Munich used English a lot and it was an enjoyable and educational week. He just shrugs and says, again, that it is school policy. The intensive hour is a shambles too. The other two students and I play the longest ever game of snap using pictures of Äpfel, Orangen, Hunde and Katzen.
Deflated from my lack of progress in learning German, and with no desire to return to my building site, I take to the streets of Berlin again. Beyond Brandenburger Tor, I enter the neat and tidy pathways of the Tiergarten, Berlin’s largest park. The trees provide shade from the day’s warmth and other visitors are making the most of the peacefulness of the park to relax, read and be away from the busy city streets. The park’s name, translated as ‘animal garden’, comes from its original conception as the hunting grounds of the Electors of Brandenburg. The Electors were the members of the electoral college of the Holy Roman Empire, a complex of territories in central Europe which existed between 962 and 1806, who had the privilege of electing the King of the Romans and, later from the middle of the sixteenth century onwards, directly the Holy Roman Emperor. The German prince-electors, the highest ranking noblemen, usually elected one of their own as King of the Romans and he would then be crowned emperor of the region by the Pope.
In 1742, Frederick II (Frederick the Great), the King of Prussia and Elector of Brandenburg, instigated the removal of the fences that surrounded the hunting territory in order to turn the park into a Lustgarten (pleasure garden) and opened the park to the people of Berlin. Flowerbeds, borders and espaliers in geometrical layouts, along with water features, were added as well cultural sculptures, which eventually lead to the redesign of the park into a Volkspark (people’s park) by Peter Joseph Lenné in the 1830s. Unfortunately, the Nazis took control of the park in 1933 and the Tiergarten was to be a central location in the new city as part of Hitler’s plans for Welthauptstadt Germania (World Capital Germania).
During World War II, the Tiergarten suffered significant damage. The bridges were destroyed and monuments badly damaged. The statues of the military figures that stood here in the park were actually buried by the citizens of Berlin in the grounds of a nearby palace in order to prevent their destruction by the occupying American forces and they were not recovered until 1993. Today walking in the shade of the trees, it’s almost impossible to consider that, in the aftermath of the war, the once great forest of the park was chopped down for firewood due to the shortage of coal and the fields were used as farmland for the growing of potatoes and vegetables. The reforestation of the park only happened between 1949 and 1959 and young trees were delivered to the Tiergarten from all over the country, some even being delivered via plane during the Berlin Blockade.
After reunification, as with the rest of Berlin, the park has taken on a new lease of life. Buildings that had been left dilapidated have been rebuilt into embassies and, most significantly, the Reichstag, which sits on the outskirts of the park, was refurbished with a new glass dome that has become one of the symbols of the new Berlin. I stand at the Victory Column, the centre piece of Straße des 17. Juni, the road that runs through the Tiergarten, and I am in awe of the magnificent rebirth of the park and of the city.
There is supposed to be a tree somewhere in the park, which has the lyrics of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” carved into it. I can’t find it, so I retrace my steps back towards the Reichstag. This is one of my favourite buildings in Berlin. It houses the German parliament. I stand in Platz der Republik and the building is imposing, especially with the sun brightening its stone construction. Originally built in 1894 to house the Imperial Diet of the German Empire, it was damaged by fire in 1933 and almost destroyed in World War II. The building was then left derelict as the West German parliament moved to Bonn and the East German government used the Palast der Republik in East Berlin. The Reichstag building sits meters away from the border that divided the city. The reunification ceremony was held here on 3rd October 1990 and the next day the parliament of the united Germany would also assemble here in an act of symbolism. Of course, at this stage, it had yet to be agreed where the capital of the reconciled country would be and a year later, and only by a slim majority, both the government and parliament would return to Berlin from Bonn.
The refurbishment of this incredible building was completed in 1999. It included the erection of a large glass dome designed by the architect Sir Norman Foster. I can make out the dome on top of the building from my position in the square in front of the Reichstag. The dome is open to visitors but I’ve not made an advance booking so I have to make do with my view from the outside today. I’ve been here before and it’s worth visiting. I’m sad I’ve not booked, as my previous visit was in the depths of a snowy winter. Today’s view would be very different in the sunshine. A sun shield inside the dome follows the sun and regulates the natural light down into the parliament hall.
I walk along the River Spree from the Reichstag, via a short detour past the Chancellery, heading back east to Hackescher Markt and Alexanderplatz. Back in my room, I receive an email asking for feedback from the company running the language school and so I comment on the poor accommodation and about the mix up in classes.
Day 4 : Wednesday 1st May
It’s a public holiday today and so no German lessons and, even better, no workmen to wake me up, so I enjoy a leisurely start to the day.
Mid-morning, I take the S-Bahn south west to Potsdam. It’s a thirty minute journey to the town, which has been the location for a number of historical events. In 1914, Emperor Wilhelm II signed the Declaration of War in the Neues Palais. In 1918, the city lost its status as the second capital, when Wilhelm II abdicated at the end of World War I. In 1933, at the start of the Third Reich, there was a ceremonial public meeting between President Paul von Hindenburg and the new Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, in the Garrison Church, in a demonstration of unity between the existing Prussian military and the Nazi movement, in what became known as the Day of Potsdam. In 1945, after the Second World War, the city’s Cecilienhof Palace was the scene of the Potsdam Conference, at which the victorious Allied leaders met to decide the future of Germany and of post-war Europe.
My tour of Potsdam starts with the Bridge of Spies. The Glienicker Brücke is a bridge across the Havel River and, as it was a restricted border crossing between the East (Potsdam itself) and the West (the American Sector of West Berlin), it became a strategic location for the exchange of captured spies during the Cold War. The first prisoner exchange took place here on 10th February 1962 when the Americans released Soviet spy Colonel Rudolf Abel in exchange for the safe return of Francis Gary Powers. Powers was the pilot of the U-2 spy plane that was shot down two years earlier when performing aerial reconnaissance in Soviet airspace. The incident caused great embarrassment and a serious deterioration in the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. Powers had been convicted of espionage and sentenced to three years imprisonment plus seven years hard labour before the United States negotiated his release. The last exchange on this bridge was in 1986, when the human rights campaigner Natan Sharansky plus three other Western agents were exchanged for Karl Koecher (who had infiltrated the CIA) and four other Eastern spies. I stand on the bridge today and it seems like any other bridge in the world.
Being a public holiday and also owing to my late arrival, Sanssouci Palace is very busy, so I decide to skip it. Sanssouci is the largest World Heritage Site in Germany and is the former summer palace of Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia. Instead, I hire a bicycle from a small shop near the railway station. I spend the next couple of hours in a small group cycling slowly along the banks of two of the lakes around Potsdam, Griebnitzsee and Wannsee. The pace is extremely relaxed and I enjoy the tour. Although the tour guide does try to speak in English for me whenever he remembers, which is not often, the tour is given in German for the majority of the riders. If only I was learning German! According to the small brochure I am given, we see the villa of Max Liebermann, the house of the Wannsee Conference, Peacock Island, the tomb of Heinrich von Kleist, the Truman-Villa (the Little White House) and some remains of the Berlin Wall, but I have no idea which is which. Despite this, the landscape along the waterside is beautiful, especially with the blue skies of the day.
The highlight of the ride is our stop to see the Strandbad Wannsee. This is a long sweep of beach on the lakeside, just north of Potsdam, and the largest lido in Europe. The beach dates back over a hundred years as a preferred destination for the city dwellers of Berlin, particularly early last century as the city experienced immense growth after World War I. Originally providing separate beaches for men and women, by 1924 the beach had expanded and was open all year round for winter bathers and ice-skaters, in addition to the summer sun worshipers. The use of the lido reached its peak in the years following World War II. My guide tells me it still attracts over two hundred thousand visitors each year and, judging by the mass of bodies I can see, I can believe it. He says the lido can hold up to fifty thousand people at a time. Thankfully, we do not go in and remain on our side of the water on the edge of Westlicher Düppeler Forst, the forested bird watching area, before cycling back to Potsdam.
Tired, but feeling good with my day’s break from German lessons, I take the train back into Berlin. On my return to my peaceful abode (for today only), I receive a bizarre email from the language school. I have a personal response to the feedback I had provided yesterday evening. I am accused of complaining for the sake of complaining, that the accommodation I have is the top of the range that they provide, that I should have been clearer about the lessons I had already taken and that the use of English in Munich would be investigated. The comment that annoys me most is that apparently I’m bitter because I’ve lost a day of teaching due to the public holiday that I must not have known about. Feeling totally deflated, I find some food and alcohol and watch the evening’s football on the tiniest of televisions in my room. The bottle of wine that I’ve bought is taller than the television set.
Day 5 : Thursday 2nd May
Just before seven o’clock, there’s a loud bang on the door. I wake startled. I get up and look out the window. It’s already light and a few early workmen bounce along the walkway outside, speaking loudly to each other. I groan and get quickly dressed. I open the door but there’s no one there. As I wash, the front door opens and a burly, bearded man walks in.
“Hey! What are you doing? Get out of my room!” He looks as startled as I am. He tries to speak but I usher him out quickly. A few minutes later, there is another knock. I am slightly more composed this time and I open the door. The bearded man is joined by a smaller man, who speaks in a flow of rushed German. I have no clue what they want. When the littler man points to the bathroom, I quickly realise these are the plumbers that were scheduled for Tuesday, two mornings ago. In English, I ask what happened to Tuesday’s appointment but just as I don’t understand them, they don’t understand me either. The conversation gets more animated as he points to the bathroom and I point to my watch. Enough is enough and I manage to close the door again. This is crazy.
I breathe a sigh of relief. But what now? Do I back down and let them in? Do I go to school two hours early? I sit on the bed in confusion. There is another knock on the door now. I ignore it until it becomes louder. I’ve had enough. I’m tired anyway and the combination of the stupid email from the language school last night, the thought of being shouted at all day in German and now the attack of the plumbers makes me just want to get out of here. I pack my bags and ignore the banging on the door. As I gather my things, I notice a workman staring at me through the window.
I open the door to leave for good and, behind the same two workmen, I notice Frau Kaltz arriving, walking briskly along the corridor. She stops me and wants to apologise but as soon as I halt, the workmen move into my room and then into bathroom. It’s too late. I just want to go. Frau Kaltz wants me to wait to see if she can find alternative accommodation, but I hand her the room key and leave. I can hear her remonstrating with the workmen as I descend the stairs to the ground floor.
I hail a taxi to the Hauptbahnhof. It’s not even half past seven yet. What a morning! I breathe heavily in the short taxi ride. I’m close to tears now that I’m away from the disaster area. It’s an indication of how fragile I am right now. Why is everything so difficult?
The train journey from Berlin back to Frankfurt is a long four hours. I’m not in the mood to read, so I just doze. This was not the week I expected at all. I want to do something to celebrate my freedom from work. I will also be forty-five years old in one month’s time. My mind wanders. Can I combine them both in some sort of celebration, ritual or activity? Mein Engel is away on a course for my birthday and I’m planning to join her on Lake Starnberg, near where her course is taking place, but is that the best use of my time? What will I do during the day? Maybe I could cycle around the lake?
I really enjoyed the short cycle tour in Potsdam yesterday. In fact, when I think about it, I’ve enjoyed the increased amount of cycling that I’ve been doing over the last year. I hadn’t really been aware of this before now. After my shoulder surgery last summer, I had started another bout of rehabilitation in the gym on the road to recovery. Having done three previous courses after my knee surgeries, I had been trying to find means of motivation for the mind-numbingly boring and repetitive gym work. Work was quiet and the travel back and forth to London had reduced due to the Olympics requiring only essential travel for a few months. After morning calls connecting with Australia and before the late afternoon calls to the US, I had settled into a rhythm of going to the local gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday lunchtime. I had cycled to the gym and back. At first, I needed the specific machines to rebuild the muscles in my knee and shoulder and I’d begun to lose the weight that I’d put on during those dark years of struggle. As the sessions intensified and the summer got warmer, I realised I was enjoying the cycling in the fresh air rather than the humidity and the falseness of the gym. On occasions, I would cycle past the gym and into the fields beyond, increasing my time on the bike and reducing my time in the gym. The cycling was also perfect for my knee with little impact on the joint.
So more and more, I would go for a bicycle ride instead of going to the gym. My rides, which started with ten minutes to the gym, became one or two hour rides in the local countryside. I even plotted a few longer rides through the small towns near where I live, on the outskirts of Frankfurt. Soon enough, I tried even longer rides, venturing to the Rivers Main, Rhine and Lahn, but I kept telling myself this was solely to avoid the gym and I hadn’t realised I was actually enjoying the cycling.
Out of the darkness comes the light and, sitting here racing along the steel tracks on the intercity train between Berlin and Frankfurt, I decide I will cycle from coast to coast in the UK. I had heard people talk about doing this before but I know nothing about it. Not only will I do it, I will do it for my forty-fifth birthday. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a crazy year and a new found love of cycling.