Wednesday, 14 November 2012

On the old Berlin Wall, where buzzards dare

THIS is the age of the buzzard.
When I was a child, just to spot one in the distance was a rare, exciting event, possible only on holidays abroad. Only a very few years ago, the only way to see one in Suffolk would have been to visit the bird sanctuary at Stonham Barns.
Now if, like me, you’re a watcher of the skies, it’s not that unusual to see that great broad-winged shape drifting gently over the landscape like a feathered bomber or troop-carrier.
A more apt comparison might be with its closest relative, the eagle. But you still won’t see an eagle over Suffolk – or in a big city.
And though the buzzard is now – amazingly – one of our commonest birds of prey, it’s still a thrill to get to watch a wild one at close quarters.
This one, which I photographed last week, knew perfectly well that I was watching it. It knew too it was in no danger and had no need to stir from its own perfect viewing platform. Even when I rummaged in my bag to change lenses, fitted a telephoto, then walked as close as I could to its perch, it merely cast a disdainful eye my way.
The high place from which it surveyed its hunting ground (and me) might have been purpose-built for it. In fact, it was built with other watchers – and other prey – in mind.
It was one of the grim concrete watchtowers built by the East Germans to scan the dead zone between the inner and outer skins of the Berlin Wall. Not to stop westerners invading, but to prevent inhabitants of the Communist bloc from escaping in pursuit of pop music and jeans.
Travelling around Berlin 23 years after the Wall came down, it’s seldom easy to tell which ‘sector’ you’re in.
The buzzard on its lookout tower
The downtown centre is just as high-rise, shiny, architecturally self-important – and soulless – on one side as the other. Further out, the pavements are as cracked and rubbish-strewn, the walls as thoroughly graffitied, in one neighbourhood as another.
For those in the know, the superb public transport system provides a clue. If you’re riding a bus, you’re probably in the old west; if you’re on a tram, you’re in the east. Mostly, though, the best remaining evidence of the Wall is the space it has left – that old ‘dead zone’.
What was once more than just a symbol of division and terror has become a marked trail, 100 miles long, much of it a public space 50 metres or more wide for the enjoyment of all Berliners (and their visitors); in places an oasis of grass, trees, birds and dog-walkers zigzagging its way across the sprawling city. In its autumn colours, a beautiful place to stroll. And a perfect site for a buzzard to live, watch and feed.
Berlin, in fact, is not short of trees or open spaces. No doubt this is partly a legacy of the Allied bombing campaign that reduced so much of the city to rubble in 1943-44.
The only significant hills in the city, now pleasantly wooded, are in fact mounds of rubble from the pre-war capital.
The highest point, the Teufelsberg (which I shall have to visit another time), on the western fringe of the city, is an 80-metre-high heap piled atop the ruins of a never-completed Nazi military academy.
Its summit became a Cold War listening post. More recently, it was earmarked by the Maharishi Foundation as a possible site for a “Vedic university of peace”. A plan which came to the same nothing as the same organisation’s similar scheme a decade earlier for the Bentwaters airfield.
More surreal still is the modern fate of Checkpoint Charlie, slap in the centre of Berlin.
Once famous as one of the few official crossing-points in the Wall, mostly deserted except by its permanent staff of grim-faced border-guards, it has become a honeypot of tourist activity.
Here you can have your photo taken alongside grinning stooges in facsimile 1940s US Army rig. With the golden arches of McDonald’s, inevitably, filling the background.
Behind you, the gable end of a tall building proclaims: “You are now entering the not-for-profit sector”. If this were still true, it would be bad news for the hotdog stands clustering below and the Turks and north Africans competing to sell “Soviet army” hats and insignia.
In Prague in 1992 I assumed the Soviet headgear was genuine. Now I suspect it comes from sweatshops in China.
In so many ways, Berlin has a weird relationship with its often tortured history. Some of its memorials seem curiously misjudged, notably the grandiose modernity of the vast Jewish Museum, which sadly badly misses its mark.
Despite this, and what I said above about grime and graffiti, I like Berlin. In fact, a lot of the graffiti is colourful and artistically creative and brightens the place up. It seems emblematic of a lively and friendly city.
Among all the sights and contradictions, what I find the most curious historical irony goes entirely unremarked by the locals.
It is the presence of two stores – a vast Toys R Us and a still-thriving Woolworth’s – on Karl-Marx Strasse.
Check your souvenirs here

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