The Coronavirus Lockdown has created some dramatic changes to our city streets.
I took a walk through a corner my city, Berlin, to encounter some pleasant changes.
“There is no solitude in the world like that of the big city.” Kathleen Norris
The First Few Yards
I went out for a walk in May while many people were still keeping to the shadows of their homes. Berlin is a walking city. It’s a place to explore and discover, and when you really sum it up, it’s too big to cover properly in a week, a year, a decade — it’s a never ending series of platz to street, to neighbourhood, to shopping mall, and so on. Once you’ve covered your own Kiez — neighbourhood, you can go back and discover that an architect and engineer are busy redesigning a street or a futuristic building for you to look at. Berlin is definitely a city to look at, piece by piece, street by street. It’s full of history, it’s full of people and action. It’s full of the colourful notes of Berlin.
I walked up Friedrichstraße, then stepped into the U Bahn at Checkpoint-Charlie, also called “U Bahn Mitte”, to see what that feels like at this time.
Checkpoint Charlie was the main civilian crossing point for tourists during the Berlin Wall days, further along the road you can find “Tränenpalast” — “The Palace of Tears”, a building that was used when East Berlin families said goodbye to their loved ones after a short visit. Many Berlin families were separated by the Wall. They could only meet occasionally for a reunion.
Waiting in Silence
Walking down the steps into the underground area of the U Bahn station feels a little daunting these days. The fear of becoming enveloped by crowds, or dealing with people rushing past, bumping you, stations are places of hurry and haste that trigger natural fears of unwanted physical contact.
The train station is an enclosed space — the last place anybody wants to find themself during a Virus epidemic. I was pleased to discover only one other person waiting for a train and I could relax.
The Wind in Friedrichstraße, Berlin Mitte
Inside the underground train the air was stuffy, just myself and the other passenger sat alone at opposite ends of the carriage. At Friedrichstrasse the train stopped and I braced myself to meet the usual rush of tourists and locals who cram themselves into the station.
The Hustle and the Bustle of Emptiness
Friedrichstrasse is a boulevard of shops and cafes, meeting places for young and old, business lunches and solitary figures sitting in cafe windows with notebook and thoughts. Street photographers drift along this street, always looking, searching with their eyes, stopping and clicking, starting, darting forwards and snapping a shot as a clown on a red bicycle passes a green traffic light. The station was empty.
A strange atmosphere, a silence in a space that is always noisy. You can’t get off the train at Friedrichstrasse and start chatting without really shouting to your companion. This time is was so quiet that I had to stop and look around for a moment. Nope, nobody there, it was empty. There were a few old tickets on the concrete floor, the bench where the homeless usually sit and chat was empty, not even an old beer bottle left tucked under the wooden bench.
Colours of Life and Vibrations that Normally fill the Streets
I walked out into the street, again met by silence. It’s nice, but the mind loves the well-known, the safety of seeing and feeling certain vibrations, the flashing colours of passing buses and trams, brightly coloured with advertising, thronging crowds pushing in all directions. Being in the thick of it on a street like Friedrich Strasse is a part of living in a city. The rough with the smooth, the noise and the smells of food that is quickly fried up and served to a hungry stroller, the revving of an engine as a Porsche or Ferrari guns its way along Friedrichstrasse and turns onto Unter den Linden, the street which takes you up to Brandenburg Gate, or the other way leads to the Museum Insel (The Museum Island) with its French Dome, and Antik Museums and Ionic pillars an expression the grandness of old Berlin. I walked the other way.
I dipped into Dorotheenstrasse on the left, next to Dussmann Book Shop. I thought it was already quiet, but Dorotheenstrasse seemed to have captured the meaning of silence. A decibel counter would be out of work along here, and even though there is a tram track that scars the road tells of a busy thoroughfare, the trams and buses were not doing business that day. So it was empty of activity.
The Birds and the Bees and the Wind
I walked to the next corner, Dorotheenstrasse and Planck Strasse. I wanted to carry on along Planck strasse and end up close to the river Spree which is a five minute stroll up the road. But as I approached the corner, walked under the low trees, I heard the sound of birds twittering. In fact, they were singing happily, like I’ve seldom heard before.
There’s been a lot of chat on the internet about animals grabbing spaces in the cities during the Coronavirus Lockdown, and I don’t think it was my imagination that I could hear a powerful song that day.
Birdsong in the Middle of Berlin
I stopped, just for a moment, to listen. It was a sweet experience to hear blackbirds and sparrows, maybe a couple of finches, creating an orchestrated pitch for anybody who cared to stop and listen.
The birdsong was all I could hear, I checked. I couldn’t hear buses or trams, no rumble of an U Bahn, nor the ambiguous thrum that permeates through a busy city. All was stopped and only birds sang. I sat and enjoyed this corner for fifteen minutes, during which time I discovered that not only birds sing, but the light breeze also rustled in the leaves of the nearby trees. Both complimented each other to create the harmonious sound of nature. Bang in the middle of a city, weird indeed.
The birds and the wind in the leaves, the expression of nature that is normally driven below the surface of city noise, was now dominating this small corner of Berlin. That’s something to marvell about — so, I did, I marvelled at my fortune of stumbling into this corner of Berlin.
The Silence of a Lockdown
This peaceful time of Lockdown has given us an opportunity to remember what silence is again. A city is no place to find the idyll of a well kempt garden, roses and tulips, green lawns and robins pulling at the early morning worm. It’s a place that offers fast opportunities to grab lunch without much thought, to rush as quickly as a greyhound from one side of the city to the other, just to sit and wait in someone’s office.
Cities are a great convenience, but we must pay for that with the constant presence of noise.
We can’t have a city and tell its dwellers to shut up and be quiet. But we did have it, for a few weeks.
Four Weeks Later
Four weeks later, I returned to the same little corner of Dorotheenstrasse simply to listen to the birds and the wind. To relax and allow nature to soothe my tired mind and to rest a moment on the journey of everyday life.
Once again leaving the station at Friedrichstrasse, where it was now fuller, I could see pedestrians marching along the street. Berliners dotted around, sitting on benches, chatting in threes and fours, cyclists out in force, in fact they had returned with a vengeance.
I walked towards the corner expecting the city sounds to recede and to be met by a rustle in the trees and the song of birds. A tram screeched along the road, its brakes grinding all 35 long tons of yellow metal to a halt. I stopped under the trees and listened. I could only hear the city. After a few minutes of shifting my position, sitting down on a low wall, then standing back in the street, I realised that somewhere in the trees the birds were looking out and timidly tweeting. The city was coming back to life, the streets half full now, and bars and cafes still closed, but that hadn’t stopped the traffic resuming its ebb and flow.
Signs and Sounds of Life
A pile of bikes hastily locked up against the trees and metal bars made the platz look scruffy again. A couple of cars passed by, and I noticed there was the incessant clicking sound coming from the pedestrian lights, the small orange box for blind people to listen out for. Rubbish littered the platz, a plastic wrapper, after a hasty lunch, had been stuffed under the carefully placed stones that compliment the well kept soil outside the Trade Centre. More cars. Then a pedestrian passed and I could smell soap — these days people pass you and the smell of soap and disinfectant fills the air for a moment.
Geschwister-Scholl-Strasse and its Giant Shadows
On my first visit in early May I walked up towards the River Spree. Large powerful buildings dominate the street. Basically, magnificent structures that hark back to classical times. What we see today in Berlin is the rebuilt versions of what Berlin once looked like. Everything was bombed down into the foundations during the Second World War.
I moved over to a parallel street, Geschwister-Scholl-Straße, and walked towards the bridge. The three storey buildings lined the street from beginning to the end, where a tower, which appeared to be a chapel high up on a roof top, created an interesting corner. Red roofs, pitched against the weather, brightly coloured in the sunshine, and the whole building casting a strong shadow onto the road.
I stopped an observed the long street. Two women walked in the middle of the road which reminded me of a scene from a Spanish town. Here in Berlin, you don’t normally walk in the middle of the road — you’ll get hit by a bus or a gaggle of cyclists.
The two people walked in a relaxed manner, more concentrated on each other than their surroundings, their white tops in relief to the dark shadows of the buildings, and their figures dwarfed by the hugeness of the structures.
Seeing and Feeling the Unique Shadows of Intention
I realised that there were only two parked cars. This made me focus more on the real structure of the whole street, the buildings, the plaster stone road, the walls and the shadows that stretched into the road to form a solid, unbroken silhouette of the buildings. It was a unique moment to see this image — and to feel the real character of a street and its structures. There was nothing big, vehicular, or disturbing machines to break the pattern as intended. Just two figures gently shifting along the road.
Another Corner of Berlin, the Park with a Muscle Bound Ego
After walking along Am Kupfergraben to the Museum Insel, an area where many people had stopped to relax and enjoy the afternoon sun, I walked over the Monbijou bridge and stopped next to the “Hexenkessel Hoftheater in Monbijou Park” . The theatre is closed, all boarded up and silent. Next to it, at the edge of the Monbijou Park, there is a Freeletics Fitness Area which reminds me of a mini style Venice Beach — except it’s a fifty-square-metres patch of sand. Still, the content is more important than the small package.
It served as a pleasant contrast in a way that creates a positive feeling of life.
Now, there were lots of people. Strolling, walking hand in hand, couples drifting along gazing at the river. Ice cream cones clutched by adults and babies, and of course, groups of young people stood and watched as one or two of the more proficient fitness aficionados displayed their strength on the pull-heem bars.
A large man, massive shoulders and bull like neck easily lifted his own weight up and down, and up again, a dozen times before he relaxed his grip and dropped into the sand. Sweat dripping from his shoulders and his hands resting on his knees to support his tired upper body.
Other, lesser mortals, did step ups, squats, dips on bars and at least half a dozen men and women clad in shorts and tee shirts, mouths slightly agape, stood and watched the large man in their sweat soaked clothes.
Public Spectacles and uncomfortable Spectators
A group of young girls candidly took mobile phone shots. I watched people passing, wondering what they made of this public spectacle. The girls giggled, and a couple of young teenage boys ogled, impressed by the show of athletic prowess.
Most people seemed embarrassed by this bullish activity, they quickly took an interest in the river, pointed at small boats tied up along the opposite bank.
People act strangely when they encounter a bigger ego than their own. It’s as if looking and taking interest in a human being doing exercises, puts you in danger of becoming too involved, maybe your look is too critical and you will be asked to prove yourself too. The river, or the ice cream cone is an easy choice in order to avoid being asked to join the showman on stage.
Ego, Theatre, and Human Spirit
The Theatre which stands directly next to this small Fitness Sandpit, is closed for the duration of Coronavirus safety measures. It’s intriguing to speculate that the show has now shifted a few metres left of stage, and found its actors treading the sand, in the open air. Certainly a spectacle, but with wary spectators.
The ego of the body builder, the finesse that a good athlete can demonstrate with deft, swift movements of the body in training, offers a show of human spirit and offers thoughts of possibilities that sometimes defy belief.
Brutish energy that demands the muscles to deliver the strength of Hercules — even in a park in Berlin, on a hot sunny afternoon. This may not be what the audience was hoping for.
To gain entertainment by watching the vanity of others, repetitions of simple but powerful muscle movements, is more voyeurism than critically thinking audiences enjoying themselves.
The actor expresses human spirit in veritus when on stage. The passion of the soul that drives towards great goals, driven by love and self belief is often portrayed as a tragic player who errs. This makes the character human, and acceptable to an audience. People identify more with another human who is having a tough time of it, than with a large ego who seems to achieve every goal with magical strength.
We identify strongly with the pain of the loser, and give a hearty clap to the winner.
Actors, Dwellings, and Noisy Cities
We look for the magic in life, and hope we will find it in the reflections and visions of ourselves and others, in the people and the buildings that we live with.
A crumbling stone structure where families once lived, ate together, where children played in the street, and neighbours thumped on walls demanding silence, is the stage upon which all of us play out our roles. We come and we go, treading the boards of life like amateurs, always hoping to find our muse.
Many buildings in Berlin are haunted by the histories of people who once lived there. Large heavy doors swing open to an entrance hall, beautifully tiled by craftsmen who took great care with their work. The echoes of past lovers saying good night in whispers. The sound of a suitcase being dragged out to a waiting taxi, a spurned lover making a getaway to a hotel room.
We live in complex structures, among them, and see them all of the time. They are never out of sight when you live in a city. They are other people’s histories, and they are the stage upon which we create our own history so that future city dwellers can feel the sentiments of the lives we lived.
Our buildings and structures, classical, modern, experimental, all offer us the place where we can think, understand and reflect on what is happening in our lives.
A grand city without people, is no city at all.
More from Sean P. Durham, “The Broken Hearted Ghosts of Calle San Luis” — an article about ghosts.