Sunday 3 June 2012

Berlin notebook: on tourism

After we had been in Berlin for some weeks, it was decided that we had better do the right thing: we had better see the sights. After all (so we told ourselves), it would be absurd to spend three months in Berlin without knowing what the Reichstag looks like, or Checkpoint Charlie, or the Berliner Dom or the Brandenburg Gate. So at last, more from duty than from conviction, we did the proper thing. We acquired a tourist brochure, complete with maps and instructive tips on where to eat and where to point your camera, and we set off for a day of sightseeing in Berlin.

As we made our way along Unter den Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate, I began to feel strange. Perhaps it was only the crowds and the heat. Perhaps it was only the bad expensive cheese sandwich I had just eaten at the crowded café. We pressed on through a sea of people. Everyone was talking loudly; everyone seemed unhappy. At the corner of Schadowstrasse I noticed the first faint stirrings of nausea. Waiting at the traffic lights, I realised I was not quite myself. A man beside me was eating currywurst with a tiny fork. He dripped curry as he ate the little slices. I wondered if it was dripping on his shoes. In front of me a man was trying to fold a map while a woman chided him in a low voice, looking straight ahead. The light went green and the crowd surged across the street. The currywurst man turned his head and said something to nobody in particular. He gestured with the plastic fork.

When we reached the corner of Wilhelmstrasse the first wave of nausea came. I was profoundly aware of my arms and legs – they moved mechanically, as if by automation – but everything else grew dreamlike and remote. The bodies pressing against me were eerily distant. I registered a flush of heat somewhere near my shoulders. I wondered whether my feet were hurting too: it was a possibility. On the edge of the street, two workmen in hard hats were smoking cigarettes. One of them chuckled. A truck rumbled slowly past.

Moments later we arrived at Pariser Platz. A sea of people and raised cameras. All of a sudden too much colour, too much sound. People gathered in little thickets around tour guides with microphones. Through the crowd ahead, a man dressed in military costume stood at attention on a little soapbox. He saluted and people took photos. Someone else was dressed as a gorilla. I saw the high impassive pillars of the Brandenburg Gate just before the first quick flash of light appeared at the corner of my eye. It flickered on and off like a faulty lightbulb, very bright, sinister and tantalising.

Now everything was reeling in a sickening orbit around my head, the cobbled pavement and the stone buildings and the double-decker bus that had stopped to spill its contents on the street. I reached out to steady myself. There was a steel pole. It must have been a tourist signpost. I held on.

I said to my wife, 'Sorry, I need to sit down for a minute.'

The lights came properly now, bright electric white lights, sharp like knives and moving in stabbing zigzags across my field of vision. The lights were very bright and everything else was dark. I thought: if I faint here, I will knock somebody down. I thought: if I faint and no one gets knocked down, I will crack my head on the pavement. I thought: sightseeing is no good way to die; I won't get into heaven. I thought: I could really use a drink of water.

My wife helped me. I said, 'I'm sorry, I can't see anything.'

She helped me to sit down and I sat there very safe and grateful on the cool cobbled ground. I said, 'You go on, I'll catch up in a few minutes, it's just a migraine.'

It is always better with your eyes closed, so I closed my eyes and watched the violent lights knifing their way across the reddish twinkling darkness.

When it was over I drank some water and we went and took a photograph of the Brandenburg Gate. I recognised the currywurst man standing in a little huddle around a tour guide. They all wore caps and sunglasses. Some of them had the names of cities on their shirts. They set off through the gate towards the Tiergarten, as grave and deliberate as supermarket shoppers.

That was my inauspicious day of sightseeing in Berlin. I don't know why, but tourism has had similar effects on me whenever I have tried it. In Prague I fainted from migraine outside the Powder Gate; the lovely streets were as vertiginous as a spiral stairwell in a tower. The worst fever of my life was in Rome; I fled St Peter's Square and lay in my bed, aware of every aching bone and horribly fascinated by the way the ceiling moved like the surface of the Adriatic Sea. 

It was with characteristic insight that C. S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, portrayed the inhabitants of hell as tourists on a sightseeing bus that makes its way around heaven. Hell is just the streets and buildings of heaven as glimpsed from a sightseeing bus. To be in hell is to be gawking at heaven, peering from the bus and snapping photos and sampling the local food without ever learning to live there or speak the language. 

Anyhow, that's how it is with me. Even the world's most gorgeous streets and buildings, even the most impressive historical monuments, become an affliction when I see them as a tourist. I hate to think what might happen if I was ever forced to go on one of those guided tours to Jerusalem. Probably I would pass out and be found, days or years later, sprawled beside the Pool of Bethesda, waiting for someone to help me get in when the angel stirs the waters.

After we had done our sightseeing I needed something consoling and familiar, so I went to one of my favourite places, the vast abandoned ruins along Revaler Strasse in Friedrichshain. The crumbled gutted warehouses are covered all over in graffiti. The roofs have all caved in or disappeared; the walls are sprouting weeds. An iron gate lies on its side against an ancient vinyl armchair. In what might once have been a factory, there are many high glass windows, and all of them are broken. Standing inexplicably alone is a high brick facade; someone has etched a huge lifelike face on it. A shipping container stands propped up on makeshift stilts. It looks as if it might tumble down at any moment; it looks as if it has stood that way forever. There are broken pipes on the ground and big broken slabs of concrete. Everywhere there is broken glass. 

Here there is no time or history. It is barely even a place. 

Beneath your feet, railway tracks will suddenly appear, then sink again out of sight into the earth. Here and there you spy a lone figure creeping silently among the ruins, taking photographs. Someone is climbing a fence. In the shadow of a broken wall, a man and woman sit on white buckets, smoking contentedly, saying nothing.

I walked around with nowhere to go. Two boys went by carrying skateboards. From somewhere far away I heard laughter. I stopped to look at a black cross made of twisted scraps of steel and mounted on an old electrical box. Two buzzards, sculpted from clay and painted black, crouched like thunderclouds on either side. But the cross was, is, empty. I looked up from the black cross to the bright sky and shuffled away. It was silent as a monastery, apart from the glass and gravel that crinkled under my feet, and, somewhere nearby, the sound of someone's camera going click-click-click, purposeful and slow as a benediction.

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