In Berlin the past is very present and very ugly. Awkward memorials litter the sepulchral streets like toys in a deserted nursery. They serve as both eyesore and headsore; their ugliness only matched by the ugliness of the events they recall. Round every turn lurk the most terrible ghosts of the most terrible moments from the most terrible century. A massacre here, a book burning there until your eyes glaze over and you feel like jumping from the Reichstag. It is a place that can never and must never forget its history but what a relief it would be if it could.
After a day’s atrocity-seeing me and my friends were asphyxiating in the sulphurous history that envelops the city like an old London smog, so we decided to rejuvenate ourselves with a clear, crisp German larger. We also tried some of the famous curry wurst that is sold by New York-style hotdog kiosks throughout the city. This was a mistake. The wurst was the texture of a cold squash ball and the curry looked like silt dredged from the Spree, and tasted worse. Food in Berlin reflects the architecture – stodgy, functional and uncomfortable on the gut.
Fortunately Berlin, like most places, is transformed by the night. But unlike most places when the sun goes down the city feels a happier place. The sins of the grandfathers are covered and the joys of youth set free. Fun has finally returned to the city it left eighty years ago, when reason packed its bags and prejudice moved in. Berlin and, indeed, Europe’s young population now flock to the avenues of bars that decorate the city like fairy lights on a Christmas tree. Only in the gloaming does the true Berlin start to emerge. Students and artists solve the world’s problems every night and on each corner a Sally Bowles chain smokes into the early hours. Berlin is one of the only places where ‘living for the moment’ has real meaning.
For our final day we reluctantly decided to embark on the perennially naff guided tour. It was the best decision we made all week. Our guide turned out to be a Canadian opera director, who claimed to be a relation of Marlene Dietrich – although he looked more like Worzel Gummidge. His blond haystack of curly hair framed a friendly face and his subtle Canadian drawl helped to relax his dubious audience. From that moment on we were his. He mesmerized us with his incredible knowledge and the delivery was suitably operatic. He gave a virtuoso performance. Anecdotes and facts were turned into heart rending arias that made the eyes glisten and the soul stir. He was a slim-line Pavarotti warbling his way through Berlin’s history. The crescendo, of course, came at the very end of the tour. As we sat in a grassy park, Worzel recounted the day the wall came down. Rising to a falsetto in the warmth of the afternoon he described how Berlin finally came in from the cold. Life really is a cabaret, old chum.