East Berlin TimeFall

A rose left in a fragment of the Berlin Wall

On our first night in Berlin, M and I spied a translation of Philip K. Dick in the window of a bookshop: Marsianischer Zeitsturz.  We were consumed with laughter.  Zeitsturz, time slip/fall/stumble…that’s exactly what it felt like to be here twenty years to the day after the wall  had come down.  We were time travelers dropped from space, come from the future to witness the past.

The view from our flat on Karl Marx Allee; typical Stalinist "wedding cake" apartments

East Berlin’s wide avenues and Stalinist urban planning mark out much of the city.  What I thought would be grim, mid-twentieth century modernity turned out to be soothingly elegant.  The clean, brightly tiled U-bahn stations and the grand “wedding cake” style apartment buildings on Karl Marx Allee provide a stately backdrop to everyday life, making the smallest things seem like part of a grander narrative.  In this respect, if it is at all possible to separate the dire human rights in the GDR, the planning wins at dignifying the mundane.   Ostalgie, or nostalgia for the aesthetics of the GDR-era East, makes a weird kind of sense.

A fragment of the wall

But all that is changing.  The city is busy reinventing itself yet again.  Most of the “death strip” of the wall has been built over and turned into parks.  A public installation about the wall claims that even locals can’t make out the scale of the original border.

A Starbucks sits at the foot of the old symbol of East Berlin, the Fernsehturm, like a flag on the moon. The deafening sound of industry– jackhammers and drills– follows you everywhere, even through the Topography of Terror exhibition.  This “open wound at the heart of the city” is an outdoor exhibition exhaustively documenting the orgy of sadism that was the Third Reich.  It was unseasonably cold as I made my way from panel to panel mounted on the chain-link fence.  Numbed physically and emotionally, I reached the end where a group of teenage girls huddled together singing brazenly at tasteless volume, Whitney Houston’s hit from 1987, “I Want to Dance with Somebody.” Their hair peroxided beyond Aryan-ness, their eyes darkened with too much kohl, they dressed in the over-sized layers of the mid 80s, a style from before they were born, before the wall had fallen.  Zeitsturz indeed.

Dusk at the Holocaust Memorial

My friend Carolyn said that when she went to the Holocaust Memorial, German teenagers were displaying similarly disrespectful behavior, playing hide-and-seek amongst the gargantuan plinths.  We went at twilight, when only the dimmest of lights illuminated the maze of sarcophagi which grow as you enter, the cobblestones at your feet slanting and dipping.  Before we got too deep M said to me, “If we lose each other, where should we meet?” which seemed poignant, imbuing the monument with a metaphoric, empathetic narrative.  Walking the structure you glimpse others passing by, and then they vanish in the claustrophobic space.

Display case in Alexanderplatz

It is difficult not to dwell on the wounds of the city, though to do so risks a ghoulish curiosity.  Or is it bearing witness?  Because I couldn’t answer this question I did not go to any of the prison or concentration camp sites, though I considered it, I was more interested in signs of life. They are everywhere.  Alexanderplatz features glass cases of mimeograph machines, children’s stamp sets and silkscreens used to make illegal zines before the Mauerfall.  I remember these machines from my childhood,  their pungent smell and rhythmic sound. Here they were used for something much more risky and important than my multiplication tables. Though through my cold war childhood I learned to be terrified of my own government, its senile leader. Fresh ink on worksheets for Social Studies, defining Mutually Assured Distruction.  This was not some remote history.  Looking at the photo murals in the square of people climbing the wall in 1989, people who looked just like my friends and me at the time– young, determined and maybe a little crazy; I was reduced to tears.

Another Country, a bookstore specializing in English language used books, operates as a kind of lending library and gathering place for the vibrant ex-pat community in Berlin.  Every month they have dinner and a movie there for a fiver, and the place is packed with English speakers catching up with each other.  There I met this warm man with the round, lazy vowels of a SoCal native.  He was, of course, from El Monte.  He explained the why if not the how of being there, “Berlin chooses you, not the other way around.”

SoCal followed us around Berlin, in fact.  At White Trash Fast Food, over our amazing veggie burgers and chili fries (Just like famous Tommy Burger’s but vegetarian), we marveled at the DJ’s selections in this uber-cool rockabilly bar– the first song was White Girl by X, and then the selections grew increasingly obscure, focusing on early SoCal punk rock.  The crazy thing is that maybe for the Germans this was pastiche Americana but to the expats in the place, it was the home you could no longer find at home. So to speak.

Another American badgered me at the Tacheles, an artists’ squat in a bombed-out department store.  The New Yorker insisted I looked “scared,” and decried my cursory glance at his mediocre paintings, “What’s with you? You come to an art show but don’t look at the art?” Nothing else that I could see was much better, but the space itself was marvelous it its apocalyptic grandeur.  In the past the art must have been better.  It would have had to have been.

Americans have flocked here it seems. Perhaps because this place offers a glimpse of what our country is supposedly famous for: freedom.  Here, it’s been hard won, though to see that you would have to look past the tourists posing with a “border guard” at the reconstructed Checkpoint Charlie, or past the stalls selling Russian kitsch in front of the Brandenburg gate.

Here is a list of more favourite places:

La Mano Verde, Weisbadener Str. 79, posh vegan eatery, a bit expensive but worth it.  I had the raw beet ravioli and farmer’s nuggets in jus with German potato salad and divine chocolate mousse.  Comfort food extraordinaire, but done lightly.  The service was attentive but unfussy.

G for Goulash— this intimate eatery only has two tables and a bar, and it only serves Goulash– but it’s veggie heaven.  They will make their delish stew with seitan if you don’t eat meat– absolutely amazing.  They also do takeaway, serving the stew in a pretty, re-useable glass jar.

Chagall Cafe on Schonhauser Str– a dark, candle-lit cafe with chipped walls and wooden benches, perfect  for a tryst if you’ve got one planned. They specialize in Russian food– while we were there everyone was bent intently over their steaming bowls of borscht.  They have many vegetarian options.  We went with the vat of garlic cream and bread, drinking many beers here.  The service here was warm, welcoming and exceptional.

Hops and Barley microbrewery–Wühlischstr 22/23. This is a small brewery run by two wonderful guys who really care about beer.  When I was in they had an amber on that was gorgeous, and their cider was a quite tart but not too dry– dangerously drinkable.  Every beer I had there was a winner, and they play Old School (SoCal) punk rock on the stereo.

The Medical History Museum, butting up against what used to be the “death strip” before the Mauerfall, is worth checking out. Gallstones like false dice are displayed in jewel cases.  Fetal anomalies, tattooed skin fragments, and surgical instruments on the third floor are humanized by the narrative displays on the fourth which feature stories of individual patients.  Objects from the collection are used to illustrate their “cases”, and these artifacts– from a crocheted bonnet, rusted bed or false nose, take the initial displays beyond side-show voyeurism.

Kathe Kollwitz Self Portrait

The Kathe Kollwitz Museum, an impressive collection of the artists major works, is housed in this rather posh shopping area in the west.  Her work was important to me as a teen.  After seeing her lithographs in high school, I majored in printmaking in college.  Seeing her familiar work again now, images I used to train my eye and hand, was like seeing an old friend who you’ve outgrown.  While the emotional urgency of the images of “War against War” seems exhausted to me now, it is essential in understanding Berlin, a place that resisted the Nazis even as they consumed the city, and a place that eventually ushered in this most modern of revolutions, the end of the Cold War.  In Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood argues that even as the Nazis march through the streets of Berlin, the city doesn’t belong to them but to the workers, the people who sang out in defiance.  Looking at the room of Kollwitz’s self portraits one sees the face of a Berliner– earthy, candidly ironic and freedom-bent.

An antiquarian for the people

On the island of South Ronaldsay, Orkney, there is a passage mound called the Tomb of the Eagles. It’s called this because several sea eagle talons were found inside along with the remains of over 300 people.

What makes this site distinct is the fact that it was excavated by a farmer who had waited 18 years for the officials to do it, and, after finding a passage in the law that allowed him to legally do it himself, he took matters into his own hands, seeking the advice of archaeologists who were excavating a nearby site.

What this means is that the visitors center is staffed with people who are personally involved with education, actively reading the newest research on Mesolithic people and sites. It is a labor of love for the farmer, Ronnie Simison and the guides in the center. They have done their best to make the cairn accessible– even providing wellies and waterproof coats and trousers if the weather is proving to be dismal, which it was when we visited. Also at the site of the tomb itself a skateboard and rope are provided for those who can’t or won’t crawl in.

tomb of the eagles

What I liked most about this place wasn’t just the ‘tomb’ itself, which was as breathtaking in its construction as the others we’d seen, but the trust put into the visitors to value and respect the site.

Me in the ‘tomb’ in rain gear provided (free) by the visitor centre.

While we were at the tomb there were a handful of other visitors, but no official tour guides. You get to experience the place without any official narrative, and you must make your way inside on your own terms. There were a few people who refused to go in (women who were dressed in high-heeled boots and expensive coats). When I crawled in I heard others behind me say, “She’s just crawling in there!” and not long after, others followed. There was something humbling and empowering about the site– situated on the wild, windy cliffs of the island– I felt a little of the eagle-character of those ancients rub off on me.

Most of the people crawling into the tomb that day were grey-haired women, and a few men they’d brought with them. How alien these women would have seemed to the people that built this place, most of whom would have been teenagers. I had this warm feeling for these hardy women who were willing to go into the darkness, and also for this archeological center, the vision of one generous farmer, where everyone is treated as a potential antiquarian.

On Your Knees, Pilgrim

Years ago I walked the labyrinth of Chartes. I didn’t go on my knees, which would have been the authentic way, but I wasn’t alone walking it. There was a woman on crutches behind me and I just thought that doing it on my knees would have been in bad taste. But before I belabor this too self-consciously, let me make my point– sometimes crawling is the only way to go.

The narrow passage of Wideford Hill.

Such is the case at the many portal “tombs” across the Orkneys, the most famous of which is the spectacular Maes Howe. Though archaeologists call these structures tombs, very few remains have been excavated from them– in some, none at all. The word “tomb” as been a reductive name for these structures that were more most probably sacred– perhaps calendar machines, astronomical observatories, or sites of shamanic seclusion. This argument has been put forth in the compelling and fantastical Uriel’s Machine. Like Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, it is more wish than fact, but with so much prehistory, this is what we have to go on, and it is enough.

Now that Skara Brae (a stone-age, subterranean village) and Maes Howe are World Heritage Sites, tourists are herded in and jokes are made about The Flintstones and Vikings, who used the tombs as hide-outs, having a “lads night in”. These distinctly spiritual places are reduced to fun-facts and family entertainment. The official line is that these were, basically, stone age mausoleums. To the predominantly Christian world-view that currently describes these sites, the lives of these people who built these places resemble our own lives in the most narrow way, and their ideas of the cosmos are reduced to naive superstition.


For instance, these are “stone things” found at Skara Brae. These are in a display case at the site. The viewer is not reminded of essential ideas here– that these were made by people who we have considered to be cavemen. And they were made without stone tools. These powerful objects and indeed verything about these sites argues that they are more mysterious and alien than what the official Scottish Heritage line will let on.

The chambered cairns were designed to be entered via a “creep” or narrow passageway in the earth. The womb analogy is inevitable here, though in all the writings on the subject I have read, only Julian Cope seems to notice this. And, with all due respect for his tireless work on increasing awareness of Neolithic pagan heritage, he sees Mama in everything.

This is the moody and charming Wideford Hill cairn. Unlike the other cairns we visited, this creep was too narrow to crawl through. One must climb in from the top, where the cairn was busted open durning (Victorian era?) excavation.

But for those visitors who are not content to be merely bussed to the major sites and herded around the perimeter, there are myriad cairns that can be explored on their own terms. Using an OS map, M and I were able to locate several, each with its own kind of darkness. Outside each cairn there is a wooden box containing a torch whose batteries are either dead or dying.

But it’s the ritual of crawling that gives the place meaning– knowing that everyone who entered (save the brutal Victorian archaeologists or Viking raiders who came in through the top) had to do it on all fours.

Here I am in the Fairy Knowe, or “tomb of a dog cult”– 24 dog skulls were found inside, but only 7 human skulls. This cairn was on Cuween Hill, just up the road from our cottage. The stone-age masonry– like at Maes Howe– is amazing. You can see it behind me. The creep of Fairy Knowe is 18 feet long– I scampered in and found the darkness warm– the shadows ocher colored. Inside was a feeling of safety, and wild information there for the taking, if one were to crawl further into one of the rooms. But I didn’t. You really have to be ready to do that, and I wasn’t.

But tomorrow…what happens when a farmer excavates a tomb himself? And what does this have to do with pensioners on skateboards?

All I ask is a tall stone and a star to steer her by…

M and I have returned from the Orkneys, and now that I have internet access, I can write about it.

We spent 10 days traveling around Aberdeenshire, visiting standing stones and traveling around the Orkney Islands. There, we ate the local bread called bere bannock with mild Orcadian cheese and lots of amazing local beer. We also crawled around a lot of neolithic tombs.

Once you get the hang of finding neolithic sites on OS maps, there is a danger of being a sort of trainspotter about it. Traveling by car, one can easily forget these ancient places are part of the local imagination– living, distinct and fantastical sites.

But on occasion there will be a stone circle that will remind you of this– one such circle was outside an abandoned farmhouse in Aberdeenshire. There were the usual territorial bulls about, but what bothered me was something else. Once, while I was climbing a hill fort in the South of England, I had the strangest sensation of something riding on my shoulders– an odd little gleeful being, only slightly malevolent. It was a disturbing feeling, and I didn’t shake it until I’d reached the roadside.

This circle had a similarly sinister, fey aspect. In the long wet grass surrounding the circles– which were now in wild disarray– no flowers grew, but inside the ring flowers bloomed in nodding white and yellow bunches. Charming, if there weren’t such a forlorn feeling pervading the place. I think often when Neopagans visit sites they infuse them with something, new folklore, new stories and hopes. And I think these things linger. But some circles are hardly visited at all, except by the things we can’t see or know. This circle belonged to such things. Approaching it I felt a cold pull inside, and a dizzy feeling. I decided to hurry back to the car, my skin all gooseflesh, but M went on without me to the recumbent stone circle, climbing over barbed wire to get to the next circle beside it, and I watched him go, uneasy.

Of course nothing happened. Except that while I waited cows called pathetically into the wind. This is beef country and I find it difficult to reconcile the sufferings of these animals, even if they are not being factory farmed.

Some stones are visited by too many people– overly husbanded by the National Trust. Stonehenge is the worst example of this. Other stones are visited mostly by creatures, and still others are kept company by the alien and “conquering” faithful. Christians. This recumbent stone circle, pictured above, had a churchyard built around it, despite or perhaps because of its horned stones flanking the altar. In Julian Cope’s book The Modern Antiquarian, he describes this circle as looking like the horned good surfacing from the earth, and that’s no lie. It makes the the brittle headstones around it look like chessmen lost on the board of a forgotten game.

I’m sure this is why I keep coming to these places and why they haunt me– that sly feeling of triumph. Everyone wants to be affirmed by an iconographic landscape, something that codes your beliefs into the land and makes them bigger than the notion of the self or even of time.

All around this country, lichen covered blood-red stones count the stars, and they have marked our travels.

And, tomorrow, it’s on your knees, pilgrim