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Encounters with history in Berlin

After five hours spent dozing on the floor of a train as it rolled its way from Prague to Berlin, I heaved my rucksack out through the doors of Berlin Hauptbanhof station. The dull resentment of the bikes in the train’s racks, which had been swaying perilously close to my face as I tried to get comfortable on the bolted, jarring floor, faded away. The sight of the mammoth city, glowing in the ochre light, brought the swelling excitement that only the prospect of an unexplored metropolis can.

As it turned out, though, the hostel recommended to us by a friend required that we trudge back into the sprawling station, immediately dubbed Monsterbanhof, and take another train. After a while spent lost and feeling like we were in an Escher painting, we managed to board the train to Berlin Ostbanhof. This took us to the East of the city, and into the heart of what appeared to be the concrete embodiment of 1985. Walking to our former-factory hostel in the dusk, David Hasselhof’s ‘Looking for Freedom’ earwormed its way into my mind, making historically insensitive comment on the situation but lightening the mood nonetheless. I was overcome by a sudden urge to buy a light-up leather jacket.

The next morning, tracing our fingers along the East Side Gallery and crossing through the gaping holes in what’s left of the wall, the heat of the day rose, pushing down on the backs of our necks and our weary shoulders. We wandered through the harsh geometry of the Jewish Holocaust memorial, with its concrete blocks seemingly only knee-high until you walk into its centre and realise that the ground has sloped away, and the blocks are now three times your height, framing just a thin strip of cerulean sky.

Later we sat on the grass in front of the Reichstag building, with pleasingly official-looking documents in hand, and waited for our allocated visiting hour. The humid air settled around us and the glass dome glistened in the sunlight. We wound our way up the dome’s sloping walkway as the sun bowed behind the concrete skyline.

Then, lying back on the curved benches at the dome’s apex, clouds charged across the sky and a storm broke with whirling rain and ragged forks of purple lightening. The dome is not a closed structure, with air weaving through the gaps between different sections of its glass skeleton. Drops of rain tickled our skin and goose bumps formed along our bare arms. The virtuosity of the dome’s design was clear: the Reichstag is open to the world.

Back at the base of the dome on our way back to our factory hostel, with the sounds of children’s running shoes squeaking and their voices squealing echoing through the structure, we paused to look at a photographic display of the building throughout its history. One photograph, of crowds gathering on the grass in front of the building for a religious service during the First World War, held my gaze. Of all the historic sites we’d seen that day, it was the fact that we’d sat on the same patch of grass, unaware of this particular historical juxtaposition, which truly awoke my sense of Berlin’s history. Noticing the date, exactly one hundred years prior to our visit, compounded my growing sense of the city, and indeed the world, as a palimpsest of innumerable events and lives. A book with story upon story scrawled on top of each other. Invisible ink which reveals itself only in the a certain light.

We walked back through the streets with the cool city air, cleared by the storm, washing over us.

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