Running the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall todayOne of the coolest things I did in Berlin was go for a run along the Berlin Wall. Kirsten lives in East Berlin, so I ran west along Pariser Kommune Allee until I came to Muhlenstrasse, and there it was! The Berlin Wall! How cool is that! To go for a run and come upon the Berlin Wall!

A segment of the wall has been retained as a memorial, and many artists have The East Side Gallerycreated idealistic artwork to commerate the opening of the wall, creating a living piece of artwork called the East Side Gallery. As usual, it was already dark out when I set out on my run. Yet there were quite a few people strolling along looking at the artwork, and some were taking group and individual photos of each other against the wall. It was very moving, to see this 10-foot high edifice that had broken hearts and families. It seemed so strange to imagine it. What is the point!? Some people on one side of the wall, some people on the other side. It is only 10 feet high so it’s possible to see over the wall in many areas. They could wave at each other.

One side must have been grey and bleak, and the other side full of colour and shiny bright commercial baubles. But frankly, in light of the environmental devastation caused by the western consumer culture, I found myself favouring the Communist idealism, as I ran along beside the wall, looking at the graffiti-covered artwork. Then I remembered that Communist Russia also has created a huge amount of pollution, especially with nuclear waste from their abandoned atomic submarines. Communist or Capitalist, we all bear responsibility for the shape the earth is in today.

KissingI ran for quite a while, following the wall, dodging around the photo-takers, looking at the art both old and new, hoping to see the famous image of fellow communists Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev kissing each other on the mouth, when suddenly there was a break in the wall, showing the no-man’s land between the wall and the Spree River. And what do you think I saw there? A gigantic flat-screen TV billboard displaying a picture of Lionel Ritchie! What a shock! Across the road I saw a gigantic bubble-shaped building, called O2 World. I learned it is an entertainment complex, and Lionel will be playing there in April. This is the fruits of the wall coming down. East Berlin gets to see Lionel Ritchie. And, in June, the Eagles! May all Berliners experience a peaceful, easy feeling. Ich bin ein Berliner, ja!

It’s dark in the park in Berlin

O\'HortenI approached the theatre and saw there were posters along the wall at street-level, with the movie theatre entrance up a flight of stairs and the theatre towering several stories above that. The posters showed Australia—a Nicole Kidman pic whose posters I’d seen everywhere, including Amsterdam, Prague, and Berlin. Very Hollywood! But look—an offbeat poster showing a man with a moustache holding a very large dog in his arms, with the the words “Cannes Selection something something.” The movie was called O’Horten, by Bent Hamer, the director of Kitchen Stories (a weird Norwegian movie which I’d seen and loved). My kind of movie! The other posters showed a selection of horror movies, action flicks, and kids films. I left satisfied, knowing there was something I would enjoy seeing, here in Berlin. This was comforting to me—the familiar world of movies still existed in this strange place.

I ran on through the rain and came to another corner, Danziger, where there was a Mobil station set off in the Volkspark Friedrichshain. This struck me as odd, but I noted the price—1.09 Euros per litre (about $1.80 Canadian) and continued along Danziger, always keeping the park at my right. It was 35 minutes into the run now, and I was sure I was coming near to the starting point. The next corner was Landsberger Allee, and it was more commercial. The park disappeared and there was a giant sports complex called SEZ on my right. I didn’t know if anyone used it, for it was dark (closed at this hour on Christmas Eve), and the building had a lot of graffitti on it. But I saw there was a blowling alley—10 Euros—ball sports, massage. After the end of the building there was a little street going right, back towards the park, so I followed it, through a desolate area with tram tracks carved into the pavement, between bleak-looking apartment buildings, and then came to a road with a T sign. 

I followed this, passing a woman walking a small dog, and came back to the park. The way led into the park now—which I had hoped to avoid—but I also hoped it would lead straight back to the starting point. The paved path was lined with orange street lights, and I kept to the left whenever the walkway branched, so as to keep the bulk of the park to my right. There were some ominous-looking buildings looming in the darkness on my left, which I later learned was a Krankenhaus (krank means sick, and this was a hospital).

I seemed to have entered a very unfamiliar area that looked nothing like the brightly-lit boulevard I had started out on. At the next turn in the path the street lights changed to white globes. The path cut between wooded hills and as I descended between them I felt I had entered Narnia. After another minute or so my tolerance for the unknown reached its limit. It was 45 minutes into the run. With each step I was increasing the distance back to Kirsten’s apartment. I lost my trust in my sense of direction that this road would lead back to where I’d started. I was afraid I’d entered the twilight zone, and everything had changed and I’d never find my way back. So I turned around and went back the way I came.

Coming out of the park I was worried I’d lose my way and be lost running around the park all night, so I was very relieved to come back to the T sign and the tram tracks. I read all the street signs as I retraced my route, alarmed to discover an entire segment of road between Danziger and Friedrichshain that I’d failed to note. The rain had stopped now, and I noticed the cheer of the apartments along Friedrichshain, lit by strings of Christmas lights. On the ground floor was a restaurant, glowing orange, each table lit with candles, a server looking out the window. Not a single patron had come to eat there on Christmas Eve, but perhaps they’d just opened and were expecting a big reservation. People got into parked cars with packages, and suddenly there was a more festive holiday feeling in the air.

Monument to Frederick the GreatIt’s amazing how much more quickly the second half of a run in a new place feels, when I am retracing the journey and some things feel familiar—the movie theatre, a brick paved half-circle park entrance, the steet sign at the corner of Friedrichshain and Friedenstrasse, the pink concession stand building. Without fear and uncertainty slowing my steps I made it back to Kirsten’s in just 31 minutes!

Later I checked her map and found that in another 200 meters or so the park path I was on rejoined Landsberger Allee and from there it was just a few hundred meters to the starting point. The side trip into the park was a loop that went into the park and rejoined Landsberger farther up. Fear had stopped me from completing the circuit—which was not an even rectangle but more like a diamond shape—but I finished it a few days later, in the daylight, when we returned from our Christmas excursion to Prague. The seond time it took 40 minutes to do the complete journey from Kirsten’s to the park, all the way around the park, and back to Kirsten’s.

Looking back from the safety and comfort of my home in Vancouver, where Statuaryeverything is quite familiar, it seems that runs in a new place are the most fun and exciting. Everything is unknown and fresh, and it is great when things get a little scary at times. I feel a curiousity and aliveness about discovering the new place, whether in a city or in the wilderness. And running allows me to cover a good distance fairly quickly, so I can really get a sense of the terrain, and learn the land with my feet. But let me tell you, when I was afraid I was lost, in the dark in a scary park in East Berlin, I felt like a fool, not a wild woman.

Returning home I also found out that what I expected to be a minor park, covering one city block, is the oldest and second-largest park in Berlin, covering 52 hectares, and built in 1840 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Frederick the Great’s accession to the Prussian throne. Although I couldn’t see this in the dark, it is filled with statuary, monuments, playgrounds, and delightful vistas. It is really true that we create our own reality, based on our history. And this might not always be such a bad thing—I guess I like the feeling of being afraid in the unknown, my imagination running away with me. I’m glad I hadn’t read all about the park on the web site first, and seen it on a map. It was good to discover it on my own, directly with my senses, even if I was viewing it through the filters of my history.

Wild women run in the dark in Berlin

Berlin - Volkspark Friedrichshain

I arrived in Berlin about 10 PM (after travelling 22 hours), and spent a lot of the next day sleeping. It was dark by the time I was ready for my first run, at about 5 PM. So my first run in Berlin was after dark, with the temperature around 0° C.

I knew there was a park at the end of my sister Kirsten’s street, about a 5-minute walk away, so I went in that direction, north along Friedenstrasse, and came to the Volkspark Friedrichshain. I decided not to go into the park but just to run around it, so I wouldn’t get lost. I headed to the left, and went about 100 yards when I remembered my wilderness training about staying found, and I back-tracked my steps to Friedenstrasse, memorizing landmarks including two round pods that I imagined were drop-off points for used clothing (but I later discovered are for recycling different colours of glass) and the cross-walk with four stretches, each with separate pedestrian signals, to traverse the busy wide street with three lanes in either direction and a tram line in the middle. On the side closest to the park there was a small pink building with a counter where someone was selling snacks, by the entrance to the park.

Satisfied that I would recognize this point when I came back around to it, I set out in a clockwise direction, around what I imagined was a square park of about one city block, like I’d seen in San Francisco and Vancouver. I could see lights through the trees where I thought the edges of the park were, and estimated that one circuit of the park would take about 9 minutes. I looked at my running watch and saw that at this point I was 9 minutes into the run.

The buildings along Friedenstrasse, in East Berlin, had seemed very massive, square and heavy—bleak and menacing. There was a massive brick church at the end of the graveyard, with a huge square tower that looked like a crematorium to me, and next to it an abandoned factory with a smokestack stretching several stories into the sky. The buildings across from the park also seemed to be very big, squat, and bleak, though they were apartment buildings. There was a lot of graffiti everywhere, which Kirsten told me was a big problem in Berlin. I wondered if it was a symptom of cultural trauma from World War II and the subsequent splitting of Berlin that had never been healed.

The park on my right reminded me of the landscape I’ve seen in Poland near Auschwitz—the bare trees with tangled branches and the low clouds overhead, as well as the feeling of bleakness. The broad sidewalk I was running on had two sections of concrete paving stones set in a diamond pattern, with a reddish cobble-stone path in between them. I imagined the smooth part was reserved for cyclists, but the walk was deserted at this time of day so I ran on the smooth section.

I came to the first corner in a few minutes, and went up to the street signs to read them, so I wouldn’t get lost. To my surprise the stretch of road I was on was called Friedenstrasse—peaceful street—Kirsten’s street had bent at a sharp angle when it met the park. The new street was Friedrichshain, which I later learned is the name of that district of Berlin—a more funky, fun, artistic, part of Berlin, with many restaurants, cafes, and boutiques. Even on this quiet residential street there was a different feeling, which I didn’t notice at first because it began to rain very heavily. I ran on, into the groove now (it usually takes me about 14 minutes to warm up.) I saw a neon sign across the street, Theatre am Friedrichshain; there were two people ahead at the bus stop. I ran to the intersection and crossed at the light, running through a wide river of rain water that had collected along the edge of the street; I wanted to see what was playing! To be continued…