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…