Charlottenburg, Berlin

Our last full day in Berlin we decide to shop. All we’ve bought here so far, apart from food and drink, is a box of tea lights, a signed calendar from a painter called Andrea Sroke with a stall in the artists’ market on Museum Island and a postcard from a garrulous Australian who tells us he’s won a competition for the best international poster, Obama’s iconic Hope poster having been beaten into second place. The calendar is charming and has a painting, usually of a cat, for every month in 2013. The postcard shows a gay couple, Tommy (German) and Zandong (Chinese), the day before their wedding. They’re lying naked , side-by-side on their backs, Tommy’s hand round Zandong’s wrist, against a richly symbolic background, and have words or ideograms on their bodies as well, none of which I can read. It’s busy stuff and the winning poster is even busier, tattoos and tribal signs and heaven knows what else, as though the mere accumulation of meaning were enough to ensure its transmission. Even the artist’s patter is exhausting, and Giuseppe pulls me away from the stall before I have the chance to engage him in what I suspect would be less conversation than submission to monologue, with occasional prompts on my part. I hear him later, talking to other potential purchasers, this time in German, and the spiel sounds exactly the same, right down to the intonation and the gestures and a style of salesmanship that seems more appropriate to encyclopaedias or vacuum cleaners than works of art. Perhaps it’s a wilful parody, part of the show. It’s hard to tell sometimes what’s art and what merely surrounds it as business, and noise. Ten minutes later, sitting outside a café, we watch a professional clown at work, red nose in his pocket until he swings into action to shadow a passer-by, imitating his or her every gesture with just that touch of exaggeration that transforms the unknowing victim into caricature, red nose now firmly on real nose. They’re warm-hearted caricatures and most people, when they realise what’s happening, take them as such, but I find myself wondering how well the game would play in Italy, where the notion of bella figura runs counter to even the gentlest public ridicule. When it comes to humour, Germans, I suspect, are more robust.

Today, though, we head out for  Kurfürstendamm, where serious shoppers go to shop. After weighing up the various routes for getting there, we opt for the S-Bahn to Charlottenburg, somewhere else we want to see before we leave. Outside the station we head east, along the side of the railway towards a crossroads and a branch, already visible, of TK Maxx, then turn north into Wilmersdorfer Strasse. It’s like coming home, but better. Not only TK Maxx, Body Shop, MediaWorld, MacDonald’s, but Woolworths, C&A, shops from our past suddenly alive again and available to us. We’re looking for – and find – a leather shoulder bag for Giuseppe. I buy a pair of jeans from C&A, the same model (if that’s the word for something so basic) as two pairs I bought some years ago from their branch in Montparnasse. Clothes, like most things, are cheaper in Germany than in Italy, even though salaries for factory workers, say, can be three times as high. But shops, after an hour of so, begin to pall and we head back towards Stuttgarter Platz, pausing for coffee at a super-cheap self-service place, where everything I want seems to be priced at 99 cents, and I remember the word zucker at exactly the right moment. (It’s behind me, next to the coffee machine.) The place is called Back Factory, which has an unpleasantly orthopaedic ring in English, but no doubt rings differently in German. We sit outside to drink our coffee and think about lunch. Reading our guidebooks we discover that Berlin’s Asian community is not that far away from where we’re sitting, heading east along Kantstrasse, and that one of the two restaurants recommended in both our guides is a Chinese place called Good Friends on that very street. And so we head off to find it, our shopping trip suspended.

Good Friends is on a corner, with a number of other Asian restaurants nearby. It’s fairly Spartan inside, which is encouraging. The menu is long, which is less encouraging, and divided into Cantonese and non-Cantonese specialities. I choose a duck and noodle dish, Giuseppe goes for something containing pig belly – we assume this will be draught pork, as it’s politely termed in the UK, or maybe pancetta, but we’re wrong. The dish is studded with nuggets of pale, chewy bits of what must be pig’s intestine. It’s delicious and so is my duck, though rather less, well, intestinal. Both guides say this is the place to eat for Chinese residents of the city, but the other tables seem to be occupied by Germans or tourists, and people who are possibly both. In Rome, I’m sensitized to the presence of non-Roman Italians and the way they often find the city more challenging than people from outside the national borders, as though minimal differences were harder to deal with, but here, in a city that’s foreign also to me, I can’t tell. Either way, this lunchtime in mid-October, the only Chinese in the restaurant are in the kitchen or working at the tables. Satisfied, we pay and leave. Next stop, a furniture shop called Stilwerk.

But first we tack our way a little around the grid of residential streets that lie between Kantstrasse and Ku’damm, stopping for coffee outside a small bar with an Illy sign over the door. The more we walk, the more Charlottenburg strikes me as a model for unfussily achieved urban living. The streets are wide enough for traffic, and the pavements for people, but not so wide that the buildings along each side lose contact with one another; any further apart they’d no longer be within calling distance and you’d have that net curtained-off feel of English suburbia, any closer people could watch each other eat, and sleep, and shower. They’re four or five storeys high; the perfect rapport between their height and the shared space that both divides and unifies them. There are trees, and these soften and yet reinforce the linear nature of the city in which they find themselves. There are shops, and bars, and restaurants, but as serviceable adjuncts to the homes above them; they don’t define the tone. We’d both like to live here, and what’s no more than a ‘wouldn’t it be nice if’ sort of feeling becomes considerably more urgent when we stumble on Savignyplatz, a lozenge-shaped tree-filled square that interrupts Kantstrasse as it heads towards the Berlin Zoo and that brings to mind, or to our minds anyway, one of our favourite squares in Paris, Place des Batignolles. Even better, it has the added frisson of a railway line running above a series of arches, some of which house a bookshop (excellent) and literary café, an institution, I admit, I’ve never quite understood the purpose of, unless it’s to be seen to be reading Benjamin, or Rimbaud, or Patti Smith, in public and yet not in public, in the splendid isolation of the act of reading. Still, I think, as we walk past on our way to Stilwerk, I’d like to read something here, but out loud, and to an audience of more than myself. And I have my usual itch to see if any book of mine is in stock, although I know it won’t be.

Stilwerk, in spirit and style, is everything Charlottenburg isn’t. A five-storey glass-and-steel affair, most of it devoted to the kind of furniture that would only sit comfortably in post-industrial New York lofts or the official residences of Mafiosi dons. Divans that would fill the average living room, tables the length of classic yachts, Hefner-dimensioned beds, complete with mirrored headboard, kitchens that would feed a legion if only anyone had the nerve to dirty their pristine surfaces. There’s something vulgar about furniture this size, however refined the materials and the design, and the effect the whole place has on me is in striking contrast to that produced earlier. The windows in the building look inwards, to the echoing atrium at the heart of it. The lifts inside the building are glass boxes and shimmy up and down, but each floor, finally, contains the same sort of showpiece stuff I find it hard to love or, indeed, remember. We leave the building, though, with a purchase. Two cute plastic rabbits that evacuate salt and pepper when their ears are squeezed.

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One Response to Charlottenburg, Berlin

  1. alessio says:

    Bellarticolo, molto utile! Stavo facendo le mie belle letture di post pre-nanna, dove lasciare qualche commento, con la speranza di ritorni sul mio blog, quando ho letto questo articolo! Grazie delle dritte!!!

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