Published on 60Pages
There’s a bullet hole…
…in a building on Max Beer Strasse, hidden behind a sign for ice-cream. Amazingly, a family sit outiside with a round of cones, even though it’s January and the grey air threatens snow. I’ve walked from my flat in Schoeneberg to here, exactly 5.3KM, the fastest pedestrian route according to Google. It’s taken me, briefly, past the old, invisible Hitler Bunker, the theme-park tackiness of Checkpoint Charlie, a protest (which Google displayed as a traffic jam) at Brandenburg Gate, recommended several cafés, bars and photo spots along the way, and through the old fashion quarter to here, Qua-Phe, the first stop on my walk.
Cities have a subterranean or celestial otherness, where the drab details of their random components cohere in unpredictable ways; all you need to do is walk and look. Well, so says Psychogeography. Using a smartphone to find your way around however, only entrenches those details into their dullness. The weather is, the time is, the traffic is. Google like a dumbass only now tells me Qua Phe is closed, (but it gives me a handy hint that later on when it opens it will not have too much foot-traffic between 9-10 am). The street is basically empty, apart from the people breakfasting on ice-cream. Clean lines, hipster, modern; an appearance broken only by bullet holes. Hippopotamus-sized laughing Budais normally announce Asian eats, but Qua Phe is more subtle (thatch, lanterns). A child toddles into the empty street, playing a game, drops her cone, and immediately cries. One of the boys offers her his: hier, hier. Es ist ja noch zu frueh fuer mich.
Google likes W in Berlin. Google adores W in Berlin. I opt for the nearest place from its list of Ws. The church on Fehrbellinerstrasse is strung with bunting, the street’s red bricks and little cafes recall tiny English market towns, dislocated to old East Germany. Weinerei is atop a slight slope which Berliners call a hill, and is opposite the city’s most interesting church, the Zionskirche. Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached here, anti-Soviet groups organized; but this historical mindset is hard to enter into when you’ve been programmed to follow the Google route — all you think about is the promise of the destination. Something glitters: a lighter. It’s heavy. Silver case, art-deco. It works. No one is around to whom it might belong; it goes in my pocket. The Church is merely Weinerei’s instagrammable background, alone on its roundabout. All roads used to lead to it, and no all roads lead around it, and this is and this isn’t a metaphor for the Church itself.
St George’s English Bookshop
I deleted my history + cache before I came out, but Google must have lodged an earlier search in its subconscious; trying to find something beginning with ‘E’ offered me the ‘English’, buried deep in the shop’s name. Kastanienallee used to be known for squats, radical-left politics; now it’s like any other high street, and every café announces itself with a quotation from Goethe or Schiller on its awning, as though this elevates shopping and edifies the consumer. You’re not just eating a cake, you’re partaking in a slice of pleasure, says Goethe, for what else is life?, or whatever. Only in St George’s is the poetry on the inside. I look around for a while, pick out a book by Vicente Huidobro – poem, Storm, which looks like this (left).
Rummelsburger Bucht is miles away, 6 miles away (or 7.3km according to Google). It ETAs me in at an hour, and recommends three different, long-winded routes through Volkspark Friedrichshain. The old DDR is here better reflected than in Prenzlauer Berg, with white flats and the endless Karl Marx Allee, which I’m now on, my shoes covered in sand. This is bleak. The wide road, the building sites, the sand and powder blown by cars, cyclists shivering up the path. While the West built trains, trams, underground, overground, microwaves, fridges, cars, drills, the East built highways in the city.
I begin to notice how inattentive I am, the blocks of colour moving around me, people or a truck, muddled sounds, machine noise, city noise, an inattention caused by the enervating metaphysical power of the massive street, and trust in the phone, which knows the path better than I do. Christmas trees rot on the roadside the whole way. When I get to Rummelsburger Burcht, past Friedrichshain’s mess, it’s pure relief. Quiet, with cold, dark, lovely water.
Can Google hear me? It knows where I’m walking, and recommends photo spots, places to eat (an hour ago it recommended pizza, now it tells me to eat fried fish — both? In an hour?) It knows how the traffic is on the bridge beside me (an S-Bahn is broken down in-between). Google controls the flow of the city, which plays around the routes it recommends, the sun breaks through the clouds because Google says it will, the city remains in place because Google needs it to. The bridge over the Spree is quiet, and a girl walks by and smiles and this flirty exchange wants commemorating by Google: Many people like to take photos of Treptower Park: would you also like to? The city towards the East is hidden by trees, with different visions of itself poking out: an abandoned theme park in the distance, Google tells me the streets have Russian names; and the celestial otherness of the city is apparent in the routes which traverse these visions, like the river flowing through old East, old West, now carrying tour boats.
Yildirim Yildirim, Weserstrasse.
Google offers this place with a lot of other non-German sounding names. Does the alphabet gentrify? Y, Q, I, X all denizens, huddled together in fast-changing areas like Neukoelln, where Turks, Asians, Africans live; the W, Z, S, P all rich, established, old money. This invisible cypher of letters draped over the city, inviting queries about places to eat, editing the environment with every search and every rating.
A delicate patterning of lace, a kitten, a Swiss Flag, ‘HERTHA BSC’, three wooden boards, a stack of old books, football stickers, beer cans, a pile of condoms: all of these are in the windows on the way to Yildirim Yildirim, down the gloom of Weserstrasse. There really aren’t that many Christmas trees on the street here. A dog barks and a drunk smashes his bottle. A woman dries a towel on a window ledge. It’s cold. Yildirim Yildirim doesn’t seem to exist in real life. It’s could be a ghost shop, haunting Google Maps with dead data. It starts to rain.
It’s just around the corner. Hermannplatz’ street design keeps traffic in a kind of permanent threat of head-on collision, and a woman pushes me into the street with her trolley full of garbage. I let her past as she does the non-German thing of ignoring the standing red man into traffic. A guy I kind of know stops me to say ‘hi, what are you doing man, dreaming?’ I tell him I’m on this pseudo-psychogeographic walk, one where the normal rules are suspended, and rather than take a route I’m making, or spontaneously forming, I’m travelling based on what Google tells me I’ve worked on before — and I’m going all the way through the keyboard, one letter at a time. The rain is so bad, I plan to duck into Karstadt, even though the inside is like an airport, and the market on Hermannplatz feels like a more interesting, real place. ‘Man’, my buddy says. ‘That sounds like a great way to waste a day.’
Il Kino, Nansenstrasse
It’s raining in the city, says Google. My footprints on Karstadt’s floor said the same thing. But it’s abated, and I can follow Google’s precise instructions comfortably, and not duck in or out anywhere (although it is telling me many people like to take photos of Karstadt), the curtain of commerce folds and blows, until I’m in the residential strip of Kreuzkoelln. On the floor is a letter. It’s half torn, sodden, the ink running. Fancy pen. I can’t tell the bulk of what it says, just how it’s signed: Sabine, with two tiny XXs at the end. I drop it in a bin, observe the other signatures: graffiti blooms along the canal walls, locks hang on the bridge like they do in every other city, with people graffiting their names onto the locks. Swans fill up the canal, and people are playing boules: why does Google simply take you to shops? Why can’t it take you to places like this? On a map, why can’t you search for The Zone of Emotional Intensity, or Berlin’s Contemplative Region, or the Trust-me This Place is Great Area. I check in to Il Kino, one of the city’s hip, slim cinemas, and Google tells me the movies playing in Il Kino have been rated pretty highly: do I want to take a photo?
Snake Cop. Pupsi. Was, mich? Kreuzberg’s graffiti is a bit crap. A few streets down is the OKAY café, on Pflugerstrasse. It is, very, OKAY. What to say about a Berlin café? It’s got a good atmosphere or it hasn’t, serves good coffee or it doesn’t. Hipster café, unless you have a special emotional attachment to them, all produce the same feeling: that you’re in a hip place, skinny jeans, skinny table legs, take selfie in hip-place? Plus do the people know that OKAY in English is OK, alright, pretty Good. In Germany, OKAY is, meh, nah, no thanks, oh really just OK, quite bad. A guy walks by, pushing two dogs in a pram. He shakes his head, points at the place — ‘die Suppe ist scheisse da.’
The city begins to fragment into the searches I’m making, each letter enclosing an individual parcel of the environment. Pannierstrasse, divorced from its geographical context, feels like a run-down neighbourhood all on its own. A group of guys are drunk and pissing on the walls of a closed shop, the pipes drip with bronze gunk, tables and chairs left outside zu verschenken. The shops are filled with boxes of — something. Is that a fish tank in the window?
I find an Indian restaurant. A guy outside is smoking. He recognises immediately that I’m also Punjabi (it’s a thing…) and we speak for a little time in the language. ‘Hey man’ I say, ‘how come you called this place Indian Dhaba Mira?’, ‘It’s just a name innit?’ he replies. ‘No I mean, shouldn’t you have called in Paneerstrasse? Such a missed opportunity’, he laughs, smokes, says no. ‘Why not? Come on man it’s an OK joke’. ‘Yeah the joke’s OK’, he smokes again ‘but do you know what Germans are like? Every time they’d come here they’d tell us we made a mistake: excuse me, that’s not how you spell Pannierstrasse.’
I’ve just realised I’ve done this all wrong. Travelling across Berlin with an English keyboard deletes at least three letters, Ä,Ö and Ü; but it’s something I have to live with, this English bubble of mine. I approach Germany and German with this English mindset, anyway. I’m directed back down towards Schoenleinstrasse, and to AKA, a tattoo parlour which isn’t very busy. I don’t want to go in and disturb the artists — they’re doing that thing where they look out the window mournfully, the absence of any unblemished flesh coming their way today — but I smile at the woman in the store, who pokes her head out and asks me if I’d like a tattoo. I tell her I have a few already. Show me, she says, incredulously. I do and I lift up a trouser leg to show her. Ah, she says, ‘Elefanten. OK. Aber nur drei. Warum nicht drei mehr?’ We laugh, and I wave myself away, this overgrown village of a city, where people playfully pretend to know you.
The buildings fade into the midday, as does the graffiti, the packets of mulch staining the buildings and the cold which clings to everything and trails behind the trucks and buses, then I don’t feel or see any of this, and I’m aware I’m only thinking of my route, my walk, my destination, just relying on Google. Is this girl Sabine? Is this one? Is it this woman banging on the metal store shutters? I’m getting caught up in a Kreuzberg glut here, but I follow Sanderstrasse’s graffiti lines and fat rats up to the end of the street and towards:
All the shops on the way have reduced their names to basic elements, letters, numbers: A, Z, N, words are so passé, but these places are also much easier for Google to recognise. Das Edelweiss is in Goerlitzer Park. I reach the park. The idea of this being a train station, a powerful symbol of Nazi atrocity, and now a big mess of a park filled with immigrant families and drugs and graffiti feels like something of a rebuke to this old history.
Of course, this is all lasts a mere moment as when you walk through the park, the idealistic energy fails. A fight breaks out between a dealer and buyer: the guy’s not happy with the amount, it seems, and the dealer’s just laughing him away. The racialised, political disparities of the city are most evident here. The black, presumably disenfranchised dealers wait for a mainly white, pretty middle-class, often tourist clientele; yeah, obviously the dealers have agency, are nice etc. But it’s not an enviable position. They watch the city, as much as the city watches them, in a mutual gaze of fear or annoyance or intrusion.
Kreuzberg is getting to me. Google Maps shows me how enclosed I’ve been in the last few rounds. I find a way out, to Hallesches Tor, along the Google recommended route, again, one which doesn’t prioritise beauty or calm, doesn’t reward patience, but encourages expediency, so I’m walking along Skalitzerstrasse, as it becomes Wassertorplatz, and becomes Gitschinerstrasse with the traffic as raging and intense as it is on Karl Marx Allee. Plastic sheets wrapped around the elevated U-bahn tracks clap in the wind, the wind supercharged by the buildings flanking the street. Tourists always complain that Berlin is ugly, and without Parisian charm, as though there wasn’t a massive war here, two massive wars here, but here is the skin of that history, which when viewed from above, connects the old ministries of Mitte, and the old hotels of the West. The enclosed community of Hallesches Tor has opened its own little market. Not instagrammable, but thriving, a microkiez.
The city becomes even more ugly towards Mitte. It begins to get dark, and the Jewish Museum is on an empty street. Jewish history is far more than the Holocaust, of course, but I’ve always felt that the Stolpernsteine (stumbling stones) are the most powerful memorial to Jewish lives in the city and in Germany, more so than a building. Ordinary Jewish names on the street to honour victims of atrocities, completed on a scale that rivals the Nazis for bureaucratic energy, and in doing so, attempts to undo or make visible some of that awful legacy.
My next destination is Kurfürstenstrasse. Google tells me to walk along the empty Gitschenerstrasse again, where the road, U-bahn and canal are huddled together. It’s like a central nerve of the city, carrying information from one end to the other, the partygoers on the U-bahn heading east, the boring workers heading out this way, cars, wind, trash. Museums and warehouses mean the street is feels abandoned, and the damp clings to the pavement, streetlights come on, the melancholy of post-Christmas. On Kurfürstenstrasse, a prostitute stops me taking a photograph of a sex shop, and asks me if I want to sleep with her. ‘Hast du lust?’ she says, pointing at her body. ‘Ah, nein danke’, I reply, embarrassed by this whole thing, (is she Sabine?). She points at me, laughs, ‘haaa! Du hast kein lust!’ Thanks Google, is there a way I can rate even this business you’ve sent me to? ‘Never come here guys, the staff are not very friendly’.
At the other end of the keyboard, Google picks out a Lidl on Potsdamerstrasse that I simply must visit. It’s laid out exactly like another Lidl I know, so this again is like walking through a recurring dream, where the city has shifted around Google. I don’t buy anything, and head out to:
There is a palpable energy change, the kind of borderline violent tremor in the air — loud, drunken jokes, shirts tucked into jeans — that emanates uniquely from lads on tour. People are giving me wary looks, suspicious (after last year’s attack) of any skin colour that isn’t flushed and ruddy from beer. I avoid. The church behind the crowds says that there have been other atrocities here, also, and the amount of damage done to the city is immense and almost endless in variety. There is a kind of museum of pain and history etched across the city’s buildings, that you could read if only you knew how not to look at it with the tourist’s relish for consumption. But I’ve forgotten how to do this, and Google tells me my next stop is only a few metres away.
The graffiti has all but disappeared from West Berlin. This is chic town now. I even cross Bleibtreustrasse, a street which features in Ulysses — itself a monument to a decaying city — but the real Bleibtreustrasse has posh bars and hotels, reversing the fictional mythology of Joyce’s construction. His city was alive with shabby beauty. This is just plain bourgeois dross.
Along the street, fancy shops, fancy customers, and the windows are huge — for the first time I realise so people on the outside don’t just feel envious, but also project themselves inside (how different from the little dioramas Germans normally like to set up in their shop windows). The guy in the furniture store on the couch could be you!
Even the streets have gotten pompous names. The street becomes even tackier, and actually quite melancholic. The buildings lack any character, but the people of Cicero look like they have warm, inviting flats which induces in me a nostalgia for a childhood that wasn’t ever mine.
I’m led back on to the main street, towards Kurfürstendamm. I haven’t eaten all day so rather than go into Vesper which looks a little pricey, I instead opt for a café. I grab a coffee and a sandwich, pay on my card, and a young woman is sitting by the window. An old man approaches her, asks her to sit. They chat for a bit, and she rebuffs him, and he leaves sullen and then another comes up and does the same. The third approaches, she’s interested but finally, he also goes. A fourth, unbelievably, sits with her, and she loves it. They talk and giggle and an obvious flirt starts. What the fuck is going? Google reinforces capitalism this much I know, but I’d rather risk being sent to a shopping mall than watch any more of this weird porno unfolding.
Tacky with an air of grand, another shopping and culture district, devoid of those exciting marks of a city. A woman with a dog as small as mouse walks by. Sabine?
Netto, in the mall
A homeless guy comes up to me, asks me for some change. I tell him, honestly, I don’t have any. Hey man, he says, do you at least have a light. No. Wait, no, yes I do. It was at Weinerei. I reach into my pocket, and give him the lighter. He’s impressed by this, and returns it. ‘No’, I say, ‘man, keep it. It’s cool. It’s not mine anyway. I was going to put it on Facebook on a lost and found group.’ ‘You for real?’ ‘Yeah, have it.’ I go into Netto, just to complete my journey, and log the walk I’ve done in Google. I make a celebratory round of the aisles, in the airless ending to a cold day. I stick a bag of oranges and some milk on the counter, pay on the card and get out of there, ready for my u-bahn journey home. On the way out I run into the homeless guy again. ‘Hey guess what?’, he asks. ‘I gave the lighter to that pawn shop there.’ ‘Ah cool’, I say, happy I could be a part of this small act of redistribution. ‘Yeah man – guy gave me eight Euros for it. Mega!’
Photography by Gurmeet Singh