Friday, 5 December 2014

Secret Mitte and winter nostalgia

I had a couple of holiday days last week and so, since I won't be able to go to England at Christmas, I booked a spontaneous flight back. It's nothing against Berlin - I still marvel daily at how lucky I am to finally be living here - but Grandma's food and the fresh countryside air were, of course, very welcome. By taking a step back, I also realised just how non-stop the three months I've been here have actually been! I brought back a suitcase of books, clothes and other things that I hadn't known I'd missed. It makes all the difference.

As everyone around me speculates about what this winter will bring, I find myself craving Quebec and its figurative warmth. It's German Christmas Market season now, so the Glühwein is certainly flowing, but I'll be damned if I'm not wanting a good Montreal poutine to insulate the tummy! Mostly though, after spending months under unforgiving Quebec snow (literally: I had a basement apartment), I've been wondering if winter here can really be that bad.
At work recently, there was a guest from Montreal who I spoke to each morning. For her it was a pleasant coincidence to meet someone who'd spent enough time there to have a discussion and comparison of certain things (like what to wear in the burgeoning Berlin cold). And for me, it was just wonderful to speak a French that felt natural and unbridled, i.e. sprinkling my sentences with English loan words and not feeling self-conscious about using phrases that sound odd on European ears, like "ben là!"or "bienvenue" for "you're welcome".

The main contrast I have noticed when it comes to winter is that in Quebec, there's definitely a comradeship strongly attached to it. Despite the fact that roads frequently get blocked due to blizzards and there are days when you can't leave your house without a blanket over your face for a very real fear of frostbite, people revel in it. They know that complaining about winter won't make it disappear. But here in Berlin, people seem to be wishing these months away. 
I try to recreate this time last year by lazing in bed, listening to Julie Doiron, dreaming of the drive from the top of Avenue de la Cathédrale in Rimouski, and wondering whether I'll ever experience such a perfect Christmastime again. I know this all sounds a bit exaggerated - and certainly contradictory if you have been reading my blog since just before I left Quebec - but overall it is an atmosphere that I have found impossible to communicate accurately to anyone else since leaving. It's one that I imagine I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Anyway, I'm still waiting for it to get below -10 to start wearing my parka (although I'll probably give in whenever the snow comes). So far, though, the prophecies of disrupted transport have indeed come true; the U8 towards Wedding will have replacement buses for three more weeks, for example. The days are dark, for sure, and this is most likely the main reason winter is dreaded in Berlin.

This afternoon, I decided to take a walk through what I call Secret Mitte... or, generally speaking, the part of Mitte concentrated within Torstraße, Oranienburger Straße and Hackescher Markt. Of course, it's not really secret  - I believe it's officially called the Scheunenviertel - but it is an area that I find quite fascinating and have meant for a long time to explore. Working in the tourism sector and giving directions to the same five or so Berlin sights several times a day, I forget that Secret Mitte exists - in my mind I tend to file Mitte next to Westminster, i.e. uninteresting, irrelevant except to visitors and politicians. I suppose the fact that it's so bourgeoisie nowadays, yet so recently the heart of Soviet Berlin, makes my mind boggle.

Starting from Rosenthaler Platz, which I pass through every day on the tram, I walked westwards down Torstraße, and then onto Koppenplatz.

I took a peek inside Do You Read Me?!. It's a small shop selling the type of expensive, painfully cool arty magazine that is lovely to browse through, but I would usually never dream of actually spending money on. I'd much rather buy some books that will stand the test of time. However, keeping in mind my recent mood, I got lucky and spotted a Montreal publication called Flaneur. It's based on Rue Bernard, which holds Drawn & Quarterly, one of my favourite bookstores ever. I was quite happy to pay the 15€ for it, as there's even a French section inside - it will be a cosy read and I'll look out for it from now on.

Große Hamburger Straße is a street full of surprises and contrasts, historical in quite an unassuming way (like much of Berlin once you get off the main tourist drag, I've discovered). Check out these Plattenbauten just above the convenience store.

A few steps further, and the street begins to resemble a typical, olde-worlde street in any other town in Germany. There's the Sophienkirche, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech in 1964. Then there's this curious, mustardy building opposite, which houses a couple of restaurants.

The end of Große Hamburger Straße takes you onto Monbijouplatz, and from there I can walk to work, so maybe I will, sometime. There's more to Mitte than what you see on a quick glance, and I'm determined that it does have some character!