Hotel Johann, Johanniterstrasse, 8. 10961. Breakfast on eggs, dark bread & coffee. The eggs are boiled, nesting in a bowl. They are covered with a warm towel. I take two. The breads are sliced, laid out, light to dark, on a wooden tray next to the butter sachets, the dishes of marmalade, honey, jam. The coffee is good & there is a choice of cream or milks (full, skimmed, soya), little packets of sugar. Suddenly, remembering that it is my birthday, I stir both cream & brown sugar into my cup.
The dining room is peaceful, cool. The cutlery sings on the china around me. Two couples, a businessman, & me. We say morning. We say morgen. I study my map. It is becoming marked with biro’d paths, softer with folds & refolds; familiar, in places. Elliott Smith plays quietly (quietly) over some discreet speakers. It is unexpected & unobtrusive. It is a welcome & strange breakfast soundtrack, but I accept it as a good omen. I smile. The young woman who prepares the breakfasts passes from table to table & with a smile, asks, “Raumnummer, bitte?” “204, danke.” I refold the map, say goodbye, say tschuss. I am walking to Schoneberg, to Hauptstrasse, 155.
He is out here all day, every day – The Ampelmannchen – he appears at increasingly regular intervals in this part of the city. Infact, I miss him when he’s not on the other side of the street directing me. I’m sure I’m not the only one. I had imagined that Ampelmannchen’s hat is a Homberg. I’ve described him so. But it turns out that it is made of straw. Today, with the morning sun splashing Merringdamm, this seems much more appropriate. He turns from red to green & we all cross the wide street.
Yorckstrasse is shadowed & cool. The air is sweet. The street is clean. Plants breeze from balconies above. The doorways of the old apartments are quiet. The street is quiet. Birdsong. An elderly man sweeps the pavement (of what? It is clean. Or, at least to these eyes) outside his shop, a dry-cleaners. There is pleasure in his measured routine. A display of amazing bikes in a shop window.
Left onto Grossbessen & right onto Kreuzbergstrasse. Here is the Viktoriapark, crowned at the hilltop by the Kaiser Wilhelm III monument (the Kreuzberg). The hill (Templehoferberg) is the highest point in Berlin & up until the 18th century this area was the major vineyard of Berlin. The monument is accentuated by a manmade waterfall, designed by Herman Machtig. It is a representation of the mountain of Krkonose between the Polish & Czech borders – an area favoured by wealthy Berliners & aristocracy of the time.
I walk the lower part of the park, cutting the corner between Kreuzbergstrasse & Katzbachstrasse. A man in rainbow leggings & a scrunchie ducks in & out the bushes, calling, “Kylie, Kylie!” He moves along the hedgerow. “Kylie, Kylie!” As I pass him, he notices me & asks me a question. The only words I pick out are ‘…schwarz hund…’. He holds his hands out to show the measure of Kylie. I can’t say that I have seen Kylie & so I hold my hands out, palms up, glance around the park & say, “Sorry, nein.” He frowns & then smiles & skittles off along the hedgerow. “Kylie, Kylie!” My German is so poor. I’m sure that Kylie will turn up.
On Kollonenstrasse there is a record shop. I stand outside & peer in. It is closed. It resembles a junk shop – vinyl & books are piled in the window: a treasure trove. The name of the shop is Jaksch. The word is formed from strips of sticky back black -schwarz!- tape & smaller red -rot!- musical notes dance in & out of the lettering. The window display (made of great strips of roughly cut brown -braun!- sticky paper) reads ‘50%’. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to the records in the window. it is as if someone is selling their personal (or an old relative’s?) collection. This only makes it more intriguing & I make a note to come back again.
I cross the Langensche bridge between Yorckstrasse & Julius-Leber-Brucke. The skyline in the distance allows the TV tower at Panorama Platz & Potsdamer Platz. I wander around beautiful Crellestrasse: a tiny side street. It is pretty: a quiet, mainly residential street. The sun falls on one side, shadow on the other. The tall trees & the balconies & public water pump all somehow draw me in. It feels old & homely. The ghosts wander in & out of the cool shadows passing among the living: a stream of quiet life. Plants & laundry drape the railed balconies of the beautiful 19th century townhouses – all, now, apartments, painted in earthy pastel shades. I wish I could go inside one & visit… It feels, all at once, like home: a future home, a past home; I imagine the large, cool rooms, the dust motes floating in the oblong sunlight of a morning, the stripped back floorboards (the creak, here – despite this heavy, worn, Turkish(?) rug – red & gold & blue/rot und gold und blau – the tassels of which splay ), already familiar, as the foot falls across the threshold of the bathroom; the toothpaste on the porcelain), the busy bookshelf – the sun has yellowed the pages! / die sonne has die Seiten vergilben lassen! – the tins, waiting in the dark cupboard above the rough worktop, an old, quite old, telephone on a side table (its cumbersome appearance always brings amusement to several friends when they visit), a poster on a wall – framed – depicts another past, another country. The quietude of life on this street… what a strange & sudden daydream!
Two women sit outside a hair salon in the sun, gossiping. The sparrows in the trees. An old man in a white panama & vast shades, misjudges the table outside a coffee shop (again, on the sunny side of the street) & the coffee cup slides to the lip of the tray & the coffee spills. A spoon sings on the pavement. He says something, something quiet, something like, ‘stupid man’, & someone else on another table, says something, something kind & they laugh. I browse through some boxes of books outside a second-hand shop & settle on a German language edition of Graham Greene’s Ways of Escape (‘Fluchtwege’) as a souvenir for a friend.
Another coffeeshop takes my eye. It is on the shadowed side of the street. A string of German pennants are strung from the doorway to a beech tree at the side of the pavement. Two empty tables & four chairs outside. A sign above the door reads ‘Nostalgie Cafe.’ The glass & doorway are dark. I go in. It is dark inside, but as my eyes adjust, I see that I am in a small, empty cafe. There is a dark bar, bottles behind it below a mirror that stretches its length. Cigarette smell, old wooden tables & chairs, tatty posters on the walls – Jerry Lee Lewis, Jagger, Gene Vincent. Old film posters & ephemera. A fan, a propellor fan, turns on the ceiling. A small dog, a scrappy mutt, yaps from some corner & now is at my feet. It is joined by another. from out the back, beyond the bar, a woman calls their names (Lulu & ?) & they scamper back & join her at the door from which she appears. She says, hi. I say, tag & find myself saying, “Eine kaffe, bitte.” She says something that sounds like a line from a song. It is a question, it rises gently. I smile & she smiles as she realises that I’m English. A man, until now hidden in the shadow at the end of the bar, says something to her & she says, “We are just open. Take a seat.” “Danke.”
“Innen oder aus?”
I sit out at one of the tables & he brings coffee & a little biscuit & I write postcards with one of the little dogs at my feet. It is easy. It is still early & I watch the people pass. There are not many. We say hi. A small van arrives & a woman carries a tray of pastries & milk into the cafe. I hear them chatting like friends inside. Every so often a bicycle passes. Always so many bicycles; so many kinds – it is particularly endearing to see these elongated bikes, solid looking things, framed trays protruding over the front wheel containing small kids, babies, sometimes, all completely at ease & natural. Their strong & slim mother, always with something so German (so Berliner?) about them: it’s a look, an unstudied look; a cool look: a natural, earthy, simple, urban style; so unlike English women (I have yet to see an overweight, overdressed woman – or, indeed, man! I suppose the cycling – of which there is much – accounts for this to some large extent).
I finish half a dozen cards. I write them from edited notebooks. They are, I hope, snapshots. There is plenty to write beyond ‘having a nice time/WYWH’ etc.
I take my tray & empty coffee cup back inside & say thank you. This amuses the woman & she says something to the man smoking at the end of the bar. Something, I imagine, like, “proper manners” or “he is doing my job!” The man says something, something smoky & laughs. But the woman says, “thank you.” And I say, “Tschuss.”
Hauptstrasse is just as described (with a squint) in many biographies about Bowie’s (& Iggy’s) time here in the late 70s. Forty-plus years have passed. 40!
It was around 20 August, 1976, that Tony Visconti arrived at 155, Hauptstrasse, a typical ‘altbau’, or period apartment, set on a tree-lined twin avenue in Schoneberg, an anonymous district in the south-west of Berlin [to visit Bowie]. (Starman/Paul Trynka. Sphere 2010)
Hauptstrasse is busy, running as it does north into Potsdammerstrasse (which will lead me, eventually into the city centre). It is still, mostly, of a period. But, as with many high streets, it is above the shopfronts that one has to look to find the past. There aren’t too many trees anymore, but it is still ‘twin-avenued’. The northern end of the street (Kleistpark u-bahn) is hectic: the traffic lights are out & two policeman, one on a platform, direct the traffic; everyone, pedestrians, vehicles (obviously), wait for the order. There are some fruit & vegetable stalls, modern coffee shops, mobile phone shops, etc. The pavements are crowded. It is a surprise after quiet Crellestrasse which is only tucked 100 metres away from here. It is, essentially, the first area that I have come across in Berlin where there is a sense of ‘modernity’/city life, as I recognise it. Still, it all, as I say, is vaguely recognisable from the above description. I head south-west toward the Wilhem-Kaiser Platz end. The numbers of the shops & apartment doorways unfold before me. A few doors from 155 I see a tiny collection of flowers in jars & some notes & ribbons at the front of a building. They are fresh. There is a non-descript white-fronted building with a plaque at head height. It reads ‘In diesem Haus wohnte von 1976 bis 1978, David Bowie…’ It is followed by his dates of birth & death & a short passage about the ‘Berlin’ trilogy. Then, in English, it declares “We can be heroes, just for one day”. I take a selfie, turn to my left, turn to my right…and make a decision!