In Flight: Berlin

Some cities have a larger literary presence than tangible. Paris balances the two. London weighs towards the real, rather than the page. But Berlin, for me especially, is a city explored first in media, only peripherally in the real. Mr Norris Changes Trains, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold gave me a sense of the shutaway city. The city’s structures and location I garnered from history and politics textbooks. The look from the amazing City of Angels and Cabaret.

Visiting it in the real has always been in passing to me. I think I’ve stopped here maybe three times on press trips. Now the press trip, more so than most business trips I suspect, is a coddled affair. I’ve been on many where I’ve done nothing more than follow instructions, travelling just with my passport. Food and drink are often paid for. Hotels are booked and paid for you. The itinerary has often been decided, from cradle to grave.

So when I’ve been Berlin I’ve had to employ strange tactics. The first time, brought by NamcoBandaiAtariInfogrames was an overnight stopper, if I recall correctly, where after the event bar shut, a couple of us hopped in a taxi to the Reichstag, just to see a little of the city before we left. The next time is even more blurred, but I recall having enough time off to visit the museum at Checkpoint Charlie. This time we’d been offered a night’s stay in a hotel on the Alexanderplatz (a strangey familiar name), right by the great spiked awl that acts as Berlin’s equivalent of London’s post office tower – another great sign of what the future once was.

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Our nailed-in itinerary took us to a part I’d never seen before, the sprawl of bombed-out buildings that houses the nightlife. I’ve often been told that the majority of the life in Berlin happens hidden away, away from the statuesque facades of the West or the relentless identical blocks of the East, and I guess that this was that place. A long strip of buildings that looked like accreted spray paint that happened to have sagged into the form of old warehouses and walls without roofs. Walking through it in the snow, we felt like we were going to be mugged; but Berlin has that joy about it, that the sectors don’t reflect the prejudices of the anglo-saxon climes. Graffiti here isn’t a sign that this is a bad area, but that it’s an artistic area.
Inside our warehouse was a great flat room where a game was being shown. I’ll skip over this quickly, as it was not unusual. Presentations, hands-on and interviews, the old routine. Then we were sent off to our hotel, with a bag of game memorabilia we would have been as happy without in hand. I’d only managed one hour of sleep the night before (working on a StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm review) so I crashed out.

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When I woke, it was suddenly dark. We returned to the graffiti strip gaming warehouse and the rest of the evening was a performance of traditional German drinking, eating, drinking, bagpipes and more drinking. But it was still all molly-coddled. At the end of the night, as the PR was waving us off, he suddenly decided to take us on into the city, imprecating with bright-eyed hesitancy that “you need to see some real German techno.” It was too much for me, exhausted as I was, but the others followed him to an apartment in an old block on Alexanderplatz which had a club in it, playing music closer to Europop than techno.

In the morning, with a head fogged by beer, I snuck out quickly for a very short walk around the block. I was heading for a distant wooden church spire when a man strolling towards me suddenly looked up, cried out and rolled onto his back, before spasming onto his front, twitching. I’d never seen a seizure before and didn’t know what to do. I vaguely recalled that you meant to roll the victim into the recovery position and pull out his tongue, but I could see from the puddle of blood spreading out from his head that he’d started biting into his own face in his spasms. Someone more aware than me ran over to help the man, whilst someone else rang an ambulance, and I was waved, thankfully, away.

Again, this visit was so short, so coddled, so incoherent, that I still have no sense of Berlin. It’s a fragmentary city to me, efficiently small hotel rooms and indistinguishable apartment blocks and odd dead-ended canal-rivers and huge stone buildings and circus tents and the Wall covered in graffiti. It’s also unpeopled; in all my visits, I’ve not spoken to a native Berliner, not penetrated past the famous surface. It feels like I have to come again.

In Flight Istria Day 2: Tito’s Manservant

I’m writing a big article about Istrian food for Time Out: Croatia.

I sometimes feel like the only adult in the world. It’s an arrogant feeling, I’m aware, but it’s more a view of assumed maturity; seeing people making the same mistakes I’ve made before, the same clich├ęd patterns of behavior cropping up. So here I am in the back of a van driven by an admitted drunk, who’s arguing with the professor about the meaning of life. In the back, our cameraman is being unsubtly romantic to the only girl, an American TV presenter who’s trying to sleep. Occasionally, he pauses to shout directions, or condemn the music.

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Hi-resolution mental snap 1: the face of Miro, the owner of Tomas’ restaurant, as he slumps for a second mid-song, great wrinkled chops and soupsucker moustache sagging onto the pressed-white waiters’ uniform he’s worn since he was (former Yugoslavian dictator) Tito’s personal waiter. In the background, amidst memorabilia, pictures of him show him wearing the same outfit progressively younger, long grey-white locks then black, great truffled nose shrunken to youthful proportions. He waves an arm over the many plates of rare Bosphorin (Istrian Ox) dishes he’s prepared and tells us stories about Tito being a secret drunk.

(The drunk driver is claiming the road ahead is foggy. We point out the road is clear and his eyes are foggy. He tries to clean his glasses.)

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Hi-resolution mental snap 2: The Cave of Pazin. A normal town and Venetian castle, at the end of a normal street. Rounding the castle (small, more like an elaborate town hall), there’s a terrace and balcony. Walking closer to its edge, there appears a pit the area of Grand Central which just drops and drops. Buildings cluster on the rock right to the edge of the hole. Beneath the cliff face, there’s a ten-storey cavern that has whole fallen trees clustered in its maw, looking like twigs from up here. It’s deeper than St Paul’s is high, easily. My head spins looking through the camera zoom and I have to step back from the edge, sharply. To my right, an old building is slowly toppling, abandoned, into the depths; elsewhere a terrifying zipline crosses the shallowest part of the hole.

The driver stops the van suddenly. He’s concerned about the two bottles of wine rolling around his feet while driving, worried that the police will stop him. He talks to himself as he packs them in the boot. The TV presenter observes this, worried. The driver starts the van up and immediately takes a wrong turn into the police station parking lot. We all laugh, sadly, and go quiet as a police car goes slowly past. The romantic is quoting music lyrics as come-on lines.

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Hi-resolution mental snap 3: truffles, everywhere. Truffle prosciutto, truffle pasta, truffle cheese. Walking into the restaurant in Hum, the world’s official smallest walled town, your head is hit by the scent, swamping all other flavours and smells, like the fantastic musk of a bestiary. The mayor of the town brings two jars of truffles that are labelled at unreal prices, just to show, before sloping off for a soup by himself. I wander the streets and take photos of walls, corners, and bricks.

At 2.45am, we’re still driving, this time through Pazin in the mist. I’m terrified that we’ll fall into the Cave. I’m sure they said our farmhotel was close… But then the driver admits we’ve been driving the wrong way for 30 minutes. He starts swearing about Apple Maps in Croat before switching the radio to something like Madness and cranking the volume up.

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Hi-resolution mental snap 4: Miro is singing and has put his arm around my shoulders. It is a sad song so I, all six foot bearded 13 stone, start faking crying, which cracks him up. He tells us more about Tito, when he waited on him on Brione Island in Vanga. What was he like? “A real fucker… The First Lady was too posh… He had a secret room behind the library bookcases. No-one knew what was going on there. I think that was where he went to lie down! Tito was drunk all the time. Loved Martell brandy. Always he had a taster for the food and drink- except for Martell, he trusted Martell. I gave him the last Martell in his life, before he went to Ljubljana to die.” Then the singing and accordion-playing starts and our driver starts drinking…

In Flight Istria Day 1: Agrotourism

I’m writing a big article about Istrian food for Time Out: Croatia.

I barely have a ticket. I don’t really know where I’m going. I’m told it’s Croatia but I don’t know where. I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do when I get there. I do know that it’ll probably be okay, so I’m not really panicking. The mountains beneath the plane loom like alien snowcones, the lake shores are edged with white. The fat Croat behind me snores again. He wakes, aggressive later, and elbows his way a few steps ahead as we line up to get off.

(Later) I got met at the airport by Vedran and his crew. All is fine. Vedran is a worldly Croat who’s doing a PHD in political science on the side. He’s easy to divert onto conversations about philosophy and politics, but his first love is local food. Gastronomy is why I’m here.

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(Later still). We drove for five hours. We drove through the snowy mountains. The houses mainly alternate between newish German-style villas and abandoned local wooden styles, though there’s a smattering of other architectures. As we get up into the mountains, the snow creeps up the walls of the houses, until some of them are simply buried and uninhabited. There’s hours of woods, cliffs, snow, dotted houses with shacks and wood stores. Then we go down, down, down, past a bay of houses, past great craggy mountains (“what’s that one called?” I ask, of a four-pronged peak. “Rocky”, is the rough translation. Similarly, the large town we pass is called “River”.), through tunnels and (I’m sagging now, conversation faded).

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We finally, finally, FINALLY, arrive at agrotourism Ogrone and are mobbed by dogs. The place is based entirely on local produce – everything made here uses only ingredients from the farm itself – chickens, salad, potatoes are all grown here. The lady running it speaks no English and has the charming guileless appearance of a homely, nice middle-aged lady who loves taking in visitors. Signs around the walls testify that she’s more than that; apparently, she won the best rural woman (peasant) prize, amongst many others. And, aside from the roaring fire of Ogrone, where she cooks up a thick luxurious minestrone and a fire-baked chicken stew, she also runs several other businesses around the area. Today, she was approached by one of the big political parties to be their electoral candidate; she turned them down.

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Bed is in a silent house. I’ve no idea where we are but I’m full and tired. Tomorrow, apparently, I’m going to be interviewed by Radio Pazin. God help us all.