Posted in Family, Reading, Travel

All Fall Down

Preparing to visit Berlin for the first time a few weeks ago, I was unsure what I might find there.

My expectations had been partly shaped by a blend of fiction (Isherwood), film (Cabaret), and song, (Bowie’s “We Can Be Heroes”).

photo of the Brandenburg Gate with organ grinder
The jaunty tunes played by this organ grinder in front of the magnificent Brandenburg Gate reminded me of the Berlin of Isherwood’s time

At school I studied twentieth century history to A Level. In those days, the Berlin Wall was an impenetrable barrier between East and West, and I was living in Frankfurt with a postal address in West Germany.

the American sector sign
When I lived in Germany as a teenager, the Berlin Wall was still standing. This iconic sign that divided the American sector from the Russian remains as a chilling reminder, though this tourist seems unfazed.

Packing for our city break, I discarded the book I’d been saving to read on the trip: a historical novel set in Berlin during the Second World War. Might it be offensive to be seen reading a story about an era Berliners would prefer to forget?

I need not have worried.

The city turned out to be full of reminders of both World Wars and the Cold War, now serving as incitements to peace.

photo of the Kaiser Wilhelm church
Beside the bombed ruins of the bell tower of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church now stands beside a modern bell tower as a symbol of peace.

Even parts of the hated Berlin Wall have been left standing. When the Wall fell in 1989, Berliners resisted their initial impulse to destroy the whole of this brutal divider of East and West. Instead, they kept parts of it intact as a reminder of the importance of the freedom and democracy which the Wall once denied them.

photo of sections of the wall on a street
Sections of the Berlin Wall forming an educational display for passers-by

The rest of it was to be painted by local artists, then broken up for sale as souvenirs. The Wall was so huge that there are still plenty of pieces to meet tourists’ demands, and they must be a healthy source of revenue for the city’s coffers.

Berlin is now an upbeat, creative and cosmopolitan place, full of green spaces, wide tree-lined boulevards and light.

Standing outside our hotel on the Kurfürstendamm (Berlin’s answer to London’s Bond Street), we could hear not the roar of traffic, but copious birdsong.

photo of the Leonardo Hotel
Where we stayed

There are very few motorists, because Berlin’s public transport system is so efficient and affordable that you don’t need a car to get around. Their trams, trains, U-bahns and buses are also very easy to use. There are no ticket barriers anywhere, as it’s assumed all travellers will be honest and buy tickets. This trust may not be misplaced, according to Lenin, who joked, “If Germans ever stormed a railway station, they’d first buy a platform ticket.”

selfie with my daughter by Checkpoint Charlie
With my daughter by the iconic Checkpoint Charlie

As in British towns, electric scooters are rife. The abundance of cycle paths in this flat city allows them to operate relatively safely. I wish I’d been quick enough with my phone camera to capture a sight that seemed to epitomise twenty-first century Berlin: a stream of electric scooters gliding freely past Checkpoint Charlie, still maintained as a landmark, into what used to be East Berlin.

Testdriving an iconic Trabant was a highlight of our visit to the wonderful DDR Museum

I had an unfortunate encounter with an electric scooter near the Brandenburg Gate, when I tripped over one left lying on the pavement. The scar on my left knee was an unwanted souvenir. But I also brought back a much better souvenir: a piece of the Berlin Wall,  which now sits on my desk as a permanent reminder to myself that no obstacle is truly insurmountable. Except that electric scooter by the Brandenburg Gate, obviously.

photo of souvenir piece of Berlin Wall with plastic mount

This post was originally written for the July 2022 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News

Cover of Everyday Kindness hardback anthology
I was thrilled when L J Ross chose my story inspired by the Berlin Wall for inclusion in her charity anthology…

If you enjoyed this piece, you might enjoy this short story I wrote a couple of Christmases ago as a guest post for Helen Hollick’s blog, in which a souvenir of the Berlin Wall plays a crucial part: Christmas Ginger. It was later selected for L J Ross’s Everyday Kindness anthology in aid of Shelter, the charity for those without homes or in poor housing, and in the audiobook  edition it was read by the distinguished actress and novelist Celia Imrie.

graphic of Celia Imrie as narrator of Christmas Ginger
…and when Celia Imrie was chosen to narrate my story for the audiobook version edition.




English author of warm, witty cosy mystery novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Gemma Lamb/St Bride's School series. Novels published by Boldwood Books, all other books by Hawkesbury Press. Represented by Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agents. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. Course tutor for Jericho Writers. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors. Lives and writes in her Victorian cottage in the heart of the beautiful Cotswold countryside.

2 thoughts on “All Fall Down

  1. My WIP is set in Berlin during WW1 and my husband and I are planning a visit at the end of September. Although I have done a ton of research — online and books etc., — looking at Berlin around 1913 and onwards, neither of us have actually been to the city before and I can’t wait! Your post has made me even more enthusiastic. Thanks.

    1. I’m so pleased to have helped! I don’t know much about Berlin during WWI so I’d be interested to hear more about your book when it’s published. Good luck with it!

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