Palace walk with lockdown blues

Portrait of an irritable man

I took a long walk through the neighbourhood again, partly out of a desire for new sights in a year of lockdown drudgery, and partly as an antidote to irritability caused by too little sleep and too much noise.

The long curving low rises of my neighbourhood gave way to a small collection of German and Croatian restaurants, a few pharmacies, an optometrist, and small shops, and then the brick temples to industry towering like a ziggurat above it all.

Nearly all still bear the Siemens logo, and most are heritage buildings — including the first factory high rise in Europe. Their clinker facades and imposing clock towers resemble the set of an Expressionist film: Electropolis rather than Metropolis, given the dynamos they once produced here.

This entire district was built by Siemens, both the factory complex and the residential quarter designed to be a modernist housing development for their workers.

UNESCO neighbourhood

Several apartment blocks were designed by architectural legends like Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and expressionist Hans Scharoun (who gave us the Berliner Philharmonie), and they’re now UNESCO World Heritage listed.

The low rise residences were completed in the idealistic early Weimar years. Each building encloses a walled courtyard filled with trees. The flats are spacious, with plank floors and large windows, built at an angle calculated to give each resident the maximum amount of light.

Apartment courtyard winter view (but not today)

It must have been so different from the gloomy tenements in the city centre. But 1930’s soundproofing lagged far behind the desire for light and space, and much can be heard through the floors and ceilings.

We had the bad luck to move in below a family with a toddler that’s just begun to toddle. I’m woken nearly every morning by running: back and forth, over and over, with a determination that would rival Terry Fox.

The kid is called Rupa. I know this because I hear the parents shouting “Rupa! Ruuuuupaaaa! Ruuuuuupaaaa! Yaaaaay!” above my study with interminable persistence. I believe the name means ‘Shatterer of Silence’. I wear noise cancelling headphones all day while I work, but it does nothing to muffle the constant banging on the floor.

I was angry and sleep deprived when we set out on our walk, and the bleak factory facades only added to my resentment. The short cut we took led to the Spree, where a dirt path follows the silent river past garden allotments with industrial views.

Those strange garden colonies are everywhere in the city: tiny fenced off wooden shacks surrounded by flowers and forest kitsch. They gave West Berliners a sense of space and a place to grow food when half the city was walled in by the East.

My old neighbour nearly rented one, but the hawk-eyed elderly drove him away. “You’re not allowed to sleep in your cabin at night,” he told me, “and you must obey a long list of rules.”

That combination of national regulations with “community” rules made it sound like the typical neighbourhood Stasi, where busybodies have nothing better to do than scold you for invented transgressions. I couldn’t imagine a worse way to spend my time, short of listening to a toddler run.

I turned my face away from the colonies to study apocalyptic industrial views, and the truncated bridge of an abandoned rail link that stuck out like an amputation over the turbid surge.

Siemensbahn reaches the end of the line

Siemens built the 4.5km Siemensbahn in 1925, and some 17,000 of their 90,000 strong local workforce used those trains, which ran every 5 minutes, serving 3 stations spread across the district. This bridge linked it to the main Berlin S-bahn, but it was cut off in the Second World War.

They made due with a temporary Russian bridge for years, and finally replaced it in 1956, but Siemens had already moved to Munich by then, and I guess they didn’t need it anymore. Declining passenger numbers and a strike delivered the fatal blow in 1980. The U7 opened in the district that year, and we’ve been going underground ever since.

The U7 put an end to the Siemensbahn

The abandoned S-bahn line is overgrown with trees, but the track still runs through our neighbourhood. I pass beneath it when I walk to the grocery store, and there’s a boarded up ghost station three blocks from my flat.

We continued down the Spree past the Charlottenburg lock, where it meets the Westhafen Canal and takes a sharp right turn into a world of gardens and artificial ponds that dates back to 1695.

I’d never been to the garden before, though I’d gone to Charlottenburg Palace many times for its Christmas market.

The gardens of Charlottenburg palace

The paths buzzed with strolling people meeting friends in small groups, or getting a little air to break up an apartment dweller’s day. Their aimless pace reminded me of a prison exercise yard. We’ve been sentenced to the crime of ‘virus’ and given a year of hard lockdown, and it doesn’t seem likely we’ll be granted parole.

Covid numbers are surging again. The slight easing we saw in Berlin two weeks ago has stopped and is being reversed. We’ve just been told we may have to stay indoors entirely for 5 days over Easter. Cue the usual food hoarding in 3… 2… 1…

Palace views across the carp pond

I watch from a distance as my American friends post “I’ve been vaccinated” photos on Facebook and begin their transition back to normal life. But in Germany, nothing has changed and little to no progress is being made. The Germans developed a vaccine with astonishing speed, but they just can’t seem to distribute it to anyone.

Europeans (and Canadians) mocked the Americans and the British for their inability to impose lockdowns on highly individualistic populations, blaming soaring infection rates on populism and a stubborn lack of group cohesion.

“If only they had a female leader,” they said, “like Germany or Canada or New Zealand, rather than Dumb Donnie and Bloated Boris…”

But smug gloating has turned to blame as EU politicians pick fights with AstraZeneca in an attempt to distract the public from their own utter failure to organize a piss up in a brewery.

It’s interesting to see how the effort to vaccinate entire populations has fallen prey to cultural patterns.

The US and UK focused on speed, with the Americans recruiting medical students and training firefighters to give injections. Whatever it takes to get the job done.

In Malta, vaccinations were tainted with corruption as people called politicians and jumped the queue with the usual clientelism.

The Japanese were busy looking away, avoiding bad news by pretending it wasn’t there.

Canada failed before it started thanks to the total incompetence of an unqualified leader who places petty virtue signalling and scolding above good governance.

As for the Germans, they bogged down in the usual bureaucracy. German efficiency goes something like this.

A: “The people who are next on the list have refused the vaccine.”

B: “So vaccinate those who want it.”

A: “But this is impossible. We must vaccinate those next on the list.”

B: “They don’t want it.”

A: “But they must. They’re next on the list.”

They’ve been trapped in an infinite loop for months, unable to escape this logical conundrum, and there’s no relief in sight.

Days when a garden feels like a prison

The European Union’s collective approach to vaccination is a perfect illustration of that union’s fatal flaws.

In its blow-by-blow expose of the continent’s vaccine procurement debacle, Politico placed the blame for failure squarely on “the bloc’s decisions to prioritize process over speed and to put solidarity between EU countries ahead of giving individual governments more room to maneuver”.

“The problem,” they said, “was bureaucracy. Before it could place an order, the Commission had to wait for each EU country to sign the contract. Some countries, fed up with the endless back and forth, simply purchased the items on their own.”

But larger cultural forces were also at play — notably Europe’s anti-capitalist resentment.

The United States was willing to pay more if that’s what it took to get their population back to work. Americans don’t have a problem with pharmaceutical companies and others making a reasonable profit for their efforts.

The European Union bogged down in nickel-and-diming arguments with vaccine producers over price, and those weeks of delay cost lives and killed businesses.

As the New York Times wrote in a recent opinion piece on the rollout, it was a very European disaster. Where Puritans are haunted by the fear that someone somewhere might be happy, “Eurocrats seem similarly haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere — whether it be pharmaceutical companies or Greek public-sector employees — might be getting away with something.”

Walking the covid lockdown blues

I’ve always been pro-EU for the wonderful Schengen Zone freedom of movement, and for this vast mix of culture and landscape that feels like different rooms of a large home.

But economically, what should be the world’s largest trading block will never compete with China or the US. The European Union is doomed to stagnancy, both economic and in terms of ideas. The only thing they seem able to compete on is creating endless reams of complex regulations.

The problem has always been there, of course. The pandemic just made it glaringly obvious. Government by committee was never a good idea.

But I can’t do anything about it, unfortunately. I’m just a writer, and it seems we’re trapped here until they decide to let us out — or bring in some Americans or Brits who are capable of getting the job done fast.

I don’t believe the German government’s promises that we’ll all be vaccinated by summer because they haven’t met a single target yet.

I just hope it doesn’t end up like the new Berlin airport: 9 years late, €4 billion over budget, and by the time they finally opened it, already too small.

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • So Ryan, why do you live in Berlin? I live in Iowa & a lot of time in Seattle ie where my g’kids live. Iowa is guiet, conservative, and in my little town no homelessness, traffic issues, no $4 gas costs, etc. it sounds like Berlin isn’t your happy place. Just wondering.

    • Hi Clark,

      We love living in Berlin. We visited the city several times while I was living in Malta, for longer and longer stays. I never got tired of it, and I was always sad to leave. We had the good luck to be offered a sublet on our last visit to the city and jumped at the chance to move here. It’s a wonderful city to spend time in, and a great base for travels in Europe, Africa and further afield.

      What I don’t like is this endless lockdown — with no escape in sight thanks to the EU’s bungled vaccination plan. The first year was tolerable; I got a lot of reading and writing done. But I’ve really begun to miss travel now that we’re moving into Covid Year Two.

      The lockdown has also taken away so much that makes Berlin one of Europe’s most liveable cities: the Berlinale, galleries, cool cocktail bars and great cheap restaurants, incredible live music, and so much more. I’m glad I got to experience that for my first 4 years here.


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