Today is the first day without the threat of rain anywhere along my route, so the waterproofs are happily packed away. Breakfast is a croissant and a coffee at a bakery by our S Bahn station, Hamburg’s best according to an award on the wall. I wave V off as she runs off to get a train to see some amazing miniatures and travel onto Hannover. Hopefully this is not the only time on this trip she joins me. The Honda dealership is my final stop in Hamburg. After a chat about bikes I head out onto the Autobahn towards Berlin.
My journey lies through a national park, and although the Autobahn does not offer the most exciting views, the run is pleasant enough until I come across a tailback caused by some roadworks. Berlin is only about 40 miles at this point, and the satnav decides to pick an exciting route through a bunch of tiny villages with cobbled streets and country paths which are barely there. The Avons don’t like it one bit, and Veronica is not too happy either. We wobble and stagger along for 20 miles or so, me with gritted teeth, Veronica complaining each time we go over a particularly unpleasant patch. Eventually the surface becomes more normal and it’s clear that we are in Berlin. The roads are big, everyone is exceeding the speed limit and the roaring scale of the city leaves one in no doubt as to where one is. Unlike Hamburg, there are no hot waterproofs, steamed up shades or soaked boots and gloves. The Pale Rider rolls into Berlin with style and confidence.
T is waiting for me at the crossroads of Graefstrasse and Bockhstrasse in the centre of Kreuzberg, beer in hand with a tiny dog who looks a bit like a young Nietzsche. He’s lived in Berlin for about eight years. The bike gets unpacked and the locks and cover put on. Berlin is very safe but I’d rather take no chances. We head to a joint called LagerLager where T works as a part time manager. He’s a hairdresser too but he is very interested in brewing and is trying his hand at running a bar. A couple of others join, an old friend and a new one.
The conversation is interesting. Berlin is the capital, and a creative and technology hub, supposedly, with a major property bubble, but the City’s economy is in doubt. Some blame the city authorities, a so called red green coalition for not only failing to attract investment but pursuing policies which harm the city’s infrastructure. The hard right AfD party is a worry for some too. These themes recur over the coming days.
The talking runs into the early morning. I have some waypoints along my route, and I mean to keep moving daily, but Berlin has a way of swallowing one up. Nothing like the wild Berlin benders my friends used to engage in when were younger, but it seems I’ve landed here for three days. The next day I saddle up Veronica and pay a visit to Spiller Brucke, a decades old Berlin biker hangout near Nikolassee by Greenwald, between Berlin and Potsdam. As one turns off the autobahn, one is welcomed by a sea of bikes. There are many big cruisers of course, and quite a few adventure bikes, but there are sports bikes, scooters, sidecars and so on. I spot a couple of classic Mzs and even a Simson. The place feels exactly like the Ace or the Epping Forest Tea Hut: the same faces, the same conversations. I order a tea and a schnitzel in a bun, and end up sharing a table with a couple who have a arrived on a 1200 BMW. The chat is about motorbikes of course. I feel totally at home, people are people, the passions, concerns and interests are very similar everywhere. The tribe thing we talked about before? That. But it seems this tribe thing transcends borders and generations. There must be a million other things which unite, and I can’t think of that many that divide. The things that do divide are often artificial intellectual constructs whereupon the things which unite are pragmatic, organic and of the real world.
Veronica’s and mine next stop is the Berliner DDR Motorrad Museum, a collection of about a hundred historic East German motorbikes. When Germany was partitioned, the entrepreneurs who were fortunate were able to move their factories to the West. The unlucky ones had all of their stuff dismantled and moved wholesale to the Soviet Union. The empty sites eventually gave rise to new establishments, a number of them producing motorcycles. MZ of course is the famous one, but there are others, like Simson and EMW. It’s a fascinating insight into an oft forgotten period of history. The curator looks exactly like Pauli Senior from American Chopper but is even more grumpy. Thus far he is the only German person I’ve met who seems to despise bikers, presumably himself included. He grunts when I come in and pay for entry and glowers when I purchase a couple o f postcards. It’s an experience.
Riding around Berlin and environs, one sees many riders. Folks don’t nod here, instead almost every rider one sees flashes a V sign with their clutch hand. I soon get used to the motion and start doing it confidently back. In London one rarely gets a nod back. Here it’s rare not to be greeted in this way.
Berlin’s nightlife buzzes, but in that slightly frizzy neurotic way which says that people want to have a good time as a form of escapism. Berlin is way more chilled than New York but one can feel a similar neurosis in the bars of Kreuzberg as of Williamsburg. Nonetheless, it’s the sort of city one can lose many days and even years to. One bar we visit takes Bitcoin and has done for many years. It also has posters up claiming that cryptocurrencies can end debt, as well as ones threatening patrons who attempt to pay for their beers with a cryptocurrency via a payment method they don’t approve of with getting their bank accounts shut down. The listed payment methods seem to include all major ones, followed by an “etc”. Are their concerns justified? Time will tell. On this occasion we opt to pay in Euros.
There is one more visit to be had: relatives. They live in a beautiful house in a small village outside Potsdam. The garden backs onto and seamlessly turns into the forest. D, now around 80, built it 25 years ago, shortly after the wall came down. Hailing from Dresden, he was born during the war, and spent his career as an engineer in East Germany, retiring not long after reunification. What a life he must have lived! He has a view and an opinion on everything, but he is especially knowledgeable about history. Listening to him, one realises once more what an awful tragedy the partition of Germany was, and how resilient those trapped in the East have had to be in order to survive. He too is sceptical of what the city authorities are doing in Berlin: not enough to attract external investment, too much focus on potentially expensive and inconsequential projects.
It appears we are no clearer as to what defines Berlin or Germany, but what of Germany in Europe? Do people feel European? It seems not. Many feel the same about being German too, which much more identifiable affinity to and passion for their state or city. An interesting observation: there haven’t been many EU level politicians from Germany. Is it because Germany is so big and influential that many members of its political class feel that they can have a greater impact by being in German politics?
JFK once made a famous gaffe during a speech in Berlin, claiming: “Ich bin ein Berliner”, or “I’m a donut”. I am many things, but a donut is probably not one of them. Ich bin nicht ein Berliner. Around 3,000km more await the Blac Ridrere. Knocking back a tea and a donut, I roll out, headed South.