Berlin re-visited

All of the hoo-haa this week about David Bowie’s new single and its referencing of his days in Berlin has me recalling my own trip to Berlin in 1983.

I had travelled to England to fulfil a lifelong (at 21!) dream of going to and being in London.  And in London I was.  I wanted to stay forever …  But it was very expensive, so I quickly retreated to my friend Rowena’s parents’ house in Luton, Bedfordshire, to regroup.  She and I took a trip to Paris, travelling on the hovercraft in choppy seas – I never liked cigar smoke and that trip really did me in – all the duty free cigars being smoked on board.  We stayed in a tiny room near Sacre Coeur and I learned about negotiating my way around in another language. After that, when we got back to the UK, I thought I’d be fine going to Berlin by myself. Despite having only a smattering of German.

My old friend, Anxiety , however wasn’t so sure and insisted on coming along for a ride.  I didn’t quite make it to the train on the first night. But I was determined and on my second try I headed off from Luton to London, to take the train to Harwich, then the ferry to Oostende in Holland, and then another train through Germany to West Berlin.

The journey itself was uneventful – I had booked a couchette and along with my co-travellers, settled down to sleep the trip away.  No-one told the East German border guards about this plan though.  They boarded the train some time in the night, made their way through the carriages, turning on lights willy nilly, demanding to see “passeports!”.  I readily handed mine over, awed by their guns and their attitude – apart from the odd editor at The Australian, I hadn’t come across anyone who had spoken like that before. Their guns frightened the devil out of me, as did their uniforms and well, their attitude.  No-one was going to mess with them, least of all me.  And I was, at times, well known for my attitude.

Arriving in West Berlin in the gloom of the October morning, I had not booked accommodation – a stab at being freewheeling, and I regretted it straight away.  I went to the accommodation booth at the train station and following some negotiation, lumped my bag about half a kilometre to an … interesting … boarding house.  Fortunately, I had spent lots of time among drag queens in Newcastle, so the resident group of transsexuals didn’t phase me much – who else would you expect to stay with in Berlin in 1983?

Finding somewhere else to stay was out of the question – I had paid good money to the agent for that room; I was exhausted from lugging my bags around, plus I had already lost a day due to my false start.  So I was stuck with it.

The door on the room locked, after a fashion, and I think it’s the only place I have ever stayed in through all of my travels where I took everything I had with me into the bathroom when I went for a bath.  Goodness knows what they thought of me with my big blue duffle coat, fake snakeskin boots, close cropped hair cut (red) from a high street salon and Elvis Costello glasses.  Live and let live, I suspect, like trannies all over the world.

And like Bowie, I headed to the famous department store, Ka De We, and made a couple of judicious purchases – a scarf for my sister and myself amongst them.  Then I wandered the streets in the rain, soaking up the atmosphere, and checking out the restaurant menus out of interest.  I think I went to the Brandenburg Gates and peered through into the East.

Going to East Berlin was one of my goals and it was surprisingly easy. I can’t recall how I got to the gates of Checkpoint Charlie – the border crossing between East and West Berlin operated by the Allies until 1989.  But I do recall the guard who processed my visitor’s application.  “You will go for one day.”  I thought he was telling me, but I realised later he was merely asking me – I hadn’t understood the intonation because I was focused on the big gun at his side, and his size – he was like a bear.  If he told me I was going for one day, then I would go for one day – no problem.

Visitors were also required to change a set amount of money into East German currency, and spend it there.  This was quite a challenge, and even after eating lunch and checking out the shops, I knew I would not be spending up big.  There was nothing to buy!  I found a little German doll – a lamplighter, and a pair of bright blue mittens – both of which I still have, but the rest of the money went unspent. 

I recall getting the underground train back to the western side, through the Berlin Zoo station, and although I don’t remember my passport being checked, I am sure it would have been.

My only other recollection is buying two Checkpoint Charlie t-shirts – one for me and one for Rowena.

When Rod and I travelled in Europe in 1991, we went to many different parts of Germany, but not to Berlin.  I’ve always hankered to return though.

Maybe, after 30 years, it’s time for another look?  If I can, like Bowie, I’ll go back to Ka De We.  I assume, like all good capitalist symbols, it’s still there.


The sound and light of a Fractured Heart

Cait and I had fun at the Fractured Heart sound installation at the National Film and Sound Archive this week.


Called a ‘light harp’, it gives you a chance to play with sound and light in an interactive fashion and is a really valuable lesson in understanding how to manipulate the sound in particular, to make new pieces of music.  The light component gives another guide for what sound you have chosen in your “composition”.

The installation uses Gotye’s “Somebody that I used to know” featuring Kimbra, with both vocal parts of the song as well as instrumental components available for manipulation into new pieces of soundscape – whatever you as the manipulator of the data wants to make of it.

Fractured Heart was used as a background light show for the ARIA awards in 2011 and another version was used at the 2012 Vivid Festival in Sydney. It will be at the NFSA at least until May 2013.

Spare a thought for the staff who work in the gallery though, who hear this same song again and again.  I hope they get plenty of breaks.

Batfink and the wallaroo

Our little black kelpie, Tilly, has big ears for such a small dog.  They remind me of the cartoon character, Batfink, whose ears were proportionally larger than normal and sat on the side of his bat’s head like giant shells.

Bf&karate  Silly Tilly

Batfink and his sidekick Karate                                                   You can see the similarities … Tilly in watching mode

Batfink was a spoof on the Batman cartoons in the 60s; Batfink’s ears and wings of steel were the tools of his rescuing trade. I wanted to call Tilly Batfink in recognition of their physical similarity, but I lost that argument.  Nevertheless, Tilly’s ears are like super-sonic sonar receptors, swivelling independently, checking the sound-scape constantly.  It’s a very valuable attribute, I guess, when there are sheep to be herded, although not so much at 2am when there are pesky possums are on the loose outside, and she is stuck inside in the laundry.

Last Sunday morning she and I did one of our regular walks, looping along the ridge beneath Mount Arawang. The Cooleman Ridge Reserve was devastated by the 2003 bushfires, and its recovery has been steady, although the vegetation is still pretty scrubby.  I suspect it was always like that, but my memory may have distorted the reality.

A few years ago, a lot of work was done on the drainage systems leading off from the mountain … well, it’s a hill really, but now the walking trails are wide and easily shared with runners and cyclists.  The vista is wide too, looking out to the north of the city as you head west along the ridge.

View from Cooleman Ridge

Around the back of the hill, the views south to Tuggeranong and then to the Brindabellas are breathtaking, and I particularly like it in winter.  Sometimes you can see dustings of snow, and as you turn the corner to head south, the wind whips up and is bracing to say the least. It’s where I go to clear my head.

The wind is less bracing in summer, and more like an actual wave of heat.  But the hour long walk I do with Tilly gives her a bit of a leg stretch, and it provides me with another way of doing a cardio workout.

We rarely do a walk without seeing some kind of wild life, with loads of cockatoos, rosellas, magpie larks and magpies, and if we’re late enough in the evening at dusk, (we’re rarely early enough in the morning!) we will see large mobs of kangaroos, wallabies and sometimes wallaroos that have come back to the mountain over the last ten years.

Rosella cooleman ridge Kangaroos on Cooleman Ridge

Tilly’s sensory system goes into overload; she sets a pace that is steady, pulling on the lead, as she tries to take it all in.

Sunday’s walk started out in the late morning and I was forcing myself to go the long way, trying to shed some of the Christmas cheer.  Ice cream on several successive days is really a step too far.  The walk was uneventful, except for noticing the height of the grasses, especially the wild oats, which were taller than the small kelpie.  The birds and ‘roos were away in the shade – only we mad dogs were out in the midday sun.

We came down off the ridge path via the steps, taking our time as I nursed my various ailments.  Once back on the path though, Tilly became very attentive to something ahead on the side of the hill.  Her ears pointed upwards – very little swivelling – and her head slightly moved from side to side, in full alert mode.  I eventually noticed her interest but could not for the life of me see what she could sense.  My head voice sounded more like Sonny in Skippy rather than Batfink. What’s up Til, what is it?  What can you see? My guess is that she probably couldn’t see anything much, but she could hear and smell something …

As we moved along the path around the side of the hill, I saw a small kangaroo bound away further up the hillside, and then stop and watch us.  Nothing unusual, although it seemed to be by itself, which was odd.  As I was looking at it, I saw something move near the fence, about twenty metres below it, but above us.  We stopped, and it moved again.  As we approached the path’s edge, I could see that a creature was caught in the wire fence.

My heart sank.  I like to look at creatures, and I am more than happy to share the great outdoors with them.  But I am less than keen on getting close to them, particularly if they are scared.

We went down into the ditch between the path and the hillside, and scrambled back up the other side, Tilly leading the way.  I tied her lead to a nearby fence post and went to investigate.  Sure enough, a joey had caught both of its legs in between the wire and was lying on the ground upside down, trying to pull itself free.  But it was caught fast and there was no way I could separate the strands to release it.  The animal struggled and struggled, and had obviously been there for some time.  It was a hot day, and its eyes were glazing over.  Its body was reacting to the stress both of me and the dog being so close, as well as its situation.  I don’t think I’ve felt so helpless for a long time.

I glanced up and down the path – some other people with three dogs had been walking on the track earlier, but they had gone.  I could go down into the houses that back onto the reserve, but was reticent to do so.  Just then, a woman on a bike appeared, and I hailed her down.  Her phone had internet access and she kindly looked up the ACT Government site (132281 – won’t forget that number) to call for help.  Even between the two of us, we couldn’t move the wires.  I got through to the rangers on my phone, and they thanked us for reporting it and promised to be there as soon as they could, but couldn’t give me a timeframe.  The other lady headed off.  Before I left, I tied to a tree the empty bag in which we carry the doggy-do, to mark the spot, and wrote a RANGERS HERE sign in the dirt on the path.  Not quite up to the rescue standard of Skippy and Batfink though.

I wept all the way home.

Partly because of the animal’s suffering, partly because of my own inability to help it, and partly because I didn’t think the rangers could get there in time to save it. They have so many priorities and resources are tight.  I wept for its struggle, and for its mother, which stayed near by the whole time we were there.

Thankfully, though, I was wrong.  The rangers rang me about an hour later, saying that they had been able to find and free the joey – it was a wallaroo, a species whose numbers are low in the ACT, so I was relieved by their success.  It had been well enough to bound away with its mother, and the rangers had been unable to catch it, so hopefully it will be okay.

Tilly had sat quietly through the whole episode, not a peep out of her – her super-sonic sonar radar had helped the little wallaroo, and that was enough for today.  Really, there was a walk to be finished.