I savored the obscenely long snooze I could afford myself on the Monday morning of Fall break.
Successfully making my way into the kitchen and making coffee before noon, I texted Federica to see what she and Valentino were doing and within a short time, I was on my way to meet them at Schlosspark Niederschönhausen for lunch and a stroll. At some point between leaving my apartment and exiting the 150 bus at Hermann Hesse -/ Waldstrasse, Berlin thwarted my irrational hope for a sunny afternoon, but walking from the bus stop to the park’s entrance, under colorful trees and buildings and alongside lively Niederschönhausen early-afternoon-crowds, the cheerful memory of morning sunlight remained. After walking through the park’s entrance, as into a medieval town, I took out my phone and texted both of them, but before they answered, I found them sitting on a bench in front of the palace.
“How do you do?” I said.
Federica and Valentino didn’t seem to notice me at first, gazing toward the palace and around the park in contemplation. Nothing out of the ordinary, so I sat down beside them to wait for them to finish their takeaway, and rolled myself a cigarette.
“Could you not wait a second? We’re still eating,” said Valentino.
“We’re fine, actually. Tino wants to write an article for the student blog about walking along the Panke River, so he’s a bit stressed,” answered Federica.
I asked: “What are you going to say about it?”
“Have you been to the Panke?”
I shook my head.
“Bro, how long have you been going to BCB? Do you know Geoff, the art professor?”
I shook my head again.
Valentino shook his head now and explained: “Well, he’s amazing, and in our class on landscape painting he described the walk along the Panke. You can start here in Schlosspark and end up in the city center. If you go upstream, you reach some countryside or outskirt but we’re going into town today.”
Valentino continued talking as they crumbled up their wrappers and stood up to walk to the nearest trash can and then to start the stroll. The palace was Friedrich the Great’s gift to his wife Elisabeth Christine, as a summer residence, but its modern history was at least as incredible: that the National Socialists made a depot of degenerate art there, that the East German government temporarily made the palace its seat of some sort and then a guest house, where, among others, Gandhi, Fidel Castro, and Gorbachev lodged. To save time, we weren’t going to go to the Panke where it flows through Schlosspark but were going to take a shortcut to Bürgerpark through Majakowskiring, a green, quiet place, where many Soviet and East German officials lived close to the palace.
“If you google ‘stroll along the Panke,’ you can find tons of articles and blogs explaining the route and its history. I think for my entry, I want to try to write something poetic or storylike,” said Valentino. “I had this thought of a journey through time. We could be like monks going on a pilgrimage, or, you know, something about Covid and escaping the plague, setting off on a journey from the monastery—that would be BCB—and stopping by the palace for a royal blessing before retreating into the green in search of the normal life and so on, guided only by the river and our pious sense of adventure, to then discover a bright future and modernity in the bustling metropolis.”
“So, what would this neighborhood be then?” I asked.
“But that doesn’t make too much sense: we’re escaping a pandemic, traveling into the city…?” said Federica. “And, like you said, if we are traveling into the future, the palace and this neighborhood are in the past, so you’d describe them through a feudal lens, while you said that the palace’s Soviet past is the strangest or most interesting. As medieval monks, we wouldn’t know that.”
The conversation continued to flow in this vein as we left the neighborhood and approached Bürgerpark from Grabbeallee. The walk certainly lent itself to poetic imagination: a street named after the poet Mayakovsky, not far from a street named after Tchaikovsky—as our knowledge of M1 stops assured us—like a rhyme in space and in sound. A bit later, the memorial to the leftist Czech writer Julius Fucik, which greeted us at the entrance to Bürgerpark, once again united the walk with an open and alive sense of art and history. The same spaces and monuments, becoming an index of co-existent realities, whether past, unfolding, or imaginary, would direct our attention to the painterly and poetic, to the feudal and industrial, to the communist past or to the present of welfare democracy and pressing social questions, be they a virus or the constitution of urban spaces and inequality.
Finally rejoining the Panke in Bürgerpark, we marveled at the autumn colors, our walking slowing, while we took frequent stops on the path or detours onto bridges or down to the shore to take photos. I felt something untimely and comfortably out of place about our way of taking photos: we didn’t seem on our way to anywhere, like the small groups of children biking home from school, or to have a purpose of any sort, like the few couples strolling on a date or settling for a picnic by the water. Somehow, we managed to keep moving through the park, though none of us could say anymore what for or why in that direction. Only the Panke held us and the walk together.
“Isn’t ‘NSR’ the same tag that was found next to the swastika by W16? I’ve seen these tags all over Pankow since then,” said Valentino. “Someone wrote ‘Antifa’ on the bench though.”
We didn’t really have much more to say about that and kept walking. Federica took out her phone and I decided to smoke a cigarette.
“Could you not? Or walk a little slower than us so the smoke goes the other way.”
“Well you’re not eating anymore but ok,” I replied.
“I can’t smell the park. Monks don’t smoke either. This weather is getting on my nerves. All the photos are gonna look grey: for an article, that’s fine, but for a story, they have to illustrate the story, so I feel like the story will be grey as well.”
Reaching the other end of Bürgerpark, we briefly parted with the Panke to pass underneath the S-Bahn bridge, close to Wollankstrasse: approaching the city, with its traffic and stone. Recalling Valentino’s story, it did feel to me as an emergence out of a natural realm and an entrance into an urban space, where we entangled ourselves in minor traffic and caught disgruntled looks from biking Germans, as we walked in the bike lane under the S-Bahn bridge in our provincial and monastic ignorance. Meanwhile, to the side, there were turned-over shopping carts and broken bottles, two leather couches, and a pile of blankets someone probably calls home.
Having passed the S-Bahn tracks, we returned to the river. Back on the path, Federica checked her phone again and let us know:
“Welcome to West Berlin, guys. I think we just crossed the border, leaving Pankow and entering Wedding, and we’re already walking through Wedding.”
“Hey Valentino,” I said. “Why are we monks? We could be East Berliners fleeing into the West.”
“That might be the dumbest comment so far,” he replied and walked slightly faster to end the conversation. Although Valentino’s pessimism was driving me insane as always, I found refuge in the beauty that we stepped into after rejoining the river. The city almost disappeared from sight again, while myriads of leaves hanging in the air and covering the ground turned the landscape into a dotted impressionist painting on a three-dimensional canvas.
The path switched onto the other side of the river and meadows replaced the trees. Valentino continued walking slightly ahead of us and we spent the better part of this segment of the stroll in silence, immersing ourselves in the fresh air and the slowly passing by views. Hearing only our footsteps and the occasional breeze in the trees, my memory of the bus ride and of Niederschönhausen felt distant like a dream; our journey from the palace to the city center appeared like a delusion, as if on our quest we had unintentionally taken the Panke upstream and left the city behind. The Kleingartenverein that we were passing on the opposite side of the Panke looked more like a village than a sectioned off green space within a metropolis.
“Do you recognize that flag?”, I asked Federica, pointing over into the midst of the little houses. She shrugged her shoulders. After the meadows, we were definitely ending the countryside-like part of the walk, with its pastoral overtones and small-garden-colonies, re-entering the urban realm. The Panke squeezed its way in between two rows of buildings and lush vegetation created a natural enclave within the city, which stretched out along the embankment. Traffic on the path surged, as a group of 20 or so little children carrying backpacks slowly, hopped ahead of us, though not so much out of slowness as indeterminacy. Two of them fell back, one of whom exclaimed:
“Did you see the hamster?!”
“No, what hamster?”, the other replied.
“There, in the bushes! Look it’s a hamster!”
“I don’t know… It’s a rat! It was a rat!”
“Eeeewwwwww! A rat!”
“I looked into the bushes and I saw a rat!”
When the children turned onto a bridge across the river, we resumed our normal pace. A jubilant mood replaced the previous peaceful feeling of walking through meadows. Occasionally, the path crossed streets, sometimes it passed by small soccer courts, inviting playgrounds, or circles lined with benches. Slightly separated from the path, on one such bench, two older men smoked and talked about car repair. Ahead of us, two ladies were pushing strollers and laughing.
We stepped down off of the path to a clearing by the water. It opened to a view of a long brick building with a strange roof, seemingly comprised of many small pointy roofs, reminiscent of an old factory building. When the clearing came to an end and we returned to the path, more colorful old buildings caught our attention and we veered off the path again into a small square. Our walk hadn’t taken a pause in what felt like hours–despite our small detours from the path and the brief stops to estimate the perfect angle to take a photo, entering the square I felt for the first time that we had arrived somewhere. People around us were also arriving and leaving this destination, but none seemed to share our awe of the colors and decorations on the buildings, to be amazed at the architecture that so elegantly completed the view of nature and the river. I reached for my phone to find out where we were.
“The building across the river was the Pankehallen, an old factory now repurposed for artist studios. Now we’re back at Kings Friedrich and their Queens. Here was a wellness resort named after Queen Luise, which lasted as long as the mineral spring and the Panke could withstand their own popularity, before they were too polluted, and from where the name Gesundbrunnen comes too,” I told the others.
As Federica and Valentino explored the possibility of taking good photographs, I realized that daylight was ending soon. I slowly walked out onto the pedestrian bridge over the Panke, looking downstream toward Badstrasse. When the others joined and Valentino leaned against the railing with a sigh, I could tell they also felt the day ending. I still didn’t fully understand where we were going in the first place or if on the bridge we arrived at the end, when almost any part of the walk seemed as welcoming for us to stay, begging for us to call it a day, to move on from the story, whether it be about the plague or the royal court or the Berlin Wall, and return to ourselves.
I couldn’t have chosen one story to describe the walk, the beauty lying more in the abundance of narratives and poetic possibilities, which emerged from the neighborhoods we walked through, overspilling the confines of any single idea. Within a single place, such as a park, a breezy meadow, or an S-Bahn bridge, we could walk through many spaces, co-existent realms of reality and imagination, encountering strangers and becoming strangers to ourselves and to others. The more we walked, the less I felt that Valentino could make this adventure into a story and by the end it didn’t seem too important, so long as someone else also took this stroll, or any other stroll for that matter.
“We didn’t make it to the end of the river. How will your story explain that?”, I asked.
“Covid won, or I don’t know… We renounced our monk status,” said Valentino. “You smoked too many cigarettes on the way and couldn’t keep up with us, so we stopped out of respect.”
“It was time for a coffee break. We live close by here; if you have time, you should join,” said Federica.