We left the girls alone in the apartment since their groans told us they had no interest in joining us for a walk through the Tiergarten. M and I headed out midday under sunny Sunday skies, with the temps in the 40s. We took Eisenacherstraße north through our neighborhood, farther than I’d ever followed it, to the point where it changes names. I made an effort to lodge the name Courbièrestraße somewhere in my brain so I could find it again later. From there we turned right and emerged on a main thoroughfare, and I took a moment to turn around and observe the small opening, filing it away for future reference.
Much of the walk was a lesson on Aida, the next opera I’ll attend with M. Lacking a roomful of students, he must make do with me. He told me how it was one of Verdi’s last works, written when he was old and tired of composing and longing to give up his career and just tend his gardens at his villa in the country. But no such luck; Egypt was opening the Suez Canal and needed an opera to commemorate the event, and only a Verdi opera would do.
The subject matter of Aida is strange, if you think about it—the heroine is the enslaved princess of Ethiopia, stolen from her country by the conquering Egyptians. But M says not to pay attention to the story, and ignore the military parades and other big numbers too. The beauty of the opera is in its small moments, the intimate duets that come toward the end.
And so it went, M dropping details of the opera’s history and reception, me asking tangential plot questions and getting wrapped up in historical details that were all meaningless, fabricated for the opera.
Meanwhile we were passing through the Tiergarten, tier meaning animals, a reference to how this park was once a royal hunting ground where deer and wild animals were kept to amuse the Kaiser. The paths meander, Berlin-style, resisting any attempt at a straight course, leaving you guessing as to whether you’ll emerge by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe or at the opening of the Brandenburg Gate.
We found ourselves by the gate, so down Unter den Linden we went, only to get tangled amid a crowd of people outside the Hotel Adlon where Michael Jackson once famously dangled his baby over the balcony. We stood in the crowd for a moment, wondering who might pull up in a limousine, but we got bored with that and pushed onwards. M shared more details on Aida, interspersed with comments on our kids—do you think those headaches could be migraines? Should we send her to that charter school next year?
Then M had an idea. “I know where I want to take you for coffee! A place Elke showed me,” he said, and he hurried me along the next block.
We were walking quickly across the square, M mid-sentence about the final duet of Aida and Radamès ensconced in the tomb where they would soon be buried alive, when I stopped, realizing I recognized where we were.
“Wait!” I said, abruptly ending the lesson, turning around slowly. We were at Bebelplatz, the square in front of the law school of the Humboldt University, the site of the Berlin book burning in 1933. There before us was the memorial to the books, the empty library underground, room enough for all 20,000 burned books, shelves empty, glowing white under their veil of glass. I’d been here before several times, but for the first time I understand how it fit with the Brandenburg Gate, the Tiergarten, our neighborhood. We had walked here, and I saw where it lay, and it was not where I’d expected it to be. I felt a shiver of recognition as landmarks clicked into place in my mental map of the city, my inner compass finally kicking in.
Across the street was the site of the never-ending book sale, the tables where books are sold every day of the year in atonement for the volumes gone up in smoke so many years ago. And there was the StaatsOper (State Opera) building under construction, left to ruin by Soviet indifference after the war, a symbol of the bourgeoisie. This place where M would have spent many hours of this year was off limits because the roof had fallen in not long before, forcing the renovations.
And there was the Hotel de Rome, where M wanted to have coffee. We slipped past the doorman who greeted us kindly in spite of our attire, and we marveled at the outrageous bouquets, the tremendous banquettes in the lobby, the glowing blue bar in the lounge. But no waiter emerged to greet us, so we went back on the street and walked a few blocks to emerge at the Gendarmenmarkt, the most gorgeous platz of them all, which again I had seen many times but now saw how it fit in with Humboldt and Unter den Linden.
In the fading sun we sat at a sidewalk café overlooking the Gendarmenmarkt where I pulled an orange Ikea blanket around my legs, grateful for this touch that cafés across the city offer. Considering the view and the quality of the cappuccino, the cost of 3 euros apiece was negligible. When the sun disappeared behind the Konzerthaus we headed to the StadtMitte (City Center) U-Bahn station and made our way back home.
The next day I retraced our steps, this time on bike, and when I returned I recognized the place to turn by Hotel Berlin, Berlin. I saw the opening cut out of the nondescript apartment building and felt a little thrill knowing, without a doubt, that it would put me on Courbièrestraße, the shortcut home. I felt rather clever taking this path, shaving a good kilometer or two off my previous routes home.
And I was glad to feel in my bones that there are many ways through this city, that in fact you can never really get lost here, just massively disoriented. And it’s precisely because the streets wander and careen along their own stubborn paths that any street you choose, any at all, will eventually take you to a place you’ll recognize, and thus guide you home. Some will just take longer than others.