There is a rare breed who go to Germany in February: we love to overheat in flagstoned, candle-lit Weinstuben, and freeze in baroque churches and sudden blizzards
The problem for a teacher of what to do over the February half-term cannot be easily solved. For those with the stamina — both financial and athletic — a European skiing holiday is the obvious answer. For those whose endurance extends to 12-hour flights it makes sense to escape to the beaches of the West Indies. And there is a rare breed whom neither athletic nor sensual pleasures can satisfy: we go to Germany in February, and nurse our blisters after a day’s walking; overheat in flagstoned, candle-lit Weinstuben; freeze in baroque churches and sudden blizzards.
I first attempted a midwinter trip to Berlin a decade ago, to visit my friend Ben, the boon companion of my university years, who was living in a grimy shared flat in the now-fashionable neighbourhood of Kreuzberg. The area blossoms in the warmer months as students, artists and tourists populate the cafés either side of the Landwehr canal, and the linden trees bathe the scene in a green or golden light. But in February I slithered along the murky towpaths as the snow thawed treacherously, losing all feeling in hands and feet as, one afternoon, Ben frogmarched us to the Stasi Museum for a dose of history and culture.
Returning to the city a year later, my ad hoc European education continued. Standing near the Holocaust Memorial one overcast afternoon, Ben explained a little of its history: there had been a competition to select the best design, and one of the entrants had proposed dismantling the Quadriga from the nearby Brandenburg Gate to reconstruct as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Ben lamented the fact that the competition authorities had baulked at making such a brave choice. Naively, perhaps, I couldn’t figure out how destruction could ever be an appropriate form of remembrance; I understood even less how my cultured and educated friend could possibly endorse such a gimmick. We stood and argued in the drizzle.
Ben is now the Head of the Cultural Office of a pretty medieval town in Baden-Württemberg. He has a wife and a newborn son, and lives in a gabled apartment under the pink eaves of the Old Town Hall. I have known him for 15 tumultuous years, during which — the quintessential New European — he has collected languages, jobs and degrees at an astonishing rate, but he now seems to be settling into the kind of life that will remain unchanged for the next 15. When I first met him, he had shoulder-length hair and used to run down King’s Parade removing items of clothing with the grace of a ballet dancer. He now owns several dark suits and his mane, once his most distinctive feature (along with his leonine eyes), has all but disappeared.
Not one to break the habit of a decade, I hotfooted it to Germany this February half-term, with an apprehensive companion in tow. I was thankful to stop being a teacher momentarily and allow my friend to direct me: one afternoon he showed us around the town’s churches, knowing exactly where to look for a hidden fresco, or how to identify the new altar and stained-glass windows built by a local artist. In the evenings there was a festival for new music; one afternoon we toured the clock mechanism under the roof tiles of the Alte Rathaus.
These New Europeans continue to surprise and delight me. Their appetite for the past and the future is astonishing. Europe’s present is now for us all to deal with.