Covid-19 in a beautiful Berlin spring has been this closet introvert's dream. The lockdown has changed almost everything in the world, has devastated families and how we think about our politicians, homes, communities and close relationships.
However, emerging from two months of lockdown here, I feel a real, deep, genuine affection for Berlin and Angela Merkel. The message 'you're in safe hands', Angela Merkel's campaign posters in the 2017 Federal elections for German Chancellor, showed only her clasped hands. Germans call her mutti - mother. The people trust her and we trust the health system. Angela, a scientist, has been vigilant, strong and decisive. As an elder, and over 70, I never felt bullied, disrespected or "frail and vulnerable". Angela is 65. Leo is 41.
Berlin is nine times the size of Paris, but at 3,562,000, the population, from 180 different countries, is just a million more. A total of 44pc of Berlin's urban space is made up of green areas, forests, lakes and waterways. The canals are still used to transport building materials and with 2,500 public parks and recreations spaces, democratic, enlightened use is made of the waterside.
I first visited the city, for the Smirnoff Fashion Awards, in 1997 and though still a post-unification construction site (still is, probably always will be) I knew it was my kind of place. When, as a self-employed couple, property investment as a form of pension came on the horizon, I pushed hard for Berlin. In 2007 we did not intend to live here, but when we found an old building with a big loft space, in the process of sensitive renovation, we negotiated to turn it into two apartments, renting one and keeping the other. At the time, before the bubble burst, the Irish were significant investors. Berlin was then in its poor-but-sexy phase - gritty, grungy, affordable and exciting. Then came the surge in a mobile population seeking all it offered, followed by the economic crash and the influx of migrants and refugees. Angela ruled over it all.
To start with, we only came for short breaks, but five years ago we decided to spend our winters in Berlin (nobody does Advent like the Germans.) Despite short days and bitter weather, Berlin offers comfortable winter living; apartments are well insulated and superbly heated, public transport is affordable, safe and reliable, one could go to a museum or gallery every day for a year and still not have seen them all. A great number of education, leisure, entertainment and cultural events are in English. The city's diversity is evident in the food and the culture and up to this year, food was cheap, eating out affordable.
Our East Berlin area is marketed as the MediaSpree. Beautiful old factories and warehouses with their own docks along the Spree river now house television studios, fashion showrooms, the headquarters of MTV, Universal Music and Coca-Cola, a new hotel with musical instrument hire, rehearsal and recording facilities (used by Philip King's crew when Other Voices comes to town) and posh high rise apartments entered through an opening in the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall (the Eastside Gallery, originally painted by international artists in 1989/90) and the vast O2 Arena, where we once heard Leonard Cohen.
We are a couple who are often on the move. We left Ireland in January for the United Arab Emirates (husband's work) and the return to Berlin from Oman in mid-February was as normal. We then set off on February 28 for Australia. The airports were blissfully quiet, in Istanbul with its mega mall, the designer shops were empty, nobody was buying anything except hand sanitiser. For two weeks in Melbourne and Sydney, we had a ball, with no restrictions on anything. The cancelling of the St Patrick's Day festivities in Ireland seemed - literally - in another world.
We came back to Berlin via Singapore from where we drove up along the causeway to Malaysia to meet the newly-adopted baby son of family friends. That was the last time I hugged or kissed anybody other than Himself. At the border customs post, we were temperature-checked along with the thousands of weekend commuters. Changi Airport was busy on March 15 as we left; suddenly Europe was closing its borders. Family at home were becoming frantic, they wanted us to return to Ireland. We chose instead a 14-day voluntary isolation in Berlin - broken only to go to the local Lidl and a sneaky visit to our neighbours (Corkboy and family) for drinks on their balcony.
Over two weeks of March, all of April and the start of May, we had pharmacies and DIY/garden stores, with book and bike shops open at certain hours. We could walk, cycle or drive as far as we wished within the states of Berlin-Brandenburg and Potsdam. For one month we could not lay a blanket in a park, but were allowed to take short exercise breaks on benches. I have been as happy in Berlin as Matt Damon in Dalkey. In Berlin we again have shops, restaurants, museums, playgrounds and zoos. Hotels have just reopened and we can travel anywhere within the country. Already I am nostalgic for the calm quiet of lockdown.
In Dun Laoghaire we have a small apartment. In Berlin we live 3.5kms from Alexanderplatz, with enough room to allow us both separate workspaces and he being a techie, we have access to a plethora of news, internet interaction and entertainment. We listen constantly to RTE, watch Channel 4 News and never had to suffer TV drama series broken by advertisements. We also have a balcony for sunning and mini gardening (herbs and salad) and vitally, a cellar for extraneous junk. Even social distancing is easier in Germany, we have 1.5m, as opposed to Ireland's 2m. Most of all, we have the outdoors and as an elder, I was never shut in.
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One of the joys of the past two months in Berlin has been the calm and the quiet and most especially the lack of tourists. Except on Christmas Eve, until the lockdown, we have never before seen the 1.5kms of the Eastside Gallery deserted. There are many famous techno rave clubs in our area, open 24 hours during weekends. Depending on the weather, we sometimes hear the boom-boom of the down beat on Monday mornings, sometimes hear the trains rumbling through Oskreutz and to Treptower Park stations, note the airline traffic, but during lockdown, all was quiet. The silence felt like a big, comforting blanket over this vast ruly and unruly city.
Waking from Covid-19 dreams (strangely gentle) at night, I would marvel at the silence, and at dawn, the uninterrupted calls of city birds and wood pigeons, testing their spring charms from the greening chestnut tree in the courtyard. I already miss this silence.
We ran out of Barry's tea but discovered an international tea shop in Charlottenburg, just reopened. When we went to the beautiful leafy West to collect the packs, the shop was so quiet, the owner was sitting by the window, teaching herself the guitar.
By May 1, I was cycling to Frankfurter Allee to a stoff haus (sewing shop) for thread and needles. During lockdown, we could be of no use to others, except to support or subscribe to publications and charities. We bought plants and flowers, books and house paint and a pulse oximeter to monitor lung function and heart. One morning my concerned husband queried my rapid heart rate: I had just discovered that the TK Maxx stores in Berlin were opening that day.
We take off shoes and outdoor clothing at the apartment door and don't touch them again for at least a day. I carry sprays and antiseptic wipes and have worn a face mask and gloves since day one despite conflicting advice and some derision. My eyes water at the prevailing odour of disinfectant. Going out for a cycle is a major production, shopping, ditto, with face masks and wipes, queueing and waiting, distancing, swiping and wiping.
We will never be able to just pop in and grab something in a shop ever again. I grew tired of our food being solely from Lidl and my least favourite German word became geschlossen - closed.
I am glad of the greater freedoms we have gingerly tasted so far: shops and takeaways, our local weekend food market, the botanic gardens, walking the cobbled streets of Potsdam eating ice creams. By my birthday on April 27, small shops had reopened. We bought sandwiches and buns, drove west to the water, picnicked by the Alexander House Museum 'The House By The Lake' at Gross Glienicke and had a Vietnamese takeaway for supper.
But it is also true that the more one gets, the more one wants. I found myself resenting that the lake ferry to Pfauninsel (Peacock Island) was not yet running, the Wannsee and Muggelsee beaches still geschlossen and that one has to book in advance to go to see the twin panda bear cubs at Tierpark Zoo or the polar bear cub at Zoologischer Garten Berlin.
I miss my group pilates. Only one-to-one fitness classes are allowed outdoors. Despite being in love with our American teacher Rebecca, Himself refuses to stretch and be stretched in a public park - even if one could find a 1.5m space between the hi-viz Lycroidal with their water-bottles, resistance bands and foam rollers and jugglers in their low-crotch Thai fishermen pants. I chop my own fringe, but as Himself is not the only one in love with his stylist at Vidal Sassoon, he couldn't get an appointment until June 6.
Life may never be the same again and it may be harder. We will have to learn patience above immediate gratification. But as restrictions ease, Berlin is perfect for a break as there is always so much happening. It's flat, accessible and very child friendly. Everyone speaks English, travel passes allow freedom to use buses, trains and trams. Pick up-and-go cars, bikes and scooters are everywhere, with accommodation in all price ranges. Bring comfortable shoes, but if you get cold as can happen anytime with Berlin's east winds, just go into Uniqlo and buy a thermal vest.
Despite whispers of a bubble, at the start of the year Berlin was bright and booming, kempt and beautiful as well as rundown and ratty. It is as safe a big city as any… just mind your handbag.
For more, see www.visitberlin.de; www.iheartberlin.de; www.tip-berlin.de; www.exberliner.com and www.TheCultureTrip.com/europe/germany/berlin
Sunday Indo Living