Escaping in Berlin

Roger Boyes, the Berlin correspondent of British daily The Times, knuckles down to write his new book – but only after a valiant effort to escape work.

Escaping in Berlin
Many Berliners have a talent for escape. Photo: DPA

I’ve never been to journalism school but if I had the professor – I can imagine him now, a corduroy jacket with leather patches – would surely have said: State your theme at the beginning and then stay focused!

But that is precisely my problem at the moment. I have a book deadline fast approaching and have taken some time off from my daily work for The Times. Though I resolve every day to produce a certain number of pages, I instead wake up early, walk the dog, drink a coffee at the bakers and read the papers. Then I find some other way to occupy my time.

Only by seven o’clock in the evening am I ready to write. In a quick sprint, a page is written, followed by a recovery period; then half a page, and exhaustion. It is probably the least efficient way of writing ever devised but the sheer accumulation of vacillation and guilt, the day of delay is so draining that I have to go out of the house to reward myself with a drink.

This isn’t difficult because Berlin is full of bars for late-night folk, and I don’t mean the dreadful bunkers used by clubbers or the overpriced “lounges” with velvet ropes out front. I’m talking about places with names like “Imma oof” and “Rudis,” where shift-workers go to get rid of their excess adrenaline.

At my regular haunts there are usually some journalists, maybe an emergency room doctor after a busy, bloody night, and perhaps a policeman on his way home. There are surprisingly few drunks and since everyone is trying to clear his head after a long day of complex problem-solving, discussion tends to be monosyllabic. Arguments flare up and fizzle out.

The other night, a reporter who should have known better launched into a passionate lament for the newspaper Neues Deutschland which looks as if it could collapse. Now if ever there was a paper that deserved to go bust it must surely be the ND, the former mouthpiece of East Germany’s communist party the SED. It has re-invented itself since the bad old days, but not by much; it is a paper with a history of calculated deceit. But I was too tired to make the obvious counter-arguments and just walked out.

The next day, meeting Vera Dörrier-Breitwieser, I wished I had not dodged a fight. She is a formidable woman and possesses a memory sharp enough to dismantle any nostalgic case for preserving a newspaper that once made excuses for a rotten regime. Her story is Berlin in aspic. Forget her, and people like her, and you distort the moral compass of the city.

She was 28 and living with her parents in the eastern district of Pankow when the Wall went up, training reluctantly as a teacher. Her father was a librarian, a member of the SED and a true believer. Her mother was a sceptic. What kept Vera sane were her regular weekend trips to a Christian-Jewish discussion group in Wannsee. The Wall put an end to that and she wrote to the institute expressing her sadness. They in turn set in motion the escape organisation of the Free University of Berlin.

A picture of Vera was sent to students in Switzerland who helped find a Swiss woman vaguely resembling the East Berlin student. They borrowed the woman’s passport and sent it to the FU team. And Vera began the process of reconstructing herself: with all the self-discipline of an athlete.

She memorised the birthdates of the Swiss woman’s children – they were entered in the passport and the East German border guards could well have asked her tricky questions. She even set about learning Swiss German, and changed her look to match the photo.

Out came the East German labels in the underwear, off came the East German boots. A western coat with seal fur was arranged; a hat that could be pulled down to disguise the height of her forehead. The rivers and villages surrounding her supposed birthplace in Switzerland were memorised; a backstory was created and committed to memory.

All this for a few minutes performance at the Friedrichstrasse crossing point. December 1961 she got over; the next woman to try to use a Swiss passport was caught and sent to the Stasi’s prison in Hohenschönhausen.

That short walk from east to west was probably the greatest moment in Vera’s life; a triumph of discipline, teamwork, of holding ones nerve. Not everything went smoothly later in West Berlin, but she found happiness in her work as a librarian at the Otto Suhr Institute.

Her life story, told to me over coffee without pathos, is proof that the Berliners have a great talent for escape. But it also reminded me that if you want to achieve something strongly enough, even the least promising of personalities can develop the appropriate psychological muscle, the habits of self-discipline.

So here’s my personal progress report: since meeting Vera, I have started to write in the mornings. Not much, and I am still easily distracted. But the pages are beginning to fill up, one by one.

For more Roger Boyes, check out his website here.

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.