To enjoy travel as a blind person you have to like at least three things: talking to complete strangers even if you don’t speak their language; noisy places; and public transport. Luckily for me I thrive on all three, which is what makes my BBC World Service programme Blind Man Roams the Globe a joy to make.
The principle is simple: these are very personal portraits of some of the world’s great cities, as they are experienced by a blind person. To be included, they have to be heard, tasted, felt or smelt. Fortunately for me, Berlin excels in all four. So one of the first things I do when I arrive anywhere is to get to grips with the public transport system.
Obviously not driving a car, this gives me my independence, and it also places me slap-bang in the middle of people. Not official guides, or spokesmen or women for this organisation or that, but ordinary people just going about their business, whether it’s off to work, or to shop, or just to have a good night out.
So I was instantly charmed by the Hauptbahnhof railway station: huge, cavernous, and multi-storeyed. It somehow summed up for me the pivotal position of Berlin in Europe, both geographically and politically. On the station's eight or nine levels you have trains criss-crossing on their way across Germany, and indeed Europe.
Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Photo: DPA
It feels as if in one building alone all your options to travel the world are open, as I listened to the multilingual train announcements. In just half an hour I chatted with people for whom the station was the last port of call on journeys from the United States, the Middle East, and India. I even met a few Germans.
But time to leave the station and find the real city, rather than just ways to get in and out of it. I stop at what I hear, which is why I’m often drawn into markets. It’s Saturday afternoon when I arrive, and the Winterfeldt market is in full weekend shopping swing. As I wander amongst its meat, fruit and vegetable stalls, I’m enveloped in sales cries in Turkish, Arabic, and Polish. I’m offered Thuringian sausage of inordinate width, Albanian cucumbers of inordinate girth, and the coffee of all nations.
It’s fun, but sensory overload, and after a few minutes I have to escape to somewhere a little more peaceful. This turns out to be a bookshop, simply called ‘Bücher’, which is a bit of a giveaway.
By now I’ve met a friendly journalist who steers me towards it, but is obviously puzzled why a totally blind person would be looking for a print bookshop. It’s a fair question, and I have to explain that, with the development of digital technology, suddenly print books are accessible to me and can now be scanned so that with the right equipment I can read them in Braille.
And blindness seems to provide a license to interrupt people and talk to them, even interrupt their search for their favourite book. It’s here that I first discover a current Berlin obsession, house prices, and the way in which with recent gentrification, previously familiar communities are changing almost on a daily basis.
It’s an impression confirmed for me by Erich. Erich, though almost totally blind himself, is a highly successful businessman who regales me with stories of workers who were lured away from him at the time of the financial crash by foreign investors carrying suitcases loaded with money who wanted someone to buy up property for them. 2009 knockdown prices have become 2017 nest-eggs, although not always to the benefit of native Berliners, who are increasingly finding themselves priced out of the market.
It was Erich too who, despite his blindness, led me through the streets of Neukölln, a cosmopolitan district he graphically described as a mixture of Prada and the homeless, where poverty and wealth live side by side.
Peter and Erich in Neukölln. Photo: Courtesy of BBC
Despite the vibrancy of Berlin, there are two aspects of grim history which you can’t get away from, and which Berliners seem positively anxious to remind you about. Far from urging you not to mention the war, the city seems to go out of its way not to allow you to forget it, and particularly not to forget the Holocaust.
Some of the memorials to it are particularly hard for me to appreciate, such as the thousands of huge concrete blocks which stand as a kind of reproach. Berliners don’t seem to be able to agree on their significance either. As I stood beside them, this was illustrated by the fact that while some gazed at them in silent awe, others sit on them, clamber about on them, and even jump from stone to stone.
Much more poignant for me, and easier for me to find without help, are what are known as “stumbling stones”, raised pieces of stone as you walk down ordinary suburban streets. As your feet trip over them, you are drawn to look at the inscriptions on them. A local woman read some of them to me when I asked what they were: they bear the names of Jewish families who lived in those houses, and who suddenly disappeared, often in the middle of the night, never to be heard of again. Deeply effective, I thought.
Stolpersteine. Photo: DPA
Equally affecting to me was the prison I visited on the eastern fringes of the city. This was where anyone who opposed the government of East Germany after the partition was kept in almost total isolation in cells with four walls, a stone floor, and a bucket; nothing more. As I tried to imagine what life would be like in a space you could easily span with your arms, it was explained to me how prisoners were monitored twenty four hours a day, even down to the position in which they slept.
But in a city so exciting, so alive, it would be wrong to end on such a negative image. I’d rather leave you, still in the eastern part of the city, with my memory of the Trabant Museum. Trabants, those now iconic cars, which coughed and wheezed their way around Berlin, feel as if they would fall apart if you slammed their doors too hard, as I did when I visited the museum. They have now somehow wormed their way into the affections of Berliners.
The prevailing sound in my ears as I left the city was of fifty or so Trabants clattering up the road on a Sunday afternoon, driven by people enjoying a puzzling but deep nostalgia for these old cars. It’s a nostalgia which Berliners perhaps think they can finally afford, now that East Berlin is the centre of a thriving nightlife which seems to yell in defiance of its past: Freedom!
Blind Man Roams the Globe: Berlin airs on BBC World Service on Wednesday 15 November at 12:30pm CET and will be available online at www.bbc.com/worldserviceradio