Caught by the River

The Idea of a River: Walking out of Berlin

Paul Scraton | 25th March 2015

Readux Book Cover

The new book by Caught by the River contributor Paul Scraton, The Idea of a River, follows the Panke river from where it empties into the Berlin-Spandau Ship Canal in the heart of the German capital to its source in the small town of Bernau, thirty kilometres upstream and beyond the city limits. The following extract is taken from the section of the walk that passes through the hospital city of Buch, right on the boundary between Berlin and the state of Brandenburg:

From bright sunshine into half-light beneath the trees. I have stumbled into a place that feels strange and uncomfortable. The path has led me from the collection of shops around the station and into the Schlosspark. These are palace grounds without a palace, for it was destroyed in the 1960s, and although somewhere in the vicinity should be the carefully manicured gardens you would expect, the path alongside the river snakes through tangled bushes and trees, muddy in places with roots lurking to trip the unsuspecting stroller, the air under the woodland canopy dank and heavy.

Mosquitoes buzz, and I quicken my step. At the entrance to the park a couple of workmen shovelled gently rotting leaves into the back of a truck, but now I have the place to myself. I feel uneasy, with no view of the sky. A couple of pathways lead off towards some other corner of the park but both are blocked with metal fences, hastily constructed. I see glimpses of what might be people or could also be stone statues, strangled by the undergrowth. When I had planned this walk I had thought the palace grounds would be a place to break, stretch out on the grass and rest my legs, but it is all too forbidding.

A movement through the trees catches my eye. There, on another path (how do you reach it?), a man in a hospital gown walks slowly, pulling a drip that is hanging from a wheeled contraption. He is walking with a friend – she does not look like a nurse – and they are deep in conversation. It should not be a surprise. Buch was developed over a hundred years ago as the largest ‘hospital city’ in Europe, and it remains a place of medicine and scientific research. The red brick buildings of the former mental asylum, now part of the hospital, are just a short walk away. I have been there, once, stalking the grounds beneath ivy framed windows as I waited for my daughter to wake up after an operation. The main hospital building is new, but she was being worked on in part of the old asylum, that in turn reminded me of a windswept English public school on the Irish Sea coast where I once went to play a game of hockey.

Did we win the game? Lost in thought I nearly trip over a stray branch that has fallen across my path, and when I look up again, the patient and his companion have disappeared.

I made some notes before the walk. Things to look out for along the way. Curious facts I might wish to confirm, should there be a handily placed expert waiting along the route. Under BUCH – underlined twice – I had scribbled a handful of words in my notebook.

Hospitals. Lotte’s operation. TB Sanatorium x2. Mental Asylum and Old People’s Home. Rest in the Park?

And then:

8th May 1945. Buch medical facilities under the Sov. Military Command. Positive ID of burned bodies of A. Hitler and E. Braun. Dental records?

A sudden crack of branch, and the hurried flap of wings of a too-heavy but unseen bird, cause me jump and to quicken my step further. I’ve had enough of this place…
…and then, with a turn of the corner, I am out and across a road and I’m walking along a suburban street of neat detached houses on one side and a wheat field on the other. A man in a waxed jacket throws a stick for his dog. A mother leans on her pushchair as she has a conversation with a neighbour over the front gate. The post van is parked at the bottom of the path, the uniformed driver rifling through a collection of plastic-wrapped junk mail to find an actual letter. At some point after emerging from the park I’ve lost the Panke, but a waymarker stuck to a lamppost tells me I am still heading in the right direction, and I’m just happy to be out in the sunshine once more.
The path leaves the houses behind and crosses the field. Someone has left a message, painted in light blue on the tarmac:

Bitte verzeihe mir M…
Ich werde
alles besser

The handwriting is large, filling the path, but whoever it is that is making this plaintive cry has neat and proper joined-up writing, only slightly damped by the little flower that has been used to punctuate the last line. I try to picture M. Boy or a girl? I imagine it is a young man, who rides this route to and from his high school. The writer knows M will see the message. If only he can forgive her then she will make it all right.

The field is all grass now, dotted with hay bales. I leave the message for M behind and press on. I have not seen the river for almost twenty minutes now, although I know where it is thanks to a line of trees at the eastern fringe of the fields. At the bottom of the field, where the path reaches a collection of houses once more, I have finally arrived at the limit of Berlin. Just before I come to the first house, and hear the splash of a swimming pool hidden behind a neatly trimmed hedge, I step from the path onto a pavement, and into Brandenburg.

Paul’s book is part of Readux Books Series 5 – Urban Voids: Paris and Berlin. Readux publish a series three times of year of short, mostly translated literature. You can find out more about the project and purchase The Idea of a River here.

Paul Scraton on Caught by the River