What It Means To Be Free

By Jane Mountain | September 29, 2013

Woke up to the sound of tribal drums beating in the distance. Once again, I thought my Game Of Thrones reading marathon had finally gotten the better of me. But no!

It is the Berlin Marathon!

I leaped out of bed, pulled on whatever clothes were lying around, grabbed the camera, and ran outside. The marathon route passes right by Jesse’s place, and I didn’t want to miss a thing.

Early Morning Athletes

I hadn’t missed anything besides a local drum troupe walking by. It was still a little early, and the only marathoners so far were racing in various wheeled vehicles.

wheeled athletes berlin marathon

Wheeled athletes, Berlin Marathon.

Our spot along the route was about an hour into the run, and when the frontrunners finally arrived, most of them looked fresh and lively, as though they were just going for a quick sprint down to the corner. They didn’t even seem to be breathing hard.

I tried to imagine how they were feeling as bystanders cheered and shouted them on their way. I assume they were, at least for a few hours, free of all of life’s usual concerns. There was nothing except their breath, the road, and one foot in front of the other, all the way to the finish line.

runners in berlin marathon

In flight, Berlin Marathon.

Watching these elite athletes made me feel lazy and out of shape, since we’ve been doing very little to keep up our hard-earned cycling legs on this extended break. That didn’t stop me from climbing back into bed when we finally headed back to the flat though.

Butterflies For China

We are finally getting a little planning done for our imminent trip to the other side of the world. It has been very different than when we planned the European leg. We are focussing much more on the big sights, since we’re actually excited about the prospect of seeing things like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and Angkor Wat.

A few new purchases for China.

A few new purchases for China.

Incidentally, if you want to do a little armchair travelling, Rough Guides has gorgeous “not to miss” slideshows on their website. Things Not To Miss in China is guaranteed to give you the travel bug.

I have put together a new trip planning map, so you can go see our wish list of places to visit. I’m hoping some sort of pattern will emerge from the dots, to guide us on a particular route. So far, especially in China, everything seems extremely far from everything else, and the quality of the cycling between those places is questionable at best.

A few times this week, I’ve woken in the middle of the night with butterflies in my stomach. We’ve read several accounts of other cyclists’ journeys through China. Some have adored it. Many have abandoned it after a few weeks, hopping on a train, bus, or plane to get out of the country as quickly as possible.

We’ll be free to do the same, should we find travelling in China unfulfilling. But I’m hoping with a bit of planning, we can be part of the favoured few cyclists who have loved their time in China.

Assuming the Chinese government grants us the freedom to roam around their vast and changeable country, I’m sure, love it or loathe it, we’ll be met with experiences we never even imagined we could have.

Walking On Water

Today being Sunday, we went with Jesse for a long wander around the streets and canals of Berlin. He took us to one of his favourite spots in the city, Engelbecken.

To get there, we walked in the now defunct Luisenstädtischer Canal. The canal opened in the mid-1800s, and was filled in and turned into a park in 1926. Engelbecken is a wide spot where the canal turns a corner, and now houses a large square pond and a waterside cafe.

engelbecken pond in berlin

Engelbecken pond and crane, Berlin.

The cafe was a hive of activity, with scores of people enjoying a glass of beer in the crisp autumn sunlight.

Past Engelbecken, the canal route is also the old route of the Berlin Wall, so we wandered along what would have been the so-called death strip. Only a couple of short decades ago, we likely would have been shot for walking where we did today.

Now, both sides of the route are lined with apartment buildings and shops. Everyone is free to pop across the street for any reason, or no reason at all.

It’s A Lifestyle

We were walking through a relatively affluent area, so I was surprised when we passed a small settlement made up of large tents. Handmade signs declared that the inhabitants were refugees, and Jesse told us they’d been there for years.

A little later, we walked down a street lined with mouldering caravans, most showing signs of occupation. Apparently, in Berlin you are free to park your vehicle on (almost) any street and make your home there.

street art berlin

Wall art near a tent city, Berlin.

Just around the corner, there was a large parkland surround by a wall. It was also filled with a small tent city.

Two things struck me as odd about these settlements.

First, I have never seen this kind of thing in a middle-class neighbourhood before. Certainly if this happened in the US and Canada, the residents would band together until the non-tax-paying portion of the population was moved on to somewhere else.

Second, in other cities where we have seen tent settlements and the like, they are always known as dangerous places that you should avoid. Here, they were just part of the landscape, and just part of a normal Sunday afternoon stroll. Lots of middle-class people with their dogs, kids, and iPhones were out strolling around, just like us, with no feeling of threat or danger hanging in the air.

I’m not sure what to make of this. Is it a healthy expression of a free society, or a social problem being ignored?

On the one hand, it seems as though, in Berlin at least, the have-nots are given a little more respect and freedom than they would find in other places. On the other hand, I can only imagine that if this were Malmö, all of these people would be housed in one of the many safe and well maintained apartment buildings we cycled past. Presumably, in Communist Berlin, the same would have been true.

A Real Day Off

As I walked back to Jesse’s flat (after having left Stephen and Jesse at a brewery), I got to see another side of Berlin. Ever since we’ve been in Germany, I have complained loudly about the inconvenience of everything being closed on Sunday, mostly because we can never remember to buy groceries on Saturday.

Shutters on a closed shop, Sunday in Berlin.

Shutters on a closed shop, Sunday in Berlin.

Today, walking along the canal that runs through Jesse’s neighbourhood, I saw another side to this.

There were people everywhere, enjoying the beautiful fall day with their families and friends. It reminded me of L’Apres Midi Sur La Grande Jatte.

L'Apres Midi Sur La Grande Jatte is like a sunny Sunday in Berlin.

L’Apres Midi Sur La Grande Jatte is like a sunny Sunday in Berlin.

I saw a man sitting on the park bench, grinning over a story in his newspaper. I saw an elderly couple, walking hand-in-hand down the promenade, as they have probably been doing since before the Berlin wall came down, perhaps even before it went up.

I saw a pair of teenagers, making out in the grass, revelling in the day of freedom from parents, teachers, and the obligations of teen life. Tiny children ran up and down, free from rules and restrictions that come from being inside. Cyclists grinned as they zipped by, the cold fresh air biting their cheeks and filling their lungs.

Everyone was out, taking exercise, enjoying the sunshine, and celebrating the freedom that a Sunday without commerce can bring.

Truth in wall art, Berlin.

Truth in wall art, Berlin.

And here I was in the midst of it all, no place to be, no responsibilities, and no one telling me where to go or who I should be. At least for the moment, I was utterly free.  

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  1. Comment by Diane

    Diane October 1, 2013 at 9:08 am

    Lovely post Jane. Thanks.

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