Brussels/Berlin 2023

Wednesday 19th July 2023 – Alexander Haus and Queer to the Max

Today I was on a mission. My destination was the town of Groß Glienicke, situated to the South West of Berlin and North of Potsdam. This required careful navigation of the Berlin transport system, sometimes called “BVG” after “Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe”, the company that manages it.

At this point it is worth a mention of how transport in this city works. There are a number of options, including U-Bahn (underground railway), Trams, Buses, S-Bahn (local railway), ferries, and other local trains. The ticketing system is essentially on a trust basis. There are no gates but it is your responsibility to have a valid ticket for the journey you are on. Checks are possible and a €60 can come your way if you get it wrong. Not only this, if you are suspected of fare evasion and do not have proof of your identification then the police will be called.

To ensure that you have a valid ticket, you need to have some familiarity with the fare zones. In this respect it is similar to London transport in that journeys merely within the “AB” central zone” cost less than if you need to extend your journey into the outer “C zone. You also need to be aware that if your journey is to take more than two hours, then additional tickets will need to be purchased.

Up to this point all my journeys had been “AB”. I knew for this excursion I would need at least an ABC but I was not sure if I would prehaps need even more than this in terms of ticketage. All my research pointed that my destination was at least on the very edge if not off the edge of all the transport maps.

Not wanting to find myself defending my naivety (or perhaps stupidity) in a German court, I enquired with my friend Michael (whom I had met perviously) as to what might be requried. He was good enough to reassure me that the “ABC” ticket would indeed cover the journey so ticket purchased using the “BVG Ticket-App”, I headed on my way.

My journey commenced at 9.26am on the no. 247 bus from Schönholzer Straße to Gesundbrunnen Bahnhof. I then took S-Bahn 42 to Jungfernheide Bahnhof, the RB14 (local train) to Spandau before catching the 638 bus to my final destination of Potsdam Am Park. This last leg of the journey had to be completed somewhat later than expected as I had touble locating the bus stop once having left Spandau station. Nevertheless, I arrived at 11.00am with plenty of time to spare. My tour was not due to begin until 12.00pm. I took this as a cue to have a coffee and a donut at a local bakery. This I enjoyed feeling proud of having successfully completed this epic feat of transportation.

The reason to visit this suburban and slightly rural feeling location was to tour a property known as “Alexander Haus”. I mentioned in a previous missive that I had been reading “The House by the Lake” by Thomas Harding. This was the location of the property discussed in the book.

The book reads like literary version of the BBC television programme “A House Through Time”. The property is traced through history via the people who lived in it. By doing this, one is left with a strong feeling and some undertsanding of the historical eras the house has existed in. Given the location and time period, Alexander Hause is particularly interesting.

The house was built as a weekend retreat for Alfred Alexander, a Jewish doctor and his family in 1927. The land had been aquired from the local landowner, during the time that much land was being sold to prop up deteriorating estates. For a few years it was a weekend haven for the Alexanders, and even hosted some celebrity friends including one Albert Einstein.

The Nazis gained power in 1933 and persecution of Jews started immediately. This led to the doctor and his family emigrating to the UK in 1936 with the house initially subleased and then sold for a paltry sum,Alexander family assets having been siezed by the Nazi government. The leasee and then owner was Will Meisel, who ran a music publishing company and was himself, fairly well known. He was a Nazi party member and his alliences during the war remain ambiguous but he did use the house to hide a friend an colleage, and his wife. They were in great danger of persecuction as the wife was Jewish.

Post-war, the property ended up on the DDR (East) side if the German divide and as such, was converted in to public ownership. From this time, two families lived in it, both of a much-lower social standing than the previous owners. The Berlin wall was built through the garden, separating it from the lake it had purposfully been built by. In 2003 it fell empty, becoming a hovel for squatters and drug addicts.

In the 2010s, Alexander Haus was scheduled for demolition before a number of members of the Alexander family (including Thomas Harding, the author) pledged to save it. This they did and it now stands refurbished and available for visitation.

I joined a tour which was to be in German. Now, it is fairly well known that my grasp of langages is not good but I do know a smattering of German worlds and phrases having gained the qualification of German language at Standard Grade Credit level in 1996. I had also read the book so I was able to reassure the concerned guide that I would be OK and more than anything, I was just happy to be there. Also, the information signs were all in English so I was confident I would survive.

Both the guide and the rest of the touring party seemed impressed that I come all this way. They also liked the story that I knew about this due to the visitation of Thomas Harding to Woodmill High School, in Dunfermline. Many of the party knew of this city. My very good friend is a teacher at an associated primary school and had been part of this visit, along with the children from her class. She recommended me the book, therefore here I was, very much “off the tourist trail”.

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I picked up from the guide. I could tell when she was discussing the various people who had lived in the house, the experiences they had had and the history behind it all. I also picked up on the questions being asked including “when does the film get made?”. A very pertinant query. In my thinking, there is at least a BBC special in this remarkable story.

The house is sparse but beautiful, and peacful. I enjoyed seeing the original tiles which were uncovered comparitavely recently. They were obscured as a result of the trend of “hiding the old stuff” in the 1960s-1980s. I also enjoyed seeing where the wall had been; right through the garden less than a few metres from the back door. I tried to visualise the families; what they spoke about, the games they played (this being a holiday retreat in the initial years) through to being more of a working-person’s home in the latter years. I was very glad to be included in the tour and perhaps benefited more from seeing how the locals responded to the stories being told than I would have done had the tour been carried out in my own language.

To get back in to Berlin, I caught the 638 bus to Spandau (again, missing one bus due to not being able to locate the stop). I paused at Spandau for a brief wander, finding a rather attractive precinct area with a market. I then caught the U7 to Jungfernheide, the S41 to Gesundbrunnedn, and the 247 bus to Schönholzer Straße. There, I had a rest and took stock of my affairs.

I had dinner at a local Italian establishment before heading to a “Queer” bar, called “The Tipsy Bear”. I had read on-line that this was a venue of much entertainment be it drag, karaoke, bingo etc. On entrance the lovely person taking the fee told me a little about the venue and described it as a “safe space for everyone unless you’re an asshole”. They enquired as to whether I might be labelled with this particular accusation. I replied that I liked to think I was not but in reality it would be others that would make this judgement. Seemingly satisfied with my answer, my €5 were accepted and I gained entry.

This evening there was to be a performance of “König”, billed as a “Full Drag King and Creature show. Made by trans, non-binary, women, and queers”. This was my first venture in to the world of Berlin cabaret and I was excited about the experience. I ordered a beer and found a corner to dwell in.

To describe the bar as “rammed” by the time the show started would be an understatement. It was filled with a very diverse and very international community, some of whom were obviously regulars, and some visitors, like myself. The show was a raucous celebration of trans, non-binary and gender questioning identities and included music, dance, costume, and drama. There were seasoned performer who “carried” the show but also “spots” from people performing for perhaps the first time. It was very well received by both the audience and myself. I enjoyed the performances and the atmosphere hugely.

As I walked back to my apartment, it started to rain. However, the refreshment was welcome after having been in such a “close” venue. I had very much enjoyed my day and learnt a lot.

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