What We Remember: Melbourne to Berlin and Back Again

“Oh, Berlin, that’s Melbourne’s other suburb!” Such were a friend’s departing words as I headed off for a consecutive winter in Berlin: a strange choice for anyone born and bred in Berlin or broader Brandenburg.

Friedrichshain’s Volkspark, January

Berlin’s wintry months are a testament to character rather than a city fit for a picturesque snow-filled postcard. The German capital suffers through winter’s very incipience and bathos. Cold, but rarely cold enough, variable in its offerings of snow, sunshine, and rain, winter creeps in with nothing much more to say than, “Just hang in there! Wear it out!”. And such was the advice I was given as I took possession of the keys to my new apartment and its owner headed abroad for somewhere with more sunshine.

Separated by at least a 22-hour long-haul flight, comparing Melbourne’s attempts at historical remembering with Berlin’s might seem as though the former is making a suspicious grab for attention. The history of the two cities, their architecture, the linguistic ping-pong heard on the streets, share not the least in common. Most obviously, one was also the backdrop of the twentieth century’s most formative and fraught historical moments at a time when the other was still yet to imagine itself as a city with any cosmopolitan aspirations.

Yet what Berlin does so well as a city is to remind visitors from wherever they are from that history is an artefact itself, which is lived as much as told and retold through the physical remnants it leaves behind.

skating in berlin
A Nazi bunker is now a dog park

As a once divided city at the fraught perimeter of Western Europe, Berlin is a palimpsest of history itself: a Janus-faced cityscape where the old and new coexist, challenging and unsettling each other. Like a mirror, Berlin seems to ask its visitors only that they pay closer attention to who they are as they stand at the ambiguous interface of historical legacy and yet another version of the new. The cold, grizzly stillness of a Berliner winter therefore provides the perfect backdrop for those open to an introspective challenge.

Berlin is also home to Germany’s gig economy and its entrepreneurial sister, ‘the Start-up’: magnets for international talent looking for a foothold in Europe. Morning yoga and a fresh supply of organic fruit, supplemented by free German lessons and the frisson of youth itself, speak to the fresh desire for a third economic way where in other cities reasonable working hours, a decent salary, and skilled and experienced management might matter more.

As with most other things in Berlin, twentieth century systems such as the Kafkaesque slowness of Berlin’s strained bureaucracy, only too well known to foreigners, stand side-by-side with the perks of fast-paced creativity, nowadays as evenly packaged in millennial self-interest as in down-to-earth punkish defiance. Given this, it might seem that Melbourne clearly a city of the colonised ‘new world’, one too expensive to attract the raw, vigorous innovation and energy of Berlin, shares not that much in common with it. Looking a little deeper, however, reveals an interesting parallel based in how the two cities address their nation’s uneasy historical conscience.

If Berlin is a mirror for self-reflection, a living memory of excess and the uncanny it leaves inconspicuously beaten into the cobblestones, Melbourne is a city trying to endlessly remake itself without first asking why or in what image the city needs to be remade. As a port city, Melbourne is as temperamental as its weather: to the north and east lie natural but not unconquerable environmental boundaries to the Australian inclination for endless suburban expansion. To the West, a once wide prairie that gave way to an endless horizon. Whilst the south-eastern coastal extensions have served well as the watery playgrounds for generations of families from the comfy Eastern suburbs.

Like Berlin, Melbourne is a city symbolically and literally divided into an East and a West, split along class lines by the modest, muddied waters of the Yarra River. Like a coronary artery, the Yarra’s opaque brown waters breathe the story of the surrounding landscape as it meanders its way through the vineyards of the Yarra Valley into the city, finally meeting with the salty waters of Port Phillip Bay, just south of Flinders Street Station.

Eucalyptus regnans, Kallista

If Berlin suffers under winter’s spartan grip, Melbourne is held hostage by summer’s latent ferocity. Ringed to the east by native forests, billowing smoke portends to the city’s vulnerability to bushfires, much like the rest of the country. Throughout January and February, Melbournians wait out the long, hot days eager for the pacifying effects of an afternoon southerly, usually the saving grace for townships threatened by fire on the suburban fringes. During the rest of the year, the city’s skies alternate with the tides, changing from blue to grey and back again. Never promising endless sunshine, Melbourne shares with Berlin a temperamental inclination for understatement and curly disappointment.

Like post-90’s Berlin, Melbourne has also suffered from gentrification — a fate that capitalist orientated cities seem to share. Millions of kilometres apart, the resultant prevalence of homelessness in both cities is a daily reminder of those invisible and silenced by the global flow of funds and the fraudulent race to the top that guides it.

Even so, on the streets of Berlin historical memory has a habit of erupting at the very moment when the habitual new suddenly seems too familiar to be displaced. A remaining stretch of the Berliner Mauer just south of Warschauer Straße, now a busy intersection linking the infamous Kreuzberg with Friedrichshain, for example, reminds us that there was once a physical wall that divided Berlin.

Unser Leben nach der Mauer
Berliner Zeitung: The wall has been down for a longer period than it was ever up.

But we know this already because we are in Berlin — a city most well-known for the Wall that once divided it. But then another historical artefact, a personal story, perhaps, testifying to the benefits of living behind the Iron Curtain is encountered in a chance conversation or a newspaper article, shifting our perception of this remnant monolith and the ideologies that stood on either side of it. In the context of contemporary tensions, the streetscape becomes an ongoing site for reflection on ideology and its embodiment in the habits of our daily lives.

And this is where Melbourne is different, where its attempts to tell a critical story about itself falter on the city’s, the nation’s, inability to come to grips with conflict and the stories that might, if left to critically speak both on the streets and through the cityscape, broaden our capacity for reflecting on what it is we individually and collectively might stand for.

Just as generations of Australian children were fed an edited version of Australian history in which Aboriginal people had no official status other than to represent a mythical prehistory for the new nation, or in more Darwinian terms, for humanity itself, so too is Melbourne’s cityscape increasingly stylised to harmonise the conflicts of its past in order to usher forward a united version of the ‘we’. The forceful removal of the inner city’s growing homeless population is one way this occurs, but this phenomenon is not indeed unique to Melbourne.

At the heart of Melbourne are Federation Square, opposite Flinders Street Station, and Birrarang Marr, the walkway linking the Swanston Street Bridge with the city’s seemingly ever-expanding sporting complexes. Both of these sites embody to varying degrees an architectural and landscaping attempt designed to bring the vast dryness of the Australian continent to the centre of the city and in so doing indigenising it. They re-imagine the city based on the continent as it actually is rather than continuing with idyll European fantasies of heritage and climate, which will doubtless  prove unresilient to climate change.

But do these architectural gestures at re-configuring the colonial imagination challenge the narratives Australians have of themselves in the way that Berlin’s many historical remnants have a habit of doing?

However well-intended, Federation Square and Birrarang Marr in my experience somehow replay the act of colonisation. Their symbolism reminds us of the land and its distinctiveness whilst reaffirming the narrative of national cohesion. The present is at peace with the past in these spaces, thus placing the ongoing claims for justice by Aboriginal people outside of legitimate social space.

Melbourne Festival Opening
Federation Square, 2017, Melbourne Festival Opening

How does this happen? There is very little incongruence in the historical imagining that takes place in Federation Square and Birrarung Marr and the leisure they are intended to bring about. I am not unsettled by the rough, red stones of Federation Square; they merely provide an open meeting ground around which capital, as usual, collects in the upmarket cafés of the main buildings.

The two worlds represented in Federation square: the red centre as the frontier of colonial ambition and the sleek postmodern dystopia of the present, peacefully coexist, even as their contrast invokes their disjunction, creating a feeling of being at least momentarily lost in space. But there has never been a peace treaty between the Australian Government and Aboriginal people, so why should I be lured into thinking that these two different expressions of time and space stand on some kind of equal national footing?

memory stones_berlin
Stolpersteine, Berlin

Any peace process is ongoing as every new generation embraces the challenge to remember and to never to forget, the worst of which is always still a possibility to come. When viewed from the crest of the hill on Moray Street in South Melbourne, the War Memorial angelically hovers between the glassy towers that line the main thoroughfare of St Kilda Road, breaking open the commercial skyline forcing us back into that grey past. This is not to suggest that more big monuments are what is needed to more appropriately acknowledge the wrongs committed against Aboriginal people, for smaller plaques can achieve the same ends as Germany’s Stolpersteine, literally, stones you stumble across (pictured above), demonstrate. Rather, it is to call attention to the way we remember and to how we live in our cities as sites of memory.

This is what Berlin, a city that has had to remake itself more than once in the modern period,  imparts to its visitors so well. Taking my queue from Berlin, my suggestion is that histories must be left to live and breathe on our streets rather than submitting to the myth that history either belongs in a museum or must be custom made, as is Federation Square, to adequately impart reflection on the past.

To even be considered ‘another suburb of Berlin,’ Melbourne therefore needs to stop pretending that remembering is merely a matter of narrative and allow the voices of our city to testify to the times and boldly speak about what the future ought to entail.

For at least the last eight years, the small town of Belgrave in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs in the Dandenong Ranges has hosted an annual Survival Day Festival on Australia Day as a way of celebrating the survival of Australia’s Aboriginal people in the face of attempted genocide. As Australians begin the conversation about whether the date for Australia Day should be changed, they should look to efforts made by communities who are more interested in bringing about justice than to nationalistic mantras for guidance. The more Australians understand about their nation’s past, the more they will be able to create cities that prompt reflection on the values and ideals that enable us to flourish, which is also why Berlin remains an attractive destination, even in the middle of winter.

3 thoughts on “What We Remember: Melbourne to Berlin and Back Again

Leave a Reply to kristyhenderson Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s