Postcard from Berlin: 'Rattle and Hum' - a journey by U2
On Friday evening BestMate and I attempted to make our first journey by U-bahn beneath the city. How difficult could it be? We'd walked for five miles across town to Alexanderplatz, the hub of former East Berlin, and now we sought to find the easiest way back to our base in the West. Finding the station was straight-forward enough, following the blue 'U' logo across the shopping precinct rather than tracking the green circle of the elevated S-bahn. The first concourse seemed devoid of almost all useful information for the occasional traveller, pointing only towards line numbers and destinations, and only eventually did we locate a network map (using awkwardly small text). Eventually I worked out we wanted the line designated U2, then promptly headed down the wrong stairs to the U5, then returned and chose again to reach the platform. We'd bought a Berlin Welcome Card each before arriving, this convenient bargain offering travel on all forms of public transport plus museum discount entry. Our 72 hours would start the second we validated our paper ticket, somewhere, erm, ah yes, by poking it into the machine at the entrance to the platform. By this time a train had rattled in, heading probably in the right direction, but I hadn't yet found the line diagram on the platform to confirm. While I wavered BestMate hopped aboard, and the door closed behind him, and we stared at each other through the glass in an embarrassingly amateur way. Great start.
Five minutes and one stop later we met again, with relief, and took a seat. The carriage was half full, with a stocky middle-aged German couple opposite, another couple with a muzzled dog down one end and three young casual lads holding court down the other. All the windows in a U-bahn carriage are covered by a plastic film with a Brandenburg Gate motif, for reasons never adequately explained, although at this stage in the journey there was nothing meritworthy to see. We soon learned that these metro trains signal their imminent departure by means of a red light above the door and a horn-type bleep, and that they hang around in the platform for a good few seconds longer than a typical tube train. On we hummed, initially uneventfully, and then the ticket inspectors got on. They'd looked quite ordinary waiting on the platform, one little and one large, before suddenly revealing their ID and starting to check our credentials. Refreshingly every platform in Berlin is ungated, and the populace are trusted to validate their ticket before travelling (and occasionally checked upon). On this occasion everything checked out until the guards reached the stocky middle-aged German couple, whose papers were unexpectedly found wanting, and they were escorted onto the next platform to face a fine.
Our next unusual passenger was a down and out with a dog. Again the dog was muzzled, this being one of the U-bahn's byelaws (along with no smoking, no alcohol and - by the looks of the graphic - no chips). This vagrant had brought some printed material to sell, I think Berlin's equivalent of The Big Issue, and started working his way (entirely unsuccessfully) through his potential customers. We merely shrugged, having nothing more than O-Level German with which to converse, and on he pressed. Then suddenly the three young casual lads down the end of the carriage gathered around him, said something, laid a hand on his shoulder and whipped out a sheet of papers. They were undercover law enforcement, it seems, and within seconds he too was off the train being dealt with on the platform.
By now we'd passed Mohrenstraße, which had been the last stop on the line during the division of the city. Back then two other U-bahn lines continued beneath East Berlin without stopping, passing through ghoststations overseen by armed police, but the U2 was merely severed in two. We rode on beneath Potsdamer Platz, once the busiest road intersection in Europe until engulfed in Cold War nomansland, and into West Berlin proper at Gleisdreieck. At this canalside bridge the line has again been severed, this time temporarily, to allow for major engineering works. For six months the U1 and U2 lines have been part-combined to create the U12, a hybrid service so well signed you'd think it was permanent. And as we followed the crowds (correctly) to the next leg of our journey we smiled, because after that unholy U-bahn baptism we now knew what the hell we were doing.