Reading Time: 4 mins
I must have spent over an hour in the Library of Antiquities section at the Neues Museum. It was a clear day and the view from the museum was splendid. I was looking at Berlin, my fingers gently tapping on the window pane, carelessly simulating the musical score of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata playing in the background.
‘You’ve hit a wrong note’, came a voice with a strong German accent.
I looked around and saw a man in his late twenties, with a red blazer, light brown hair and a solemn expression. He looked like a museum employee.
‘You should have hit b sharp with your forefinger. You can always check the sheet music’, he added.
Not knowing what to say, I hesitated for a while and acknowledged his correction.
‘I will remember that’, I replied with a smile.
After another pause, he said,
‘Some evenings, they play Bach, Mozart and Beethoven by the riverside.’
It is no secret that Germany has produced some of the finest composers of western classical music. Thinking out loud, I told him,
‘I would love to hear them sometime. I only have this evening to spare.’
‘I get off at half past 5 in the evenings.’
We did not have any more to say to each other. Without any further word, we parted.
My day at Berlin started with the museums of the Museum island. At the junction where the two tributaries of River Spree join to form a single stream of water, an island rises and houses five museums, giving it the name of the museum island. The Berliner Dom is a grand cathedral built in the Baroque style, famous for its impressive dome rising above the city’s skyline. A short walk from the cathedral leads to the Brandenburg Tor, an 18th century neoclassical monument built by the Prussian king Frederick William the Second. To the north of the cathedral lies the Hackescher market and the much renowned Anne Frank museum. A good 20 minutes walk from the Alexanderplatz central station leads to Checkpoint Charlie, better known as the Berlin Wall that separated east Berlin from west Berlin during the Cold War. The opera house, the Spittelmarket, St. Nicholas Church and the Fernsehturm tower are short distances away from each other and can be covered in a day’s itinerary.
It was past 6 in the evening by the time I completed my walking tour of Berlin and reached the Museum island. The sun had almost disappeared from the horizon and the baroque styled lamps along the river looked like little blobs of light from a distance.
‘I thought you’d never come,’ said a familiar voice from behind.
I turned round to see the man from the museum looking at me with a face that read consternation. A few seconds of silence and my profound gaze must have accidentally revealed my thoughts on seeing him, for I saw his lips slowly twitch and break into a half crescent smile and then, all at once. Now, he was smiling. Before I realised it, I too, was smiling. That I both surprised and glad to see him, I had somehow made it clear.
Being two strangers from vastly different worlds, the constraints of unfamiliarity and language created an obfuscation at times and it was not until we ordered a bottle of dry red wine at a nearby riverside Italian restaurant that we began to feel at ease and our conversation started to take a smooth turn. Thankfully, he did most of the talking. Even after devouring Victorian novels for as long as I can remember, and identifying myself with the many free-spirited female protagonists of Austen and the Brontë sisters, I couldn’t think of one smart thing to say to this stranger I had surprisingly taken a liking to. How I disappoint myself at times!
A university student of dramatic arts and a museum employee over the weekends, he was a little older to me in years and lived with his father at a rented apartment near the Opera house in Charlottenburg towards the western edges of the city. As more and more people came streaming into the restaurant, our conversations matured and we found ourselves talking about the places we’ve been to and the people who have stayed with us over the years. We were delighted to discover our shared love for music and theatre, and he told me stories from his childhood when he would walk to the opera with his father who was in charge of stage lights, and watch many renowned artists play parts and sing from his favourite Mozart and Beethoven compositions.
The talk of music had shattered the last of our lingering discretion and by the time I took my last sip from the wine glass, it seemed like a reunion of two friends who were well acquainted with one another, perhaps in another world or in another lifetime. He must have been thinking along similar lines for after a moment’s pause, he asked,
‘Have we met before?’
Without waiting for my answer, he got off his chair and went outside for a smoke.
The confluence of a contemporary atmosphere and the old European charm of Berlin is hard to resist. While it lacks the pulse of London, the maddening crowd of Champs Elysees and the surplus of over enthusiastic tourists waiting in line to reach the summit of a tower, it does however, posess a nature that beautifully balances the glitz and glamour of city life by providing pockets of quiet and solitude – a wonderful escape to the world of its ancient past that tells tales of the glory of its yesteryears and the subsequent devastation brought about by the onset of the First and Second World War.
It must have been an hour since we had left the restaurant; we found ourselves walking along the banks of the winding river, a prime witness to the soul and spirit of Berlin at night.
Our walk came to an abrupt halt when he stopped, turned sideways and started humming a tune to himself. I looked in his direction and noticed a room that was dimly lit in an otherwise dark building. Amidst the defeaning silence of the still night, I could hear the faint keys of a grand piano. Someone was playing an andante. In the spell of a few seconds, I heard a tenor voice burst forth from inside the room. Slowly, it grew more and more powerful and I was lured into the passionate highs and gentle lows of a soft, bitter-sweet enticing melody. An unusual silence had descended upon the listeners and I had started to match my breath with the voice, afraid that the slightest disturbance and mismatch might disrupt those heavenly notes.
A voice spoke, almost as if breaking my trance,
‘Would you like to dance?’
A realist would remind me of the curious eyes of the passersby, the fact that I would be a character straight from the £2 hopelessly romantic novels available at London Charing Cross station, him being a stranger and the other important fact which is, I cannot dance.
I must have answered in affirmative for there we were, hands clasped, moving in slow paced circles, holding our breaths each time the voice hit the high notes with much ease and perfection. The reflection of the two figures, barely distinguishable, danced the same dance on the jubilant waters of Spree. He was no stranger to the words and closed his eyes every time the voice produced one of its impassioned and heart-wrenching vibrattos.
There once was a Knight, haggard in appearance, who lived all by himself in his cold and lonely attic room. Shunned by men, he was strange, melancholic and uttered no word. He sat in the darkest corner of his room and surrounded himself with gloomy visions and feverish hallucinations. One night, as he sat regretting his decisions, he was visited by a fairy bride, one as radiant as a rosebud with a veil gleaming with the brightest gems. She held him in a deep embrace and led him into a long and passionate dance. He started to lose himself when all of a sudden, the fairy lets get off his arm and the lights turn out. The knight is once again left in his attic, all to himself.
The last strains of a messianic epilogue had transported us into a world of our own, two different realities ringing with the sound of the hauntingly beautiful tune that had now come to an end. We stood motionless for a while, held by an invisible force until the sound of distant cars shook our bewitched senses and brought us back to the firm ground.
I couldn’t refuse his offer of guiding me back to my place of stay for the night. The intense composition had striped me bare, revealing all my inner secrets to the outside world. We didn’t utter another word; unknowingly, we had disclosed too much of ourselves to one another.
We reached my apartment too soon. We didnot adhere to any formal protocols of saying good bye. There were no kisses, hand shakes or hugs. I saw him directly looking at me before breaking into a question he had been meaning to ask for a while.
‘Why did she leave him, the knight?
‘She had to,’ came my feeble voice.
After a few seconds, I added,
‘Maybe she lives far away, I couldn’t tell.’
‘Do you think she will miss him when she is far away?’
‘Yes, I’m sure she will’, I answered with a weak smile.
‘And will she be back?’
This time, I didn’t answer but simply nodded my head, holding onto the weak smile.
He turned away and I watched him walk back the way we came, until his figure became smaller and smaller and he was lost in the darkness.