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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Twenty-two: Berlin

Michael Palin - New EuropeHe restarts the engine and I give it maximum wellie. But it's still not enough and the engine stalls again. Fat lot of good I'd be at invading.

Softened up by years of automatic gearbox and power-steering, I try to remember my train-driving lesson in Poland and all at once everything clicks, or in this case grinds, into place. This is heavy equipment and it needs hard work. Once I and the tank have got our relationship right, I'm rewarded by a remarkably springy performance. These T-55s may look big and bulky but they can hit a top speed not far short of 40 miles per hour. Though I get nowhere near that, I feel as if I could reach Marseille eventually, and steep slopes and precipitous drops are no problem.

Extracting myself from the tank is the final challenge to overcome before I'm awarded my tank driver's certificate and christened 'Panzer Palin' by Basil.

We drive back to Berlin. This area, Brandenburg-Prussia, once the powerhouse of Germany, is not quite what I'd expected. There's no sign of great estates or country houses and Tamsin, our English translator and fixer, confirms that this is a pretty depressed area. A now-familiar landscape of wind farms and endless fields of rapeseed (grown for bio-fuels) gives way to the suburbs and the mile upon mile of rectangular modern blocks in which most of Berlin's population lives. And likes to live, according to Tamsin. Unlike the British, the Germans are perfectly happy to live in high-rise apartments, most of which are rented.

They're adaptable too, and if, when the family moves out, they no longer need a three-room flat, they'll happily downsize. In fact, Tamsin thinks, it's very 'East Berlin' to make do, to be seen not to be extravagant. That goes for the older population in the housing estates and the young professional families in the city. It's chic to be shabby, to reuse, never to throw things away. If this is true, then the inheritance of the GDR may not be all bad. It might be better attuned to the present mood of environmental responsibility which the Germans, who like to get things right, are taking more seriously than most.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Twenty-two: Berlin
  • Country/sea: Germany
  • Place: Berlin
  • Book page no: 284

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