‘You do realise this place is not actually in Berlin?’ I asked Bernie on the phone. She said she did. And could she bring her friend Anna.
It has to be said that most of my friends who visit me in Berlin do not come for the culture. They might squeeze in getting confused in the Holocaust Memorial or a serendipitous walk past the Brandenburg Gate, but it’s all incidental. They come here to party, and the optimistic ones, to try to get into Berghain. I even had some friends fake a few photos on a two hour whistle stop outside the Air bnb, just before their Monday flight, so it looked like they had seen something of Berlin.
So Bernie surprised me when she asked for culture the week before her arrival. You’d be surprised too if you knew the Bernie I knew – she is a dazzle of bright orange human sparkler. She is Bernie who goes to Burning Man in those steampunk goggles, who burns the candle at both ends and mostly, always, brings the party spirit bundled into her hastily packed bag. I made a few suggestions and to my further surprise, she liked the sound of Sanssouci Palace, in Potsdam, an hour west of Berlin on the S7.
So I adjusted my expectations and prepared for a ‘day out’ in the heat, looking at Frederick the Great’s posh summer house and walking in his grounds. Scott, realising he would be the token man with four women and one child who thinks he is great, went early to the supermarket and came back with an enormous picnic. He packed an old green rucksack complete with two bottles of sekt – he was upping the Manc-skills for the ladies.
I wondered what Bernie would do at a stately home, as I hadn’t seen her in any contexts other than the dressing up party one and usually in darkness. She is from Zimbabwe, has a sultry smile, an arch grin and is more fun that some people can handle. She will talk to strangers, demand the things that should be demanded, and laugh off any resistance. She is also a project manager and will manage you to death if you let her. In fact, she’d put on an excellent funeral.
The thing I love most about Bernie, is that when she talks to you she looks into your face and quizzes you until she has the full picture. But you never feel bombarded; you feel like a cool, interesting rock star whose life story is worth the telling. Like your life matters and should be in a magazine. Like you need a leather jacket. My daughter turned 18 a few years ago and Bernie interrogated her, firing questions and marvelling enthusiastically at her answers. It was the most buoyant, affirming experience for Daisy, and for me listening in – well, I simply must be the most amazing mother on the planet!
Last time I had seen Bernie she had been wearing a leopard print catsuit and was trying to distract me from Poldark by pushing balloons into the top of it, brandishing a broom handle as a shepherd’s crook. This time she was gazing up at the tumbling extravagant ceiling of the hallway of Sanssouci listening to the tour guide device and looking thoughtful. She was wearing an Aperol-coloured dress and a black peaked cap. A dark horse.
Frederick The Great’s summer palace is intricately, seductively decorated – each room a whimsical flourish. Birds and fruits dance across the ceiling in relief in one room, complete with gilded spider-webs creeping up the walls. Cherubims and dragons leap and chase each other, with no regard for angles and corners. In the guestrooms, there are hidden doors for the servants set invisibly behind an overarching theme of gardens, or China, or architecture. My favourite room had pink striped walls and curtains and chairs. Geometrically hung paintings of Italian cities were arranged as inspiration for Frederick in his own Rococo designs. Apparently, his father was mean and didn’t let him travel to see these buildings for himself, so he had to make do with paintings. He also got forced into marriage. But he still turned out Great.
Under the trees near the fountain Scott unpacked the picnic. He’d forgotten the cups but not the sekt. Luckily he dazzled us with Manc-skills for the ladies – paper doilies of all things. The heat hummed and we shifted on the grass with the shade. Stepped vines ascended behind us in a wide green bed, on which the palace sat, glinting. Bernie leaned against a tree and said,
“I’m so glad I’ve found Aperol as now I can take a break from red wine in the summer.” She was having a lovely time, posing for photos, breathing in the summer air, and paddling in the drinking fountain to cool down. What was Aperol?
We wandered down the wide paths through the park to the see what else was included on our expensive pay-online-arrive-on-time-or-don’t-get-in German style ticket.
Bernie craned her neck to look at the impressive painted ceiling in the garish golden Chinese Pagoda, and I wondered how I would arrange my furniture if this was my yurt-like home. It was like something from Alice and Wonderland and seemed even more incongruous as a backdrop to the appropriately-dressed Germans in beige, with sensible water bottles. None of them had loud orange dresses on.
We walked on and on and finally gave in to the heat and collapsed under a different tree near the non-committally named New Palace. It was understated in name but so enormous we couldn’t possibly imagine what was in there. Even the stables and servants’ buildings were like houses for giants, complete with gigantic fake Roman ruins and statues brandishing things on the roofs. I dozed a bit and when I sat up, Bernie was on her phone, playing Candy Crush.
“Let’s go into that palace’ she said and leaped up. We lumbered in the immovable heat to get in before it closed. I wanted to try Aperol that very minute.
The New Palace was echoing and gloomy and cavernous. I am not sure visitors were really part of its thing – they were like a front to hide dark goings-on. The downstairs ballroom was encrusted with sea creatures made of stones and jewels which bared their teeth. There were dark paintings of flowing women and gothic chandeliers which gave no light save for an auric glow. We had to stick to the deep carpet paths and not stray. There was no furniture. Ruby phoned me from outside where she was waiting for us, having not bought the expensive go-everywhere ticket. The ringtone echoed and swayed around the empty palace as I fumbled to find it and three silent guards approached me from the depths – I felt sure there was an enormous dingy jail in the next empty room. No one would ever find me. It would be a great place to have a party I said to Bernie, who agreed.
Bernie does daytime Berlin
Over a Radler, which Bernie summarised as the most perfect drink for that exact moment, we decided that the Kitkat club would manage without us that night. According to Bernie’s phone app, we had walked 16 kilometres. A quick plate of noodles at Lemon Grass ( a really nice restaurant in Friedrichshain) and home to bed. I bet Frederick had had a horse.
On Sunday we went to my favourite summer club, Sisyphos, like all guests are supposed to do. Anna rustled up Aperol for breakfast, I enjoyed it, and we jumped on a bus and went dancing. I was back in the sphere of the Bernie I knew. As she struck up conversations with the silent east German tram congregation, made friends with the coolest people in Sisyphos in the first three minutes, and effortlessly managed everyone’s fun, I saw her in a new, cultured light. She was a prism with many sides. But I doubt Frederick’s father would have let her in the palace.