Uwe's Bench Studies – querstadtein Tour Through Mitte
“I know Berlin better than anybody else”. This was one of the first statements that the Berliner guide gave to the crowd before he started to lead us away from the central station and into some quite different perspectives.
After seven and a half years in a state of homelessness, Uwe Tobias (56) knows how it feels to spend the day on the street and how to sleep rough. From 1991 to 1998, the fifty-six-year-old was homeless in the East Berlin and experienced things that were certainly worth explaining in the two-hour querstadtein tour. In 2013, the year that Uwe joined, the volunteer programme “querstadtein” came into being. With pioneering cities such as Hamburg and London, the two founders Katharina Kühn and Sally Ollech started the program with an impressive number of 160 tours within the first year.
Currently, there are two different tours in Berlin: one is the Berlin City West tour through Wilmersdorf and Charlottenburg by Dieter Bichler. The other is Uwe Tobias´ tour through Berlin Mitte, which I had the chance to join. With emotions ranging from sadness to excitement, Uwe guided us from the Central Station over the Charité hospital, the bank, Friedrichstraße and the Monbijoupark to the final station of Neptunbrunnen near Alexanderplatz. While some grumpy passers-by assumed we were tourists, and therefore looked at us strangely, they did not know what they were missing. They may have mistakenly judged the tour as a mindless performance around Berlin, but with Uwe´s special narrative the two-hour walk became more than a reflection on Berlin´s division. Rather, it was an exciting path to knowledge that went far beyond the history books.
The best way how to cover yourself with a blanket, how to use banana boxes as a shelter and the river as a fridge created an image of the parts of Berlin that most tourists and Berliners will not have seen before. And this with Berlin being the German city with the highest number of homeless people. Most people see a bench when they see a bench, whereas Uwe sees different constructions and types of harder and softer wood for sleeping on.
He talked about how the lives of homeless people have changed since the time he was homeless, when the capacity of places to sleep was much higher than it is today. His descriptions of instances between himself and the border guards before the fall of the wall were followed by criticism of the way the other “guards” work in today´s bureaucratic system. Uwe emphasized how it was not only easier to find places to sleep, but also how traveling without a ticket was a common thing to do. He also told stories about him and his three best friends, with whom he spent most of the time in the street and with whom he was sometimes lucky enough to share an empty space to sleep. He claimed that he has no regrets.
Stories like these carried themselves through the tour that ended at the Neptunbrunnen near Alexanderplatz. Here, Uwe said goodbye to us. When we passed the Neptunbrunnen to go to the train station, the stories about the money in the well, the cold drinks and the good as well as the horrible times that Uwe had, could not leave my mind. It may change the way I see Berlin and all its inhabitants – registered or not.
Photos: Mathias Becker | querstadtein.org
By Maleen Schwinger