Iopened the window to let in some air. Hotel windows can’t always be opened. Some hotels don’t believe in fresh air, or they believe it’s too expensive, if the price of having it is accepting the risk of people smoking (or jumping). On the fourth floor of the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, windows open over a secret courtyard, and I could hear what sounded like an old TV broadcast, the voice of Peter Jennings saying it was a historic moment. I wasn’t imagining it: the sound was coming from the Brandenburg Gate, where images from the fall of the Wall were being projected onto the façade to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of reunification.
Fresh air. Angela Merkel is a big fan of it, and says that ventilating a room – lüften – may be the saving of mankind, and the cheapest way to contain the virus. She can become quite deep on the subject – a friend of mine used to call it ‘Black Forest thinking’. Stosslüften requires that a window be opened wide at least once a day to give a room a thorough blast; querlüften needs crosscurrents of air, which means windows open at opposite ends of a room. In Germany there’s a long history of admiring fresh air and relating it to one’s existential wellbeing.
Outside, the anniversary celebrations were hotting up, and flags were fluttering. I asked a woman in a hi-vis jacket about the flags. ‘It’s Germany a hundred years ago,’ she said in English. ‘Before. I mean the time until 1910. Before all of this.’ I wasn’t sure whether her English, or mine, would stretch to a full investigation of ‘this’, but, as she snorted at the excited crowd and walked off, the word ‘EINHEIT’ (‘unity’) was projected above the columns. Whenever I see flags I think of Macbeth – ‘Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky/And fan our people cold’ – and the anniversary seemed edged with current fears. There was nationalism, on the one hand, and a foreign virus, on the other.
The next morning thirty police cars stood around Pariser Platz, where there were mini-demonstrations on behalf of Indian rape victims, the Falun Gong and the teachings of Jesus Christ. ‘Only Jesus Christ can convince alcoholics and homosexuals to change,’ one young man said. He was wearing combat trousers and a white hoodie bearing the words ‘Jesus Walks with Me’. The man in the hoodie might have referred to Psalm 62, where men, when weighed in the scales, are lighter than air, yet the virus appeared to have brought outside some of those who believe the virus is either a judgment or a conspiracy, and flags were never far away.
After leaving the Walter Reed hospital, Donald Trump was swiftly encouraging people to risk their own lives and one another’s, just as he had done. Even by his standards his tweet was dangerous and mad. Then he ripped off his mask on the White House balcony, as if in defiance – but of what, or whom? He loves an airless room. Seeking the Democratic nomination in 1960, Lyndon Johnson wanted to get away from the lights, the hand-shaking of the primaries, and to seal the deal in a back room. (‘Jack was out kissing babies while I was out passing bills,’ he said.) The difference between them had to do with atmosphere. Kennedy was the open-air politician, a fact that would aid both his victory and his assassination.
Merkel was precise about the struggles that would be necessary to contain Covid and threw up her hands at the ‘keep calm and carry on’ debacle and the ‘above it all’ irresponsibility in the UK. ‘Britain found itself in the ignominious position of having the highest death toll in Europe,’ John Kampfner writes in his new book, Why the Germans Do It Better (Atlantic, £16.99):
Germany, having tested a large cross-section of its population, had a high number of recorded cases. But the death rate, as a proportion of the population, was tiny compared to that of the UK (and most of Europe), even with an ageing populace … Germans watched in horror as a country they admired for its pragmatism and sangfroid fell into pseudo-Churchillian self-delusion.
I gleaned two new facts on my way to see the Old Masters at the Gemäldegalerie. One was that ‘the imperative to open windows’ is now part of many Berlin rental agreements. The other was that opera venues, keen to get up and running, will only consider very short works, so that divas and public alike won’t be kept away from the fresh air for too long. According to James Nestor in my currently favourite self-help book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, ‘seven books of the Chinese Tao dating back to around 400 BCE focused entirely on breathing, how it could kill us or heal us, depending on how we used it’ – apparently we’re ‘the worst breathers in the animal kingdom’. We could all be ‘pulmonauts’ – healthy breathers taking the medicine of fresh air – if only we’d expand our chests and open a window now and then.
At the Gemäldegalerie I had a whole room of Rembrandts to myself. I visited each painting in turn, then sat down. It was hard not to imagine millions of people elsewhere, all breathing, or worrying about breathing, or coughing, or worrying about their coughs. (Berlin’s population density is a third less than London’s.) In the empty room, the Rembrandts, especially the self-portraits, weren’t saying, ‘This is me’ so much as ‘Who are we?’ I looked for Room 18, where a little Vermeer, The Glass of Wine, hangs like the answer to a question nobody asked. Sitting on a chair, overseen by a man with his hand on a white carafe, a woman is drinking, and the light falls perfectly on her pink dress and on the glass. The open window opposite features an image of Temperance. Vermeer liked an open window, as much, you imagine, for the light as for the air. In Dresden, in his Young Woman Reading a Letter, the window is wide to the world, while she stands, isolated.