Sunday, August 4, 2013

In Search of Water Closets and a Forgotten River

Weird manifestations of expat-ism: How many more times are we going to step in a dark bathroom and blindly grope around the wall for the light switch? It really does make more sense to have the switch outside – if you are used to it. Its sort of the whole German thing of planning ahead. Downside: you sit on the pot and someone turns the light off on you from the hallway.

Berlin is located in an Urstromtal (I loved that earthy word in elementary school!), an ancient gigantic stream valley, created by draining glacier water at the end of the last ice age. Today it's a vast area of rivers, lakes and swamps; the soil is mostly sand. Not until the Prussians got their act together in the late 1700s, was much of it turned into dry land that could be settled and used for agriculture.

But the city’s wet past is still very close to the surface, as it turns out. The groundwater level is only a few meters under ground level. When Potsdamer Platz was re-built in the 1990s, divers had to do much of the foundation work. Now recently, whole neighborhoods in and around Berlin have been experiencing increasingly wet cellars. This year, many basements are just under water – and not just after a big rain. This includes around 50 public buildings, among them the Berlin Rathhaus, the city hall, causing millions of Euros in damage. What’s going on? The ground water level is rising, and dramatically, for two reasons: One, after reunification, all of the state-owned industry around Berlin was closed down, reducing water use. Two, efficient home appliances have reduced residential water use to pre 1989 levels. Berlin is faced with an interesting dilemma. Use more water to lower the groundwater level? Close whole neighborhoods? Pump groundwater out? (This is already done.) Help homeowners build up their basement walls to withstand the water? Build a pipeline to New Mexico?

Berlin is a watery place, with 52 square km of water surface, 180 km of water ways and more bridges than Venice. As part of “managing water” and creating water ways to accommodate the industrial revolution, the 38 km Teltowkanal was completed in 1906. It connects the main two watersheds, Havel and Spree with each other to the south of Berlin. The canal builders re-used some of the natural stream beds of existing rivers and creeks, including the Telte. The Telte was later known as the Bäke, and the Bäke happens to originate under the Fichtenberg, which is the “mountain” (68 m) we live on. Across the street from our house, the historic water tower (now used as a meteorological station by the Free University) probably drew its water right from the spring. 

The Bäke, before it was swallowed by the Teltowkanal was the main river in the south of Berlin, flowing all the way to Potsdam, where it joined the Havel waters, creating wetlands, swamps and providing water for agriculture of the early settlers of the villages (including our own Steglitz) which are now part of southern Berlin.

I know its water still bubbles out of the earth right under our house. So I took a little bike ride in search of this forgotten river. Riding south, across downtown Steglitz, where the river has been channeled underground, I followed its path through green spaces and weekend garden colonies.  Then I found a short piece of Bäke still at the surface, before it joins the canal. It goes on for about 1 km, through a beautiful large park. Found my San Vicente Creek Ersatz!

what's left of the creek

where the Bäke joins the Teltowkanal

Next we are going to explore the southern Bäke Valley, 8 km down the canal, where the river once more flows its natural course for a short distance, through a little nature preserve, alongside a vineyard, the Machnower Lake, a historic mill and a little castle. Stay tuned.

I'll close this with another potty related observation: In Berlin restaurants, going to the bathroom becomes a test of endurance: You go down the stairs to the basement. You go through the door that says WC, and enter a small hallway. You choose your gender and go through the respective door, to enter another small hallway with no apparent purpose. You go through another door, entering the room with the hand washing facilities. Your bladder really wants it now. After looking around you find another door, leading to the room with the stalls. Exhausted you stumble into a stall. That’s five doors. Add to that finding the light switch every time…..


Pat Bennett said...

Oh I remember the bathroom situation from the 50's! You brought a big, warm smile to this face!


Liz said...

Your last comment reminds me of drunken times in Madrid, not finding the way OUT of the bathroom! Maybe your watery reflections have made it here to NM. We've had lots of monsoon action here in Albuquerque. Missing you!