"Someone needs to give that a good going over with a cloth"
I'm stood looking at the mosaics in a doorway on Karl Marx Allee. I've been here many times before, but the golden light of this winter's afternoon on the towers of Frankfurter Tor has attracted me back. The sight of me with a camera has attracted the attentions of an old lady, who just a moment ago had been hobbling, walking-stick in hand, along the snow-covered street.
"The people here now, they don't take care of it," she continues, looking up at the doorway. "It used to be so beautiful, inside too, all red and grey, but now..." she tails off. "And those symbols there," she continues, gesturing towards the hammer, compass and sickle in front of us, "those meant something once." She looks wistfully for a moment. "Still, at least a good going over with a cloth, that'll make everything better." With that, she wanders off on her way again.
If there was ever a reason to learn German, it's this: Berliners can be wonderfully talkative and they say the most fascinating things. From accounts of the night the wall came down to the assertion that the Fernsehturm is the top of a spaceship, I can truly say I've heard all sorts on Berlin's streets.
I recently read a travel article which suggested that staying in a hostel is the best way to meet the locals. That may be the way all the trendy backpacker kids do it these days, but I have to say that standing around in Berlin with a camera has always done the trick for me.
I look back at the mosaics. Where the lady saw tiles that were in need of a polish, I see tiles in the muted, fading colours of the old East Berlin. As the city changes, there are many who look with excitement towards a bright new future, saying good riddance to the bad old days of the wall, the Stasi and endless shortages. Others look back and see a bright past that's slowly becoming dull and tarnished. Germans talk of the 'Mauer im Kopf', the wall in people's minds, which for some still separates Germany - and Berlin - into East and West. One country, one city, with two separate identities. Some East Germans feel like they had the rug pulled from under their feet in 1990, when the country which large numbers of them had lived their entire lives in ceased to exist. Some, of course, would prefer to say they suffered their entire lives there, while others always have a cloth handy, to keep the memories sparkling.