Finding God In Grünewald

Written by Neve Robinson

Author’s Note: I recently had an epiphany that the subject matter of my personal essays tends to be a bit maudlin and dreary. I suppose these are indicative of the undeniably misery-riddled times in which we all (often reluctantly!) reside in. I wanted to write something slightly upbeat and about something that fills me with sparks when I think of it. And then it reminded me of an assignment, a question, that I was once asked as a young Neve-ling. I wondered if perhaps I could flesh something out of that very same assignment, given that my intellectual growth since then hasn’t been of too high a magnitude. Well, lo and behold, I present to you my haphazard attempt at a happy piece about a happy time!

When I was little, I vividly recall being asked to recount for a primary school project what I, in all of my infinite infant wisdom, deemed to be the best day of my life. It was, of course, a relatively easy question posed to a child with little expectation of an established response; after all, I’d only been in existence for about 7 years. What did I know about life? And what did I know about experiencing the very creme-de-la-creme of it? The best day of my life probably involved, at this point of my life, watching Rugrats all day and ingesting worrying amounts of (definitely inedible) Play-Doh. I presume the teachers just expected us to come up with fairly basic summarizations of day-trips to the zoo, or decadent descriptions of Disneyland. I probably did answer with something of that description – as I said, being 7, I wasn’t quite the intellectual giant that you see before you today (I jest, I jest). It wasn’t something to ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’ about in the same way that it would be if somebody posed the same query to you at your current juncture of life, because there aren’t many memories to sift through. 

I understand that for many, if the same question was sprung on you suddenly, it may take some hesitation and careful contemplation. Each year of life adds another year of enriching experiences, thus, more moments to choose from. But me? I don’t need even a second to dwell on it, I could answer immediately, but this  isn’t because I’m a perennially positive person – in fact, quite the opposite. I can admit to being quite the moody bastard more often than not, but on this day, the most perfect 24 hour period of my young years, I remember vehemently proclaiming aloud that this really was it. A pleasant peace permeated my soul that day that I don’t think I’ve ever felt since, and I owe it all to Nico (of The Velvet Underground fame), two phones with dead batteries, and my best pal in the whole world. Perhaps I should expand somewhat. But if I just left it there, it’d be one hell of a tagline for a movie, wouldn’t it?

It was 2017, or maybe ‘18. I think 2018. The years sort of blend into one when you’ve virtually just wasted one indoors thanks to a blasted pandemic. My best friend Frances and I, having already embarked on a successful holiday to Budapest a few months prior, decided on a whim to book a week away in Germany. We felt that all great artists – Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, The Ramones – all had their most formative and creative career peaks during their Berlin periods. It seemed only right that we should follow in their footsteps (and hopefully consume an abundance of hearty tankards of Warsteiner in the process). Having booked a multitude of insanely cool activities to embark on while in Berlin – including seeing The Rolling Stones at the Olympiastadion (that comes a close second on The Greatest Day list!) – we packed our suitcases and headed off to die große Stadt, baby. We were staying in a groovy little hostel on Warschauer Platz crammed with a multitude of sensationally strange characters, including a harem of Irish 30-year-olds who regularly serenaded us with a battered acoustic guitar that was missing a string and an American girl who was utterly obsessed with the way that I said ‘pavement’ rather than ‘sidewalk’. We spent most of our days munching on supermarket-assembled picnics whilst sightseeing and generally exploring the city. Checkpoint Charlie, the East Side Gallery, the Brandenburg Gate– you know, the usual. Disappointingly, we didn’t encounter David Hasselhoff, which I personally felt was worthy of compensation, but I digress. We were just having a lovely little holiday, really. Then the day that we took the S-bahn (the Metro) to Grünewald Forest fell upon us. A day I don’t think I will ever forget. Not for it being a particularly remarkable day. Not for it being just the usual excitement of being on a trip abroad. No. it was because of the sheer bliss that we shared that day. It was a day that really, really made me feel glad to be alive.

We initially went to Grünewald because we were short of an activity for the day, and both being avid devourers of records, we were enticed by the promise that the singer Nico’s grave was nestled rather ethereally in the midst of a leafy forest. Though Nico herself was a person of questionable morals, she was a woman of unquestionable talents, and to pay our respects to such talents in such a beautiful setting was an enticing idea. It was a drizzly, overcast day in East Berlin, so we put our raincoats on and set off. The train stopped off in a village that was quite literally in the middle of a forest. It looked as though the village had grown around the trees. There were a few scatterings of quaint cottages, but mostly nothing but a few wooden signs scrawled in German that were presumably guiding us into the forest – we hoped so anyway. As we shrugged and followed the Grimm’s fairy tale trail before us,  enchanted completely by the verdant lushness of our surroundings, we were walking in a dazed state for a while until we came to a clearing. We’d been walking for perhaps an hour or so and had stumbled across a cafe in the middle of the trees. It felt as though we were in a Studio Ghibli animated picture, which was a far cry from the bustling city only a twenty minute drive away. It was a woodland retreat of sorts. Frances and I ordered hot chocolates and sipped at them tentatively as we watched the warm rain splash from leaf to leaf of the oak tree beside the window. We watched raindrops chase each other playfully on the sill and, after getting immersed in the simple sensory escapism of that small cafe for a bit, we decided to carry on our mission for fear of not ever wanting to part with the cosy little haven. 

We walked and talked for hours. We had a folk playlist (comprised of James Taylor and the like) playing aloud from our phones as we traversed. Our phones’ batteries soon curtailed and died, which should perhaps have been of concern to us given that we were in the literal middle of nowhere,  but we were too engrossed in the birdsong above us and the crunch of leaves underfoot. I finally understood what the Romantic poets meant when they kept going on about the ‘nature of the sublime.’ Like the Earth was its own entity and it was kindly allowing us to traipse all over it, blasting our tunes and having a laugh. It rained, certainly, but it was a balmy, summery mist that was beyond refreshing. We couldn’t help but put our hoods down to get fully saturated in the pleasant dew. I fell in love with the way that it beaded on the tips of my fringe, and a small rainbow would flicker from the soaked strands when I shook my head. We had packed a feast of strawberries, fresh bread and delicious juices, and ate as we trekked through the trees. What struck me most about the day though, was that it felt like a real milestone in our relationship. Frances has been my best friend and confidant for nearly five years now, having bonded closely on a college history trip as I (incredibly boringly) offered to share a crossword with her on a plane. She obliged, and the rest is history. I live with her and have for nearly two years. But I don’t think, in all of our time spent together, I have ever felt so closely intertwined with her as I did on that day. I’m sure she’s cringing slightly upon reading this, but hear me out, Frank. Spending nearly twelve hours wandering around an endless copse of firs with your only scenery really being viridescent green, well – you’re bound to have a natter or two to aid you on your hike. I learnt a lot about my friend that day, and I think she learnt a lot about me – even if all that she learnt was how often I can fall over exposed tree roots (answer in short: many).

When we finally encountered Nico’s grave, it was nestled in front of a small, deeply Bavarian-looking church graveyard. I’ve never really believed in God, mainly out of cynicism more than anything. But that day, finding this completely undisturbed gorgeous collection of gravestones and wild jonquil flowers poking through the cracks between them, I started to understand the line of thinking behind creationism. It would certainly seem inconceivable that such beauty could be undesigned. Everything seemed so…perfectly aligned. I could hear the hum of grasshoppers and see the sparkle of the evening sun through the shafts of the trees. We sat with her for nearly an hour. We didn’t really talk. There wasn’t much to say. It’s rare that Frances and I, the two loudest mouths in Manchester, are rendered completely speechless. That was one of those moments. It took us hours to commute back to the petit train station, especially given that we now had no GPS advantage. We didn’t mind, though, not one bit. We skipped our way through puddles, we bounded through the meadows that appeared in clearings and interspersed the greenery, we laughed at ludicrously unfunny jokes. I felt so giddy, so jubilant, so childlike– it’s hard to describe the level of innocence that I reverted to on that day. It felt like anything I’d ever been upset about had completely melted away, and all that I could feel was this one completely free moment. Nobody knew where we were, and nobody knew us, and for some reason this was comforting to me. I felt like I didn’t have to tone down my personality nor the fun that I was having, because my best friend was having just as much as me. The only bad part of that day? Getting the S-bahn back, and watching our own little chunk of paradise spin past us and into our past. I knew then, like I know now, that no day would compare to this one, and it’s for no particular reason at all, really.

On reflection, I suppose it’s quite an uneventful day to an outside perspective. After all, what did we really achieve? Dead phones, got lost in some trees and rained on for a few hours, and dined on supermarket bread and processed slices of Edam cheese. It’s not exactly on the heights of a day a seven year old Neve would have described to her teacher. But that’s okay. It was special to us. It was the best day of my life, not anybody else’s, and it will remain in my memory forever. Frances and I plan one day to move to Berlin, or at least the outskirts, and try and relive a day as wonderful as this one. For now, I hold the best day of my life close to my heart, and I think of it often, as I’m currently housebound under UK lockdown restrictions until further notice. 

Grünewald, I dream of you and the sanctuary you offered me. If God is real, I can promise you one thing wholeheartedly – He’s present in this forest, from the soil to the dragonflies flitting over the soft tickling streams. Maybe I did find God in a German forest. Or maybe I’m just a romanticist who wants to go on a holiday again. You decide.