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Unpacking Berlin’s Mysterious, Ubiquitous Tote Bag

“It’s a sentence in an old, I think, Greek writing,” Ms. Orlandi said. “But no one knows what it is because they cut the sentence in the middle and then they put it together, but not cleanly.” The word she uses is “verwächst”: two things that have grown together and become entangled, like branches on a tree.

The text likely originates from Low German or Middle Dutch. But the writing, as far as experts were able to tell, doesn’t mean anything at all. Horst Simon, a professor in the Freie Universität Berlin’s department of German and Dutch philology, said, “There is neither a text nor a language to identify on this bag. What you see is a meaningless graphic representation of medieval textuality — not a text, not even letters.”

Dr. Simon guessed that the early Hugendubel designer took a collection of letters and perhaps words in black-letter writing, a form of script popular in western Europe in the late Middle Ages, before, as Ms. Orlandi suggested, cutting them horizontally and putting the images together randomly.

“Apparently, the bag’s designers wanted to create the idea of an old text without actually committing themselves to any particular real-life example,” Dr. Simon said. “In that sense it’s comparable to the ‘lorem ipsum’ place-holder text that is used by printers and book designers.” Now and then, “very rarely, by chance,” the letters form a word.

Lydia Zeldenrust, a lecturer in medieval literature at the University of York, agreed. “There are some recognizable words, but these are words that Middle Dutch and Low German have in common, so it’s hard to tell exactly which language it is.” Dr. Zeldenrust found words like “van god” and “legend,” which might suggest parts of the text come from a religious text or hagiography.

Berlin loves symbols, and is built around monumental ones that trace the highs and lows of the 20th century. There’s the Holocaust Memorial, with its enormous, claustrophobic blocks, and the TV Tower, completed in 1969, which rose eerily from behind the East German side of the Wall. Its nickname is “the Pope’s revenge”; when the sun hits it, a crucifix of reflected light appears.

The tote, on the other hand, doesn’t readily stand for anything. It invites interpretation but resists answers. And while it may now be sold by a brand, in the absence of a known creator, it belongs as much to the city as it does to anyone.

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