a weblog by Schuyler D. Erle
Sun, 15 Oct 2006
Having done almost no practical research ahead of time, I got off the train at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, having been assured by an Irish person on her way to a Pearl Jam concert in town that night (really) that it was right in the center of town, and for certain there would be hostels and the like right nearby. So naturally I find my way out of the train station, smack into... a vast expanse of apparently nothing: huge parking lots on all sides, the river Spree, the lights of buildings twinkling in the distance. Screw this, I thought, and showing a cabbie a list of places recommended to me in Brussels by a very nice lady from the Open Usability Project, politely asked him to take me to the nearest locale that had a hostel nearby, which turned out to be a district called Kreuzberg.
So far so good, except that on the particular weekend I chose to visit Berlin, the city was geared up to play host to both the annual Berlin Marathon (where, according to Wikipedia, the world's record in men's marathon times was established in 2003 on account of the city being so flat) and also Popkomm, Germany's leading annual music industry conference and tradeshow, which had recently moved from Cologne. The upshot of all which was, of course, that the pair of adjacent hostels that the cabbie very solicitously delivered me to, and indeed every hostel or other moderately priced place of lodging within cycling distance of Kreuzberg, was altogether booked up solid for the weekend, a fact which I ascertained only as part of a more elaborate process that ultimately involved throwing down several euro coins in an attempt to learn precisely how German payphones are meant to function, while the bartender in the bar next door, a trustworthy seeming chap, kept an eye on my stuff.
The only other plans I had made for the entire weekend involved an invitation by Jan, a mutual friend of Mako's whom I'd previously met on the media arts circuit in Milan, to attend some dodgy-seeming music performance art thing that evening. By this point it was nearly 2300, and having resolved to find the gaff containing this musical whatnot forthwith and thereby cast my fate to the winds, you may imagine then, the not-insignificant relief I experienced on checking my email to discover that Jan had not only provided a link to the concert event in question, but had also graciously held forth the use of his spare bedroom in the event that I elected not to stay in a hostel, mirabile dictu.
The barkeep proffered a tourist map, and, on offering directions to the club in Alexanderplatz, laconically recommended I cycle up Wilhelmstraße. "It is historic," he opined, a bit of commentary that eluded me and subsequently passed out of mind completely, until after a kilometer or so, I found myself suddenly and without warning at none other than Checkpoint Charlie itself. There is little to see there today, beyond the guardhouse, some heaped sandbags, the notorious "You are leaving the American sector" advisory (a replica; the original is kept in the museum down the block), and a pillar supporting a large lighted sign bearing a photo of a fresh-faced young man in a Red Army dress uniform, the very image of the stalwart defense of Communism itself, staring coolly over the border into imperialist West Berlin. On the reverse of the sign, his brave, freedom-defending American counterpart is depicted gazing confidently towards godless East Berlin. Across the street sits a building with the legend Tschechisches Zentrum, under which it reads, in English, and with tongue firmly planted in cheek -- what else? -- "Czech Point". It was right around here that a couple with with distinctly German accents stopped to me ask me directions to Unter den Linden.
Alexanderplatz wasn't much further, and, asking some disaffected local youth to confirm my understanding of the club's website -- Babelfish's rendition thereof having been actually less comprehensible in English than the original German -- I determined that the club was, in fact, inexplicably above the McDonalds, at which point I became thoroughly perplexed and wasted a couple more euros trying to use a payphone to call Jan, who finally came down and fetched me. The club was tiny and weirdly laid out, but homey in that European media artist dive sort of way, with refrigerators behind the bar that apparently proclaimed their contents with the scrolling LED marquees which I have come to suspect the Germans harbor a secret weakness for, but the beer was cheap and so Jan and I got caught up while the first act set up.
The act, a woman variously known as "marzipan marzipan", "Zelda Pound", or simply "zelda panda", played guitar and sang over tape loops, which had the potential to be terrible but was ultimately so winsome that I approached her afterwards and purchased a CD, one that turned out to have been recorded live at WFMU in, of all places, Newark, New Jersey. By the time she was done, we had gotten progressively drunker, having struck up a conversation with an American expat freelance journalist who bore a shocking resemblance to my old housemate gweeds, and his svelte Danish girlfriend, a marketroid of some description in town from Copenhagen for the weekend, who suggested we switch to vodka shots. I still find it odd to hear American accents on strangers in European cities. The second act opened with a man in reflective gold mylar tutu playing the Imperial March from Star Wars in a slow swing on the trumpet, which was followed by two women in matching gold mylar tutus singing and chanting over, you guessed it, tape loops, while they made with various antics of a theatrical nature, singing odes to glowstick stars and popping latex balloons with their high heels and so on. At one point one of them attached a helium balloon bearing a headshot of Sigmund Freud to the back of her head, and then, turning her back to the audience, proceeded to wrap her arms around herself and writhe about as if making out (with Sigmund Freud?) while the other chanted something into the microphone which Jan could not quite translate for me, but which he assured me was quite humorous. Imagine, if you will, Yoko Ono reincarnated as a pair of German woman in gold mylar tutus, one short and blonde, and the other lanky and brunette, and you have something of the essential gist.
After this, we were pretty sozzled, and opted to abscond chez Jan, which turned out to be right around the corner, on the eleventh floor of a huge apartment building that he hypothesized must have once been intended exclusively for prominent Party apparatchiks, given its size and location right smack in the center of town. The place was enormous, and probably quite inexpensive, and complete with a terrific view of Alexanderplatz and the disco ball tower behind, still prominently showing a bit of World Cup propaganda. I tried to imagine the throngs that gathered in the square immediately below on the days before the Wall fell. Then the vodka asserted itself, and unconsciousness followed.
The following morning was magnificently sunny and clear, and after breakfast I set off to see the city by bicycle, cycling around Friedrichshain, up the hill and through the lovely green Volkspark, across Prenzlauer Berg, and down the hill along tree-lined Kollwitzstraße, past the pubs and cafés. From there I found myself in Hackescher Markt, crammed full of tourists and fashionable restaurants -- and also, on this particular afternoon, throngs of former marathon runners, flushed with accomplishment and gamely limping down the street, sporting small medals on ribbons around the neck. While pushing my bicycle through the market square, I suddenly found myself inexplicably purchasing from an elderly street vendor two Soviet-era enamel pins for a euro each. One pin appears to read "Зенш", or ZENSH in Cyrillic, which, after a bit of Google grepping by Maciej, turns out to be the acronym for a Soviet correspondence school, while the other depicts a castle turret above the word "Rīga". Then I cycled along the Spree for a while, past the Hauptbahnhof (again!), and on into Alt-Moabit, before turning sharply south to catch the western edge of Tiergarten.
My favorite parts of Berlin were the green spaces, and the city is certainly blessed with them. Tiergarten itself is Berlin's crown jewel, her answer to Central Park (which turns out to be a totally absurd thing to say, given that Tiergarten apparently predates the latter by 300 years as a hunting preserve, and by at least 100 years as a public park, although the flora is much newer than that, having been turned to firewood by the end of the war and replanted only subsequently). The Straße de 17 Juni -- so named to commemorate the violent suppression of an x East German workers' uprising on that date in 1953 -- stretches away towards the Siegessäule, a two hundred foot (66m) high pillar, topped with a golden angel, bearing news of the Prussian military victories over the Danish and the Austrians and the French in the 1860s and '70s. One can climb the spiral staircase right up to the base of the statue, but I elected to press on, winding through the park's foot paths, and up John-Foster-Dulles-Allee (no joke) past where the medics and street vendors were still breaking down in the aftermath of the marathon, to the Reichstag itself, catching a glimpse of tiny figures walking up and down the spiral ramp in the dome atop the building. Dem Deutschen Volke, the legend emblazoned above the building's entrance reads, the German People.
I pedalled around the Reichstag, trying to encompass in my head all the fuss that had started in that building, tried to imagine it on fire from arson purportedly started by a purportedly deranged Dutch communist (or so he confessed under state torture), tried to imagine it half in ruins from Soviet bombardment. I couldn't grasp either one, so I continued along, down past Pariser Platz and the majestic Brandenburg Gate, the city's first foray into neoclassical architecture in the early 19th century, whose winged goddess had her olive wreath exchanged for an iron cross in the '30s, the same gate that later became an iconic symbol of the city's division. "While Brandenburg Gate remains closed," then-Mayor Richard Freiherr von Weisäcker once said, "the German question remains open." The Brandenburger Tor, as it happens, also appears on the obverse of the middle denominations of German euro coins, prefiguring the gates and bridges of the superstate's paper currency (as the gate originally appeared on the Deutschemark).
Between Pariser Platz and Potsdamer Platz, I found the city's Holocaust monument, which left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, the rows upon rows of identically mute granite blocks, arrayed like tombstones, echo the anonymity and sheer horrific numbers of the victims of the Nazi regime. The pathways into the memorial descend downwards until the smooth granite blocks loom labrinthine overhead. The effect draws one in; it is somber, reflective. What's more, it's right in the middle of everything, across the street from from the Tiergarten, right down the street from the Brandenburger Tor and the Reichstag. No attempt has been made to hide this memorial, or to place it somewhere where it need not be seen or recalled. Yet, on the other hand, the monument conveys nothing of the actual facts of the Holocaust, of its brutal inhumanity and all-too-real terrors; it is disconnected in every way but conceptually from the suffering it memorializes -- although I suppose that to do otherwise might present very thorny problems for any such public monument. Nor did I see any plaque or other signage informing the visitor of the purpose of the memorial, although I didn't look too hard for such. At least, I suppose, it is there; that is a start.
Berlin seems quite unlike most other European capitals I've been to in that it has quite broad streets throughout its center, and none of the close set buildings and narrow alleyways that one finds in Amsterdam or Brussels or London. The best account for this I heard was that the city was from the cabbie who took me to Kreuzberg, that the Berlin was originally several different cities, which amalgamated over time, leaving it without a distinct center, but given that urban habitation there dates back to the 12th century, I wonder also to what degree Berlin's seeming newness is a function of the destruction wrought by the war and the postwar partition.
Nowhere is this idea of Berlin as a city permanently in transformation more evident than at Potsdamer Platz, the erstwhile crossroads of Berlin, which, in the Golden Twenties, was home to Europe's first ever set of traffic lights, by virtue of how much traffic then passed through its main intersection. At that time, Potsdamer Platz was the throbbing heart of Berlin's famously decadent night life. By 1945, however, Potsdamer Platz was naught but a smoking ruin, and, by 1965, although the rubble had been cleared, only the Berlin Wall had sprung up to replace what had stood there previously -- actually, two walls, one right on the border, and another a couple hundred feet inside East Berlin, with a "death zone" between them -- the space left wide open and empty, to afford a maximum field of view for the East German border guards, who were given orders to shoot to kill. Today's Potsdamer Platz, by contrast, is a cluster of gleaming high rise office buildings, a veritable slice of downtown Manhattan or London's Canary Wharf, a willful eradication of any remaining sign of the locale's on-again-off-again past, excepting solely a twenty foot long section of the Wall left standing near the entrance to the U-Bahn station, with a number of signs detailing the Wall's history. Even this minor concession is curiously inauthentic, as the eastern side of the Wall never had so much as a lick of graffiti on it, clear up to that famous day in 1989.
On the particular sunny afternoon that I cycled up to examine said section of fossilized wall with interest, an obviously informal brass band on the other side of the wall immediately commenced blatting out a rather faithful rendition of the musical theme from Flashdance. What a feeling, indeed.
Thus it seems, however, to be with Berlin's relation to its mixed past: What little is left of the Wall only stands still in a few places, in Potsdamer Platz, and across the Spree over in Friedrichshain, where the East Side Gallery has turned a long section into an international art display. Elsewhere, the wall has been forgotten completely, or is marked only by a double row of paving stones running down and sometimes cutting across the street or sidewalk. In some places, a very small and unobstrusive sign or pair of signs atop a street sign post advertises the path of the Berlin Mauerweg (you guessed it, the Berlin Wall Way) to the seeker of history. The following morning, I went back to Checkpoint Charlie, inspected the outdoor museum exhibit by daylight, and imagined myself standing on the very spot where a company of Soviet tanks squared off against a company of American tanks on a wet October evening in 1961, and almost started World War III. Later on I traced a bit of the path of the Wall between Kreuzberg and Mitte, and found a fascinating abandoned corner of Berlin along Sebastianstraße near Moritzplatz, with a long-disused auditorium building inside what must have been the death zone, the death zone itself now partially squatted by immigrants in modular housing, partially turned back into a sort of involuntary park, with locals walking their dogs in the evening twilight along elephant paths carved into the overgrowth. There is talk in the tourist exhibits of making a green belt that runs the entire historical circuit of the Wall, but it is plain to me that this is the aim of a small minority of Berliners interested in historical conservation. The green belt itself is already an impossibility in places like Potsdamer Platz, where giddy capitalist land development has already proceeded apace.
On one hand, I thoroughly empathize with what I perceive to be the desire of the majority of Berliners for apparently wanting to block out the unpleasant truths of the past, as probably would anyone who has been through a traumatic phase, and wants to get back to the business of normal and even happy life. At the same time, the war and its 45 year aftermath are now an inescapable part of the fabric of the city, and it seems to me that this time deserves to be honored and understood for what it was, if nothing else as a lesson and a sign to civilization about what can happen when compassion and reason are subjugated to dogma and doctrine. Germany's participation in the European experiment -- and the very shape of contemporary Berlin itself -- demonstrate that, if we but heed history, the past can be amended, and the antagonists of old can become the collaborators of tomorrow. But who wants to live in a history lesson?
And, in spite of Berliners' efforts to forget, or at least leave behind the past, the past has not left them behind. Although the city has reintegrated itself to the point where an untutored tourist like me can't tell the difference between East and West Berlin on sight (but for the odd double line of cobblestones), Jan tells me that the distinction between the two is visually apparent to any German. What's more, I'm told that Germans occasionally make reference to the Mauer im Kopf -- the Wall in the Head -- which still psychologically divides East Germans from West Germans, springing up in between a generation through the accident of the two hundred feet of death zone between growing up communist and growing up capitalist. I haven't yet fully figured out what this means, and, maybe, being a foreigner, I never will. And maybe one day soon it will cease to matter -- or as Europe grows and reconfigures in the same way that Berlin has had to, it will come to matter more.
Still, I see a lot of promise for the city's future, perhaps ironically for the fact that a large part of (East) Berlin was totally spared the breakneck redevelopment that has seized a lot of major Western cities over the last twenty five years, cities like New York and London and San Francisco and (so I'm told) Barcelona. In most places in Boston, as Jo once complained of, real estate prices have become fixed so high that there is no room for cultural experimentation left in the margins. This difference came to my attention on my last night in Berlin, when Jan and I first visited c-base (described as "the oldest crashed space-station on earth") too late in the evening to find anyone from Freifunk, and then ambled down to a riverside "beach bar," the likes of which seem to be quite the rage in Berlin, complete with a tiki bar and fire pits and wooden beach chairs and volleyball nets and, of course, sand, which someone must have carted in by the ton at some point. We sat down in the sand there and drank beers and talked about peer-to-peer networking protocols for exchanging geodata and mused on the lack of good Open Source video editors, and at some point I realized, holy crap, there is no longer anywhere in Manhattan or London or Boston that could support a place like this, there isn't room, and the rents would be too high. I said as much to Jan and he lamented the degree to which this is no longer true even in Berlin, and how artists and the like were already starting to move from places like to Friedrichshain to districts slightly farther out, like Wedding. And yet the kaleidescopic cultural possibilities still seem richer there than almost anywhere else I've been in Europe (which may not be saying all that much).
Ah, welthauptstadt Berlin! O axis of Europe, Berlin! Berlin of decadence and division! Berlin, whose reunification points hopefully to the eventual reunification of peoples now separated from one another everywhere and for all time! With grateful benedictions I departed, someday perhaps to gladly return.
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