Ich Bin Ein Berliner

What a change it is to be back in a truly Western country! Berlin is a city redefining itself after the fall of the wall back in 1989. Like in Beirut, there are cranes and construction sites everywhere. Between the destruction of so much of the city during WWII and the division of the city in 1961, Berlin has little that has survived from the “olden days”.
It is, though, a thriving place. Because of an international design competition there are architecturally interesting buildings throughout the city which blend well into those that already existed. German people come from all over Germany to visit their new capital city and international visitors flock to see and experience not only the new look but also the myriad of cultural museums and activities.

Arriving at the airport, I was thrilled to meet up with Wiltrud, the first of many friends that I have met on a bicycle trip. Back in 1999, we did our first bike trip in Austria and met Wiltrud and her husband, Lothar. Since then, we have met up on one continent or another and it was way past my turn to come back to Europe. How convenient that Europe is on my way home!

Germany has an amazing infrastructure of public transportation so we were able to use the bus and tram system to get to our hotel in Berlin. Wiltrud is a wonderful tour guide and she had planned out our time for the next few days to see the city starting with a tour on a public bus that passes many of the major sights. As we sat grinning on the top deck of a double decker bus, we caught up with our lives while viewing the city. We passed golden monuments, green parks and canals, buildings old and new from both sides of the wall and hundreds of people. I was especially struck by the height of so many people, obviously well fed and active. It was great to see so many people on bicycles (including the pedal cabs) and special lanes just for bikes. There was even a beer bike with 10 people pedaling through the streets while they sipped their foamy brew.

Off the bus, we explored by foot, walking through huge public squares where so much of history had unfolded. There was the famous Brandenburg gate with its tall columns right near the American embassy, pieces of the Berlin Wall, left as a reminder (and myriads of pieces were also available in any gift shop), an impressive field of simulated grave stones as a monument to the Holocaust and the infamous, Checkpoint Charlie where you can have your picture taken for 2 Euros. We passed the cathedral, an island of museums, the famous radio tower that loomed over East Berlin and an early international clock. Everywhere there were people out enjoying the beautiful spring day including lots of people in beach chairs drinking their German beer alongside the river canal. We shared our dinner in the new Sony center sitting outside where we could watch the people go by. So many people…

In the morning, Wiltrud and I visited the Pergaamonmuseum of ancient art. Similar to the ruins I had seen in Beirut and Istanbul, the newly renovated space was filled with treasures from the east. The highlight of the visit was a multi-storied panorama of Athens. We climbed a tower of many flights of stairs to reach the viewing platform on top. Sounds from the ancient city played as the lights changed from day to night and back again. It made the ruins come alive as life in ancient times was depicted with a combination of photography and painting – very impressive.

From there, we took the underground out to a part of the city where the Berlin Wall has been left standing. With helpful signs and displays, we learned more about life for the Germans whose lives were disrupted for almost 4 decades by this border placed across the city in 1961. There were stories of escape, of families split in two and the hardships of life in the east. I had noticed memorial silhouettes in other places remembering those who had failed in their escape attempts. Since the wall came down, the city has had to figure out how to integrate the lives of such disparate experiences – not an easy task.

Berlin has also had to deal with recreating itself after WWII. Bombing destroyed most of the buildings of the city as the Holocaust left its imprint on the psyche of the German people. There is an impressive new memorial to the victims which consists of 2700 grave-sized stones of differing heights spread out across a huge open space. Underneath is an information center filled with individual stories and memorials to the victims.

When Lothar joined us, we stopped for dinner at a restaurant where the band played favorites from the 1970’s rock era. I never expected to hear songs from Creedence Clearwater Revival or the BeeGees that night and noticed that everyone in the restaurant was singing along with the English words. The next evening, we went to the Berlin Philharmonic where we heard an all Mozart program that was also fun but in an obviously different way.

The delightful spring weather held for an enjoyable boat trip down the canals watching buildings old and new go by. Since the commentary was all in German, I’m sure I missed a lot but after having been in the city for a couple of days, I recognized many of the landmarks. We tied up our Berlin experience the last morning by visiting a museum of the history of Berlin. With all sorts of interactive exhibits, we were able to walk through rooms depicting days of Prussian soldiers, watch film clips from the 20’s and 30’s, visit both an apartment from the eastern and western sides of the wall in the 50’s and experience the horrors of the war years. As we entered one exhibit room, the sound of crashing glass made me jump, just as it did those who lived with stones thrown through their windows in the Jewish ghettos. The film clips of the wall coming down brought back the joy of that night which many of us remember seeing on television.

Berlin is an interesting and lively city, one which has seen more than its share of suffering in the last 100 years. We left there on Sunday afternoon by the efficient German train system to return here to my friends’ familiar home here near Marburg. Their youngest son met us at the train station and made a delicious dinner. The last time I saw him was at our home in 2000. We reminisced about his time in Vermont where he was ahead of the curve, tasting Ben and Jerry’s ice cream long before it became a staple in Germany.

For the first time in months, I woke up in a place where I have been before with a family cat rubbing its fur against my legs in a remembered kitchen. I’ll be here until Friday when I take the last flights of this journey back to Boston. In the meantime, I am enjoying the comfort and friendship here, my reconnection with both my good friends and western culture.

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2 Comments

  1. I recently visited Berlin and – same as you – I had the feeling that this city is thriving, redefining itself and building out cultural hotspots literally everywhere. I do not know whether it is too much of a mouthful, but I would say Berlin is to Europe what Shanghai currently is to Asia. Pure life.

    Reply
  2. Ellen, thanks so much for taking me around the world with you, your posts have made your adventure so real. I can’t believe it has been twenty-two years since Harry, Ham and I visited Berlin the Spring after the fall of the wall and Ham brought pieces back to his Junior High friends at MES. Looking forward to hugging you!
    Jean

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