Saturday, July 01, 2006

"You see, things can change - and walls can come tumbling down..."

While I’d been looking forward for ages to finally visiting Berlin – indeed, finally visiting part of the old, infamous Eastern Europe – the one thing I didn’t expect was for it to seem quite so quiet.
Especially two days from a Germany-Argentina World Cup quarter-final, but that shall be the very last mention of football. In this posting, anyway.
Every year I’ve told myself I shall finally get around to doing a bit of an Eastern European tour – starting, perhaps, from borderline Bohemia, through Hungary (Budapest, especially), Poland (Krakow, Auschwitz), Romania (er, somewhere), Estonia (Tallinn) and certainly Czech Republic (certainly Prague), in whatsoever order seems most suitable.
Except, many of these years on and the East more and more Westernised with each passing one, I still haven’t got around to it.
But now at last I’ve breached that now-invisible Iron Curtain and wandered through the Brandenburg Gate into (what was) East Berlin.
Even though passing through said Gate was a little less straightforward than you might expect nowadays, thanks to the interfering, impassable barriers and backstage area attached to some “fan fest” going on there for an obscure reason…
This was merely a minor detour, however, onto the stately Unter den Linden, lined like so much of Berlin with great bushy green trees on all sides, behind which the dusky brown buildings stand stolid and graceful – treasured by the old GDR rulers when Unter den Linden was under the East Berlin remit, despite the brutal Sixties towerblocks and graffiti-smudged warehouses and tunnels that still survive from those neglectful years.
Thankfully, Unter den Linden remains what seems to be one of the few Berlin thoroughfares untouched by the omnipresent graffiti. Yet where the aerosol artists’ “work” doesn’t seem too inappropriate, however, are those few still-standing sections of the Berlin Wall – preserved nowadays as the East Side Gallery, some 1,500 metres of brickwork, now covered in officially-approved artwork from all corners of the world, but rubbed over many more times by unofficial, unapproved scrawlers.
I walked alongside the stretch in between the Ostbahnhof and the Oberbaumbrucke, surprised at first at how tall (or not) the wall seemed, but on getting closer impressed and even a little intimidated by how its size and solid immensity seemed to swell, the nearer approached. Of course, the barbed wire has long gone, and the patrol guards, and the watchtowers – how much, then, could any visitors 17 years after the fall try to appreciate what it was, how it felt to be living on either side with such an odd but powerful obstacle?
There's the tale of one of the early men employed as border guards, patrolling the wall's ramparts as one of the forces ranged against the organised escape gangs holing up in nearby houses and intricately carving out tunnels. One day, peering over onto the western side, the guard had the sudden thought: one leap, a quick burst of pace, and he'd be over and safe, free from the known restrictions of the East and free to enjoy the unknown yet imagined pleasures of the West. And so, suddenly, he did - attracting angry bawls and catcalls from the colleagues he was leaving behind, and some confused gunfire, but managing to make it far enough in flight. He must have left loved ones behind - did he think his escape would enable him to better provide, perhaps, for them? Or did he feel guilt at his own liberation at the possible expense of others'? Such adrenaline-fuelled, emotional thrashings which seem so unimaginable here and now...
And yet, for all the evils and divisions perpretated by the all-seeing Stasi, there felt something to bleakly admire in the sheer audacity and physical presence of such an obstacle, built almost out of nothing virtually overnight – surprising almost all, save one alert and suspicious Reuters correspondent in the city who cabled his newsdesk bosses that something might be about to happen, only to be ignored because it was a weekend.
When I went through a very stoooodenty arthouse film phase – well, watching whatever they might be showing each week at the Mac (Midland Arts Centre) complex in Cannon Hill Park round the corner from me in Balsall Heath, I mean, Edbaston – one of the foreign films which struck me most was called Das Versprechen (The Promise), tracing the relationship of a pair of teenage lovers whose attempt at an underground escape from East to West Berlin in the Sixties only manages to get one of them across safe and sound.
Their parallel lives apart are then traced through the 1968 rebellions, their respective marriages and parenthood and occasional written contact through the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the drama of the wall falling and their eventual, hesitant reunion in 1989. Perhaps revisiting it would reveal elements of corniness, but the combinations of individual human dilemmas – and ageing, and changing hopes and expectations – against such a powerful historical backdrop was so memorable, especially the exhilarating ending. Just ambling alongside one longer-lingering stretch of this inanimate structure which yet became the focus of such intense emotion, brought back some of that wonder.
And then… With no set desire to visit any other obvious landmarks – the old Checkpoint Charlie is now little more than a sign, watchtower dismantled by developers secretly six years ago – I just kept walking: over the Oberbaumbrucke, across the River Spree that curiously keeps running along mere metres behind this stretch of Mauer, houses and apartments either side peeking over at each other where once they were kept apart in spirit and subject but not in sight. Along the streets now one side of the wall and the now-invisible dividing line, now the other – so many feeling so similar, yet with those brutalist Eastern blocks occasionally rising up as stark reminders on the commercially-ever-renovating landscapes. Or certain sets of traffic lights on the eastern side retaining their old-style, alternative green and red man appearances.
On Friday morning, before heading to the both impressive and jarring Olympic Stadium – classicism-aping castle ramparts of Third Reich grandeur, now topped with a plastic-looking lid – my Dad and I took the U-Bahn to the Jewish Museum, where Daniel Libeskind’s jagged creation explores the stories of Jewish famous and until-now-anonymous since medieval times but not unexpectedly, especially from the 1930s onwards – but also forces the visitor to confront a certain upheaval of the senses. Say, with a heavy clanging door opening into a triangular, lofty but drearily dark and silent chamber, with merely one sickly shard of light from one corner, the dim vision of an unreachable ladder to an unseen roof: and just whistling echoes, grim uneasiness. Is this how it felt to be herded into the unknown, yet slowly-realising darkness of death, at Auschwitz, or Dachau, or the near-here Sachsenhausen.
Well, of course not, we were merely playing, merely attempting complacently to empathise. But emerging back out into the eerie artificial light of a recognisable, real and normal museum aisle – and then onto the same old streets again outside – felt
Suddenly sport didn’t seem quite to seriously all-consuming, after all.
Then again, within a few hours, to see and hear the outbursts of joy and fellow-feeling and sheer grinning, hooting mania of the celebrating city – it seemed worthwhile to cherish that certain special value in frivolity, too.


Mike said...

It is a fantastic city. I don't think any other place in Europe experienced so much 'history' in the last century. On my second visit to Berlin, my friend took me a stretch of the wall which is preserved exactly how it was before '89 - watchtowers, barbed wires and all.

Hope you enjoyed your World Cup experience, despite the disappointing ending.

Aidan said...

Sounds fascinating - don't happen to know if anything in that particular area's still intact, then, do you? I'm back in Berlin from Friday to Monday (suddenly swerving briefly down to Stuttgart for the third-place match down in Stuttgart is no longer even being remotely pondered...)

Ellen R Ashard said...

Commenting on old posts... Gosh, I'm bad.... In any way, thank you for a wonderful post! While I'm not from Berlin, I am from East Germany and I remember the Eastern part of Berlin from before 1989. Seeing Berlin Mitte now is like being in a very different city, yet so much is still the same (nothing I could put in words - merely a feeling).