Friday, 5 September 2008

Ich bin ein Berliner

Berlin. Of all the cities we have visited so far it's easily the one which has had the greatest emotional impact. Probably because some of Berlin's most significant historical events have happened within our lifetime, or at most, only a couple of generations removed.
As you stroll through the German capital you get the feeling the once-divided city is gradually becoming at peace with itself, as well as with the rest of the world. Theo remarked that it carries the weight of Germany's recent past and that is clearly something it takes very seriously.
We were both compelled and appalled as we read the searing accounts of the holocaust by some of its millions of victims in the bleakly honest information centre beside the Memorial For The Murdered Jews Of Europe.

The memorial itself is an extraordinary piece of work - an expanse of ground given over to thousands of "stelae", huge, dark grey slabs of concrete laid out in a grid. At first you look at it in some doubt as to what it signifies and what emotional response it demands. Then, when you walk among the stelae until they tower over you and you are completely surrounded, trapped and overwhelmed, you understand.

But only a few hundred metres away is the triumphalist Brandenburg Gate, the chariot on its summit turned to face west since the reunification of Germany in the '90s, signifying glory and a nation holding its head high.

I vividly recall my emotional reaction to the news the Berlin Wall had come down in November '89 and seeing some of the few remaining sections of the hated Mauer - the much-graffitied East Side Gallery and the recreation of the Death Strip in Bernauer Strasse - brought it back. As we read the history and looked at footage of the Wall's construction, the escapes and its ultimate demolition, I don't mind admitting that at times I was moved to tears.

Yet, even now there is an invisible East-West divide in Berlin, increasingly blurred though it is. Theo and I found ourselves most drawn to the East side, especially some of the anything goes districts like the grungy, alternative Friedrichshain or the laid-back cafes and bars of Prenzlauer Berg.

The latter set the stage for a somewhat alcoholic and suitably pan-European night out on the eve of our departure from Berlin after a four-day stay. We met up with Theo's doctor friend, Dora, her half Iranian boyfriend and a couple they knew, an Italian and a Greek who had met in San Francisco and now lived in Berlin. With neither speaking the other's language, English is their lingua franca, which certainly made life easier for Theo and me as our German is patchy to say the least.
We partied in four different bars, including one where you paid a Euro for a wine glass, refilled it as often as you liked then paid what you thought it was worth at the end of the night. With admirable stamina, as they all had to work the next morning (Dora having to start a 24-hour shift in the hospital from 0800), we parted company with our new friends after two. But, despite the late-night public transport's Teutonic efficiency, we didn't get back to our campsite at Kladower Dam until half past four.

Finally, it should be mentioned that Berlin is big. It spreads out over a great, flat expanse of land, further than the eye can see. As we stood looking out at the city from the Norman Foster-designed Reichstag glass dome, Theo and I marvelled at the widely-spaced, sprawl beneath us. There are scarcely any hills to be seen, the main landmarks being the once East German TV Tower, the Angel of Victory, the glass skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz and the cranes building Berlin's next shopping super centre at Alexander Platz.

It is an impressive sight of an impressive, visceral, fascinating and compelling city.

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