As we ride on the train out of Berlin to Vienna, after a 1500-km round trip drive from Berlin to Danzig/Gdansk and back, some final thoughts about our time in Berlin:
Berliners are abrupt and blunt in demeanor—a bit like New Yorkers but more laconic, less contentious. We found in the Eastern part of the city that sometimes there was an abruptness that bordered on rude hostility, at least among those in service positions where a little courtesy would have been helpful.
On the other hand, the lovely old ladies who lived around us in our little garden house—widows of DDR architects and diplomats—could not have been friendlier and happier to have us there.
The best thing about Berlin is the tremendous number of beautiful big parks, green spaces, and old trees.
Many of the city parks were first laid out in the 19th century, with elegant allees, fanciful fountains, and carefully considered floral plantings. These are absolutely wonderful to visit and both Berliners and tourists take full advantage of their spaces. Our favorite was Volkspark Friedrichshain, with its Maerchenbrunnen, the Fairy-Tale Fountain, built in 1908 by the city architect Ludwig Hoffmann, which must have been a destination for generations of Berlin children.
The most touching, poignant, and typically German green spaces are the Trümmerparke, the enormous forested hills created out of the rubble of the city of Berlin after the war. Behind our garden house was the Volkspark Prenzlauer Berg, one of these “rubble mountains”, which is now filled with trees, birds, hedgehogs, foxes, squirrels, and lovely pathways meant for invigorating walks. Nature is always very evident in Berlin, even in the most bustling locales.
The worst thing about Berlin—at least for me—is the endless, constant, ubiquitous construction. Cranes and earth-moving equipment, scaffolds and jackhammers, still appear everywhere, and construction sites still destroy any sense of aesthetically pleasing cityscape. For me, this was particularly striking and irritating at Brandenburger Tor, that much anticipated symbol of Berlin’s tumultuous history. Not only is the view into the East thoroughly obscured by the building of a new train station, but nearly every building in the whole area is covered in scaffolds and surrounded by cement trucks. It occurs to me that this has been the natural state of Berlin for at least 70 years—first with the re-building of the thoroughly bombed-out city, then after the fall of the Wall in 1989, the grabbing up of East Berlin territory and the reconstruction of all the historic sites that were never really taken care of by the East Germans. While some of the old Soviet-era structures remain, it’s pretty obvious that developers got their hands on all this cheap property early on, and have “renovated” much of it into slick, new hotels and restaurants.
Berlin’s devastating past confronts you everywhere, making it an emotionally charged, and in the end palpably sad, place to visit. For totally serendipitous reasons—and so they were meant to be—we were confronted at every turn with reminders of the cultural presence and eventual fate of Berlin’s Jewish population. We visited two Jewish cemeteries, where so many of Berlin’s brightest and most famous intellectual lights are buried, both of them now beautiful, tranquil places, but simply pulsating with memorials to the greatest tragedy, the most incomprehensible moment, in the 20th century. And all over the city, in the sidewalks, are the most moving reminders: the so-called “stolpersteine”–literally stumbling blocks–the little plaques in front of the houses where Jews were taken away and murdered in one of many camps throughout the Reich.
These give such a visceral sense of the shocking reality of it all: this is where these ordinary people lived, and this is the ground where they stood when they were taken away and killed. You find them in Berlin everywhere.
Then there are the reminders of the era of The Berlin Wall, that abysmally absurd moment in history during which this vibrant, thriving city was cut in half, in order to keep people in the Socialist paradise of the German Democratic Republic from fleeing to that evil capitalist place where, who’d have thought, all their citizens wanted to live. Remnants of that time are, of course, all around when you stay in the eastern part of town, from the names of the streets (Karl-Marx-, Karl-Liebknecht Strassen, Kaethe-Kollwitz- and Rosa-Luxemburg-Plaetze) to the look of some of the workers’ buildings. The DDR days now seem so far away, and no one in the East talks about them, except in the nostalgic museums about spies and the Stasi.
My sense of transcendent sadness was probably abetted by the fact that I was reading at the same time A Woman in Berlin, the extraordinary diary of an anonymous Berlin woman recording the very last days of the war, when Russian troops systematically raped the women of the city as they marched through. As she writes, “These are strange times–history experienced first hand, the stuff of tales yet untold and songs unsung. But seen up close, history is much more troublesome–nothing but burdens and fears.”
Berlin is filled with children and wonderful places for children to be, from playgrounds to schools to special museums and libraries geared for them. And what a wonderful relief to see them all walking to and from school alone without parental supervision, playing wildly with wood and hammers and other weapons of destruction in parks made specifically for them and for that reason. A sign that we have been in Los Angeles for a long time is that we were amazed that so many of these kids were blond and blue-eyed and going to PUBLIC SCHOOL! Crossing streets on their own! Being allowed to have unstructured playtime and activities! It was such a comfortable, happy feeling.
With my first sip of German coffee, I remembered: I have never found German coffee good at all. Even when we bought “French roast” at Kaufland and made it ourselves, it just isn’t the taste I’m looking for in coffee. Perhaps if we had waited in line at the Five Elephant Cafe in Kreuzberg, we would have felt differently. And German food: well, all those photos of George with Rotkraut says it all, doesn’t it?
We obviously spent too much time in the East and not enough in the West, so I really feel that we perhaps missed out on where it was all happening, but I really didn’t get the buzz and a sense of some hot art scene that everyone goes on about when they talk about Berlin. We were in both Kreuzberg and Wedding, and also down on Fasanenstrasse near the Kudamm, which was lovely and had some gorgeous old-fashioned establishment galleries, but not the zappiness of contemporary artwork. And the street art was horrible–just ugly graffiti. I was happy to see one sign of that old Weimar spirit, though: DADA LIVES!