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Berlin

This column was published in the Rapid City Journal on June 7, 2009.  There’s a fair amount of repetition in this and the two Berlin musings that follow.  Photos can be found in the following ‘Berlin’ posting.

 

Berlin is 200 miles and several light years away from Prague.  Where Prague is twisted streets and baroque architecture, a city untouched by 20th century warfare, Berlin is a city of wide boulevards, expansive platz and a small handful of iconic pre-war buildings thanks to the allied forces and some unremitting, much-needed, bombing.   Seeing the reconstructed Reichstag (German Parliament) before you for the very first time is an emotional experience because of its many filmic images – both horrific and peaceable. 

The city rings with history while it sheds tears for its many victims.  A somber and moving Holocaust memorial is sited near five of the many crosses marking the lives and places of death of those killed while crossing a ‘checkpoint’ to try to live in freedom in the West. In the space of a few acres are the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, remains of the Wall, Hitler’s final bunker and a host of other significant markers in Western history (along with (yay!)  the American Embassy).  It was impossible to remain unmoved by these images and tears came easily as we pondered the appalling capabilities of mankind.

But all is not gravity and sadness in this great city.  The weekend we spent there, Berliners turned out in force to celebrate 20 years of reunification and 60 years of the ‘new’ Germany.  Mugs of delicious German beer flowed freely, music and song filled every public square, and don’t even get me started about the sausages.  Except for this:  you would think that after centuries of making and eating sausage, the Germans would have invented something like our hot dog bun for their sausage sandwiches.  But, no.  We tried not to giggle every time we saw a reveler wrestling with a foot long sausage sticking out of both ends of a small, round bun.  

Maybe I just hadn’t paid close enough attention to the tradition of generous quantities of food sticking out of every conveyance and accepted it as German tradition.  At dinner, an order of Weinerschnitzel overlapped the dinner plate under it by some 6 inches on each side.  An order of spergel (or white asparagus, for it is the season) was mounded 6 inches high and spluttering in a sea of hollandaise. 

Food is big in Germany and a favorite Berlin memory involved a purchase made at a movie concession stand the night we saw Star Trek. Looking forward to a tub of popcorn and a mug of soda (yes, just like home – except that you can choose between sweet and salty popcorn), we ordered the ‘medium’ size, to share. We obviously didn’t see the warning on the menu board:  “Wheelbarrow NOT provided”.  The ‘tub’ was literally that – I bathed in one as a baby.  And we could barely lift the cola; the slippery barrel required two hands and the nerve to hold the icy drink close to your chest for additional support – a gallon of liquid in a paper ‘cup’.  We sloshed to our reserved seats (German efficiency!) and dove in. Whether or not we finished these treats will be left to your imagination.  Live long and prosper!  

Note:  Did you think for just a second that we spoke fluent German and were seeing the movie in translation?  I hate to disappoint, but you can easily and thankfully find American movies in their original English in most major European cities –  a blessing if you just can’t endure another opera, concert, ballet or six hour dinner.

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Berlin – Part 2

It’s Saturday night in Berlin and we just saw Star Trek!  Admittedly, I’m an armchair trekkie, but even Roger thought it was an excellent film.

The Helmut Jahn designed Sony Center - site of the Star Trek cinema

The Helmut Jahn designed Sony Center - site of the Star Trek cinema

Aside from the film’s general ‘wonderfulness’, we ONLY want to see movies in German theaters from now on!  Since we were seeing the original English version (instead of the dubbed German), it was showing in one of the ‘smaller’ theaters.  Yes, it only seated about 2000 people.  And, like the theater, the seats were HUGE and cushy and they had ‘sofa’ type seats where you could sit together without benefit of an armrest and get so cozy!!  To top it off, all seats are reserved so you can buy your tickets in advance for even the hottest movie and then stroll in right at show time without worrying if you’ll need a neck brace afterward.  After the previews, a girl came around and sold ice cream while some moviegoers ducked out to the concession stand and returned with bottles of beer.  Speaking of the concession stand, we decided we’d have some popcorn instead of dinner – so we were looking at the options (you know – usual stuff – a small popcorn and a drink combo for one price, a bigger popcorn and a drink for a slightly increased price and then the biggie, etc.)  We ordered the middle size to share and, seriously,  they brought us a tub of popcorn that was as big as a household cleaning bucket.  Seriously. You could have bathed a baby in it.  So, then we were rightfully scared about the size of the diet cola.  I’m not exaggerating when I say it was so big you could barely hold it in two hands!!!  It was like a slippery melon. It had to be more than a half gallon. We didn’t know whether to laugh and act like we KNEW we’d look like gluttons or to sheepishly duck into the theater and hope no one noticed (we were the only ones who ordered the ‘medium’ sized that we could see).  (But, of course, we finished the popcorn.  You have a choice – salty or sweet and we love the sweet popcorn they serve in European theaters.  It’s like our kettle corn, just not as greasy).  Next time, we’re going to bring a wheelbarrow and order the large.  Unbelievably (to me, at least), my husband just had to have a pretzel too.  So… he put it around his neck (I’m not kidding) because we couldn’t carry everything to our seats using only our hands.

Actually the escapism offered by Star Trek was a light-hearted end to an emotional day.  First thing in the morning, we walked to Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie (and Roger) with the Soviet soldier photo above the street.

Checkpoint Charlie (and Roger) with the Soviet soldier photo above the street.

and the long section of the Berlin Wall that is still standing.  Berliners have done an exemplary job of explaining the wall (if it can be explained) with photos and text that commemorate the dead (no one knows how many people died trying to escape, but it’s suggested it was above 250;  East German soldiers were decorated every time they killed a ‘runner’).  I cried at the wall – was no other way to respond to it.  We Americans take our freedom for granted and this memorial made me realize how vigilant we must be.

The largest preserved section of the Berlin Wall

The largest preserved section of the Berlin Wall

Our timing was good and we happily found ourselves here on the weekend of Berlin’s celebration of 60 years of democracy (West Berlin) and 20 years of unification – there were street fairs, lively bands and politicians (from all over the world) engaging in public debate and discussion – the last being something I don’t recall seeing in America at our festivals.  The center for the festival was the Brandenburg Gate – that iconic symbol of Berlin – (Napolean AND Hitler marched through this gate.  Not together, obviously. Although that would have been an interesting smack-down).  As an American, I was proud to see the American Embassy, huge congratulatory banners flowing down the walls of the building, right next to the gate.  What a position of honor for us!   Hearts swelling, we gladly joined in the celebration of freedom!

Me, celebrating freedom under the Brandenburg Gate

Me, celebrating freedom under the Brandenburg Gate

In the midst of all this merriment, we unwittingly stumbled on the site  of Hitler’s underground bunker (it’s believed to be the site; understandably, Berlin doesn’t want to memorialize the place of his suicide) – his final ‘home’.  There is a signboard with a diagram of the bunker’s layout and a suggestion that it was near where we were standing.  Also near to where we were standing was the memorial to Berlin’s Jews;

The Berlin Holocaust Memorial

The Berlin Holocaust Memorial

the irony of these two sites being so close to each other is fitting. There were 160,000 Jews in Berlin when Hitler took power; at the end of WWII they were completely gone.  (This number seems small compared to the 6 million who perished throughout Europe – the memorial honors all of the lost.)   This city rockets your emotions – the tragedy of its history and the atrocities it fed throughout the rest of the world feel so immediate. We had to force ourselves to rejoin the 21st century and continue to learn and reflect.

When you see photos of the Berlin devastation of WWII and compare it to how the city looks today, it’s nearly impossible to comprehend how much change has happened and how much has been lost.

This photo, on the Wall memorial, perfectly depicts the conflicting images

This photo, on the Wall memorial, perfectly depicts the conflicting images

Over 80% of the city suffered damage and much of it was irreversible!  (And did you know that it was the German women who cleaned the place up so the rebuilding could begin??  Along the Berlin wall memorial were detailed pictures of groups of women passing rubble down a human conveyor line – although the claim was that this work wasn’t voluntarily done, I’ll bet those women were more than happy to get in that mess and start cleaning it up!  I know the feeling.)  Some buildings have been rebuilt to exactly resemble their fallen originals and some have been adapted – you’ll see centuries-old architecture on the first two floors and then a modern, but very well blended, addition on the top two or three floors.  The historic buildings that more or less survived intact stop you in your tracks:  the Reichstag (where there are still bullet holes),

The Reichstag.  Beautiful.... and terrible.

The Reichstag. Beautiful.... and terrible.

the Berlin Cathedral, St. Hedwig’s Church, a number of museums.  If those buildings define what the city must have looked like before the 1940s, you mourn anew.  The new buildings (all done by architect superstars) give Chicago some serious competition as the city that defines great, late 20th and early 21st century architecture.

Germany’s acknowledgement of it’s checkered past can be found everywhere – The 150 kilometer path of the wall (150!!!!) is marked by brass bricks in the road; the place at the University where the books were burned has a particularly moving memorial of empty bookshelves in a bare room set into the earth that you view from above; crosses with the names of East Germans who died trying to escape to freedom in the west can be found every place there was a checkpoint.

A former checkpoint on the River Spree.  7 deaths marked just yards from the Reichstag

A former checkpoint on the River Spree. 7 deaths marked just yards from the Reichstag

I was shocked to realize that the wall ran just FEET from the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate;  what a slap in the face this must have felt like to all Berlin.  You can walk and think and learn.  Thankfully, there are permanent markers placed throughout the city written in German and English that help explain what you’re looking at and WHY you’re looking at it.  The depth of analysis and understanding these signboards exhibited was cause for hope for all freedom loving peoples.

Here’s another reason I like Berlin (and those who know me will understand this immediately!) – everyone walks on the right!!!  And if the crosswalk sign says “Don’t Walk”, no one moves!!  In fact, today, we were waiting to cross a street near the Brandenburg and there were tons of police and military around guarding the politicos and Rog started to cross when the traffic cleared.  The nearest policeman stuck his RIFLE out to stop him and said “Nein!” – as in “What’s the matter, dumbpkof – can’t you read???”  An unsettling moment for my hubby, to be sure!  (Okay, that’s not what I liked – but the walking on the right was most refreshing!!  As long as you stayed on your side of the sidewalk, you could proceed unimpeded!  You’ve got to love the Germans for that!!) (PS – we found out today why there were SO many police around – the German parliament was electing their President on Saturday at the Reichstag – exactly where this happened!)

(Don’t forget – when I’m finally elected Queen, we’ll ALL be walking on the right – and woe to you if your shoes are out of alignment!!)(But, I plan to be a benevolent queen and will be providing a weekly pail of pierogi to all of my subjects.)

The Berlin Cathedral.  Imagine what the city USED to look like before WWII.

The Berlin Cathedral. Imagine what the city USED to look like before WWII.

I thought I would include a few random photos – I’m still aghast that I’ve reached this age unaware of the beauty of Berlin past and present.

The Gendarmenmarkt, the most beautiful square in Berlin (where a soldier used to be able to procure ANYTHING he needed)

The Gendarmenmarkt, the most beautiful square in Berlin (where a soldier used to be able to procure ANYTHING he needed)

A group of masked puppeteers controlled "Orange Man', who was quite friendly and would join you at your table for lunch.

A group of masked puppeteers controlled "Orange Man', who was quite friendly and would join you at your table for lunch.

The famous cake selection at Opernhaus Cafe

The famous cake selection at Opernhaus Cafe

A quite moment at Schloss Charlottenburg, summer residence of the wife of Elector Friedrich III

A quiet moment at Schloss Charlottenburg, summer residence of the wife of Elector Friedrich III

 "Hollow tooth"; the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.  Destroyed in 1943, the ruins were left standing as a reminder of the horrors of war

"Hollow tooth"; the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Destroyed in 1943, the ruins were left standing as a reminder of the horrors of war

The 1936 Olympic Stadium, an example of Fascist architecture.  Jesse Owens ran here while Hitler watched

The 1936 Olympic Stadium, an example of Fascist architecture. Jesse Owens ran here while Hitler watched

No, not Berlin. Meissen. Charming, known for porcelain. Virtually untouched by the war.

No, not Berlin. Meissen. Charming, known for porcelain. Virtually untouched by the war.

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Berlin – Part 1

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The drive from Prague to Berlin was pretty spectacular – we drove through the foothills of the Carpathians, the mountains that my ancestors saw from their Polish village;  they are intensely green and reminded me a bit of the Black Hills. Interestingly enough, the deep, grass green of the Czech Republic instantly changed to a yellow green as soon as we were through the hills and into Germany.  A totally different color!! (I wish I were a better botanist and could tell you why.)  The green in the Czech Republic was reminiscent of the lush green of England.  It’s an image I won’t soon forget (but was unable to capture on camera.  Every shot had that “I am a completely uninteresting landscape; too distant to be comprehensible” look to it.

We realized we were driving through what was once East Germany and we kept looking for architectural evidence of years of Soviet rule.  We found it in the endless apartment blocks of Dresden and the hulking, abandoned buildings in East Berlin.  Near the outskirts of town (but in West Berlin) is Templehof, the now abandoned airport whose terminal was at one time the second largest building in the world.  It was enlarged by Albert Speer, under Hitler’s orders, and was described by a British critic as “the mother of all airports”.  Berlin is a city of tunnels (more on this later) and there are five levels of tunnels under Templehof – all of which were used for the manufacture of Nazi war machines prior to and during WWII.  When the Soviets took the airport in the Battle of Berlin in 1945 and began clearing the tunnels, so many Soviet soldiers lost their lives due to booby-traps that the bottom 3 tunnels were flooded and remain so to this day, still full of unexploded ordinance. The Nazi commander of the airport had been ordered to destroy the building if defeat was imminent, he chose to end his life instead.  Beginning in 1948, Templehof was used for the Berlin airlift – an attempt to keep the people of West Berlin fed, clothed and fueled.  The Soviets would harass the pilots flying in the 3 open air corridors; consequently 39 British and 31 American pilots died in what is called the ‘greatest feat of aviation history’.  Now, there is one lonely plane sitting on the tarmac under the massive canopy of the terminal (a first for airports – passengers were able to debark without facing the elements) –a building so heavy with history that you are awestruck and haunted by the sight.

Driving further into Berlin, the roads are lined with a multitude of utilitarian, concrete block apartment buildings, most of which are occupied and many of which have been ‘renovated’ by the application of garish paint in geometric patterns.  Between the ‘decoration’ and the ever present graffiti (which is EVERYWHERE in central Europe) the depressing aspect of these homes has not improved.

If you drive into Berlin with no knowledge of history, you’ll be puzzled and then amused (depending upon how claustrophobic you are) by the number of tunnels that are incorporated into the highway system.  Then, if you pursue the subject, you’ll learn that Berlin is riddled with tunnels; there is an entire hub and spoke construct of tunnels under the entire city.  Now, many tunnels are used for the underground train (U Bahn) and the highways.  Construction started in the late 1800’s, mostly to relieve traffic congestion!  Hitler expanded the tunnels – the network is vast and many have been closed or destroyed completely (Hitler’s personal bunker, for instance).  There is an underground tour  (only offered twice a month, and we missed it) where a diesel locomotive pulls you through 36 kilometers of tunnel and lets you access places like the 7 storey tall (all underground) bunker used during WWII.

The Germans are clearly into tunnels (sorry, bad pun). On our way into town we drove through 7 or 8 tunnels, some of them several miles long!!  One of the highway tunnels runs right under central Berlin – we made a wrong turn a block from our hotel and ended up back out in the suburbs once we emerged into the sunlight again. Additionally, Berlin underground is riddled with 400 kilometers of pneumatic mail tubes and 12 dedicated express tubes – before the war, the tubes delivered some 8 million pieces of mail a year using pressurized air; it was the largest pneumatic operation of its kind (and was ultimately stopped because of technology – fax machines were much more efficient).  I love the idea of letters zipping around underground – making sure they got to the correct destination must have been an interesting challenge.  (Please note:  the pictures of the tunnels were omitted.  They were all black.  No, seriously, we had our hands full aboveground and never made it into any of the tunnels (except the highways – and you all know what a highway tunnel looks like.  Next trip!)

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After nearly two weeks in Prague it was refreshing to enter Germany – We’ve been gone a month now and homesickness does tend to set in after the initial thrill of travel wears off.  Germany’s refreshing because it feels most like the US.  Things are clean and they work and people are happy –I believe you can feel the difference in the national temperament.  Sadly, the residents of Prague do not seem optimistic or cheerful to me(the majority of them work in the service industries and I have to wonder if they’re sick of tourists and our silly ways!)  In Germany, you get the feeling that they’re actually happy to see you.

Our hotel in Berlin is right near Potsdamer Platz – the place of the last, huge conflagration in WWII – and, now, it’s a city within a city –  the area is teeming with outdoor cafes, cinemas, stores, live theater and people, people and more people –and they’re not all tourists –the locals fill the area when they’re out for a day and night of fun. Our first order of business was to find a German-English dictionary because, at lunch, we realized we couldn’t puzzle out any key words on the menu.  (I ended up having tofu because it was the only word I recognized – but it was delicious!)

The SONY Center is right across the street from Potsdamer Platz – it’s Sony’s HQ in Europe although the center itself is the social hub of the city.  Restaurants, movies, fountains, sculptures – in a dazzling open air atrium inside an architectural gem designed by Helmut Jahn.

The ceiling of the Sony Center atrium; the color changes continuously

The ceiling of the Sony Center atrium; the color changes continuously

The Berlin Senate stipulated that Sony had to preserve the ‘breakfast room’ and the ‘emperor’s hall’ of the Grand Hotel Esplanade, which had escaped destruction during WWII.  So, to accommodate, in 1996 the rooms were moved – all 1300 tons of them were shifted nearly 300 feet to fit into Herr Jahn’s design.  The effect is daring, startling and functional – the last thing you expect to see incorporated into this 21st century design is a 1920’s room where Emperor Wilhelm used to wile away his evenings.

Can't keep me away from those Sony stores!

Can't keep me away from those Sony stores!

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