I called that city home for my last two years of high school. West Berlin, Germany, was an amazing place to live. Since I had grown up on an island, with access only by ferry or private boat or plane, somehow living in the isolation of Berlin wasn’t a big deal to me. My father was a pilot for Pan American Airlines, so we had that life-line to the western world if we needed it, but there was so much to do in Berlin that really, we rarely left. I had never lived in a CITY before and, though I couldn’t speak the language beyond “Wo ist die toiletten?” when we moved there, it didn’t really matter. (Right before we moved to Berlin, the principal of my high school on Orcas Island asked me, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” and I wondered why he was asking me if I spoke Dutch.)
I wish I had learned the language better, wish that I had the gift that certain people have of grasping the verb genders, the inflections of a foreign tongue. I learned a little, most of which I’ve now forgotten, though I was able, in an amazing trip last February, to converse with a store keeper in Berlin, both of us smiling, both of us laughing at our mutual struggles – his in English, mine in Deutsch. It was a pleasant experience, despite my terrible accent, and I returned to his shop 3 times because he made it fun.
It was amazing being back in Berlin, after 21 years of being away. In a normal city, 21 years may or may not reveal much change. In Berlin, even the name was different…the “West” had disappeared…though in metaphorical terms, the “West” had actually taken over the “East”, and it was really the “East” which was gone. Now, the former West Berlin looks much the same: I found my house, my school, the military base where we shopped and hung out (though it is nothing but an abandoned field now). But the “East” part of Berlin…it’s like another war happened and everything had to be torn down and rebuilt to replace the ruined city. And, really, that is what happened. The Cold War was won…and the Communists backed off, leaving Deutschland united, returning Berlin to its glory days as capital of Germany.
My parents were still living in Berlin when the wall came down on November 9, 1989, and I came home for Christmas that year and hammered out my obligatory bits of history from that hideous monstrosity of a wall: 96 miles of repression. They built it ostensibly to “Keep out Western Capitalism” though really it was built to keep IN the eastern people who were moving out in a steady stream of freedom-seekers. The freedom-seekers continued to seek ways out of East Berlin, sending more than 170 people to their deaths…and over 5,000 to freedom…in the 26 years of its existence. The Berlin Wall Museum, located at the former site of Checkpoint Charlie, is an amazing (albeit dusty) conglomeration of artifacts and stories and pictures of the history of the wall, complete with suitcases and empty car engines that were actually used to smuggle people over Die Mauer. My husband and I HAD to eat at a McDonalds which is located directly across from the museum…smack dab in the center of the former barricade against such brazen western ideals. How could we resist?
Because my parents returned stateside less than a year after the wall opened, I had never seen the actual wall be gone. I had never seen Berlin whole…never been able to take an U-Bahn subway ride from the Kufurstendamm (West Berlin’s main shopping street) straight to Alexander Platz (a famous East Berlin square)…had never been able to shop in the amazing Gendarmenmarkt (because it wasn’t amazing then)…or been able, best of all, to walk through the Brandenburger Tor…because it was in no-man’s land, walk-here-and-be-killed-land. I love that now the Embassy to the United States is actually touching the Brandenburg Gate…love that the French Embassy is close by, the British Embassy…all right there, taking their rightful place in history as the protectors of Berlin back in the days when it needed protecting. The Russian Embassy is up the road a little…nearby, but not right there. It too, has a place in Berlin’s history…but a place that might rather be forgotten.
“Ich bin ein Berliner,” JFK said in his famous speech declaring the stance of the United States in Berlin’s defense. Nevermind the joke that he accidentally called himself a jelly donut, he stood up for freedom…no less than President Regan did many years later when he stood before the Brandenburg Gate and declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I was there when he made that speech. My mother and I stood there in the cheering crowd, thinking, “Yeah, right, like that will happen any time soon.” It happened two years later. Freedom has a way of coming to the fore.
I, too, am a Berliner. Even though I was not there for long. I think that we are part of everything that we have ever been. The naughty little children, the rebellious teenagers, the idealistic college students, the clueless new parents, the resigned adults. All of that is in me to this day. And so, on this anniversary of such a terrible oppression, I claim my place as a proud Berliner.
Even though I cannot speak the language.