Boggled by Berlin

14 Feb

No, this isn’t exactly a Valentine’s Day post…but the fact remains that I love Berlin, so maybe it counts after all…

"My" U-Bahn station. Pretty much unchanged...unlike me and the city around it!

They say that you can never go back. That once you’ve left a place, you won’t return as the same person you were when you left. Well, conversely, Berlin itself is not the same place it was when I moved away, three days after my high school graduation, in June 1988, and I just have to say that I’m very glad! I’m not the same, either, and that, too, is a good thing.

Okay, if you look too closely, you'll see how tasteless this is. This is the waiting bench at Dahlem Dorf U-Bahn station. Yes...this is quintessential Berlin.

Our apartment building in Berlin. We were the top right-hand apartment (each one was two floors/half of each floor, for a total of 4 in the building).

I returned briefly a few times before my parents moved away in 1990, including being home for Christmas in 1989, one month after The Wall was opened – but I hadn’t been back since The Wall was actually gone, since reunification, since being married, being a mom, being, well, grown up. It had been over two decades since I’d been in this city, and it was, truly, not the same place that I had left.

My street!

My street - cobblestones and all. Looks pretty much exactly the same!!

I think the first thing that struck me when we arrived in Berlin was that our hotel was on THE EAST SIDE of the now non-existent wall! It was just so amazing to me – I mean, last time I’d been here, I couldn’t even GO to this part of the city (well, I could, but not without a lot of hoopla and scrutiny and a passport). Now, we could even ride the U-Bahn (subway) there whereas before the western U-Bahn line would not cross over into the East. It was like magic had occurred – like a marriage had taken place and the The Two had miraculously Become One.

Our hotel, in - the former - east!

Across the street from our hotel - and the view we had every morning while we ate breakfast. The Deutscher Dom.

The Brandenburger Tor / Brandenburg Gate.

My husband took this shot last week. (All the other shots - except the night ones and Bebelplatz - are from a year ago.)

The Quadriga on the top of the Brandenburg Gate. I'd never seen it from the Eastern side before! There's a story about how she was kidnapped by Napoleon in 1806 and taken to Paris. She was returned a few years later. Imagine kidnapping such an enormous thing! And back in the day before cranes!

And, of course, the most magic thing of all: the open Brandenburger Tor – the Brandenburg Gate. I could walk under it now! And, low and behold, the US Embassy actually TOUCHES the gate (with the French and British embassies close at hand – the three allied countries which oversaw West Berlin). Last time I’d been that close to the Gate, I was watching President Ronald Reagan give his famous “Tear Down This Wall” speech with my mother. We had to go through three checkpoints just to get there – in which I was laughed at by the German guards at each one because of my name on the invitation – “Gretchen” is a child’s name in Germany, and “Greta” would be the adult form. (“Chen” is a diminutive.) By the time I got to the third checkpoint and the guards chuckled yet again, I said, “It’s my name, right?” “Ya, ya!”

This statue is titled, "Cry Freedom" and I remember it from the days when it was almost a plea - today it's more of a cry of victory.

As we stood and listened to Reagan’s speech, there were East German guards standing ON the Gate with honking huge guns in hand. I remember thinking that Reagan was an optimist, that was for sure. And now, all these years later…I was walking beneath the actual Brandenburg Gate!! I touched the pillars and just stood there a while, letting it all soak in.

I couldn’t stop marveling about it all. To hear about something is one thing, but to see it and touch it is quite another.

There are a couple places in the city today where huge chunks of the wall are still in place as a memorial. The instant I saw the wall, and drew close to its shadow, I grew cross, grumpy, and withdrawn. That’s how going to the East used to make me feel. It was all so wrong for any country to imprison their people – and all in the guise of keeping them safe. Even, of course, to the extent of killing them if they tried to escape. It just made me angry. So, seeing that wall still standing – even though I could obviously go around it now – just made all those emotions come roaring back. I felt like a sullen teenager again.

Definitely NOT what used to be in Eastern Berlin.

That being said, when we saw, directly across from the former Checkpoint Charlie boarder crossing, that there is a DECADENT WESTERN McDonalds, we just had to eat there. How could we not?!! Last time I’d been at that exact place my passport had been scrutinized by bored German guards and I’d left with a tremendous headache from the horrid whistle on the Eastern U-Bahn. This time, by contrast, I headed East to go “home”. Yes indeed, the world has changed since I was a teenager, and here, at least, it’s a good thing.

The Bundestag...aka, the former Reichstag. This was a museum back in my day. Now it's the very real seat of parliament for Germany.

Everything was gray in East Berlin back then. Gray and depressing and repressed. Now, that exact same piece of land is fantastic – not because commerce and Westernism is so perfect…but because freedom itself gives joy. I am so happy for the people of Germany.

Imagine coming back to a place after more than two decades – a place you loved, a place you understood – and finding it entirely different – not just larger, but fundamentally a different place. I knew what it felt like to live in Berlin – it felt like a benevolent trap – not because I felt trapped, per sey, but because you had this constant knowledge, in the back of your heart, that you could not leave this city. Not without a lot of fuss and bother. You could not jump in your car and drive away. You could not escape – the entire city was surrounded by a communist country and you were NOT welcome there. But now you’ve come back, and the FEEL of the city has changed – the mind-set of the people has changed. It is not the enclosed, shut-off place that it was. It is no longer a trap. Imagine how different – how fantastic – that feels! The city you love no longer has a tourniquet that cut into its very heart. The people of Berlin understand what freedom feels like. As if the air itself is different.

It’s as if the city you love has grown up – that there had been a locked room which no one was ever allowed to see except in gray-tinged glimpses, kept hidden by some cross adult, which now has been opened for everyone to see. Does that make sense? It was as if Berlin and I had both grown up together.

The United States embassy abuts the gate.

The French embassy is across the street from the U.S. one...and down a wee bit.

The British Embassy - just around the corner from the U.S. one.

The Russian embassy - a block or two further up the Unter Den Linden - I'm sure in the same place it was back in my day, though I never walked around there to find out. Each of the embassies have an armed guard in front of them.

I remember riding on a Ferris Wheel one time. It was placed as close to the Brandenburg Gate as it was allowed to be. The wheel stopped when I was at the very top, and I could see into East Berlin, see the tower guards with their guns and orders from on high, see the no man’s land that kept the Easterners away from the wall (they could not walk up to it as you could on the western side), see Unter Den Linden – that famous street, cut off and feeble, compared to its former glory. A sparrow flew past me and kept on flying east, over the wall, over the guards, over the city. I marveled at his freedom to enter the locked room.

Now, more than two decades later, we all have wings to explore this amazing city.

The gate by night.

Berlin is, truly, an incredible place. (It is the only German city without a curfew! Gotta keep those cabarets going!) There are tremendous museums, fabulous stores, and friendly people. And, of course, the history everywhere you go. It fits its new role as an undivided capital perfectly.

Okay, it's impossible to do this justice. This is in Bebelplatz. Know what that means? I'll tell you in a minute. First, let me describe it. This is a window, below which is a all-white room, with white bookshelves on all four walls, floor to ceiling. The shelves are bare. Remember Belelplatz now? It's where Hitler had a magnificent bonfire to burn books. And this window and the room below is the memorial to that wickedness. It will blow your mind.

P.S. – It’s been very hard to write with any degree of perfection about Berlin. It’s all so close to my heart and there is so much to say that it’s hard to say anything concisely! I hope this rambling post isn’t too annoying to read! Oh, and also, I posted about Berlin on August 13th of last year. That was the 50th anniversary of the wall being built, if you’re interested in checking it out.

No, I'm sorry, I don't know who this introspective man is/was. But I loved the birdie on his feather!


28 Responses to “Boggled by Berlin”

  1. M.L. Fuller February 14, 2012 at 7:19 am #

    Thanks for the peek into Berlin! I live in Germany but still have not visited. I hope to change that soon!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell February 14, 2012 at 9:01 am #

      I’m so glad you stopped by! It’s definitely worth the drive – or flight – to visit! Such a historically fascinating place.

  2. Minnesota Prairie Roots February 14, 2012 at 7:20 am #

    Gretchen, this post is incredibly touching and insightful, written with such depth and heart and honesty. For someone like me who’s only read about Berlin in history books or been taught about it in a classroom, your story brings the entire situation to a personal and understandable level. The photos complete the story. You should consider, if you haven’t done so, talking to a local high school history teacher about incorporating your story into his/her curriculum via a presentation. Think of how much you could teach students. You’ve taught me much today. Well done. Thank you.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell February 14, 2012 at 9:06 am #

      Thank you, Audrey. I asked my husband if it was rambling and inexact, and he just smiled. It was incredibly hard to write, actually – so much emotion is all tied in with that city, for me. I know it’s too long, but I just decided to post anyway. But I am so glad that you enjoyed it! I hope it is worth slogging through the length of it all for others, too.

  3. Mandy February 14, 2012 at 9:10 am #

    You can tell that you were writing with your heart on your sleeve, but thats not a bad thing 🙂 Reading your post was like taking walking tour of Berlin

  4. bitsandbreadcrumbs February 14, 2012 at 10:14 am #

    What an amazing experience to have lived in Berlin before the wall came down and to go back now. I can’t even imagine how emotional it was for you. Great images and a very interesting story…thanks for sharing it with us!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell February 14, 2012 at 10:42 am #

      Yes, it’s certainly a great experience to have had. And going back was pretty unbelievable. It’s neat to have seen history so close-up.

  5. Julie Wellnitz February 14, 2012 at 12:28 pm #

    Gretchen, Thank you for taking me to Berlin over my lunch hour! Excellent writing and loved the photos!

  6. Jenny February 14, 2012 at 1:54 pm #

    The window in the sidewalk at Bebelplatz would be an amazing thing to look into. It seems sad to see it dirty and walked on with indifference.
    I remember the bench at the Dahlem-Dorf U-Bahn station! The female seats actually have a nice headrest built into them! Ones head is held rather comfortably!
    Some of my strongest memories are of the guards at the wall. It felt other-worldly. To see them with binoculars looking at us didn’t seem real, but for the large concrete wall with the razor wire at the top. The flowers, wreaths and crosses at the places where people had died trying to come into the West, were also strong reminders that this was, indeed, real.
    My other memory of something that I thought was so cool, was the windows upstairs at Mom and Dads. The fact that they rotated all the way around, top to bottom, so you could clean them, was so practical and may actually get the windows cleaned once in a while because it made it so easy!
    Thank you for your pictures and memories. It was nice of Colin to get you more pictures to use also!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell February 14, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

      Yes, there’s so much more that could be written about – but I was rambling enough already! Maybe someday I’ll post random thoughts about the city. And the way the guards would scrutinize Mom’s passport – ’cause she was the easiest to intimidate! The Wall Museum – I can’t remember if you went there or not – is larger now, still very interesting. I’m so glad you got to visit!

  7. Just A Smidgen February 14, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    I think this is the perfect Valentine’s Day post.. a tribute to your city and your childhood.. and a celebration of it’s freedom. I forget that someone so young (as yourself) could have lived through this. I forget and take my own freedom for granted.. hopping on planes and in cars and going anywhere. I love your night photos of the gate and the cry of freedom statue… What an incredible feeling it must have been to go through the city with all of these changes. I also find it fascinating that some sites still engender the same negative emotions.. we are so impacted as children, aren’t we? Excellent writing today!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell February 14, 2012 at 7:15 pm #

      Thank you so much! Yes, a celebration, for sure. I was surprised, too, that I still was so cross seeing the wall – despite the fact that its power is gone. It just felt like a light was switched on in my brain – an angry light! The emotion was that instant. I don’t know why I didn’t get a picture of it – made me too mad, I guess!!

  8. Katy February 14, 2012 at 5:44 pm #

    What an amazing post, Gretchen! I can see why you’re so fascinated with Berlin; you’ve played a part in some of its most colourful history. Wonderful photos too. Thank you for sharing.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell February 14, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

      Just a teeny, tiny part! I don’t know if you found the Bebelplatz memorial as amazing as I did – we actually didn’t know what it was at first…then later, my husband said, “Oh, wow – I figured it out!” It’s definitely a city I love!

      • Katy February 14, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

        I did find the Belelplatz memorial amazing. All those empty bookshelves…I couldn’t think of a better way to remind people of the importance of books!

        • Gretchen O'Donnell February 14, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

          Yes, I guess as writers it was that much more…personal!

  9. Kiran @ February 15, 2012 at 9:00 pm #

    Berlin is so beautiful!! I recalled watching a recent documentary and saw many beautiful cites. I hope to visit it someday 🙂

    Great photos!! I love cobblestone roads 🙂

    • Gretchen O'Donnell February 16, 2012 at 7:04 am #

      Yes, it’s a great city – definitely worth a visit! And yes, the cobblestones are fun – a bit rough for a bicyclist, but otherwise charming!

  10. hotlyspiced February 17, 2012 at 3:49 am #

    Great post Gretchen. So interesting. Love the photo of the street where you grew up! It really is another part of the world – so different to here. How amazing that you have experienced the East/West Germany and now the Unified Germany. Such a privilege. I dream of going to Germany one day with my children and showing them all the sites I’m so familiar with from studying WWII.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell February 17, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

      It was really fun to see my old street again! The cobblestones were a hoot – kinda wish I had one of them just to remind me! Seeing real places from history is incredible, isn’t it? We won’t be taking our kids anytime in the near future, that’s for sure – they’re still too young (12,10 and 5) but someday we’d sure love to. It’s one thing to read about history and another to touch it! Did you study history in college?

  11. Malou February 21, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

    I’ve been so many times to Germany but never to Berlin. I’ve always been curious of this city especially when I was in college and majoring in Political Science. My textbook was still of the East and West Germany and then a few months later, the Berlin Wall fell. I got lots of reading materials on East and West Germany after writing their respective embassies in Manila that I needed them for my term paper research on European government and politics..

    • Gretchen O'Donnell February 22, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

      That’s great that the embassies were so helpful! You really must hop in the car with your family and visit Berlin – it’s a great city for kids, too – lots of parks. Maybe wait until warmer weather, though! I hear it’s been crazy cold over in your neck of the woods. Maybe, if you can even just go with your husband, you could do the many museums in Berlin (which your daughter might not be very patient for!) There are SO MANY wonderful museums – which I’m certain you’d find fascinating! The Deutsch History museum is wonderful. Though Museum Island has several wonderful ones, too. And, of course, the Wall Museum is a must.

  12. haywooaj January 11, 2013 at 2:18 am #

    I arrived here searching for information on the weird benches at Dahlem Dorf, hahahaha… Was fascinating reading your insights and comparisons of Berlin, the old and new. Thanks for sharing! And beautiful photos, by the way.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell January 11, 2013 at 6:28 am #

      I’m so glad you found me and thank you so much for your kind words. I’m that that you enjoyed it! Thanks, too, for telling me how you found me – I always find that interesting. Yes, those benches are memorable, aren’t they? I sure don’t know anything about them beyond what I’ve seen – no background information – and never even had thought of looking them up. Now I’m interested, too!

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