No, this isn’t exactly a Valentine’s Day post…but the fact remains that I love Berlin, so maybe it counts after all…
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. https://afinedayforanepiphany.wordpress.com/2011/08/13/50-years-ago-today-an-overnight-atrocity/