Tag Archives: Brandenburg Gate

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. https://afinedayforanepiphany.wordpress.com/2011/08/13/50-years-ago-today-an-overnight-atrocity/

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

50 Years Ago Today: An Overnight Atrocity

13 Aug

Our apartment building in Berlin! We were the top two floors, right-hand side.

Imagine waking up one day only to discover that an impenetrable wall had gone up in your city overnight and you lived, not in a vibrant, whole metropolis, but rather in a divided, frightened island of a land; your grandparents, perhaps, were unreachable, your girlfriend separated from you forever because of the arrogance of her nation’s Communist ideology. It was August 13th, 1961: 50 years ago today.

"My" U-Bahn station - Dahlem Dorf. The prettiest station in Berlin!

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.)

A beloved East German "Ampelmann" pedestrian stop light...now to be found all over the reunited city.


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.

The Ampelmann says "go"!


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.

Truman Plaza...no longer the bustling base that it was.


I guess you don't have to show your id card at the gate anymore.


"8 o'clock at Oskar"...a good place to meet! The subway station looks much as it did 20 years ago.


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?

The former Berlin American High School...now a German oberschule.


Our football field...now, I suppose, a "football" field...ie, soccer!


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.

The Brandenburg Gate - now fully accessable!

“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.

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