Monday, November 9, 2009

It was 20 years ago today...

I remember watching the live coverage of the Berlin Wall falling the night the border opened between East and West. I stared at the t.v. in the dorm lounge at school, my reaction ricocheting between amazement, disbelief and a vague sense of worry about just how it would all play out.

I'd been in Berlin just two years before, having spent about five weeks of the summer of '87 in Germany with relatives and friends. That trip, my Hanover relatives took me to Berlin for a long weekend. A visit to my father's cousin in East Berlin was scheduled for the Sunday. At the last minute, however, I bowed out of going. For one thing, the very thought of crossing Checkpoint Charlie was enough to induce a panic attack (I've always hated dealing with anyone in uniform -- I believe this phobia began at the hands of some evil Brownies in grade 2), and then I also needed a day away from my very kind (but occasionally overbearing) relatives. By that point in the trip, I'd been someone's guest for at least 3 weeks and my need for alone time was almost a medical condition. And, to be honest, there was something kind of creepy about my West German relatives' attitude, this weird sort of smugly schadenfreudish air -- oh, the poor Ossis, they seemed to say, what would they do without our annual visits to bring over our high-quality hand-me-down clothes and shoes and foodstuffs? I had the feeling I'd be encouraged to look at the East like it was a diorama in a museum, its residents like animals in a zoo, to be entertained by the lack of shiny consumer products.

So, off went my aunt, uncle and cousin, to visit the Ossi relatives across the Wall, while I spent the day blessedly alone, wandering the shopping areas around the Kurfurstendamn, eating currywurst from street vendors and eventually making my way through the Tiergarten, a huge park, to an elevated lookout platform by the Brandenburg Gate. If memory serves, this platform, which was about 25 feet high or so, was situated at the end of the Strasse des 17. Juni, a broad boulevard that swept through the tree-filled Tiergarten to meet the Brandenburg Gate, which is a 18th century triumphal arch type of thing. The Wall crossed over the boulevard here, blocking you from the gate and the neighbouring Reichstag building. All you could really see over the wall was no-man's land, an empty stretch of nothing. I don't remember seeing any people, or guard towers, or dogs, but it's quite possible they were there, too.

It was the Reichstag that really held my attention. The huge building was a scorched ruin, heavily pockmarked with bomb damage from WWII, its windows vacant and black. In my memory, there was nothing but empty meadowland in front of its stone steps -- I have a distinct mental picture of the contrast of long grass and wildflowers in front of the desolate ruin, but again, this could be some embroidering on the part of my brain. Seeing the bomb damage made my head explode -- it's one thing to grow up hearing stories of WWII from my parents who were small children in Berlin at the time, stories of air raids and evacuations, of shrapnel from phosphorus bombs making apartment buildings glow at night for months afterward, of raising rabbits in the apartment for food, of the Blockade and the Airlift (and the weird to them food that got dropped from the Rosinenbombers), of black market trading, it's one thing when these are just stories. But it's another thing entirely when you see, in person, a building that played a role in that horrific conflict (though what war isn't horrific) standing still-damaged, over 40 years later. It was, in an odd way, like sudden, unexpected slap.

Or, at least, this is how I remember it.

I spent a long time wandering along the Wall itself that afternoon, reading all the graffiti. Some of what had been written was simple and heartfelt, but a lot of what I saw was very stupid. A lot of anti-communist epithets, sprayed on with the kind of cowardly bravado only possible when there's no chance of an answer from the other side, do you know what I mean? Honestly, what's the point of writing "F#$ You, Commies!" or whatever, on a section of the Wall entirely surrounded by trees?

The whole experience was eerie. As a Westerner, used to having the freedom to do anything and go anywhere, the concept of restricted liberty was almost too much to understand. This was likely another reason I bowed out of crossing the border to the East to meet Renate and Rolf, that I just wasn't ready to wrap my head around the enormity of what the Wall and the Iron Curtain and the Cold War really meant. I was 17 and just not ready to try to understand the politics of how it all happened and what it all really meant. It was easier to deal with in books and films, at one remove from my own life.

And then, two years later, on a November Friday night, I watched from the cocoon of my university dorm as that same bit of wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate came tumbling down. I remember waiting for the guns to fire, thinking it all seemed too simple, that it was all some sort of horrific trick. I remember thinking of my un-met relatives and wondering whether they were part of the crowd (they weren't). I remember worrying that there'd be riots or some other sort of violence, maybe not immediately but at some point because how on earth was this all going to work??

But it has worked, in its own way. For people like my father's cousin, who lived a nice life there behind the wall, it was difficult to see symbols of their old culture dismantled, such as the Palast der Republik. There must have been (and likely is still) great tension between the West and the East as the city reshaped itself. I wonder what its like to have been a part of a separate culture for over 20 years and suddenly that culture is gone, subsumed into another? On our last trip, my mother got into a conversation with a woman at the opera, a long time resident of Berlin. Mum had noticed that people were speaking the Berlinerish dialect more and more this visit than in other past trips. The woman replied that, in her opinion, the dialect had been kept alive more so in the East than the West and that its increased usage was an attempt by the Easterners to maintain their cultural identity as something other from the cosmopolitan Berlin community.

However, as a visitor, the reunified Berlin is a wonderful thing. The museum system is finally, mostly sorted out, you have a choice of three (count'em three!) opera houses, the Reichstag is entirely renovated with a new glass dome on top, you can travel easily to Dessau or Leipzig or the Spreewald, and you never have to stand at the top of a lookout platform and have the past slap you in the face. The past is still there, mind you, there are a million little reminders across the city so that you can never forget, but it's no longer akin to stepping from technicolour to sepiatone.


1 comment:

Drea said...

WOW! Thanks for writing that Kara.