“So what were you doing when the Wall came down?” This is the question on everyone’s lips today, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sad to say, I’m not quite sure. Embarrassed and sad, I should say, as I was only a month into my German degree and should really have been showing a lot more interest…
What I do remember best, oddly enough, relates to someone on my university course who had just had a gap year in Berlin. As soon as he heard the news he was in mental agony that he wasn’t there and felt he couldn’t even go there. Like any semi- conscientious fresher, he knew that we were absolutely Not Permitted to take time off to go places during the week in termtime, and yet… His frustration was tangible. Which is just as well, since as soon as our lecturers got wind of it they basically implored him to go, he must go and bring back his impressions for all of us to share, along with a bag full of fragments of Wall. So off he went and became our foreign correspondent. Incidentally, he’s now Professor of German at my later alma mater and has specialized in East-West German relations.
Anyway, I decided to visit Berlin myself a few weeks ago. I’d never been before – it’s a long way from here – but it had felt overdue for some time. As it happened, I had to go all the way up to Usedom for a conference and would be passing through Berlin in any case, so I decided I to make a brief but action-packed overnight stop there. I’d be arriving Friday at 2pm and leaving on Saturday at 12.30pm to get to the conference on time.
After getting slightly lost while trying to find the left luggage section in the overwhelmingly huge, multi-level Hauptbahnhof, I bought a 24-hour ticket for the public transport system and headed towards the Jewish Museum (architectural highlight) and afterwards to Checkpoint Charlie (underwhelming and overpopulated by tourists, but you can’t not go there).
The Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate were much as expected, but I was a bit disappointed by the memorial to Holocaust victims. I found the line of pavement cafés set out next to it suggested an unnecessarily mercenary, leisurely, voyeuristic touch, plus there were quite a few children running around and jumping from one stone to the next, which rather killed the solemn, introspective atmosphere I’d anticipated. Someone else might have seen the children’s games as a positive sign of life and hope, I guess, but it spoiled the moment for me.
Towards sunset – the light was magical that day – I headed east to Alexanderplatz, to marvel at the ostentatious wonders of GDR architecture still displayed there, not least the impressive TV tower. This did feel like a different country: the use of expansive space was alien, as was the feel of the architecture – starker, quite obviously totalitarian, even if you hadn’t known where it was. Seeing the familiar logos and chain stores at street level, though, brought me down to earth. I found myself wishing I’d seen it ten, twenty years ago to compare. I’ve been scouring the internet for pictures ever since.
It was beginning to get dark and I decided I should slowly head for my hotel, which was located towards the north edge of Kreuzberg, the vibrant and multicultural heart of Berlin, many would say. Again I felt as though I was in a different country, this time somewhere in the Near East, with exotic fruit on sale outside small greengrocers’ shops and a heavy smell of spices and cooking in the warm evening air. It was in Kreuzberg that doner kebabs were invented, so it was not difficult to decide what to have to eat that evening. I went to a place that had been recommended by a friend and where there were diverse groups of people having an elaborate sit-down meal in the cosmopolitan restaurant area alongside the takeaway counter.
The following morning, my primary destination was the East Side Gallery, a stretch of original Berlin Wall of some several hundred metres in length and decorated panel-wise with paintings and graffitti in all kinds of styles, each very good in its own way. Again, the low sun was generous in promoting vivid colours and long shadows, and this was definitely the part of the trip I enjoyed photographing most. I met some funny characters along the way – clearly this was just about chucking-out time in some of the area’s many clubs, and a few individuals were quite inquisitive as to exactly why I was photographing this lamp post or that piece of paper. I fell into conversation with two young guys who were very amenable to having their photo taken against an appropriate backdrop. Unfortunately none of us had anything to write with, so I couldn’t take down an e-mail address to send them the picture. If anyone happens to recognize them, please let me know!
And that was it, then – after a leisurely breakfast back at my hotel it was time to head back to the Hauptbahnhof to meet my colleagues so that we could continue our journey to Usedom. Which was quite a different experience that I might write about another time. I’ll definitely be going back to Berlin as soon as I can, though, to spend a bit more time to explore this fantastic, schizophrenic, bittersweet city of many cultures.
A set of Berlin pictures including these and others can be viewed here.