Ghosts of Berlin

in which I celebrate the fall of a wall twenty years ago in excellent company, digress into a short history lesson, turn 23 in the company of friends, and wander a city entwined with memory.

The title comes from a book assigned in my sophomore year German class, a class that focused on Berlin since 1989.  I very much enjoyed the class, though I can’t really remember anything we read from that particular book (ironically, many of the other readings, all in German, stand out to me far more–ironic because I didn’t understand them fully at the time).  It seems a fitting title to my first reprise in Berlin, a city I will probably always associate with one of the happiest seasons of my life.

I stepped off the plane just after 11 pm on Sunday, November 8, boarded the S-Bahn, and after a complicated system of Schienenersatzverkehr (German code word for transportation hell and generally a lot of hassle), stepped off the S-Bahn at Ostkreuz and into an embrace with Calvin, a friend I had not contacted a single time since my last night in Berlin, in early September 2008.  Seeing Calvin was wonderful, and from the minute I walked off the S-Bahn, I knew I had made the right choice in asking him to put me up for my three nights in Berlin.  With Calvin, one of my better friends from my time in Berlin, it was like nothing had changed.  From Ostkreuz, we wandered through the streets of Friedrichshain towards Simon-Dach Straße, much like we might have 15 months ago (albeit without my luggage), where we found Christian, another friend from days past, in a cocktail bar.  Within 90 minutes after landing, I was drinking cocktails in Friedrichshain as if Berlin had stopped when I left it on September 2008 and picked right back up when I returned in November 2009.  With slightly colder weather.

It was great to catch up with Calvin and Christian, and after a round of cocktails, we returned to Calvin’s place.  We called it a night and went to bed.

November 9 was certainly an eventful day.  I took the GRE in the afternoon, then met up with Marina, my Harvard roommate living in Berlin, and Brittney, who had just visited me in the south and had gone to Switzerland with me.  A nice occasion for a reunion, though the weather, which had smiled upon me for the entirety of my trip, did not hold out for this particular night.  Unfortunate, since it was the night I stood outside for hours in the cold rain.  But well worth it.

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a Harvard reunion

The festivities were, of course, to celebrate the fall of the wall, exactly 20 years ago that night.  And quite a celebration it was.  It is not every day you get Merkel, (H.) Clinton, Medvedev, Sarkozy, Brown, Gorbachev, and Walesa (and others, but they get to be minor enough that most people wouldn’t appreciate them) in a single event.  As the crowd of main speakers walked out under umbrellas, it struck me just how historic the event being celebrated was.  Not that I doubted it.  But I felt it keenly as I watched them.  Clinton looked dashing in a brilliant red scarf and red leather gloves–she’s looking great these days.  Their speeches were admittedly predictable–we celebrate a wall that came down 20 years ago, we need to be breaking down other walls today (poverty, climate change, war, etc.).  But predictable doesn’t mean bad.  It was kind of hard to understand many of the speeches due to their simultaneous translation–the Russian ones were particularly hard for me–lots of linguistic confusion.  But it was also adorable to hear world leaders bust out their German phrases–Sarkozy’s “liebe Freunde” and Medvedev’s adorably Russian accented German at the end, much in a style that would make Kennedy and Reagan proud.

On a side note, I had my 11th graders read excerpts from Kennedy’s and Reagan’s classic Berlin speeches this past week, and I think both serve as a testament to well-written speeches.  Kennedy’s, due to its eloquent brevity, holds my greater admiration, but the Reagan speech is also undeniably good.  For a refresher, here we have a short excerpt from Kennedy’s (June 1963):

…There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.

Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us… Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free. When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great Continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two decades.

All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

And from Reagan (June 1987):

And now the Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom. We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness. Some political prisoners have been released. Certain foreign news broadcasts are no longer being jammed. Some economic enterprises have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state control.

Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state? Or are they token gestures, intended to raise false hopes in the West, or to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it? We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

But, back to the festivities.  As part of them, an artist had a brilliant idea to construct a new wall, one of “domino stones,” to be symbolically knocked over over the course of the evening, an idea that I strongly approve of.  And in a very symbolic and fitting move, Lech Walesa and Miklos Nemeth knocked down the first stone.  Walesa was, of course, the hero of the Polish solidarity movement that swept the country before the martial law crackdown in the 1980s.  And Nemeth was the leader of Hungary for an equally important moment, though one people know distressingly little about–the opening of the Austro-Hungarian border for East German citizens in September 1989.

In fact, the whole story about how the wall came down is one that is so fantastic, I find it surprising that so few people know the story.  Obviously, great changes were at work in East Germany in November 1989, after Gorbachev’s less than supportive comments (regarding changes and liberalizations: “Life itself will punish us if we are late.”) at the 40th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the GDR and Honecker’s declining health forced him to resign, both in October.  But why November 9 became the night to remember was really a matter of poor bureaucratic communication.  The higher-ups in the party apparatus had determined that liberalization was necessary with respect to privileges to travel abroad.  The wall was certainly to have a different function, but leaders had not yet determined exactly what that was to mean.  This would be decided in the near future.  One person, however, was missing from these meetings: regime spokesman Günther Schabowsky, who was sent into an evening press conference with just a paper announcing that great changes were at work.  After he announced new changes in the control of the East German border, he was questioned about when these would take effect.  He searched in vain for a date on his paper.  There was the mistake.  There was none.  Connecting the dots, he spoke words that would change history and spell the demise of his state:  “Meines Wissens sofort, unverzüglich.”  “As far as I know, immediately, without delay.”

The end of my history lesson.

Back to the celebrations.  So, we had Walesa and Nemeth knocking down the first stones, but not before they were asked a question or two each.  I have a soft spot in my heart for Walesa, which grew dramatically upon seeing the shipyards in Gdansk in November 2007.  He was utterly adorable:

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Lech Walesa

Here he is, knocking down the first symbolic stone:

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And then they talked to a number of others–Gorbachev and Genscher, for example, as well as more recent figures–a recent Nobel Peace laureate, the South Korean artist who proposed the domino stones, children who had painted them.  David Hasselhoff performed, which was sort of hilarious.  And then, the grand closing, fireworks.  Which had the unfortunate side-effect of making the Brandenburg gate, the symbol of freedom for most Germans, look like it was on fire.  Oh well…

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And from there, we went back to Marina’s apartment to warm up and catch up, before I returned to Calvin’s place for the evening.

The next day, November 10th, my 23rd birthday, was a very laid-back day. And for a person whose birthdays have frequently ended in tears (my 16th, for example), this was quite nice.  I slept in, enjoyed having nothing in particular to do.  I stopped by a grocery store on the way out to buy chocolate, marzipan, and milk for my oh-so-nutritional breakfast.  But in the (altered) words of a dear friend from my Moscow days, I’m 23, I can do whatever I want.

I took the tram into the city, and wandered around aimlessly a bit, just taking it in. As said, it is a city intertwined with memories, many of them extremely happy ones.  As I walked the streets, I remember huddling with a visiting friend under an archway in the August rain, being at the Neue Wache with another friend, nights wandering Oranienburg Str. in search of a nice beer, watching the European Cup finale with friends, and grabbing a late-night döner.  In many ways, it was bizarre to be back because it felt so little had changed.  There was, however, one exception.  The complete disappearance of the Palast der Republik, a pile of ruins when I left Berlin in 2008, now an empty place holder for the rebuilding of the palace that stood there before the war.

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I once praised the view from this spot as a perfect cross-section of the city. Here you have the old Prussian dome, the hideous East Berlin TV tower. Previously, you could see the ruins of the Palast der Republik, and a whole assortment of cranes, reminding the viewer that Berlin was a city that was constantly rebuilding itself. Without the ruins, though, it seemed somehow less fitting.

I even had quite a special experience–I stepped into the Neue Wache and was, for a good couple minutes, the only one there.  Amazing. A wonderful opportunity to reflect on the victims of war and tyranny that it commemorates.

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From there, I headed towards Friedrichstraße, hopped on the U-Bahn, and rung the bell at my old apartment, where  Max, my old flatmate, was waiting for me.  It was, of course, wonderful to see him, despite the fact that he was feeling a bit under the weather.  Wonderful to catch up a bit.  It was funny to be in the apartment again, where, once again, very little had changed.  The playboy calendar that Max and Flo had put up to declare their independence, is of course long gone (they always told me I could take it down if it bothered me–it was always a joke, anyway).  And small traces of myself are still there–the tea my mother sent me, for example, and a small Soviet propaganda postcard encouraging people not to drink, which hangs right over where the alcohol was served.  I miss living in that apartment.  Really and truly.

From there, I went off to meet Calvin for dinner, but not before I stopped into my old Turkish grocer, who remembered me and welcomed me back.  It was beautiful. I treated Calvin to Indian food as a thank you for hosting me for the three nights (and besides, Germans are more inclined to treat others on their birthdays, rather than be treated), and we grabbed a quiet beer at a place afterwards.

The next morning, I packed my things and bid goodbye to Calvin, before returning to my old neighborhood for breakfast with Max and Florian, in honor of Flo’s birthday, the day after mine.  Again, it was absolutely wonderful to see the two of them.  After a nice, long, and very filling breakfast, we bid our goodbyes and I decided to spend my afternoon at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, which was AMAZING.  I regretted that I only had an hour and a half to take it in, as well as the fact that, despite Florian’s strong recommendation, I had never visited it during my seven months in Berlin.  The museum is fabulously done and will certainly demand an entire afternoon the next time I am in Berlin, at the latest, in March.

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at the end of my quick tour of the German Historic Museum

And then, I went to quickly see a friend, Jule, and pick up my old collection of bedding, since I had left it with them last year, and which was newly necessary, as I was about to move into a new apartment in Nuremberg.  And then, after an all-too short visit, I boarded my train and arrived in Nuremberg, just before 10 pm, which brings me more or less to the present.

In true form, the great moments of my visit in Berlin are undocumented ones.  I have no pictures with Max or Flo or Calvin.  And hardly a picture of the city, except for the ones taken at the Fest der Freiheit (the official name for the wall celebrations).  But I find this fitting.  Berlin is not a city I inherently connect with tourist memories or picture-perfect moments.  My happiest times in Berlin are generally without photos, for it was a city that was, vor allem, home. And home for a very happy period of my life.

I am not much of one to look back on places I have been.  I generally live in the present and move forward.  I maintain only limited (but MUCH appreciated) contact with people from my many past lives, and for the most part, that doesn’t bother me.  I think a lot of this is influenced by my lack of strong connection to anywhere I have lived–moving at 11 uprooted my connections to Chicago, my family’s move to Ohio in turn dissolved strong connections to Kansas (City), I have never properly lived in Ohio (state of my official residence), and I always felt like I was just passing through Cambridge.  Berlin is in many ways no different, another epoch in a life that has been spent wandering perhaps too much.  After all, since starting college a hair more than four years ago, I have received mail at 11 different addresses, lived in 9 different cities and four different countries, and traveled much between.  Perhaps proof I am cut out for a career in Foreign Service or diplomacy.

But in other ways, Berlin will always have a special place in my heart. I feel a stronger connection to that particular city than to just about anywhere else I have ever lived, with perhaps the exception of Oak Park, as the place of my childhood.  It is a place that is haunted by memories.  But very happy ones.  Very happy ones indeed.  How good it was to be back.


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