Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Back in Berlin

The View outside my window on Luisenstraße

It’s been years since I set foot in Berlin, and I am still digesting the rapidity at which the city has changed. I first went to Berlin in deep mid-winter in the 1980s, and then lived there for long stretches in the 1990s and early 2000s. I knew Berlin would be a very different city from the one I know and love, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised, somehow everything is the same, and yet, so much has changed.
Berliner Dom at Sunset
I met up with an old friend for lunch at the Restaurant Hackescher Hof, the same place we have dined for the past 20 years. We sat on the sidewalk – or the terrace as they call it in Paris – in between the umbrellas and got rained on by a summer shower that seemed to come out of nowhere. I was mesmerized by how busy the street was, the sheer number of tourists, the liveliness, colour and noise of Rosenthaler Str., a street I remember when there nothing but the cinema café, the stehcafé across the road, and a pizza restaurant around the corner with a bar in between. I even remember a time when I didn’t know Hackescher Markt because it was on the other side of the wall. This was a time when tram lines cut off at the wall, seemingly arbitrarily, when the city was divided according to where the Russians met the Allies on their push westwards.
Hackescher Höfe after the war
I wondered why, when we were surrounded by the latest macrobiotic salad bars, trendy German kneipe, and various other designer eateries, Roland and I were still easting at the Hackescher Hof? He said we ate there because it’s where we have always eaten, we like it there. I felt like one of those old ladies who wouldn’t dream of changing eateries after 20 years of loyal clientele. I recognized that despite the excitement of Berlin today, there’s something about Berlin of another era that we still hold onto. When I walked down Unter den Linden, the majority of which is a mess of cranes, tourists, tacky trinket stores, impossible to see from one side to the other for the boarded off construction sites, I imagined Heinrich Heine turning in his grave. I fear the boulevard that thrilled him in 1822, and inspired the likes of Goethe and Schiller is gone forever. And I shook my head in disbelief that tourists have to book two weeks in advance to enter the renovated Reichstag.

So much about Berlin takes place in secret, behind closed doors. In the days when my life was woven into the fabric of the city, I would go to parties that began at midnight, in warehouses, pre-techno techno music thumping, the only places where mixed crowds of gays and straights, Turks and Germans, men and women would celebrate life with each other. We knew of these parties because we heard about them from friends, found a flyer on a tree, or on the noticeboard of a café. Today, there are tours that tell visitors of the hidden histories of Berlin, tracing the remnants of Nazi occupation especially, but also East Berlin, tours that point out the sunken library in Bebelplatz where the books were burnt, the history of the re-established Akademie der Kunst at Pariser Platz, the changing relevance of the Neue Wache as each new wave of history wiped away the previous one. Because Berlin is changing so rapidly, I was reminded that the city , or rather cities, I once knew have now fallen into secret history. The colour and life and significance of 1980s, even early 200s Berlin forever effaced from the streets down which the tourists stroll. The young 20 something tour guides tell my story as belonging to a history that has been rewritten more than once since I lived it.

It’s a strange feeling indeed when the city with which I identify no longer exists.

Graffiti on Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg
As each day in Berlin went past, as I trod more familiar paths I recognized that the transformations were limited to a few “hot spots”. While the area around Auguststraße in Mitte is more like New York’s East Village, and the pre-booking time for entry to the Reichstag is longer than it is to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in Milan, much about Berlin remains the same. I went for a run along the Spree through Alt-Moabit towards Charlottenburg: not a thing has changed. I caught the U7 from Gneisenaustraße to Kottbusser Tor, and the trains, the people, the view, it was just as it was 10 years ago. Even a block or two back from Unter den Linden, in the streets sandwiched in between the Deutsche Bahnhof and the Brandenburg Tor, the buildings have that same monochromatic flatness that makes Berlin in winter yet another city altogether. When I sighed with relief at the familiar, undramatic Berlin, the vast Berlin of no interest to tourists, I realized I had become old, looking for a past that no longer existed, trying to hold on to a life long gone.

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