Thursday, March 26, 2009

Berlin (Pt. VI)

Note to readers: This is the sixth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part V here. For an alternate recounting of my Berlin experience, see Scotty and I: Burning down Berlin.

Brandenburg Tor
It's a long way from Stockholm to Berlin—in many ways.  Train from Stockholm to Malmö, boat from Malmö to Sassnitz, train from Sassnitz to Berlin. Twenty hours in all. Scotty (a drinker, he) and I hung over from partying with the Swedes, made our way through German customs. In fine German tradition, border guards neatly and firmly stamped our Eurail passes, the stamp falling completely within the designated lines, each character clear and legible. Jene verrückte Deutsch.

Every hotel in the city was booked for the Berlin Marathon.  Stressful, but I was getting used to it by now: the tired scramble to find accommodations in a strange city. Scotty (a drinker, he) and I pleaded with a hotel clerk to call around for us. He found us a cheap, dirty room in East Berlin, somewhere in that maze of unlit streets and alleyways where you got the feeling that, in the wrong circumstances, you could get into trouble if you weren't careful. But we were two strong young men, so no worries, eh?

Somewhere along the line...
Berlin at night. Since it was Scotty (a drinker, he) and I, we were well lit. A blur of sites:  laughing, carefree Germans, swilling beer and singing in their guttural tongue; cows (yes, cows!), iridescent blue, day-glow green, or red as sunset scaling a building; a drunken German leaping to his feet shouting, "Reisepässe! Reisepässe!" A thousand faces and voices from a thousand different countries, smiling, laughing. We tottered on the  knife-edge of madness, careless as truant schoolboys, flowing, riding the currents of the night with our hands in the air. "Gotta go back, Scotty," says I. Scotty's chin in his hand, cigarette between his fingers sending a thin stream of dull gray smoke trailing upward to be lost in the choking strata above our heads.  A woman, one of Scotty's people from Australia, sat next to us at the bar; a mere memory even then; faceless and formless from here to the grave. Scotty winks. "Cheers, mate. I'll see ya back there."

Back on the U-Bahn. Back to the room. Crash.


The next day started late. Breakfast downtown, there to be approached at our table by homeless gypsies begging for coins.  Berlin is not Stockholm or Oslo. There are beggars here. "Raus, raus," shouted the headwaiter, shooing them on.

Daytime Germans are very different from those of the night.  During the day, they are all business, in that uniquely Prussian way: stingy with their smiles, quick and purposeful in their step. These are a deliberate people, with a sense of their own greatness. Some might call it arrogance.

Checkpoint Charlie
Scotty (a drinker, he) and I went to the Checkpoint Charlie museum to hear tales of the sorry days when Berlin was divided like a big pie between conquerors: French, British, American, Russian.

We visited the impressive, newly reconstructed Reichstag. The Reichstag, symbol of a recently united Germany, rose from the rubble that was Berlin in 1945; up from out of the debris and wreckage left behind by Hitler and his minions as they fled this mortal plane, the Red Army soldiers hot on their heels. Five thousand Russians died in the advance from the Spree River to the Reichstag.  The scars from the war were still there:  bullet-pocked colonnades.

From the roof of the new government building we looked out on a forest of construction cranes, midwives of modern Berlin, the economic epicenter of the infant European Union.

Fragment of a wall between East and West
We saw the ruins of the SS dungeons and other reminders of the grim past, of the dangers that loom when a people in crisis unite and lend their strength and discipline to the cause of fanatics and demagogues.

A gray past... a brighter future?
These people do not flinch from history. They confront it. Daylight reveals everything in Berlin, exposes the consequences of that people's great folly all those years ago. Small wonder that nighttime brings the frantic, insane revelry, while battle scars are obscured. Temporarily put them aside, yes. But do not forget. No, never forget.

Scotty (a drinker, he) and I went to Brandenburg Tor that night, to drink and party. There was a Japanese glam rock group playing Beatles' cover tunes. Party on, you crazy Prussians. Du verrückte Deutsch.

Tomorrow, we leave for Prague!

To be continued...

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