February 23, 2016

Berlin in Motion

Berlin is a lot to handle. Definitely too much for a weekend. But when the weekend is understood to be a simple introduction, Berlin flashes a quick smile with a hasty, "Wie geht's?"

Berlin beckons you to follow it around, showing every bright side and dark corner of itself without blushing.


We did nearly all the main World War II and Cold War sights in one full afternoon sweep. We started at Checkpoint Charlie, took the U-Bahn up to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, walked to the Brandenburg Gate, and finished at the Reichstag.


Checkpoint Charlie is a strange sight. It's very difficult to imagine this open intersection being a border checkpoint where people were regularly forbidden to cross. Now it's a tourist-filled crosswalk with a McDonald's. The sign in four languages serves as the reminder of the balancing act that the Allies tried to achieve. Not much to see, maybe, but the McDonald's does have that ever-elusive free internet connection.


I can't bring myself to visit concentration camps as a tourist. I know the whole concept is an important part of history and humanity, but I don't personally feel like I must see for myself what it was like. I also tend to avoid torture museums and horror movies. It's all down the same alley for me.


But I did want to pay my respects at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Every memorial and museum associated with the Holocaust that I've been to has had a totally different message. The Holocaust Museum in D.C. was cold and sad. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam was hopeful. The Corrie ten Boom house in Haarlem was forgiving.

This memorial was haunting.

Photo credit: Diana Lundvall.
The huge blocks stood their ground like giant coffins. The rolling grid maze was intentionally disorienting. Anyone approaching the square has to ask themselves, "How did we let this happen to other people?"


Some people are jumping around the blocks and others are playing tag games. The memorial renders most of us quiet, but I think it makes everyone uncomfortable - and we all deal with that differently.

Photo credit: Diana Lundvall.
We moved away from the gray concrete and down the avenue.


At the Brandenburg Gate, I kept replaying Ronald Reagan's voice in my mind: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" It felt like hallowed ground, to be in the same place where the challenge to merge the two Berlins was proclaimed. But that sacred feeling was interrupted by the hundreds of tourists trying to fit the Gate into their selfies.


Catching how many times we crossed back and forth between the former East and West sides of Berlin as evidenced by the crosswalk signals (East Berlin's walking/stopped man "wears" a helmet) was crazy. What to us felt like a totally normal way to walk around a town used to be totally impossible.

Photo credit: Diana Lundvall.
Berlin is an intense experience. We finished our big day at the Reichstag building. Fatigue had caught up with us, and we sat on the huge field, thinking about why Hitler had chosen to set fire to the Reichstag as the catalyst in order to take over Germany. The massive steel and glass Berlin Hauptbahnhof to the left reminded us that Berlin would not be denied the right of progress.


There were construction sites all over the city. Museum Island would be better named Eventually Will Be Museum Island. Scaffolding leaned against at least one building on every street. We were constantly stepping over or around exposed pipes, cables, and projects.


The overwhelming feeling is that Berlin is not yet finished. There is more to build, more to fix, and more to change.


Go to Berlin for the history. For the museums. For the amazing brunch scene. For the crazy nightlife. For the international experience. Go to Berlin to move forward with the survival of a grand city.


I will return to Berlin again, hopefully someday soon. I want to see the glory of the final product, and enjoy all the phases in between.

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