On our first night in Berlin, M and I spied a translation of Philip K. Dick in the window of a bookshop: Marsianischer Zeitsturz. We were consumed with laughter. Zeitsturz, time slip/fall/stumble…that’s exactly what it felt like to be here twenty years to the day after the wall had come down. We were time travelers dropped from space, come from the future to witness the past.
East Berlin’s wide avenues and Stalinist urban planning mark out much of the city. What I thought would be grim, mid-twentieth century modernity turned out to be soothingly elegant. The clean, brightly tiled U-bahn stations and the grand “wedding cake” style apartment buildings on Karl Marx Allee provide a stately backdrop to everyday life, making the smallest things seem like part of a grander narrative. In this respect, if it is at all possible to separate the dire human rights in the GDR, the planning wins at dignifying the mundane. Ostalgie, or nostalgia for the aesthetics of the GDR-era East, makes a weird kind of sense.
But all that is changing. The city is busy reinventing itself yet again. Most of the “death strip” of the wall has been built over and turned into parks. A public installation about the wall claims that even locals can’t make out the scale of the original border.
A Starbucks sits at the foot of the old symbol of East Berlin, the Fernsehturm, like a flag on the moon. The deafening sound of industry– jackhammers and drills– follows you everywhere, even through the Topography of Terror exhibition. This “open wound at the heart of the city” is an outdoor exhibition exhaustively documenting the orgy of sadism that was the Third Reich. It was unseasonably cold as I made my way from panel to panel mounted on the chain-link fence. Numbed physically and emotionally, I reached the end where a group of teenage girls huddled together singing brazenly at tasteless volume, Whitney Houston’s hit from 1987, “I Want to Dance with Somebody.” Their hair peroxided beyond Aryan-ness, their eyes darkened with too much kohl, they dressed in the over-sized layers of the mid 80s, a style from before they were born, before the wall had fallen. Zeitsturz indeed.
My friend Carolyn said that when she went to the Holocaust Memorial, German teenagers were displaying similarly disrespectful behavior, playing hide-and-seek amongst the gargantuan plinths. We went at twilight, when only the dimmest of lights illuminated the maze of sarcophagi which grow as you enter, the cobblestones at your feet slanting and dipping. Before we got too deep M said to me, “If we lose each other, where should we meet?” which seemed poignant, imbuing the monument with a metaphoric, empathetic narrative. Walking the structure you glimpse others passing by, and then they vanish in the claustrophobic space.
It is difficult not to dwell on the wounds of the city, though to do so risks a ghoulish curiosity. Or is it bearing witness? Because I couldn’t answer this question I did not go to any of the prison or concentration camp sites, though I considered it, I was more interested in signs of life. They are everywhere. Alexanderplatz features glass cases of mimeograph machines, children’s stamp sets and silkscreens used to make illegal zines before the Mauerfall. I remember these machines from my childhood, their pungent smell and rhythmic sound. Here they were used for something much more risky and important than my multiplication tables. Though through my cold war childhood I learned to be terrified of my own government, its senile leader. Fresh ink on worksheets for Social Studies, defining Mutually Assured Distruction. This was not some remote history. Looking at the photo murals in the square of people climbing the wall in 1989, people who looked just like my friends and me at the time– young, determined and maybe a little crazy; I was reduced to tears.
Another Country, a bookstore specializing in English language used books, operates as a kind of lending library and gathering place for the vibrant ex-pat community in Berlin. Every month they have dinner and a movie there for a fiver, and the place is packed with English speakers catching up with each other. There I met this warm man with the round, lazy vowels of a SoCal native. He was, of course, from El Monte. He explained the why if not the how of being there, “Berlin chooses you, not the other way around.”
SoCal followed us around Berlin, in fact. At White Trash Fast Food, over our amazing veggie burgers and chili fries (Just like famous Tommy Burger’s but vegetarian), we marveled at the DJ’s selections in this uber-cool rockabilly bar– the first song was White Girl by X, and then the selections grew increasingly obscure, focusing on early SoCal punk rock. The crazy thing is that maybe for the Germans this was pastiche Americana but to the expats in the place, it was the home you could no longer find at home. So to speak.
Another American badgered me at the Tacheles, an artists’ squat in a bombed-out department store. The New Yorker insisted I looked “scared,” and decried my cursory glance at his mediocre paintings, “What’s with you? You come to an art show but don’t look at the art?” Nothing else that I could see was much better, but the space itself was marvelous it its apocalyptic grandeur. In the past the art must have been better. It would have had to have been.
Americans have flocked here it seems. Perhaps because this place offers a glimpse of what our country is supposedly famous for: freedom. Here, it’s been hard won, though to see that you would have to look past the tourists posing with a “border guard” at the reconstructed Checkpoint Charlie, or past the stalls selling Russian kitsch in front of the Brandenburg gate.
Here is a list of more favourite places:
La Mano Verde, Weisbadener Str. 79, posh vegan eatery, a bit expensive but worth it. I had the raw beet ravioli and farmer’s nuggets in jus with German potato salad and divine chocolate mousse. Comfort food extraordinaire, but done lightly. The service was attentive but unfussy.
G for Goulash— this intimate eatery only has two tables and a bar, and it only serves Goulash– but it’s veggie heaven. They will make their delish stew with seitan if you don’t eat meat– absolutely amazing. They also do takeaway, serving the stew in a pretty, re-useable glass jar.
Chagall Cafe on Schonhauser Str– a dark, candle-lit cafe with chipped walls and wooden benches, perfect for a tryst if you’ve got one planned. They specialize in Russian food– while we were there everyone was bent intently over their steaming bowls of borscht. They have many vegetarian options. We went with the vat of garlic cream and bread, drinking many beers here. The service here was warm, welcoming and exceptional.
Hops and Barley microbrewery–Wühlischstr 22/23. This is a small brewery run by two wonderful guys who really care about beer. When I was in they had an amber on that was gorgeous, and their cider was a quite tart but not too dry– dangerously drinkable. Every beer I had there was a winner, and they play Old School (SoCal) punk rock on the stereo.
The Medical History Museum, butting up against what used to be the “death strip” before the Mauerfall, is worth checking out. Gallstones like false dice are displayed in jewel cases. Fetal anomalies, tattooed skin fragments, and surgical instruments on the third floor are humanized by the narrative displays on the fourth which feature stories of individual patients. Objects from the collection are used to illustrate their “cases”, and these artifacts– from a crocheted bonnet, rusted bed or false nose, take the initial displays beyond side-show voyeurism.
The Kathe Kollwitz Museum, an impressive collection of the artists major works, is housed in this rather posh shopping area in the west. Her work was important to me as a teen. After seeing her lithographs in high school, I majored in printmaking in college. Seeing her familiar work again now, images I used to train my eye and hand, was like seeing an old friend who you’ve outgrown. While the emotional urgency of the images of “War against War” seems exhausted to me now, it is essential in understanding Berlin, a place that resisted the Nazis even as they consumed the city, and a place that eventually ushered in this most modern of revolutions, the end of the Cold War. In Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood argues that even as the Nazis march through the streets of Berlin, the city doesn’t belong to them but to the workers, the people who sang out in defiance. Looking at the room of Kollwitz’s self portraits one sees the face of a Berliner– earthy, candidly ironic and freedom-bent.