Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Berlin. Best. Guide. Ever.

We often hire a guide for a walking tour when we visit an unfamiliar city- this guy was head and shoulders the best ever.  Gabriel Fawcett  Zippy.  Brilliant.  Irreverent. Slightly cynical.  An incredible sense of humor (Brit, of course), an incredible depth of knowledge.  We had spent two days in Berlin and we had not seen it. 

Across from our hotel are a pair of protestant churches, modeled on the pair in the Piazza Del Popolo in Rome.  One French, one German.  We had noticed them in passing...Gabriel explains how the Protestants who were kicked out of Catholic countries and moved to Germany could read, could think.  Services were in their native language, so was the Bible.  They were literate.  They read the Bible and took personal responsibility for their lives.  My fault, not God's.  No confession, get it right yourself.  Capitalism begins.  But the French and the Germans still didn't get along, so they built matching churches.  Separate but equal.

And, he says, the countries that kicked out their entrepreneurs, their literate and their thinkers are still paying the price.  More on that later.

When the war ended in 1945, one third of the industry around Berlin had been bombed to bits.  The Soviets took another third (including ripping up the still intact railroad tracks) and shipped it back to Russia.  East Germany has yet to recover.  The traffic today is like the 1950s because there is no functioning economy.  

And they have a massive Soviet hangover.  “The East German Proletariat were trained to work in big factories.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union the factories are gone.  The former workers can’t even smile.  So you can’t put them in retail.  They’re unemployable.”  Yeah, we've met a few on the street.  And noticed that most of the people working in hotels and restaurants here are from Turkey, New Zealand, the Philppines...

West Germany had the Marshall Plan, and it was rebuilt in 15 years.  East Germany had the Russian Plan - rip it up and send it to Moscow - and in 1989 when the wall came down, they were still cleaning up.  From the bombs and the war that ended in 1945.  Rebuilding is still going on:
now on a massive scale.

Gabriel shows us how the East Germans cleared away the damaged bits of a house and just built in a modern style right on top of the ruins.  Strange hybrid of historicist and modern architecture.  And now that we know what to look for, we can see that everywhere.  History in the walls and balconies.

We see badly repaired bullet holes - “Couldn’t they get matching plaster, for God's sake?” No, it was probably all shipped to Russia.  As we walk we notice lots more badly patched bullet holes.  They were there, we just didn't see them before.  The story is in the architecture, if you know what to look for.  

A few blocks further on we come across a prime example of Nazi architecture.  Massive, strong, with classical allusions.  And false perspective - the windows on the upper stories are smaller, it makes the buildings look bigger.  Built to impress, to intimidate.
“This used to be the Ministry of Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment.   Run by Joseph Goebbels.  It’s still a government building.  Now that you know their building style, you’ll see these former Nazi buildings everywhere.”  And we do.

Next door used to be this:
The New Reichstag.  Complete with that famous balcony.  

After the war most of this area was bombed out or torn down - the Russians had been fighting the Germans too, and there was no love lost.  And nobody wanted this to become a pilgrimage site.  So this is what’s now where Hitler’s balcony used to be:
I wonder if I will ever look at Peking Duck the same way again.  

The open plaza where the crowds used to roar has been filled in with what Gabriel calls“Soviet 'luxury' pre-fab apartments that make you want to kill yourself.”

Jane asks about the pink pipes.  I assumed they were a bad Soviet art installation.  Not.   The water table here is so high you have to pump out the building sites to put in foundations.  You can’t pour concrete into a wet hole. These pipes carry the water away.  To the river, where it makes its way back to the building sites to be pumped away again...sounds vaguely like a Soviet make-work program.  Aided and abetted by nature.
We ask about the current state of the EU, the financial problems of some member countries, and we get an informed earful.  “Anyone who saves like me is having his money stolen to pay for the mistakes of the feckless Catholic countries.”   Okay.  Let's go shopping!!

Context:  “Until 1918 the military land-owning aristocracy ran the country.  In 1918, when he was kicked out of power, Kaiser Wilhelm II filled 57 train carriages with stuff and moved to Holland, one of the only countries he had not invaded recently.  He died in 1940, surrounded by furniture.”  You can take it with you - at least as far as Holland.

We walk to a park, with a well-worn slide and swing, surrounded by more of those charming Soviet apartments, thin paths scuffed into the grass.  This is where Hitler’s bunker used to be.  

"In May of 1945, with 1.5 million very pissed off Russians just 60 miles away, Hitler marries his mistress.  "Do you, delusional psychotic, take this murdering psychopath to be your wedded husband, until death do you part...which should be any minute now?"

Saying he does not want to end up in a Russian museum, he kills her, takes cyanide and shoots himself in the head.  Taking no chances with that Soviet museum.

“Not easy to do, take cyanide and shoot yourself.  Cyanide is very fast acting.  But he was a genius...”  I think he’s joking.  

Bits of the Berlin Wall are for sale everywhere, even in our fancy hotel room.  Gabriel says “If you put all the bits of the Berlin wall that have been sold together, you’d have the Great Wall of China.”  

The Peter Eisenman designed Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe   At first it looks like granite blocks made to look like coffins:
But as you walk into the memorial the ground dips and rolls under your feet, and drops away:
And before you know what's happening you are swallowed up.  Along with the 500 other people who just arrived by tour bus.
An open maze, it is easy to lose someone.  You hear people calling to each other, people appear and disappear among the columns, some startlingly close, some far distant.  

Walking on, the ground rises, and once again you are surrounded by coffin-like granite.  But you can see the world again.  Just differently now.
It is lonely, disorienting, haunting.  It works.  It is open 24-7.  

We walk through the Tiergarten, the former royal hunting preserve, now a huge park with a beautiful meadow spangled with wildflowers: pinks and lungwort, wild sweet peas and daisies.  

We walk thru linked courtyards and past beautifully tiled Art Nouveau buildings that used to hold factories and workers' housing.  Late 19th century.  Knew you'd ask.
It's now the young hip part of town.  We feel ancient.  

Set into the streets and sidewalks in seemingly random spots are square brass plaques.  Singly and in clusters.  Name, date of birth, maiden name, date of death, name of the camps where they were murdered.  These are mother and baby.  The plaques mark the spot where that person was taken.  We see some people walking over without a thought, some people bending down to read the inscriptions.   Never forget.  Never again.
Awash in history we need a break.  Lunch at a Turkish restaurant - huge puffy bread.  Hummus, spicy tomato things.  And beer - this is Germany.
Just as we begin lunch, we have to change tables.  Our table is over the elevator and the beer and water delivery just arrived.  
Glad we moved.  Don't scoot your chair back!

We took the train to Sachenhausen in the afternoon - gray and drizzly and cruel.  But there have been light moments today too, and I don't want you to think Berlin is all depressing - it's not.  It's buzzing with young energy, fresh and trim, looking forward more than back.  If you haven't been, go.  If you haven't been for a while, go again for it has changed.  And go with Gabriel.  

More Berlin later.  Off for a beer.

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