Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Last Day In Berlin



Twenty years ago, I sat in an Adelaide pub with my best friend Merc. We both lived in Melbourne at the time, but she grew up in Adelaide and wanted to show me her hometown while there was still time, i.e. before I moved back to America for good.

We were knocking back Carlton Colds with an Aussie bloke, who announced midway through our third round, “I have a way of telling Americans apart from the rest of the lot.” He pointed at me and leaned in closer. “It’s the way you bloody buggers smile. You’re all gums. The lot of you. Gums and teeth.”

Since then I’ve been conscious of smiling abroad.

Since then Merc got married to a German man and had two kids. Last summer she and her family moved to Berlin. “You should visit us,” she suggested.

I mentioned it offhandedly to Doug. “You know, if we can ever afford it,” I said. No pressure.

In September Doug presented me with an itinerary. Europe at Christmas. “I cashed in my frequent flyer miles,” he said, winking.

I spent the next three months standing in front of a mirror, practicing a subtler smile.

#

A dark tapestry of clouds unspools over the Berlin sky. Doug, Merc, and I exit the train station five minutes past eight and head toward the Reichstag building, where Kate is waiting for us, her hands tucked in the pockets of her green puff coat, her lavender scarf wrapped tightly against her throat. “Follow me,” she says through a chatter of teeth, and we do. Although Kate started out as a random liberal American—one of many—that I friended on Facebook on the night of the 2016 election, she had, over the past two years, become a dear friend, and over the last two days, become an invaluable guide in a city that she has adopted as her own—first as an exchange student and later, like Merc, through marriage.

After passing through security, we make our way up the steps and through the columns of the Reichstag’s Neo-Baroque entrance—the only vestige leftover from the original structure—and walk up the spiral platform inside the dome. From here the city is a 360 panoramic of monuments that survived the second world war and buildings that were born from its ashes. A man’s voice speaks English through a headset in my ear, pointing out the more notable landmarks—the Abgeordnetenhaus, the Rotes Rathous, the German Chancellery, the embassies of other nations. Droplets of rain begin trickling in through the dome, but I hardly notice. The gentle, cold drizzle of Europe is different from the thunderstorms back home. In Texas, the heavens roared, and lightning scourged the sky like the hammer of God swinging down, bruising the earth. But the rain in Berlin enters and exits without such theatrics, and I’ve come to accept it as a frequent, almost pleasant, backdrop to our vacation.

Beneath the dome, a large roundtable of images and text recall the Reichstag’s history. Merc and I walk around the circle together. She takes a step, I take a step. The Weimer Republic, the 1933 fire, the Berlin blockade and the unification—she reads, I read. We share our reactions without speaking a word. That’s the beauty of our twenty-year friendship—the ability to communicate in complete silence.

Outside, the rain has let up and Kate leads us through the Tiergarten, down its rock paths dotted with German heroes immortalized in marble statues. We cross a busy intersection and exit onto a sloping hill where at least two thousand slabs of concrete lie arranged along a grid of cement tiles. The sight immediately unnerves me, although I don’t know why. “This is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” Kate explains. I lift my phone to take a picture. Kate continues, “Many people misuse the memorial—you see kids playing hide and seek, adults sitting on the slabs and eating lunch or talking on their phones. Someone created a Tumblr account and posted pictures of people treating the memorial so casually, but in the photos, the slabs were replaced with images of the Jews who were murdered.” Kate pauses, then adds, “The Tumblr account is down now, but when it was up…well, it made quite an impact.”

I understood. I drop my phone back in my pocket.

The four of us walk along the slabs. Kate warns us not to break away. “It’s easy to get lost,” she says, and after a few minutes, I understood why. The concrete slabs—all different in height—have a way of swallowing you whole. Suddenly I’m deep in the center and although I can still see the people passing by outside the memorial, they seem unreachable, as if existing in a parallel world that I can see but never enter. I tell Kate how I feel. She nods. “It impacts everyone differently,” she says. “But your reaction is common, I think.”

We leave the memorial and walk toward the train station. Along the way, Kate stops and points to a line of pinkish stone wedged within the sidewalk. “These stones mark the area where the wall used to be,” she explains. We take a train to Friedrichstraße station, where Eastern Germans said goodbye to visitors going back to West Germany during the Cold War. The station hosts a permanent exhibition of that era; displaying artifacts, documents, and even a recreation of the train station before the wall fell. I buy postcards and two pieces of the Berlin wall for my children, who will never appreciate it.

“Should we go to Checkpoint Charlie?” I ask. It’s only a kilometer away.

“The exhibit that we saw is much better than Checkpoint Charlie,” Merc tells me. “Less shock value. More reality, more of a human feel to it. You don’t really need to see Checkpoint Charlie after seeing this.” I take her word for it.

For lunch, Kate suggests the Clarchens Ballhaus, a famous Berlin ballroom founded in 1913 that has, according to online reviews, managed to stay mostly unchanged—a remarkable feat in a city perpetually changing.

We dine alone. Most patrons dine beside the smart wood trim and outdoor veranda downstairs, but Herr Restaurant Owner, perhaps charmed by our enthusiasm and Kate’s fluent German, has allowed us to eat in the ballroom upstairs.

The ballroom reminds me of Miss Havisham’s mansion in Great Expectations. It is a room frozen in time. Old photos show a space splendid with excess, a prized trophy of lavish showmanship; today, its charm is purely nostalgic; its beauty derides not from what it shows but what it conceals. It’s hard not to look around and imagine: what have the large, cracked mirrors along the wall seen? Whose hands have touched the peeling red paint of the entrance doors? What famous names have waltzed among its unpolished wood floors? What conversations were held under the half-lit chandeliers drooping from the gold-trimmed ceiling—what decisions were made over a plate of roasted duck and a glass of rot wein that would, ultimately, change history?

Even Kate, our Berlin expert, is impressed.

Our waiter brings our menus. Kate had opted for the German menu and looks down to read a short blurb about the restaurant’s history. “Wow,” she says, her eyes growing wide. “Josef Goebbels used to dine here.”

I study my menu. “Where does it say that?”

Kate reviews my menu, then glances at hers again. “Hmm,” she says. “It doesn’t mention it in the English menu.”

“Well, that’s a convenient oversight,” Merc quips.

Merc leaves after lunch; she has to pick her kids up from school. We say our goodbyes outside the ballroom. Doug and I promise that we wouldn’t be late coming back to her house, which is located in the Berlin suburb of Frohnau, far north of where we are now. For dinner, we’re ordering take-out from the same quintessentially German restaurant that we enjoyed on our first night in Berlin (“Potatoes to die for,” Doug says at least once an hour).

Kate has to leave soon too, but she wants us to see one last place—a Christmas Market at Gendarmenmarkt square, in the central Mitte district of Berlin.

On the way to the train station, we stop at an entrance to a building and Kate points to gold plaques plastered in the steps. One reads, “Here lived Hanna Kramer. Born 1896. Deported in 1941. Died 1942.”

Kate explains, “You’ll see these gold plaques at the entrance of any building where someone was deported to a concentration camp and murdered.” She pauses, then adds, “Sometimes it says where they died. But sometimes it doesn’t, because the location is unknown.”

A chill comes over me and I huddle close to Doug to stay warm. I had promised myself to enjoy this holiday—this “snow globe vacation” as Doug calls it—to visit Merc and the Christmas Markets and other fun places, and not get lost in Europe’s history, as I had on past trips.

But there’s really no way around it. History lives here, it breathes here, and to try and ignore it…

Well, just look at America.

We board a train. I watch Kate holding onto the rail, standing among other Berliners, her mouth upturned in a friendly smile that nevertheless is too subtle to ever be identified as American. She seems so accumulated, so content within her space. I want to ask her if she ever sits on these trains and gets lonely for America, the way I did during my five years living abroad in Australia—if there were days when even the rich culture and the socialized healthcare couldn’t silence the siren calls from the other side of the ocean.

But the train stops, and I lose my chance. We’re suddenly off again, down the street, walking against the wind and rain, not stopping until we reach Gendarmenmarkt square. We drink mugs of gluewein and wander among the white tent shops with festive gold stars at their tips. I stop to buy a bracelet for my daughter. The gluewein enters my blood and warms me over, loosening my limbs. A young couple walks by with wide, gummy smiles and I laugh when I hear them speak English with an accent I know too well.

A man on stage begins to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Kate leans in and says, “It’s interesting watching Germans sing this song. Very intense. They put their whole bodies in it. It’s like they become the song.”

A Snow Fairy in stilts enters the crowd and begins tossing out white glitter from her feather pouch. The three of us pull out our phones and take pictures. The rain falls harder and I hear children’s laughter behind me. Doug takes my hand. His palm is warm, and I nuzzle my nose against chest. His coat smells like home, and suddenly I am where I want to be—not in the past or the future, but in the present, the in-between, my feet firmly planted in the best of both worlds.
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