Friday, September 30, 2011

Deutschland in the Details

Three weeks ago, I was eating pastries on a daily basis and not due to stress eating, but for "cultural enrichment." Three weeks ago, I was embarrassing myself by trying to speak a language I barely knew, now I embarrass myself by speaking about poetry I barely understand in class. Three weeks ago, I got to have coffee with two of my closest friends and now we have to settle for virtual coffee over Facebook chat. Three weeks ago, I was in Berlin and I miss it.
I will always look back fondly at my time in Berlin. I've never had so much fun and felt so welcomed on any other "big European city vacation" that I've been on. You know, the one where the proportion of the maps exploding all over your hotel room is inverse to the rubber on the soles of your shoes as you traipse all over town. Normally, those vacations are a war of head over heels. My head tells me I need to appreciate every somber memorial and art museum even if it means I have to walk six miles to do so, but my heels tell me to sit down for a few minutes and enjoy another art form, a slice of torte. Inevitably, a strange compromise happens by the end of the trip: I can barely walk because I've climbed up the steps of every church I was supposed to see, but my waistline remains intact because of this, even if I probably ate more macaroons than Marie Antoinette. By the end, I'm utterly exhausted. However, when you visit two natives, they can tell you to skip the East Berlin museum, but see the East Side Gallery instead and they'll make sure you get your calories with the best strudel offered.

However, it wasn't just having person tourguides in the form of my best friends that made Berlin so inclusive, but the city itself. Unlike a lot of the other major European cities I've visited where culture seems to have stopped in the 19th century or the 1920s and they are still capitalizing on the cafes where Hemingway threw back some wine and punches, Berlin is constantly generating culture. This is partially in efforts to reinvent a city whose legacy was mostly sordid in the past century and unite a community that was once forced to be divided. Regardless of the symbolism behind Berlin's barraging cultural scene, it's a lot of fun to be part of something as its happening.

These happenings can be highbrow as polemical art or as lowbrow as karaoke on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Mauer Park, but everyone can witness it and in most cases get involved. When you find yourself in one of these seemingly spontaneous creations of culture as a tourist, it's like finding the Holy Grail of traveling. You have stumbled upon something not to be found in the pages of guidebooks or recommended by the concierge, but something unique. Something that may only be occurring at this one point in time, a part of history even if it's just a street parade. You are not discovering a statue that was dug up centuries ago and sneezed on by a tourist from Phoenix just yesterday that you could've better seen on a postcard, you're discovering something that not even everyone in that city will know about. In can be summed up in this one little phrase, "only in Berlin." It's that rare moment where you feel like a local and sometimes cannot even be achieved when you're actually a local.

In Berlin, I experienced this magical moment multiple times. At the aforementioned karaoke in the park, which is such an "only in Berlin" event that tourists now flock to it. French tourists singing American pop songs may not seem like the most German experience, but at the end of the day, who cares who's singing, where else would they be singing other than Berlin?

[The karaoke viewing crowd on a "lazy" Sunday.]
[The karaoke is so popular that even this baby found a way to show off his moves.]

Another incident was sort of a meta historical moment. A once-in-a-lifetime street parade that was at the same time celebrating the 125th anniversary of the famous Ku'Daam Stra├če (or street.) We had only heard about it a few hours before, but it was was better than the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with its mythical animal balloons. Even better yet, was the Japansese tourist who just walked right into the parade and no idea what was going on, boy, was he in for a magical moment.

Both Anneke and Caroline admit that Berlin can a bit isolating if you let it be. The universities are not centered on communal drinking (sorry, I mean societies) and are so literally far away from the city center that making friends is almost happenstance. Yet if you're willing to go and explore, you can find or make your own community.

I certainly want to make the effort to go back to Berlin as soon as possible. After convincing my parents that a plane ticket would be the best Christmas gift, I might find myself back in Germany a few months from now. Ideally, around Christmas given that Germans invented the holiday's better traditions.

In the meantime, I must thank Anneke for being one of the most accommodating hostesses ever. She forsook her own bed and her thesis to make sure I was comfortable and had a good time. I wouldn't have enjoyed exploring Berlin half as much if I didn't get her helpful historical tidbits about every street corner. And I never would've been such a glutton if she hadn't helped me check various German vocab words so I could order food for myself. Caroline was equally a cultural and culinary enabler. Twelves hours of marathon eating wasn't nearly enough time to spend together. Both of you are welcome to my spare mattress back in Edinburgh.
Well, that's the end of this current batch of Berlin posts. I hope there are more in the future. Look forward to posts about the city I'm actually inhabiting right now soon enough!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

In Memoriam

Berlin is a city that will never forget what's happened there. Some of Berlin has attempted to generate new symbols of freedom and community over landmarks that were once symbols of oppression and hate, as you saw in my last post. However, for as many symbols that needed to be redefined and reclaimed, there were many that needed to be brought to fruition. WWII nearly eradicated the physical city, but Berlin would not let it eradicate the memories associated with it. These things needed to be remembered, even if they had to be rebuilt to do so.

The Reichstag was one of the first symbols of Germany to be destroyed by the Nazis. The "mysterious" fire in 1933 gave Hitler a convenient excuse to disband the 1919 Weimar Constitution. The building was never used during the Third Reich, but still considered to be a major symbol and was further destroyed during the Red Army's air raids in 1945. Due to the confusion of the Cold War city limits, the head of West Germany was actually moved to Bonn and therefore the Reichstag was just another bombed out building. It was not until the Reunification that the Reichstag's significance was realized once again. After essentially gutting the entire building but its facade, the Reichstag is now home to the Bundestad or the German parliament. It has gone full circle as a symbol, evoking history with its exterior, but very much a part of contemporary Germany with its interior.

However, the Reichstag is not just a place for government, it also gives the public one of the best views of the city from its dome. Reminiscent of a beehive, it really is at the center of the city.

While the Reichstag is both a resurrection and reinvention of Germany and a very concrete symbol, not everything is so straight forward. There is no easy or obvious way to define the Holocaust and although I can never comprehend how Germans attempt to reconcile with it, the Holocaust Memorial is a very intriguing interpretation. It has weaved its way into the fabric of the city, particularly its subconscious. You will find no direct invocation of the Holocaust, the whole memorial is very abstract.
It starts out as a rather ominous maze, visually arresting, equal parts foreboding and inviting.

However, once you enter you quickly feel claustrophobic. The pillars keep rising and containing you in the darkness. If it is sunny out, the shadows loom and cannot help but cover you, I can only imagine how overbearing it would be if it were as gray as the columns are outside. You are aware others are around you, but cannot quite see them. The stone surrounds you, leaving you with just your thoughts. It becomes a stifling and tense environment. If you really lose your senses and fail to pay attention to where you walk, you can stumble as the ground is gradient. These are just the immediate physical and mental responses to wandering your way through the memorial, it doesn't even begin to explain the emotional and psychological toll. However, I'm sure you will be able to read into that. It's something that must be experienced for yourself. Anneke and Caroline both had very different, but haunting interpretations of how the Holocaust Memorial makes you feel. One thing is for certain, it's very powerful.

Other memorials are equally as impacting just by showing what is not there anymore. The Bebelplatz (in the Mitte district, the heart of Berlin) is home to the Nazi Book Burning Memorial. At first glance, you could walk right over it. It is only when you stand right on top of it that you can really appreciate the depth of it. The window looks into a room of blank bookshelves, painted a pristine white, but are utterly claustrophobic and clinical. It has the effect of a morgue. Once again, I will let you read into the symbolism of this. Yet at the same time, it has the look of a museum display case, which makes me hopeful that something as horrible as book burning has been left in the past.

Having once lived in DC, a city of memorials, I can say that Berlin's are especially affecting. Their abstract, yet potently symbolic nature, immediately includes the visitor. The visitor is not just looking at the something they could've better seen on a postcard, no rather, the visitor is experiencing something. Even better, each visitor will have their own experience and leave with an individualized understanding of what they saw. Berlin's memorials are about attempting to comprehend and reconcile what the city has taken part of or at least witnessed and that should be the purpose of all memorials.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Berlin ist Arm, aber Sexy."

Berlin's walls have more stories to tell than most. They were pelted with bullets, if not completely destroyed, during WWII. They kept two worlds from crossing both literally and metaphorically. Although most of the city's sordid history is now in the past, the scars of violence pockmark it. Germany is nation that will never forget what's happened on its soil, but in order to successfully forge a new identity, one cannot destroy the past or merely cover it up, but one can transform it.

[Berlin's famous Synagogue, rattled with bullet holes in certain spots.]
Berlin has used art to assuage its troubled history. The city is coated in murals in effort to assert its new identity or to finally give one to those who were not allowed to have an identity before. They're unavoidable as they collage metro stations and buildings. The effect is that every pedestrian, from a native to a tourist, understands that Berlin is a city that must be allowed to express itself. Naturally, this has engendered pure art as well. Not every piece of graffiti makes a political statement, some are just aesthetic attempts to make Berlin beautiful again.

[Look! It's Gatsby in Berlin!]
The city motto can be found in the title of this post, "Berlin ist Arm, aber Sexy." This translates to, "Berlin is poor, but sexy." The motto was coined by Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit. It's one of the poorer major European cities, with a large debt from reunification efforts and a mecca for the starving artist cliche. Yet instead of this economic backdrop leading to riots and protests, Berliners enjoy their biergartens and thriving local arts scene more than ever, thus leading to the serendipitous motto. Consequently, I found Berlin to be one of the cheapest European city vacations I've ever taken, with a lot the amazing opportunities I was able to take part of being completely free. Berlin has created an arts community that everyone can benefit from regardless of whether they have money or not. The murals are only a side-effect of this.
[Wowereit's campaign ads for the upcoming Berlin elections. He is a member of the Social Democratic Party and one of the few openly gay German politicians, famous for coming out before the 2001 mayoral election by saying, "Ich bin schwul, und das ist auch gut so." ("I'm gay, and that is good the way it is.")]

[A famous arts collective that has been fighting eviction from this building for a few decades now.]

[Apparently the "sky" over Berlin includes these angel-donkey-dog things. If anyone has a clue of what these are, let me know.]

Perhaps the best token of Berlin's free-for-all expression is the East Side Gallery. It is at its most basic a communal mural and at best a memorial to freedom. Using the former Berlin Wall as a canvas, the East Side Gallery consists of 105 paintings by international artists. Commissioned in 1990, it's a symbolic gesture to give East Berliners a chance to express their creativity. For West Berlin, the Wall was always a place of artwork and protest, but East Berliners couldn't cover up the oppressive gray until now. What resulted is no longer a depressing piece of history, but the largest and longest lasting open-air gallery and a must-see for an art aficionado or politico buff.

[Louis XVI]

["Man love," as two American hipsters called it.]

Berlin has plenty of art hanging on museum walls too (and I highly recommend the modern art museum for a fantastic pop art exhibition featuring all of Andy Warhol's Marilyn's, stunning and numbing to see all at once), but you'd be missing the real creativity if you spent all your time in a temperature-controlled room. Berlin's art is living and breathing, exposed to the elements and everyone. At first the plethora of graffiti is shocking, but it has helped save the city from its history and even its economy. Who ever says art has no purpose, should go to Berlin.