And so to northern Europe, where we are blissfully out of the heat wave. In fact it’s raining in Amsterdam (though not as hard as in Bangladesh or Texas); we’re closer to London than we’ve been since Ireland. That was the last time we faced heavy rain. T. probably feels right at home.
Our last stops on this continent are not new to me, unlike almost everywhere we’ve been since leaving Wales. I loved Berlin when I backpacked around Germany nine years ago. It’s been sixteen years since I was in Amsterdam, on my way back from my first visit to Tanzania. It’ll be interesting to travel the other way this time.
This is T’s first visit to either city, so she’s taken the wheel, so to speak. (She’s missed steering since we gave the car away.) One thing that wasn’t there in its present form the last time I was in Berlin is the East Side Gallery. This is the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, and many artists from different countries were invited to express themselves on it.
|This theme has proven popular.|
Berlin is young for a European capital, about 800 years old. It’s not the most beautiful city, and most of its buildings aren’t original, what with the whole place being bombed to smithereens in the Second World War. In fact, Berlin and Germany have the distinction of being part of not one, but both horrific totalitarian systems of the twentieth century: Nazism and Soviet communism. Yet as you walk around seeing constant reminders of this history, you also feel the friendly vibe of Berlin today.
I get the impression that Germany is handling its history well. For example, there isn’t one Holocaust memorial. There are memorials to each of the groups the Nazis were hell bent on destroying:
|Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe|
There’s a memorial to the 500,000 Roma people who were killed by the Nazis. In the middle of a pond is a purple flower. Purple was the color used to identify “Gypsies” in the camps. There was a color for everybody and today’s Berlin has a memorial for everybody: another for the homosexuals, another for people with disabilities and the victims of medical abuse.
And they’re right in the center of Berlin, and free to visit. The German government puts a lot of money into making sure you can walk just down the street to these memorials from the Brandenburg Gate. You don’t have to go out of town to the nearest concentration camp, or even pay an admission fee.
One thing I noticed is that almost all our time was spent in the former East Berlin. Even the wall (actually walls, inner and outer, plus no-man’s-land) were in the Soviet sector, as that’s where they were built to keep people in. Of course the communist government of East Germany didn’t say that. According to them, the wall was an anti-fascist protection barrier.
Still, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and when Germany was reunited in the 1990s, there existed nostalgia for certain things that had been done in the East. One of these was Ampelmann, the busy little socialist worker crossing the street, that can be found on East Berlin traffic lights. The distinctive shape of the “go” and “stop” signs meant that even colorblind people could clearly distinguish them. Berliners love Ampelmann so much that all pedestrian lights being replaced now have to feature his image. Still, capitalism has the last laugh: Ampelmann souvenirs and tacky products are now sold in five shops across town!
|Technically, a Berliner is a jelly doughnut. Here's one divided between east and west.|
The most familiar site at what was once the Berlin Wall is Checkpoint Charlie, where foreigners were allowed to cross to and from the U.S. sector. Sadly, no part of the crossing is original, and it is now surrounded by McDonald’s and KFC (the ultimate triumph of capitalism again). One thing I can recommend is the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. I’ve never actually paid to go in, but you can get to the bathroom downstairs without doing so, and it’s free. Believe me, this is not to be taken for granted in Berlin.
|T., currywurst, and a cool anti-racism T-shirt thrown in (background)|
Good food is, though. The Friedrichshain neighborhood where we were staying (coincidentally, only a couple of blocks from where I stayed in 2008) is filled with Mexican, Indian, Vietnamese, and many other kinds of restaurants, although the ubiquitous currywurst is there too.
We saw a lot of vegan cafes and it turns out Berlin is #1 in the world for those, as well as for Turkish people outside Turkey. In fact, it has turned out to be one of the most multicultural cities in the world. In a neat twist, today’s Berlin is one of the world’s gay and lesbian capitals, too.
I learned some of these things from a great walking tour guide, but she also made me uncomfortable. Just the other day I wrote about how people’s fathers or grandfathers fought on one or the other side of World War II—well, as it happens this Australian woman is “half German,” and her grandfather was fourteen years old in Germany when war broke out. Guess what he ended up doing? After he was captured in France, and turned over to the Americans, he eventually made his way to Australia in 1954. She said he never talks about anything that happened before 1954, as if his life began with emigration to Australia.
No sooner had I learned this uncomfortable fact than she started telling us about all the companies that made compromises or even actively cooperated with the Nazis during World War II. For example, she told us Fanta drinks were Coca-Cola’s way of still making a profit in Nazi Germany, without actually associating their well known brand names with the country. That’s why Fanta was invented. And here we’ve been drinking Fanta all summer across Europe! Now I’m going to have to junk my Mercedes Benz, too.
We saw a lot about the Cold War on our tour, but there was no escaping memories of the Nazi period, either. One place that has no memorial (deliberately) is a parking lot behind some East Berlin apartment buildings, under which was once the “bunker” in which Mr. and Mrs. Hitler ended their lives. The family of Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, died here too. If you doubt that propaganda was effective, consider the words of Magda Goebbels in her own suicide note:
“Our glorious idea is ruined and with it everything beautiful and marvelous that I have known in my life. The world that comes after the Führer and national socialism is not any longer worth living in and therefore I took the children with me.”
Imagine being so brainwashed that you’d take your own children’s lives rather than have them grow up in a world without National Socialism.
It’s hard to get away from this period of history. Few examples of architecture, however, remain from the Nazi period. One of the only exceptions is a massive building that housed the aviation authority (visitors to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics might have wondered why Germany, banned from having an air force, needed such a building). The East German government painted it with communist murals, so it now stands for not one, but two bad periods in Germany’s past.
What to do with a building that represents things everyone hates? They made it the headquarters of the tax service. Nice to see a sense of humor at work here.
I've run out of time to write about Amsterdam, so that will have to wait for the next breathtaking installment. I will leave you, and Germany, with this final laugh at communism’s expense. East Berlin built the TV Tower so that those in the West would be awed by the sight of technology rising in the East. A flaw of the design, from the East’s perspective, is that at certain points in a sunny day, the sun’s light reflecting off the TV Tower creates a bright vertical cross. East Germany, like other Soviet satellite states, was officially atheistic, so the actual reaction in the West was laughter that they had inadvertently erected a Christian cross.