Last week I went to Berlin to visit a couple of old friends, Marty and Kate. Many years ago I married them – no, really. Massachusetts has a lovely law which enables a private citizen to become a ‘Special Designee to Solemnize a Marriage’. You apply to the Secretary of State, and after a fair amount of paperwork ( remember, this is Massachusetts ), you get to be Vicar For a Day. It was one of my best days, I don’t mind telling you. This winter they are on sabbatical from Harvard and Wellesley, writing projects in Berlin, and invited me up for a few days.
Berlin: a city not afraid of its history. The Devil came out to dance in Berlin in 1933 – that particular waltz lasted till 1945. Then Stalin tapped Hitler on the shoulder, and the next dance took the Eastern section of Berlin through another 35 years of violence, fear, and sordid oppression.
You would think the city would still show signs of weariness, but never have you seen a city with so many cranes, so many jack hammers, and so much energy. The remnants of those years are preserved as memorials throughout the city, sometimes accompanied by tours, but often with so little fanfare or signage, you have to stop and ask yourself what this or that particular memorial is intended to honor.
Throughout the city there are small circular metal plaques built into the sidewalk – each bears the name of a citizen pulled out of the house or apartment building in front of the plaque and sent to a concentration camp. The plaque references the name of the person, the date of their deportation, and the name of the camp into which they disappeared. There are a lot of these plaques.
At the Tempelhof Airport, the scene of the Berlin Airlift, there is an abandoned WWII bomber, cordoned off behind a metal fence – no sign, no memorial. It’s just a weary veteran of another kind of war – a war of supplies. When the Allies ( French, British, and American ) issued the Deutschmark currency throughout their sectors a few year after the war ended, the Russians stopped letting supply convoys through their barricades in East Germany – Berlin was basically inside enemy lines, and the Russians thought they could starve the allies into submission without an armed conflict. The US responded by flying in supplies for the entire city of West Berlin, in numbers unimaginable before that day. We simply were not going to abandon out troops and citizens. The upshot was that Russia relented, and opened their borders. A few years ago the airport was closed – turns out that each sector had its own airport, and this one was eventually unnecessary. Today it is a vast park; bikers and blade skaters jet down the runways, with scarcely a glance at that old airplane melting into the sod. Its job is finished.
Checkpoint Charley, the contentious border crossing between the East ( Communist )and West ( Free )Berlin sectors, is still there. It has a sort of museum, and a long wall bearing a pictorial essay explaining how the wall between East and West Berlin came to be, and detailing the incredible story of people determined to attain freedom by tunneling, climbing walls, dashing through gunfire, and just plain getting the Hell Out. My personal favorite story involves a guy who measured the height of the barricade, got hold of an old British sports car, a Tr-3, and then drove UNDER the barricade at warp speed without benefit of a windshield. Fortunately, his ran Tr-3 better than mine did, at least for 200 yards.
On the second day Marty and I went walkabout, past the Reichstag, then down Unter den Linden, a beautiful boulevard where Hitler chopped down all the linden trees to make room for his Swastika banners. They are trying to grow them back today. Turns out Berlin is HUGE. Eventually, we took the U2, one of many subway systems immortalized by the pop group, and that got us within striking distance of an Underground Bunker Tour. We were, of course, hoping we could find the bunker where Adolf drew the short straw, but as it turns out, they bulldozed that one into a parking lot in the 60’s. Smart move. I will admit part of me wanted to see some seedy basement tomb with a ratty sofa and dim lighting, and imagine the spot where Eva Braun sat trying to figure out why she ever picked THIS dingleberry. But imagine the perils of a tour destination for every winghead who might come to worship The Fuhrer, and where everybody still just a little bit angry about the holocaust might want to express their displeasure. So what we have today on that spot is a parking lot.
The Underground Tour is, instead, a tour of a civilian air raid shelter – basically a honeycomb of small cement rooms filled with momentos of the occasion. What is does serve to do is to remind you that hanging around, sardine fashion, with thousands of civilians hunkered down for hours at a time with no water, toilets, breathable air, or plan for any immediate future, is simply no way to live. The tour guides are openly contemptuous of both the Nazis and the Russians. Turns out Hitler didn’t like Berlin – it served his purpose, but he was basically a Southern Germany kind of guy – to him, Berlin was all Northern Liberal, full of the Undesirables ( I leave you to draw your own parallel ). He actually had bunkers built in other parts of Germany for himself, but got caught leaning, as we say in baseball, and had to ask members of the General Staff for the loan of a room at the last minute. Man, some thing just don’t work out.
If you think the diet in Berlin is what made Sergeant Schultz smile a lot, you’re right. The switch from Spanish food to German food is like going from a yoga class to Helga’s House of Pain. These people get serious about their cholesterol intake. My personal favorite is sausage with curry. Yup, you heard right: Sawdust and chicken lips squeezed into a tube of spandex smothered with a liberal dose of Ghandi Sauce. In one long weekend I managed to undo about a month of careful dieting. Personally, I think they’re still a ticked off about the whole WWII thing – they get you over there, stuff with you with the most delicious poison this side of Fenway Franks, and then hide whatever antidote they’re taking on the side. Unfair. And fun.
So, back to Valencia, just in time for Fallas, the Mardi Gras of Spain. If I live through it, I’ll tell you about it next time.