Monday, October 5, 2009

Rain, Wind, and Unity

The wind blew. It raced through the tall, ultra-modern buildings of Potsdamer Platz, causing me to stumble with its gusts. A group of people had placed placards with press clippings about the Persecution of the Roma on the ground and had their feet on them to keep them from blowing away. They had their table flat to the ground and were holding the red cloth they had planned to place over it. Still a couple of people were handing out leaflets complaining how Roma, often called Gypsies, are being deported and saying they belong here too.
The Scientologists were setting up a table with books on Dianetics. They constantly have their standing as a religion challenged in Europe’s courts. Nonetheless they were getting ready for an aggressive day of proselyting. Past them Falun Gong was also preparing their day of protest and preaching.
I walked through them, receiving the pamphlet on the Roma and thinking about how Italy was trying to census all the Roma as perhaps a prelude to questioning their legitimacy in the country and how they were gassed during the Third Reich.
Across the street fragments of the Berlin wall stood on plywood with people gathered around, reading the explanations. The concrete panels were covered with graffiti and painting, while panels explained the history and location of the wall which encircled the Allied zones of Berlin from the east of the Soviet Block. Potsdamer Platz became a kind of no man’s zone with the wall crossing through it, despite its importance in pre-war Berlin.
As I was reading a woman in a colorful, flowing skirt came up and asked “do you speak English?” “Yes,” I replied. She handed me a card on which was written that she was from Bosnia and was struggling in Berlin, could I please help. She was one of maybe three or four women and a gaggle of kids working the monument. She did not look like the Bosnian refugees I have met in Utah, In part because she was dark and had a South Asian look. My mind immediately thought she and her companions were Roma, doing some of the work modern Roma do. But I do not know.
I could not help but think of other walls I know. The wall--fence--enclosing the Palestinians of the West Bank I have seen. Like the wall in Berlin, it separates neighbors now divided by national politics and control. Most intimately, for me, is the wall rising on the Mexican border. I am from that border and cannot imagine the horror of that armed barrier splitting families and friends so people in distant places can feel secure. I read about Glenn Beck saying “we,” whoever “we” are in his usage, need a wall on both the northern and the souther borders to protect the country. I am skeptical of walls. They seem to me the greater wrong, despite how facile they are politically.
I walked by the massive Sony building into its majestic, corporate courtyard where a sign informed people of what they could and could not do. Basically you are welcome int his beautiful private space for the public as long as you follow rules and do not disrupt order. Across from it, rises an amazing complex of performing arts buildings.
I went to cross from these to the Daimler Benz network of buildings, but the street lights did not change as ten minutes of motorcyclists in black leather paraded down the street. It reminded me of my Uncle Wilford from Switzerland, who loved powerful cars and airplanes, and the speed they could generate.
Being here in Berlin has deeply personal meaning. I am the grandchild of immigrants on my mother’s side. Though they were not from Germany, from them I inherited a comfort with this place and its culture. My Grandfather was from Netherlands and was jokingly anti-German, almost surprisingly so. But he would speak with me in German. Ultimately he taught me quite a bit of the language of this land that he officially did not like.
My father’s family, though an old American family, married people from here. After my grandmother died,when I was twelve, my grandfather married a woman from Hamburg. She and her sister were always at our family gatherings, until my grandfather’s death when I was twenty four. My dad’s youngest sister married my Uncle Wilford who came from German speaking Switzerland and always carried a pride in his origins and culture. My dad’s brother married my Aunt Ilse, who was from Breslau, just down the road from here in what is now Poland. It was a German-speaking city and part of Germany, until boundaries were redrawn following WW II. Aunt Ilse and her mother came into my family, with her brothers and sister on the edges. I just simply called her mother Omi, like her own grandkids did. She did not learn much English, like my great Aunt Louise on my mother’s side, who spoke Dutch. Omi would talk with me in German. She told me many long stories about life in Breslau, the war, and coming as refugees to Berlin hoping to cross into the Allied Zone.

People on the street remind me tangibly of these people. I am American and yet feel a part of this place, if for no other reason than that its history and people have been part of my origins.
Yesterday, October 3, was the Day of German Unity, the celebration of German reunification. The main celebration was held in Saarbruken, where Chancelor Merkel was. But there was an parade and event by the Brandenburg Gates on the twin Avenues of Unter den Linden and the 17th of June.
I got of the subway in the middle of the city, that is the name of the stop, and walked towards a Greek revival looking building. It was a theatre occupying an impressive square with the French Dom (Cathedral) on one side and the German Dom on the other. In the middle of the square, in front of the theatre, there stood a statue of the great poet Schiller, who is most known to Americans as the person who penned the words that Beethoven set to music in the Ninth Symphony, the famous Ode to Joy.
Schiller in white, I assume marble, looked as if he would open his mouth at any moment and begin reciting poetry. He had a look in his face and eyes that reminded me of Brian Gray, a poet in Salt Lake.
On the theatre’s platform, at the top of the stairs, a small ensemble was playing polkas and such, and a man sang.
The French Dom was build by Huguenots who came to Brandenburg Berlin to escape persecution in France. At one time, a sign said, about a third of the population of Berlin was French.
The plaza is called the Gendarmenmarkt, after the gens d’armes, the French armed men, who were here supporting Brandenburg. The plaza had a strong feel of the drama and elegance of the eighteenth century with its wars and changing alliances, as well as great art. In world war two the square was heavily destroyed by allied bombs. I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like for this city to awake and see the destruction from the bombs, its great monuments in ruins. But many cities have been destroyed in my lifetime. Baghdad most recently suffered much ruin. Beirut was torn apart, its buildings ripped to skeletons, through a disastrous civil war, and so on. Now the plaza has been restored, and the scars removed to historical plaques around the square.
My dad fought in WW II. He met the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge one bitter winter in the Vosges Mountains, where my father was wounded and withdrawn to the UK. He said how stunned the American soldiers were to realize how much better the German arms were than their own. He also talked of soldiers on the front line waving a flag when a cow--or was it a pig--walked between them. They got together, butchered the animal, Allies and Germans, held a barbecue, played some soccer, and then went back to their trenches to begin the war again on their front.
I heard some Americans in the street with their flat midwestern accents. From their buzz cut and civilian dress I would guess they were soldiers. I do not know, but American troupes still “occupy” Germany, although now we do not call it that. Nevertheless, the American bases are from the end of the war and the occupation. How I wish the past and present would just fit into neat categories so it would not trouble me with its multiple ambiguities, but it is not neat. There is no wall to keep it clean.
From the Gendarmenmarkt I walked the few blocks to the grand avenue Unter den Linden, with its middle path of tall, overarching trees. This avenue reminded me of Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive both in its grandeur and its double dedication to upscale shopping and tourist kitsch.
As I walked toward the Brandenburg Gate, the crowds became thicker and thicker, as if all of Berlin, three million strong, were pouring out into that single corridor. I walked behind a woman and her mother, both blond, thin and in black skirts and tight leather, high heeled boots that rose to their knees. They made their way through the crowd and I followed in the space they created.
Then I lost them. They turned aside. But I kept going ahead, edging myself sideways through the crowd most of which was now standing. In the small space by the buildings a group of people three or four abreast was moving in the opposite direction, like the current of a river against the bank while most of the river seems still. I kept trying to go in the other direction, towards the Brandenburg Gate; I wanted to see them.
The space I could squeeze into got smaller and smaller. More and more I was pressed into people though sideways I could still squeeze through and make my way, a trickle of people now following me.
Suddenly, I was rammed by a phalanx of people moving in the opposite direction, slicing their way through the crowd. Led by a stocky, blond, buzz-cut man, shorter and heftier than I, who was the point of the plow they formed slicing through the crowd. They hit me and knocked me, almost off my feet; had it not been for how thick the crowd was I probably would have fallen. Fear filled me. I thought of people trampled under crowds and became worried as they kept pushing me. I could not fight their current nor keep my footing.
A young, thin man, with longish sandy-blond hair, a little girl on his shoulders began yelling at them. “What are you doing? Be careful. Stop pushing. Cant’ you see you can hurt the children.”
I saw the space on the other side of him was empty and it was against the wall. I could escape the current there, thanks to the momentary distraction he made. I slid into it and relaxed, as fear for my own safety slowly diminished.
Seeing there was no other option, I retraced my steps, now behind the phalanx and slowly got to the street side over about a long block. There I crossed the street and tried to walk towards the Brandenburg Gate. The crowd was not as thick and almost everyone went in the same direction.
i ended up walking next to some East-Coast Americans, with dark hair and olive complexions. The one young man, in a herringbone trench coat was complaining “I do not know why they dress like Americans. You know, in baggy pants and all.”
We walked until about a block away from the gate, with it visible before us, it was impossible to continue further. The crowd was too thick. There was a television truck and in the background, from the Gate, I could hear an announcer. I stood and looked around.
Restless, despite the impending parade, and feeling distinctly uncomfortable in the crowd, I turned up the side street and walked back on the parallel street to Unter den Linden until I reached the point where I had joined the Avenue in the first place. There I turned the corner and continued on Unter Den Linden in the opposite direction toward Humboldt University, where the book sale in front of it, of books the Nazi’s burned impressed me. I was also impressed by the marble statue of a sitting Alexander Von Humboldt which called him the second discoverer of Cuba and was a gift from the people of Cuba. It is hard to avoid Von Humboldt int he Americas, when you think of the Humboldt current that caresses the South American Pacific coast line with cold water and which is important in the formation of El Niños and La Niñas and hence the presence or absence of water in the Great Basin.
Saturday, the day of Unity the stores were closed. On Sunday afternoon they opened. The subway portal at Potsdamer Platz kept disgorging hordes of people who walked towards the Arcades, the malls, where they could shop. I followed them, into the land of Dolce Gabbana, Zara, Puma, and H and M. It was a way of escaping the wind outside. It just kept blowing.
In the evening the rains came. And they came hard. I had walked to a charming cafe in my neighborhood where I had asked for sour cherry nectar. it was so surprising to see it on the menu among a variety of coffee drinks, hot chocolate, beers and mixed drinks, that I had to order it. The server--this coffee house had servers!--came back chagrined and said that they had everything on the menu except for the sour cherry nectar. Damn!
I still stayed, this time with an apple juice, and worked on the first chapter of my book. The place was delightfully retro, as if somehow I had walked back into the late sixties, through the building was mid-nineteenth century as was the park-like square it was on.
It felt like i needed to look up on you tube to see if I could find any videos of the proclaiming of the new constitution in Bolivia in February. I was there, but did not see the whole thing. I felt I needed to jog my memory in order to write what I needed to write. So I decided to head home and use the internet. (If I could have remembered the German, I probably could have asked to use the cafe´s wireless. Oh well... hindsight... ).
I got outside and started to walk, just as a cloudburst cut loose. Yikes. It was not raining when I decided to leave, nor when I went through the door, but a moment later it was raining seriously. I walked, trying to stay against the building, under awnings, or under trees. It was becoming too much. I was getting cold and wet. Just then Frida Kahlo, a restaurant with her name that served fajitas, and had a big awning appeared before me. So I stood under her umbrella, having left mine in the US, until the storm passed and I could continue on.


  1. When I was 13 I went on a school trip to Germany. I was on the Mosel and went into a shop to get trinkets to take home as gifts. I saw a scarf and thought my mother would like it .I asked its cost but it was too expensive for me. I must have looked sad because a well dressed man behind me took the scarf and said to me in English, 'I want to buy this for your mother and I want you to tell her that all Germans are not like the Nazis.' It was 1960 and the war was still fresh in everyone's minds.I was touched and thanked him. I still remember his handsome face. The shopkeeper said, 'That was the mayor.' This was one of those experiences that mold your life and opinions. To myself as a young girl it opened my eyes.

  2. Lord knows there are plenty of Nazi types in the Anglo-phone world. I can imagine the impact this must have had on you. Thanks.