I keep discovering things in Germany that take me by surprise. Now you may think that the existence of Berlin is not much of a secret but, after seven years in the country, I’m ashamed to admit that I had never spent any time there. My head was full of preconceptions of a great western metropolis with a gruellingly poor east, scratching an existence from the crumbs thrown from the rich man’s table. Wrong. First, the western part is boring; you might as well be in the West End or New York. Don’t bother unless you want to go shopping. Second, having had a bit of a make-over, the east is extremely beautiful. Most of Berlin’s great historic buildings and streets are there; palaces, churches, cathedrals and museums. Berlin’s most famous street, Unter den Linden, is in the east. So is Oranienbergstrasse, home of the Cabaret/Isherwood 1930s scene and the ghost of Sally Bowles still hangs out with the ladies of the night. Berlin’s rebuilt Synagogue is there as well, but is under 24-hour police armed guard; why, we never found out.
Everywhere you look they are building the city; great skeletal cranes touch the clouds to construct Europe’s newest and oldest city. If Paris is a faded debutante and London is a proud old soldier who’s been mugged, Berlin is a recently-graduated student with Nobel prize-winning parents. The city is bursting with energy and optimism; it’s the true centre of the new Europe that has emerged with the reunification of Germany. It won’t happen overnight but it’s happening now and you can sense the progress in the air. Even the tame street sparrows are part of it. There’s enough for everyone.
It’s difficult to tell east from west these days but a fairly sure way is the Ampelmännchen. These are the little red and green men on the pedestrian crossings . The western ones are like the figures that designate the men’s toilets from women’s. The eastern ones are more friendly and have a cartoon jauntiness about them. They have become innocent little heros…oh, yes, and they wear trilby hats. There had been a move to replace them with the anodyne western model but there was uproar from the Berliners. Now there are even shops celebrating the little Ampelmännchen and I think they’re here to stay. I rather like them.
Of course Berlin and the Wall are synonymous. The entire length of the wall is marked on roads and pavements but I get the feeling that people might soon forget that this hideous affront to human dignity was ever thought to be a solution to anything except to reveal the empty shell that propped up the Soviet Union. It was morally bankrupt because it placed the state above the people and any regime that does that, whether they be communist or fascist or anything in between, is surely doomed. The remnants of the Wall stand as a monument to the stupidity of man and the power of the individual human spirit that, unarmed, can overcome anything simply by being right and never losing that belief
The weekend was the idea of my darlin’ daughter Becky and Ian, her husband, and it was a fabulous birthday present. I think I may have another one next year……danke schön, lieblings!