Sunday, October 26, 2014

Berlin: Two Tales of a City

The German capital is marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. When the communist structure began crumbling in November of 1989, many people from all over the world flocked to Berlin to witness the historic event.  This year,  many are flocking back to celebrate the anniversary of a key event that lead to the unification of Germany.  I was planning a trip to the country for different reasons, but it was a perfect opportunity to add Berlin to my itinerary.  A friend from Croatia joined me for what was the first visit to the city for both of us. Here are our two different accounts of a fascinating October week in Berlin.

First:  by Sina Karli, Zagreb, October 2014

Brandenburger Tor, Berlin
I arrived in Berlin on an earlier flight from Zagreb and was tasked with settling into our rental apartment in the Savigny Platz and making what preparations I could ahead of Zlatica's arrival from the United States in the evening.  I got off to a smooth start.  Bus 109 from Tegel Airport  dropped me off nearly at the door of our apartment building. I rang a doorbell per the landlady's instructions and was ready to enter what I imagined would be a German-style neat and orderly place - my home for the next seven days.

Croatians think of Germany as the country where trains run on time, everything is spotlessly clean, people are tidy and punctual, and discipline reigns supreme.

The door opened only after my persistent ringing and a rumpled young woman, still in her pajamas, blinked at me and mumbled "oh, you are already here?" as if she didn't know the time of my arrival.  
She ushered me into a nice size ground floor apartment with windows looking onto a quiet courtyard.  The shabby, mix-and-match furniture was tolerable, but the bed linen looked suspiciously unclean as did the frayed towels of nondescript color.  The landlady seemed unperturbed when I noticed that there was not even one roll of toilet paper in the bathroom - a most essential necessity after a long trip from abroad.

I was much more forgiving when I learned that she was from Cuba.  It was easier for me to imagine a Cuban swaying to the rhythm of salsa than vacuuming and wiping off spider webs from a rental apartment.  That's what stereotypes do to you.

Those of us growing up in the communist Yugoslavia were taught from the earliest days at school to view the Germans as occupiers of our country who were defeated by much smaller but braver partisan forces.  We had to watch state-subsidized movies about  Tito's shabby troops fighting well-equipped Nazi forces and winning against all odds.  Nothing else was taught about Germany, and studying German was not popular.  At that tender age the concept of democracy was as remote for us as the concept of  Nazism. 

Attitudes toward Germany changed gradually after Yugoslavs began working there as “gastarbeiters,” and bringing home money, high-quality technical products and stories about disciplined and hard-working, although somewhat hostile Germans.  More recently, especially after Croatia gained independence and Germany lent support to that effort, the tenor of the reports has changed.  There is now mostly admiration for a people that arose from the ashes of World War Two destruction to become Europe's most powerful nation.  

So during my visit to Berlin I wanted to see beyond the remainders of the wall and the tourist attractions such as Checkpoint Charlie.  I wanted to envision the entire length of the demarcation that separated the people of one city for 28 years, forcing a half to live in tyranny while the other half was surrounded by it.  But the line of division is not that obvious today except in a few places included in sightseeing tours.
Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, October 2014

An uninformed visitor has difficulty figuring out which part of Berlin was East and which was West.  Residential areas are easier to identify --gray and still somewhat dreary looking Soviet-style apartments on one side, and classic warm-colored Mittel-Europa buildings on the other.   Few people in the streets of Berlin were able to give us directions to the  Nazi-era sites such as Hitler’s bunker or the square where the  "un-German" books were burned.  No street signs are pointing to these places either.

As we strolled down the elegant Unter den Linden avenue, enjoyed an espresso outside Café Balzac, or lingered under the glass dome of the spectacular Sony Center,  Berlin’s dark part of history seemed as remote as if it had happened somewhere else.

The city feels both like a cosmopolitan metropolis of Europe’s most powerful country that it is, and as a haven for people from all over the world seeking a better life.  It is a mecca for artists, trendy Germans and young people looking for opportunities as well as for businessmen and politicians.  In some parts it is as elegant and formidable as Paris or New York, in others it looks like an ordinary central European city -- Prague, Vienna and even  Zagreb. 

Some of Berlin's gloomier neighborhoods still reflect their Soviet-style past.  Poor service in many restaurants and tourist offices also smacks of the communist era.  The Schiller Theater, which serves as temporary home to the opera, lacks grandeur and could be described as downright shabby.  So Berlin exudes power and vulnerability at the same time. Perhaps it was exactly its fragile side that made me feel at home.  Who wants perfect order anyway? 

The week in Berlin served to debunk many of my personal myths about Germans and Germany.  They are not all organized and disciplined and spotlessly clean.  But Germans are people who have rebuilt their cities, often from near complete destruction, and don't seem to be dwelling on the dreary part of their history.  Berlin reflects that.

Seeing the German capital also made me feel good about my own country.  Furnished apartments for rent in Zagreb are the epitome of luxury compared to the place we rented in Berlin. I also realized that work ethic in Croatia has changed and that the services are better than before the 1990s war for independence.  I saw our nation's capital with new eyes and found it to be gorgeous.  I was finally able to shed the lingering Croatian inferiority complex, stemming from our communist past and the association with the Balkans.  Berlin, Prague, Vienna?  I can feel at home in any of them, but I can also proudly say that I live in Zagreb, another European capital with an interesting history and abundant culture.

Berlin Offers Diverse Culinary Experience

Second: by an American with European roots, Washington, October 2014

"I told you twice to get your salad at the salad bar," an impatient waitress snapped at me in the Maredo steakhouse, a chain restaurant on the elegant Kurfürstendamm strip on my first day in Berlin. It wasn't quite clear what ticked her off. I had asked if I could have a salad with my steak instead of the coleslaw which came with it, and she said I could if I paid extra. I said no problem. There was no mention of a salad bar that either I or Sina heard, nor was one immediately visible from our table.  So when the waitress served me a plate with nothing but a steak on it, I asked if she was bringing the salad separately. It was a logical question because a little earlier she had brought only one soup although we had ordered two. I thought she was forgetful. 

A male server was then sent to collect our payment and when we said the food was good, but the service terrible, he just waved off his hand without a word, but with a facial expression that could only mean " I am not interested."  I swore then and there that I would never again complain about the 20 % tip we pay our waiters in the U.S.

The next day, we had a similar experience with drivers on the hop-on-hop-off sightseeing tour of east Berlin.  Since that tour is less frequented than the tour of west Berlin, drivers come and go as they please, regardless of the schedule, and God forbid that you complain. We made the mistake of getting off our bus before the loop was completed and then had to wait one hour in the rain before another one showed up.  That one left us standing in the rain despite our frantic waving.  The last scheduled bus finally picked us up, but the driver cut the tour short so he could finish his shift by 6 PM.  When he made a stop along the way, I first thought he was doing his duty, but quickly realized that he stopped for  a colleague on the bus who wanted to take a cigarette break. 

Memorial to the 1933 Nazi bookburning in Bebelplatz is an underground room lined with empty bookshelves, visible through a window in the pavement. 

Despite these first impressions, I enjoyed Berlin tremendously.  After reading so much about it in history books and having seen it in so many movies and documentaries, I felt that I was coming to familiar terrain.  It was Europe after all, not Mongolia.  I soon realized that my ignorance about the country, including Berlin and its history, is huge and inexcusable.  In central Berlin, I was never quite sure if we were walking east of the demolished Wall line or west of it.  I had difficulty locating places we'd seen in documentaries, such as the square where Nazis burned "un-German" books.  It was humbling to walk through the Charlottenburg castle and realize that the recorded tour was almost meaningless without a context in which to place the exalted people who once lived in it.  The bewilderment was compounded during a subsequent visit to Potsdam, which I had no idea was so close to Berlin or that it had so many palaces. Neither did I know that the KGB had its headquarters in Potsdam.  It would be embarrassing to go on. 

Berlin's monuments, creative architecture, grandiose foreign embassies, street art, parks and elegant avenues put it on an equal footing with London, Paris or Washington.  But its less glamorous areas make it more human.  It is fun for a change to have a cup of coffee in a funky Turkish cafe and grab a sausage or goulash in a neighborhood brewery, where you can chat with the owner and his Bosnian waitress.  Ours even offered neck-and-shoulder massage by practicing students.  

Berlin by night was the time to relax with a glass of  beer and clear my mind of all the Ludwigs, Friederichs and Wilhelms of Germany - or was it Prussia? - until the next day.  We happened to be in the city during the traditional October Festival of Lights, when its most famous landmarks, such as Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Cathedral and the television tower are illuminated with colorful light projections and video art. 

Berlin Cathedral During the Festival of Lights
To my regret, both opera houses were closed for renovation, the Berlin Philharmonic was not performing and tickets for the Arcadi Volodos piano recital at the Kozerthaus were sold out.  

We only saw the Staatsoper's new production of Tosca because I had purchased the tickets online several months ahead of time.  The performance at the seedy Schiller Theater was a disappointment. There was more chemistry between Tosca and Scarpia than her and Cavaradossi. Barenboim's first conducting of Puccini, although refined, was so slow that it further diluted the tepid drama.  The leading opera house of Europe's richest country, and the one that produced Bach, Beethoven and Wagner, should do better than such a forgettable Tosca.  The Staatsoper waited 38 years to stage a new production of Puccini's blockbuster - it could have waited a few more to come up with something more impressive.

On the way home we passed by a jazz club or cabaret, which looked like it would have been more fun.  But our stay in Berlin was at an end even though we only skimmed through it. We never got so see Nefertiti at the Neues Museum, we did not make it to the hipster  Kreuzberg area, or the bohemian Friedrichshain, and there was no time to take a boat ride on the Spree River, or climb up the iconic TV tower.

Berlin is worth visiting for whatever time you can afford.  I know I could live there.  That vibrating city offers something for every personality and taste, including  such local specialty as currywursts - hot dogs smeared with tomato sauce and sprinkled with curry.  Seriously!  

But if you want good restaurant service and friendly bus drivers,  kommen Sie, bitte, nach Amerika!

No comments: