Episode 84 – Looking back wistfully: Berlin, July 2016

I totally adored my maternal grandmother. She was brave, fierce, and a complete pragmatist – definitely not prone to tears, so it was a great shock to me in 1989 to find her sobbing in front of the television, watching the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Before that day, I really was not all that interested in my family history. I knew that my parents, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother had immigrated to Canada after World War 2. I knew that they had fully embraced their Canadian citizenship and that Europe was not a source of nostalgia or longing. And I knew that we had relatives still in Europe – some of them behind the Iron Curtain. But I had never really thought about what that meant.

In 2016, when we were planning our vacation itinerary through Germany, I decided that I really wanted to visit Berlin.

Berlin is a city of contrasts: beauty and scars, memories and ghosts, conflict and reconciliation, traditional and modern – an education in history disguised as a vibrant city.

The damaged spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (colloquially known simple as the Gedächtniskirche, or memorial church). Unlike most buildings bombed during WWII, which have been either razed or painstakingly restored, this one has been left scarred as a visual reminder of the destruction that war causes.

The heart-wrenching Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Walking on the sloped paths through the 2711 coffin-like grey slabs of varying heights you can “see” your family members disappear completely, as if they had never been right there beside you.

The almost twin Baroque-style churches in the Gendarmenmarkt. The French Cathedral (Französischer Dom – top photo) was built first, from 1701 – 1705, commissioned by Kaiser Frederick I in recognition of the contributions of the French Huguenot community in Berlin, who comprised a large portion of the artisans working in the city, and about 25% of its population. Legend has it that the German/Prussian native population, characterized for their “plain speaking”, reacted with “what about us?”, and in 1708, the matching German Cathedral (Deutscher Dom – lower photo, as viewed from the top of the French Cathedral) was constructed at the opposite end of the square. The French Cathedral remains a working church; the German Cathedral was almost completely destroyed in WWII – after reconstruction it was deconsecrated and now houses the museum of German parliamentary history.

The bells of the French Cathedral’s tower. Only Ted climbed the 254 steps to get this gorgeous picture.

The Reichstag (German Parliament), with its inscription “Dem Deutschen Volke” (of the German peoples); an acknowledgement that the citizens, not the politicians, are what makes a democracy, but also a stark reminder that we get the kind of government we choose. The addition of the glass dome over the centre of the building symbolizes that governments’ actions should be transparent.

Outside one of the underground stations. “Sites of the horrors that we must never be allowed to forget”.

Sections of the Berlin wall. There are pieces still standing in many locations in Berlin, along a painted dotted line that shows where the wall split the city in two. The West German sides of each piece of wall are covered in old graffiti and pieces of used chewing gum that have hardened to rock – both symbols of the west’s disrespect for the wall.

Checkpoint Charlie, its location now an obstacle right in the middle of Friedrichstrasse. From 1947 – 1991 it was the major crossing point between East and West Berlin.

Nearby was the Berlin Wall Museum, with this 1965 photo of the crossing point. I admit to crying when we watched the film of the August 1961 border activity: first barbed wire being strung, and then the wall going up only feet away from some of the homes, with families instantly separated from even seeing each other from their windows as the wall grew taller. I suddenly understood what it must have meant for my cousins who lived on opposite sides of that wall for almost 30 years, and why my grandmother cried when it came down. Inside the museum are the names of those shot trying to escape to the west.

Frederick the Great’s iconic Brandenburg Tor (Gate), today considered not only as a symbol of the tumultuous history of Europe and Germany, but also of European unity and peace.

Some of Berlin’s Many museums, as seen from the river.

The new Hauptbahnhof: a state of the art train station with direct connections to the airport, a selection of lovely restaurants, and public toilets whose seats rotate through a self-clean wash cycle after every flush!

We were accompanied to Berlin by my cousins (L toR) Helga and Doris, which allowed the evenings to become “girl time”. Poor Ted. Our “routine” each day was for me to speak German to everyone, and then turn to Ted and translate everything that had been said. We did this while on the boat tour on the Spree River. We did this while on the hop-on-hop-off bus tour. We did this while walking through the city, while eating our meals, while touring the sites. By dinner time, Ted was good and tired of listening to the almost non-stop sound of my voice in TWO languages, so he would retreat to the peace of our hotel room while we “girls” continued our evenings. As a result, Ted missed seeing the light show about Germany’s history until the fall of the Berlin wall, projected onto the buildings beside the river close to the Reichstag.

He also missed our “pub crawl” along the Spree riverbank as we explored which bartender made the best Hugos (elderflower cordial, Sekt, fresh mint and lime), and the three of us closing down the hotel bar at 2 a.m. talking, laughing and drinking yet more Sekt (the German equivalent of Prosecco).

Ted did NOT miss out on the curry wurst though, although as usual he was on the other side of the camera. Berlin’s WWII specialty of sausage sprinkled with curry powder, grilled, and served with curry ketchup is delicious. We ate at a food truck, and drank water, but the fancy cafe in the Gendarmenmarkt offered a lunch special of curry wurst and sekt.

Berlin was a wonderful place to visit in summer weather, but I imagine it is quite glorious in the Christmas season as well. Add another stop to our future Christmas market tour!

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