We stepped off the train in Berlin and immediately felt like we were back in the United States. The destruction of multiple wars has eliminated much of Berlin’s old and historic atmosphere; many of the buildings are sleek platinum high rises and the streets are smooth-paved and many-laned.
Despite this initial familiarity we had a difficult time navigating Berlin and resorted more than once to the reassuring and thoroughly-American atmosphere of Starbucks to collect our bearings with the help of caffeine and free wifi.
Our first stop on Sunday was Checkpoint Charlie, one of the few remaining pieces of evidence of a divided Germany and the Berlin wall. Checkpoint Charlie was the passage point between the American-occupied zone of West Berlin and East Berlin—there are still signs posted notifying you you’re leaving American territory. They even have fake checkpoint boxes where you can get your passport stamped in West Germany and have your picture taken with some very un-American looking soldiers in U.S. Army fatigues.
As we visited historical German monuments including the Victory Column and the Reichstag, it became evident that Germany continues to struggle with its political and ideological identity as a nation. Current political and social culture cannot draw on past political and social culture for obvious reasons and even patriotism and nationalism are kept in sharp check given the uses they’ve been employed for in the past. One can feel their recognition that they must acknowledge and apologize for the past but it damages their pride and their ability to move on to do so. As a result they’re left grasping for something honorable to raise a banner for in order to forge into the future and forget the past. Monuments to Germanic conquest become celebrations of the values of democracy and equality.
This conflicted culture is no where better illustrated than at the Memorial for the Jews of the Holocaust in central Berlin. Not even built until 1999, the memorial is a stretching block of uniform grey concrete rectangles roughly the size of coffins which have no marking to distinguish or personalize them. They line the gridded paths like dominos, and the path descends the deeper you walk into the block so that gradually the plinths soar above your head and march away emotionlessly on every side.
Ten days of extravagant European castles had made us self-proclaimed experts and we were initially unimpressed by the circumspect and utilitarian façade of Charlottenburg Palace. The Germans, who do not waste time and money and men on buildings that have little more than an aesthetic purpose, nonetheless redeemed themselves slightly in our esteem through a pleasant English-styled hunting park behind the palace. It included a small reflective lake with a picturesque red wrought iron bridge affording views of the palace and some geometrical gardens crossed by white-dirt paths.
Our train ride from Berlin to Frankfurt gave us perhaps one the most rewarding vistas of the entire trip—the train threaded the valleys of hills splattered with a rich quilt of autumnal color which was reflected in the smooth waters of white-water rivers and broken only by the jutting grey stone of crumbling castles perched on the edges of tall rock outcroppings, fairy tales offering staunch opposition to the smooth progress of the electric train skimming by beneath them. But perhaps equally exciting, and certainly relieving, was the welcome sight of signs posted completely in English upon our arrival in Heathrow. We did a double-take, and then realized we didn’t have to do a double-take, and for the first time I felt like arriving in England was coming home.
1936 Olympic Stadium