Walden World

The wacky and wonderful tales of Beth's and Catherine's global adventures. And all things Walden too.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Berlin

Berlin is a very weird looking city. It appears as if a Giant has taken model kits of three entirely different town plans, shook them up in his hand and rolled them out like dice onto the flat board of Berlin. Next to an austere yet classical Prussian palace stands a huge Communist cement box. The spacey Radio Tower pokes up into view behind the elaborate 18th century facade of Lust Garden and the Berliner Dom church. The water of the Neptune Fountain flows over bodacious German river maidens while Marx and Engels stand stolidly in the background, their hands at their side or behind their back, looking as if they were posing for a formal family portrait.

It has now been almost 20 years since "The Wall" fell but the effect memory of the Wall is everywhere. All people talk about the Wall: "the wall was there"; "this part of the town was on the other side of the wall"; "here is a piece of the wall"; "if the wall was still standing you would be dead right now"...and so forth.

Of course all the museums cover the history of the Wall in dizzying detail and each ultimately ends with the voice over of Reagan saying: "President Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" followed by the usual newsclips of wall smashing parties and 'Trabi' parades.

I guess what I found interesting was the question of how many East Germans, in reality, didn't like the GDR regime. At the Stasi museum, notable for its collection of body odour swabs taken by the secret police from prisoners, one learns that in the end over 193,000 people were unofficial agents of the Stasi. This remains a bit of a sore point these days as odds were, alot of the folks you knew were busy informing on you. But despite the reassurance that the reason that these people ratted was the "pay off" one has to wonder. There are many, many countries where the secret police will pay you plenty for tattling on your fellow citizens, however the number of takers has never been particularly high. Not so in the GDR. The ratio of informer to informed is astounding.

I raised this issue with two gay men we were talking to in a hipster gay bar. One had grown up in East Germany, the other in West Germany. "Was there really alot of support for the GDR regime in truth?" I ask. The former Ostdeutscher says "No. Most people didn't like the regime". Interestingly enough the former West Germaner tells us that he and has friend discuss this question often and that they disagree. The Westie thinks there was widespread support.

Interesting as well, is the recent pheunomenon of "Ostalgia" or nostalgia for the days of East Germany. We go to the GDR Museum in which you can re-create life in the old days, from driving a 'Trabant' (the East German answer to the Volkswagon that featured such gaping design flaws as the absence of a gas gauge) to going through closets of dreadful looking polyester GDR clothing. It may have been awful and polyester but really it didn't look very different from the stuff mom made us wear that she got at Woolco. It was the 1970s after all.

The conclusion I came to, from this, other museums and taking in the people, isn't that the East Germans hated the regime so much, rather they were advertised a life of consumer goods that, despite the colourful catalogs, TV commercials and glamourized promises, the government simply couldn't deliver.

So now Germany still remains in economics divided. The former East including the former East Berlin is far poorer than the west and unemployment remains high. Thus go to Charlottenburg and a glass of 10 cl wine is $4.80E. Go to Prenzlauzer Berg and a 21 cl glass is 2.50E. In Tiergarten everyone speaks English; in the old East you are hard pressed to find someone who does.

Perhaps what seemed most odd, most alienating, is Potsdamer Platz. It took me six days to figure what the heck the area was and why it was so strange, apart from the football field sized poster for the forthcoming ABBA musical "Momma Mia".

During the days of the "Wall", it constituted the mid section of "No Man's Land' and the 'death strip' between East and West. While people called it "the Wall" there were in fact a bunch of walls with a huge area in the middle without anything in it. A space which sat empty while the two candidates for the future control of civilization stared down each other through field glasses.

Now, as the tour guides will tell you triumphantly, that the forces of capitalism and democracy have won out, Potsdamer Platz has been 'reborn'.

Instead of the enormous, cement, behemoth buildings built for the glory of Communism which you see in the former East Berlin, Potsdamer Platz features enormous, glass and cement, behemoth buildings sporting huge logos for Sony and countless other luminaries of global capital. In the centre is a square surrounded by ten different restaurant/cafes, all serving the same crappy food, at the same crappy price named in intriguing "American" motifs such as "Billy Wilder's" or "Dunkin' Donuts". There is even a "Lego Land" museum which will trap your kids like so many insects in amber.

In many ways Potsdamer Platz still feels like a no man's land.

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