Monday 25 March 2013

Ode to Berlin

Berlin Running Routes:
Best Berlin Running Routes: Overview
Historic Berlin Mitte  
Tiergarten park 
Kurfürstendamm, heart of West Berlin  
Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin's coolest neighborhood  
Grunewald West  
Grunewald East

Potsdam Royal Residences
For other running routes, see Route List.

NOTE: I wrote this essay about Berlin in about 1993, in the first years after German reunification, trying to place my finger on just what had made the city so special for me. The German government was still sitting snugly on the Rhine, in Bonn, and the two halves of town were still trying to piece themselves together to function like one real city.

Berlin. Just pushing those two syllables over your tongue stirs strangely uneasy emotions, for just about everyone -- for us foreigners and for Germans, too. There's a unique place carved in my heart for this contradictory town. A place in my heart that slides abruptly from the warm-and-mushy to the steely coldness of the Third Reich and Cold War politics.
Welcome to Berlin, ca. 2012
This is the most political town in the world, although hardly a politician or a functioning government building can be found in the place. Once a center of power and cold-blooded intrigue, bombed into rubble and ashes, then pinned down to a fate of permanent meaninglessness, and chopped into zones of military occupation.

Left were only the people -- at first just scrabbling to survive, then watching dumb-foundedly as their city was cleft by a frightening wall. The western half was isolated, harassed and besieged for two generations long. The Berliners in the eastern half had to endure the seamless transition from one tyranny to the next, while their neighbors in the west waited nervously through the recurring dramas of blockade and airlift, surrounded by the Soviet Army, defended by a token garrison of a few thousand Americans, British and French. They wondered uneasily when the end would come, precariously balancing on the knife-edge of the Cold War frontier. Berlin was it: the proverbial Ground Zero for the Armageddon of World War III.

But then the end came -- totally unexpectedly and joyously. The tyranny in East Berlin crumbled, the Wall was simply opened up, and -- together -- Berliners celebrated at the foot of the Brandenburg Gate, fireworks exploding to the rapture of Beethoven's Ode to Joy.

For a brief, blazing moment, Berlin became the symbol of hope and reunion for the whole world, before slipping into the mundane business of being an everyday big city plagued by big-city problems, struggling for a new identity.
Marx and Engels look a bit disgruntled at all the teeny tourists nowadays
Looking back on it, I'm not quite sure how Berlin first captured my heart. I was first led there about 10 years ago to run my first marathon, something I've been drawn to repeat three more times. I had injured both knees while training, and I was just back in shape enough to compete at all.

In those days, you had to really want to get to Berlin -- driving into the no-man's-land at the East German border, you usually had to wait for hours to get past the watch-towers, the minefields, the machine-gun-toting guards staring at you and your family. They took our passports and hustled them away, and I felt strangely naked. Mirrors were rolled under the cars, sticks dipped into gas tanks to make sure they weren't hollow. If you had bad luck, they made you dismantle your car's interior and put it back together yourself.
Modern Russian/German relations: Russian rock band performs in Tiergarten park
You weren't allowed to get off the only permitted "transit" road to Berlin. And at the gates to the city, the road led right through a Soviet tank base in the old 1936 Olympic Village, an ominous reminder of who was the real master of the house. And at the entrance to the West Berlin side, there was the same unsettling no-man's-land border-crossing ritual again.

But there we were. After the suffocating drabness of the east, West Berlin was like the pulsing heart of everything alive. A determined joy of living flowed through the streets from one end of the imprisoned city to the next.

The tree-lined Kurfürstendamm ("Ku'damm") was the axis from which all the action spun out -- a strip where the greatest cars were paraded, where elegant cafés, rock clubs, movie palaces, street musicians jostled side by side in a tolerant mix of every social scene.
Red Army threat has now been reduced to unfashionable army surplus headwear
I would go running in the evenings and I couldn't help but run into the Wall at every turn. I would climb the wooden stairs to look out over the surreal death strip behind, never expecting that I would ever experience its end. I would run past bridges over the Spree that were blocked by pillboxes and machine-gun nests. I would ride the underground, cutting under East Berlin, slowly gliding past blocked-off stations with 50-year-old advertisements on the station walls, patrolled by soldiers with machine guns, bullet holes still in the walls from the day Hitler's troops pulled out.

We got day-visas to East Berlin and pushed the baby carriage past a parking-lot full of mobile missile launchers waiting for a parade a few days later, guarded by soldiers with machine-guns, and I realized that I was definitely not supposed to be there.

Then, later, when the winds of freedom were suddenly blowing through town, my son and I borrowed a hammer and helped smash a few small chunks out of the Wall, helping to carve a small hole through the once so intimidating barrier.

Now new scenes are starting to take hold in Prenzlauer Berg in the East: free-spirits are opening bizarre cafés and creative shops, and putting a new stamp on the city. Soon, the first government ministries will move into the ex-East German government buildings. The long-abandoned Reichstag -- the forlorn backdrop for the start of every Berlin Marathon -- will be refurbished and given new life as a living parliament.

Let's see where the new winds will take us. I have a feeling I'll not lose that special feeling in my heart for this great town, no matter what comes.

Later Note: The feeling is still there, as strong as ever!

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