Berlin is a city of many parts. The integration of East and West is now nearly complete and there is hardly anything that gives a sense of which former sector you’re in any more except for the bleak architecture that the East had constructed for workers’ housing – some of which still stand as a testament to the grossly misguided notions of Stalinism. However, in the main, the East is quieter, greener and more interesting to explore as there are many small cafes and ethnic shops that have sprung up there due to the cheap rents. Housing is still relatively reasonable compared to other European capitals but the employment situation, according to our friends, is still dire and Berlin is considered the poor city of Germany (though both Kevin and I had a hard time accepting that notion given the surge in construction and the seeming opulence of certain parts of town).
There was also a strong sense of being in Middle Europe – something like the sense of being in the Midwest in the US. Berlin is deep in Germany and much closer to Poland and Russia than to the Netherlands or France. One feels the distance, the separation, the sense of being connected more by inland rivers than by the sea.
Also, there is my own personal struggle with the notion of ‘Germany’ and its Capital which stands out in images of the Third Reich. I have fought against laying these feelings on the city or the people, as Berliners have often been the most sympathetic Europeans I’ve met. But still the images ingrained since childhood persist. Visiting the memorials to the holocaust gave off mixed messages – on one hand they were a statement of a past that had been relegated to another age, but on the other they were stark reminders of the passions that resulted in the kind of ethnic cleansing that we are seeing in other parts of Europe once again. There was an exhibit along one of the remaining sections of the Wall which took the main thoroughfare, Wilhelmstrasse, through the last few generations – from the Weirmarch Republic through the Nazi era, the Russian occupation, the GDR and then finally the unification. The idea that came through was of devastating eruptions wrought over such a short time - how this city has suffered through so many different guises, from extreme hedonism through the brutalities of the Nazi Reich, the imposition of state socialism and finally the free-market anarchy of the modern age. People here must feel they live on a political fault-line, much as the people of San Francisco feel they live on a geological one. It gives a certain frisson to life, I suspect - living under the volcano.