Rambling Through Berlin @ Christmastime

smw, slt has been in Europe for five weeks. First we did some training in Holland, then we visited some friends and family in parts of Germany (rather than burn extra carbon and money just to fly across the Atlantic two more times in a short time period), then we came to Paris where we’ve been trying to get our French up to full strength before working in it every day down by the equator. After a month of grey skies and f**king freezing temperatures – yikes! – I’m definitely ready for equatorial weather. As it turns out I’m cutting things a bit short and heading to work earlier than planned, which is just fine by me: I’m ready to work; I’m sad to miss my last week in Paris and my chance to see colleagues and friends again in Amsterdam, but I’m eager and excited to get to work again in what I’ve always heard is a beautiful, complex country that is, as the French like to say, très passionant.  My dictionary says that word translates as fascinating, gripping, enthralling, exciting…which misses the point that its root is passion, a word and a concept that the French, among all, take really quite seriously. I’ll be in touch, when I can, from DRC…wish me luck and much passionant-ness. In the meantime, enjoy some views of Berlin, Paris & Holland under mostly grey skies.

I visited in Berlin in 1980, 81 and 90. I lived in West Germany in 1980-81 and first experienced the old Soviet Bloc in August 1980, when I traveled with a class trip (from my German high school-for-a-year) to Poland, just weeks after the Solidarity movement began its strikes in Gdansk. I think historical consensus is that those strikes were the beginning of the (long) end of the Soviet bloc, indeed ultimately of the Soviet Union itself. I have dear and close friends, as good as family, scattered around northern West Germany who had relatives in East Germany throughout the GDR/DDR’s existence as a separate state. Those relatives never had the freedom to cross the border and visit their families west of the border, and West Germans faced various impedimentary rules and restrictions when visiting their own relatives in East Germany. I last visited this great world city in May 1990, when the wall and the GDR/DDR both still existed, physically and legally, but were both clearly in a caretaker, end-of-life state. That’s the only time I ever crossed the border through the “Palace of Tears,” aka Berlin Friedrichstrasse S-Bahn station, where GDR (West German) citizens were required to enter and exit East Berlin: other times I crossed that border I, like all American citizens, had to cross through Checkpoint Charlie. (It’s called Palace of Tears, of course, because of how many were shed over the years by families from east and west required to part company there until the next visit from west into east could happen.) Now I walked through Checkpoint Charlie unimpeded, along an un-walled & Christmas-decorated Frierichstrasse; and yes, with tears in my eyes thinking about how this great city and the people of this nation were cut in two for so many decades, and enjoying how very vibrant, alive, and whole both the city and the country now seem to be. Berlin’s a mighty fine city full of culture, museums, history, lovely streets and buildings both old and new, whose local and national governments have done a great job of reuniting, in a pleasant and functional way, what for so long were two halves of one whole, cut off in the middle. Enjoy the photos.

Immediately above: Synagogue on Oranienburgerstrasse, which I guess benefited from benign neglect through the GDR years as it was on the east side; below, the stunning and functional new main train station (don’t ask how trains were organized in the divided Berlin; it was messy and far from ideal), smack in the middle of what used to be the no-man’s zone; it, like most of the ultra-modern govenrment buildings you’re seeing in and around the banks of the Spree in the heart of the city, have all been put up in the past 20 years to make good use of the old barbed-wire & guard-tower death zone on the east side of the wall.

Have you noticed I took as many pics as possible when the sun managed to break through the clouds? Most of the blue-sky photos are from Gendarmenmarkt, a gorgeous public square a few blocks north of Checkpoint Charlie (and the Wall) in the former East Berlin, whose twin churches and concert houses are now lovingly restored and, these days, hosting a classic German Christmas Market. Below: one of my brother’s homes away from home, Berlin’s greatest university which has gotten a shot in the arm by being on a newly reunited Unter den Linden, also on the former east side… And below that, one of the grand old buildings on (formerly east side) Museum Island, which amply demonstrates why taking photos is more fun when the sun is shining.

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