Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Seeing Berlin

Say "Berlin" in a crowded room and most people, depending on their age, will conjure images of the Berlin Airlift, JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, the Berlin Wall or the gutted devastation following the Soviet capture of the city in April of 1945. Today people might speak of a plastic metropolis completely rebuilt for at least the third time since the war to rid itself of Socialist and then Soviet architecture, a contemporary city refusing to age gracefully and desperately trying to expunge the pain of its past through one too many facelifts.

This was not the city that I saw one Summer Saturday. Starting on the western most edge of my "tour zone" I went first to the Charlottenburg Palace, a major residence for the Hohenzollern Family but I wasn't there to see them. At the time of my visit the Egyptian Museum at Charlottenburg was home to the most famous bust in the world, that of Queen Nefertiti. This is the kind of iconic beauty that keeps the cosmetics industry fat with profits and women the world over vainly engaged in any effort to come anything close to similar. The amazement for me was in discovering that the bust is incomplete. The left eye is missing while both ears have been damaged but it takes nothing away from a masterpiece of art that may have been used for little more than a clothing dummy.

Strolling through the Tiergarten to the Brandenburg Gate did give me a sense of the military history along the street that would become "Unter Den Linden" on the East side, helped along by the Soviet War Memorial off my left shoulder. The seat of government has returned to the Reich-, now "Bundestag" lovingly restored but again I was on to other things: the "Museum Island" in the middle of the Spree River. On this concentrated plot are housed the Old Museum, the New Museum where Nefertiti and the Egyptian collection are housed today, the National Gallery, the Bode and, target of the day, the Pergamon Museum, also known as the Museum of Islamic Art.

Most will call it cultural theft but with the state of things in Iraq and Iran today between the British Museum, the Louvre and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin much Persian culture, art and architecture is preserved and available to the Western world today. Pergamon itself is an ancient city on the western shores of Turkey but the signature attraction is the Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon. "Breathtaking" is only a cliché until the gate actually appears incomprehensibly beautiful before the eyes. Imagine the grandest doorway to the most imposing wall of the grandest city ever built in the fertile crescent, multiply that by a factor of ten and keep going. All that is left of that magnificent city is this gate, leaving one and all to wonder what Babylon itself must have been like, hanging gardens and all.

Checkpoint Charlie is almost not even worth the time to get there since the wall is gone. All one finds today are souvenir hawks selling bits of concrete with graffiti painted on one side making loud offers to buy a piece of the wall. I had one more compelling stop to make before catching my Lufthansa flight out of town and it was not Hitler's Bunker which today is nothing more than a historical marker at the edge of a parking lot.

The "KuDamm" is the massive boulevard through the heart of town that is the very life of the club and underground scene. Lined with shops, restaurants and clubs catering to every above and below the belt taste, this is the Champs Elysees of the city, ripe for people watching and rife with equally high prices and opportunists. There was a street band playing a tight set of instrumental R&B with several members playing drums in sync to set the entire block foot tapping away. Berlin was alive on the KuDamm with the joy of a cool Saturday in July.

Despite being at the center of a major traffic plaza, everything from bands and bars to birds went ghostly quiet upon sighting the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche (Memorial Church). Constructed from 1891 to 1895 and designed to hold over 2,000 people, British bombing raids in 1943 reduced it to ruins. When plans for a new building were announced shortly after the war the people of the city campaigned to keep the "Hole in the Tooth" as they called the gutted shell as a reminder, if you will, of when God abandoned the Fatherland.

Since the wall came down Berlin competes with Munich for the honor of being party central in Germany and with good reason. Since that wall came down it is clear the people of Berlin have yet to really stop celebrating.

Having grown up in divided Germany in the 70s my one regret is not having been there the day it fell.

Gotta go.

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