Saturday, December 11, 2010

So I'm in the Motherland. My great great grandmother lived here and had 5 boys; didn't want them going off to fight the Czar so she made her husband emigrate to America. Nebraska. Kept all five of her boys alive to live long and happy lives. She was one tough looking girl, too. Like most of the German women I've seen this weekend. And the men! DO NOT presume that ladies would exit an elevator first; even if they were standing by the door. If you're a lady on an elevator, you stand back and let the men in the back come forward and exit proudly. There exists, still today, a strong and valued reason why my great great grandmother knew exactly what she was talking about.

I'm staying in Mitte, in Berlin, which in the 1970s the world knew as East Berlin. Now it's this poshy neighborhood, confirming the worst fears of someone I knew once, who said that Berlin is becoming gentrified beyond a feeble recognition of itself, just like Soho in New York did. I am so glad I came. There exists, in every neighborhood in this town, a statement as to the new, old Berlin. Reunification, that is. But somehow, each arch, building, monument, sculpture and signatory construction falls short of making the definitive comment on what it was like to have the east part of town suddenly taken from the community and, in a stunning reversal, not only taken but used as a prisoner of war in an ongoing battle that may have only been settled in the late 1980s. I cannot think of any American town that would cope well with that.

Part of the way Berlin haunts you is the there is not much left of its palpable history. Oh sure, there's the bridal path from the winter palace to the summer palace, over there in Charlottenburg. Heck, there's even the Charlottenburg Castle. But in the place of the glorious, phenomenal, centuries -old- buildings and neighborhoods in London, Milan, Paris and Istanbul, stand post war modern stark installations where people work, play, eat, and buy what they want and need in this life. Everything here was bombed; everything was destroyed. So the Germans rebuilt, re-imagined, entire neighborhoods and sections of this town. Fold in the new reincarnation of the old Berlin and you have, solidly, a work in progress whose master plan still resides in the heads and hearts the electorate. In other words, nobody really knows for sure. They're still thinking it through. There is no flow and glide to this city; even the demarcation, the wall put up by the Russians, follows incredibly irregular lines and grids through neighborhoods, rivers, woods, parks, industrial areas, retail and service neighborhoods. You just don't know. You just can't get a feel.

Another thing that's sad and haunting for me is the art. There is very little classical art and architecture in the public domain left here in Berlin; and the art that does remain is stodgy; solidly unimaginative and stubbornly unyielding. The best art here is the graffiti, except for the art that the artists of the world came and made on the remaining section of the Wall; it's section by section; spectacular; exciting; none of it German. How do you have a town without its own art, now and then?

But Berlin remains. Stubborn, solid, stodgy. Angela Merkel and the foreign minister came out hard yesterday in defense of the euro. Told the EU that they have to man up and protect the currency; the idea of EU bonds will only prolong the drama. The contemporary Germans are people who have lived through sacrifice and heartbreak;and they know how they got there. They do not intend to go there again. I'm reminded of what Henry VIII did to his people; taxed them to death to pay for any one of a number of pissing matches with his countrymen, his allies and his enemies. I'm no Doris Kearns Goodwin but it seems to me that Germany has had it with being right, and righteous, too. Elizabeth the I, Henry's daughter, reigned over one of the most prosperous eras in the entire history of England and surely, post-war Germany mirrors that success and prosperity these days. The trains stations are marvels; the airports, while quite institutional, are models of efficiency. Somebody, somehow, had to pay for all these new buildings, even if they are nothing special but instead, seriously functional. All of the menial jobs are held by immigrants--people with brown skins and dark eyes. That tells me there's enough going on here for people to leave their homes and families because it's a better life here.

So from this seat in the stadium, it looks like Germany has regained everything it lost in a century of wars and political miscalculations. But I'd love to see their national consciousness sprout around their capital city; I'd love to see their hope, not just their resolution, and I'd love to see their heart, not just their ambition. More than a beer glass; more than exceptional engineering, Germany's got to be something more, something else. I can't wait to find it.

On Assignment
East Berlin, Germany

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