For every non-native Berliner, there are certain clichés to inevitably confront; Cabaret, the bombed out shell recontructed from scratch, the gentrification of the old East and of course, the Berlin Wall. Yet behind those freshly renovated facades of Mitte there is still so much history and I often long to hear the stories of those who once lived there. On the table on the teachers' room the other day, a headline of the local paper claimed many people from the former East would prefer to forget their old lives, wanting to move on and bury the past with silence. One of the best resources for a way back into that time would be the students I teach but I often feel shy about asking them directly about that time and prefer to wait until they feel comfortable enough to share their memories with me. I hear different accounts, some full of "ostalgie", others mentioning darker aspects. One of my first classes in Berlin was at an I.T company where I was served a cup of poisonously strong coffee which made you feel like it was burning a hole in your stomach whenever you politely swallowed a mouthful. In the group, a woman explained how she and her female colleagues had a right to a day off work in the GDR for housework. She regretted the demolishing of the old Palast der Republik as this was the place she got married in but still made a pilgrimage there to the old site with her husband to celebrate their anniversary each year. Another student thought back to a time when he never needed to worry about being unemployed in a country where everyone had a job and the future was laid out before you.
From my Monday morning class, C. told us about a friend living in the East who became pregnant by her West German boyfriend. She applied to leave but heard nothing until a month before the baby was due when she received a letter telling her to leave the country within the next 24 hours. For the East German government, she had ceased to exist and her family who remained there could only meet the child with her boyfriend who was allowed to visit. There are the glimpses into the practical everyday life, waiting for 20 years for a Trabi and how many "Ossies" carried a special cloth bag around with them everywhere because you never knew where you would find something worth buying so always had to be prepared. They even brought it with them when the Wall fell.
The last few weeks have been monotonously grey but then last week, the sun reappeared on a day so warm, you could be forgiven for thinking it was spring. I went on my own search of the past, starting first at the Mauerpark which marked the border between East and West and where there was once a famous viewing platform for Westerners to get a glimpse into the East. The afternoon was full of music, people sat chatting, soaking up the golden rays or reading on the grassy banks. From there, it's just a stone's throw to one of the last remaining parts of the Wall at Bernauer Straße. I visited this place a couple of years ago but was astonished to see how much the site has expanded, with memorials for those who died trying to cross over, stands with audio commentaries, rusty posts representing the metal structures of the Wall that kept people in. I walked in the cemetary which was once cut off from the world as it was directly behind the Death Strip. no more burials could take place and people were not allowed to visit the graves. In a city with an ever changing face which is still forging its new identity, I find it hard to believe that such things took place, even when confronted with the harsh reality.
Tonight I'm cocooned in the living room with the heating on full. The rain is lashing down ferociously against the windows and soon I'll cook a meal with the vegetables I paused to buy from the Turkish stall by the entrance to the S-Bahn. While writing this post, a marching band stood outside the building playing a few military tunes but now the neighbours' little red haired girl is practising the piano in the room next to mine. Somehow I always find it soothing to hear her in the evening. In a few days, I'm flying to England for Abbie's wedding and then staying on to see family and friends. I feel a sense of excitement already at the idea of seeing everyone again. In my suitcase, I'll pack a copy of Anna Funder's amazing Stasiland which Abbie introduced meto years ago and which I'm re-reading, seeing the GDR through the eyes of its citizens and feeling glad that I can be part of the new Berlin story.
The evening sky from my kitchen window
In the Mauerpark
At the Chapel of Reconciliation on the site of the Church of Reconciliation which was demolished as it was too close to the Wall.
One of the few remaining watchtowers
The visitor centre
In the corridors of Nordbahnhof
The evening sky from my kitchen window