mardi 16 novembre 2010

In Berlin by the wall

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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.

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On the streets of Prenzlauer Berg on the way to the Mauerpark

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In the Mauerpark

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At the Chapel of Reconciliation on the site of the Church of Reconciliation which was demolished as it was too close to the Wall.

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One of the few remaining watchtowers

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The visitor centre

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In the corridors of Nordbahnhof

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The evening sky from my kitchen window

29 commentaires:

  1. Thanks for your thoughts, Vanessa. I have actually had it up to here (my hand is at my neckline) with 'ostalgia'. My experiences in Berlin are all before the Wall fell. I spent a fair amt. of time in East Berlin & it drives me mad, this stuff. I understand better than many the 'why' of it. But I do wish Ossies would fight the instinct. It's not that they should say it was 24/7 horrible if they had some good family times, etc. But just the pushback when certain films are released (The Lives of Others, for example) is annoying. I won't go into all of that, but it reminds me of old women parading around in Russia (& other parts of the former USSR) with portraits of Stalin, holding them like precious icons. Things are bad, especially now, things haven't coalesced for many reasons, yes, I know.

    But when you talk to people who were imprisoned or otherwise harassed in DDR, USSR, Hungary, Poland, on & on...or, oh, hear (or read in the archives) interviews & such that would curl the hair on even the most sanguine of people. The woefully low percentage of people who even want to look into their Stasi files (or even know they had one) is sad to me. This is a big subject & it is on my mind a lot the last few years, & esp. this one. So I'll shut up now...

    Enjoy your trip to UK...& for a wedding, too. That should be a lot of fun. I always think it's more fun for guests than the to-be-marrieds. Or maybe that's just my experience. Anyway, have a great time.



  2. I love these glimpses. One day I hope to travel to Berlin. I know that from your photos and writing, it won't feel foreign, but very familiar.

  3. I'd love to see that part of Berlin and hear those stories. very interesting to know that there is a certain Ostalgie among the ex-East Germans...

    Lovely shots!

    Have fun at the wedding!



  4. Wow! this is stunning, amazing, impressive and inspiring. the pictures alone said so much! thank you for sharing and so nice to meet your blog!

  5. I enjoyed the taste of life in Berlin that I've experienced here on your lovely site. I love your blog name, photography and writing. All together a nice visit and thanks for your comments on my guest post for Lazaro:)

  6. Coucou Vanessa ! Mes visites se font rares ces temps-ci, mais chaque fois que je viens faire un tour par chez toi, tu ne cesses de m'étonner. Bravo pour ce dernier billet ! Bises et bonne échappée en Angleterre :-) Julia*

  7. One of the great things about staying away from the blogosphere for a while is to find a whole series of new Vanessa-posts to read!
    I read Stasiland when it was published in France a few years ago and found it quite intense, 100% necessary. I thought the book deserved more recognition than it actually got at the time. Maybe things have changed...

  8. @Susan - your comment makes me think of that Leonard Cohen song, the Future "Give me back the Berlin Wall, give me Stalin and St. Paul, I've seen the future brother, it is murder." Interesting that your visits to Berlin took place while it was still divided; it'd be interesting hearing more about that. I agree about the Ostalgia. Even if there were also good things, they were surely outnumbered by the bad and why would you want a dictatorship back?! Capitalism has serious flaws but at least it's better than this. Books like Stasiland are important to remind people of that so the cosy aspects of Trabis, Honecker jokes and graffiti covered slabs of Wall don't overshadow the evil. It's true that it gets worse whenever films are released, although I find the throwback with Goodbye Lenin much worse than the Lives of Others which shows the East in a negative light.

    With the Stasi files, I find it difficult to comment as I was never spied on. I guess people just want to know after being denied basic information for so long. Ulrich Mühe who played the Stasi agent in the Lives of Others describes the problems of doing this because even when you've read your files, you can't confront these informants publicly and have no legal right to make claims about them so the sense of closure is limited. Thanks for the long comment, it's good to know people have such strong feelings about the topic.

    Regarding the wedding, I was never married so don't know if it's more fun as a guest but I'm certainly looking forward to it. I haven't forgotten the ice skating and Christiams lights photos from London either! Take care.

    @Tracy - You know where you can stay if you come over this way...

    @Rosa - It's a sad fact that people miss a world where they seemed to be better off in some ways than today, even dictatorships. As Susan says, some Russians even want Stalin back. I haven't been to a wedding for a couple of years and can't wait.

    @Bren - Thanks to you for stopping by and saying hello. And thanks too for the comments; it's great to hear that.

    @Pacheco Party - Your guest post was awesome and it's lovely to see you here - thanks!

    @Julia - Je suis si contente de te revoir ici et j'ose même dire que j'espère avoir un nouveau billet de toi bientôt ^^. Mais je sais que tu n'as pas beaucoup de temps. Merci pour ton commentaire, je suis très touchée. J'ai le même sentiment en te lisant. Bises et à bientôt Julia.

    @Julie - It's a pleasure to have your posts again and thanks for taking the time to read mine. It's true hat Stasiland is an important book even if it's terribly sad and as you say, pretty intense. It won a couple of awards I think and when I visited the Stasi prison a couple of years back with Abbie, the guide recommended that as the book to read so it's good to see it getting some recognition. I like the way it's not just dry facts but also personal stories with hangovers etc.

  9. wow, wow, wow, what a terrific post and such an interesting topic. Berlin looks like such an incredible place.

  10. J'aime beaucoup ce post, les témoignages de berlinois et les photos (ça ne doit pas être facile, le vélo avec toutes ces feuilles mortes).
    A Nordbahnhof, cet été, il y avait quelques panneaux sur la partition du métro à l'époque du mur qui m'avaient passionnée. J'avais aussi trouvé très émouvants les portraits des victimes du mur dans la grande base de données du mémorial. Il faudrait passer des heures à découvrir toutes ces histoires singulières, ces espoirs déçus.
    La journée housework me fait sourire, j'ai l'impression que la DDR essayait de faciliter la vie de la femme mais sans pousser l'audace jusqu'à bouleverser les stéréotypes et suggérer qu'on puisse partager les tâches ménagères !

  11. Great pictures ! Am I going crazy or did you get a new camera ?
    What a moving post! My students are only ten years younger than me, and I feel they're from a different generation already. When people ask me why, I always reply it's because the fall of the Berlin Wall is not part of their memories. I was very young at the time, but I already liked maps a lot. I remember my parents explaining to me that the world map we had in the living room was no longer up to date, that USSR didn't exist anymore (I remember the slight panic : where was it gone?).
    Anyways, walls. It's hard to believe we're still considering them in some parts of the world...

  12. I have a friend who grew up in the East, he told me they used to have this one shop where they sold Western clothes and everyone remembers the special smell it had and he's never smelt it since...He lives his life as if there's no tomorrow in a way and my armchair analysis of that is that he had to do so much hard stuff as a young man (dig pipelines in Russia etc) that he feels like he wants to make up for lost time.
    Great and thought-provoking post, have a great trip lovely!

  13. @Hila - Thanks! Your post on more serious topics inspired me to write about the memories of the Wall and I'm glad I took the plunge.
    @Rose - Je pensais à toi à cet endroit que tu as visité en été. Moi aussi, cela m’impressionnait de voir ces panneaux de de penser que Nordbahnhof était une ghost station sans passagers. Tu as bien raison avec la journée de ménage; entendre ces femmes dire que c'était mieux avant!
    @Pia - Do the pictures look different? I've still got my Canon SLR I bought a few months ago but maybe I just got more comfortable using it. I guess we're the last generation to still have some kind of memories of the old USSR, the Wall and, for me, Mrs Thatcher. Some people don't believe me but I really do remember the night the Wall fell, watching it on TV with my parents. For a maplover like you, looking at all these divisions must be fun.
    @Sasa - How interesting about your friend. It's good though that he was still young enough when things changed to be able to enjoy a different life. I don't know if I'd have the emotional strength of some of the people who really suffered to be able to build a new life. Can't wait to share my experiences of the trip with you.

  14. When I next travel to Berlin, could you be my walking guide? I love seeing the city through your eyes and I wish I had had this insight when I traveled there 2 years ago.

    I think that, in regards to "Ostalgie", many people view the past with tinted glasses. When something has come to pass away, we tend to ameliorate it. And sometimes there is comfort or a feeling of safety in a restrictive lifestyle. I don't know terribly much about these things, however. Just something I have noticed from others' experiemces.

  15. @Lecia - Why thanks! Have a great weekend.
    @Amber - I'd be so honoured to walk through the city with you.
    With Ostalgie, I agree that we all have a tendency to see it through those rose tinted glasses you mention. It's true that crime was lower because everyone was observed, food prices was cheaper (but then again, what could you buy) and there were excellent writers and plays in the East. After the Wall fell, it was hard to them to find a new direction. But we should be careful about overemphasising these aspects, that's all.

  16. Tu sais Vanessa, je me souviens tres bien du temps ou le mur etait la, il n'y a pas si longtemps, ou des familles etaient separees depuis des dizaines d'annees, ou les gens, finalement, etaient prisonnier derrriere des barbeles. Je crois que les gens ont la memoire courte.

  17. Thank you for this post. One of the last things I did before leaving Berlin was to visit the Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse. It was moving and haunting. I will try to get a copy of Stasiland. Your photos of Berlin make me want to return. There is so much to see.

  18. I enjoyed the comments this post, Vanessa. And I was interested in the attitudes of looking back on bad times with nostalgia. I'm like you, we learn from history, but look forward and hope things get better.
    When I would reminisce with my FIL he wasn't interested. He'd say: "That's history!!"
    I so enjoy Berlin through your eyes and mind.

  19. Amazing images, thank you so much for sharing with us!

    Come enter my giveaway from Empress of the Eye! You will love the interview!


    Art by Karena

  20. merci pour cette agreable "promenade"

  21. Vanessa, I know there are many people in the US... college students, who know nothing of the Berlin wall or its fall. As history is taught less and less, the collective memory shortens more and more. As Satayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." And so we will and so we do. Your images are so evocative of your city... I hope your students appreciate your vision.

  22. oh, gosh! that croissant made me laugh. the hippies sign, even harder!!

    truly remarkable, to see brambles engulfing the last vestiges, no?

  23. I like thinking of you listening to the neighbors' little red haired girl practicing the piano in the room next to yours.

  24. trop longtemps que je n'étais pas passée ici !!!
    de bien belles photos pour un mur de l'horreur ................

    bises et bon mardi gourmand


  25. While I live in the city, I am not frequently inspired by marching bands or piano players outside my window. What lovely images and words.

  26. Hej Vanessa! Ton petit mot a suffit à me motiver : j'ai publié un nouveau billet ;-) Bises et à bientôt. Julia*

  27. Everything that you write about is too close to my experience. I had two grandparents who survived Stalin GULAG. Because of that I didn't have a chance to travel abroad to capitalist countries before Perestroika. Now it sounds crazy.

  28. @Gracienne - Tu as bien raison! Le probleme, c'est aussi la jeune generation qui n'ont pas de tels souvenirs et pour eux, c'est vraiment cool l'Allemagne de l'Est. Recemment j'ai lu un article affreux qu'Israel aurait pensait a construire un mur a la frontiere avec les libanais. J'espere vraiment que le temps des murs est fini.
    @P.K - Stasiland is a wonderful book and I'm sure you'll recognise a lot of the Berlin that you knew, even if Mitte is much trendier than when she lived there. I'm hoping to visit the Stasi museum when I get back to Berlin.
    @Barbara - Thanks dear Barbara! I think your FIL had the right idea. Too many people try to recreate the past, instead of moving on and making the best of the present.
    @Karena - Thanks for the comment. I've probably missed your giveaway since I've been away but will pay you a visit soon.
    @Julia - J'aime enormement ton blog mais je n'y laisse jamais de commentaire car je ne trouve jamais les mots. C'est bien dommage. Merci de ta visite!
    @Deana - Well my students don't read this blog but I hope they enjoy talking about their lives with me. We have to keep such memories alive in order not to make the same mistake. Thanks for the wonderful quote; I totally agree.
    @Molly - The hippies sign is really funny. In a way, I quite like the idea of nature taking over and changing these awful man made structures into something of the earth.
    @Denise - Hearing her play always comforts me and I honestly like it better than any cd, as strange as that may sound.
    @Virginie - Merci d'avoir trouve le temps pour regarder mon blog. Ca fait longtemps que je n'ai pas lu le tien et je vasi essayer de trouver un moment ce WE. Bises!
    Nicolette - The marching band was rather strange and exceptional but charming. The piano playing is lucky and before this flat, I never had anything like that. I love my new neighbourhood!
    @Julia - Alors ca, c'est une tres bonne nouvelle :-)
    @Olga - I haven't lived through anything like what you have though Olga. I read your wonderful post about book and public libraries for example. Books are such a passion of mine that I can't imagine them being restricted and that's not even the worst thing about the system. Thank goodness things have changed!