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Dreams of a Unified Berlin

5 October, 2008 (23:00) | Travelogue

A German eagle, symbol of the fatherland, sits defaced in backlash against the Third Reich in Berlin.
For more uberpolitical photos of Germany, click here.

“I’m being straight with you and-this is important so pay attention-if you had any other parents, they’d be telling you little lies that would eventually add up to your complete mental breakdown at the age of 8 or so. Trust me. You do not want this to happen.” My son is staring back at me, a small pool of drool cupped in the corner of his slack-jawed mouth. I’m not sure he’s understood every word I’ve just said, but given his high vocabulary for a one-year-old, I’m not worried about it. “Now, do you remember what I’m teaching you today?”

“Poddy twaining,” he says in that utterly cute way that will become annoying if he keeps it up past the age 4.

“No. We’ve been over this. Use the right words.”

“Sfinktuh contwol.”

“That’s right!” I’m beaming. “Sphincter control! Now, all the parents would telling you this is potty training. But no one calls it a potty unless they’re talking to a baby.”

“I’m a baby!” he yells, a smile on your face.

“Yes, yes you are. But I don’t want our relationship to be built on lies. Do you?” He’s got that deer in headlights look. I try to psychically impose the correct answer with my stare.

“No?” His answer is tentative, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and move on. After all, we’re only four minutes from dropping the boys off at training lake.

“That’s right. So, where were we?”

“Sfinktuh contwol!”

“Yes! Sphincter control. What you’re learning today isn’t potty training. All over the world there are lots of different kinds of toilet and bathroom, and not all of them have potties. So what we’re doing here is giving you control of your sphincter. From here on out, you will only poop when you want. Cool?”

“Yah!” He’s getting into it. I’m McArthur. I’m Eisenhower. I’m Sergeant Slaughter. He’ll be excited about this for weeks.

“Damn skippy! All those times you’ve peed your pants or wet your bed are history. No more diapers. No more bedpads. You’ll be your own man.”

“I’m a baby…” He doesn’t seem as sure of himself this time.

“Ok, fine. You’ll be your own baby. You ready to get started?”


“Great. I love that enthusiasm. But we’re not done with the introduction.” He looks a little sad. “Don’t worry,” I reassure him, “soon. Before we can start, I want you to know why we’re calling it… what are we calling it?”

“Sfinktuh contwol!”

“Yes! See, a sphincter is a hole. But it’s not just any hole. It’s one that opens and closes. Like the pupil in your eye is technically a sphincter.”

“I don’t think it is,” says Matt, breaking my momentum. “You should probably look it up.”

My kid’s now staring at him. I’ve lost my groove. My thunder’s gone. My face is scrunched up like raisin. And now I’m awake.

My bed is warm, but the hostel is cold. I can feel it on my hand and face, both hanging out from my blanket. I don’t want to get up. After Munich, this is what I’ve been reduced to. Our wanderings in the rain have ravaged my immune system. For the second time this trip-only the second time in six months-I’m sick.

For dinner last night we made soup in the communal kitchen at the hostel. I downed cup after cup of green tea, hoping it would amount to my quick recovery. Today, though, I feel worse than ever. It’s not helped by my imagination’s rendering of Matt’s derision.

The room I’m in is a classroom. It’s rather obvious. The entire building feels like a converted school. From the outside it looks like church, mottled stone walls arching menacingly over the small alley below. Reception and the breakfast hall might’ve been the church itself, or perhaps it was merely an auditorium. Whatever the case, these are hardly cozy rooms.

I was supposed to have the bed closest to the radiator-they assigned beds, going so far as to tell us “only take the bed number your given”-but when I got there, it had been taken. Rather than make a fuss, we just slid down a bed, putting us closer to middle of the room and further from the radiator and window above it. The boy-and I say that we the greatest degree of hate and contempt-currently sleeping in that bed was too hot and opened the window. It’s freezing now and I despise him for it.

Matt’s already gone from the room. I catch up to him at breakfast after pausing in the bathroom to divest myself of a metric assload of phlegm and snot. Breakfast officially ended 20 minutes ago, but I promise to scarf my food and they let me in. For 8€ they better.

Our first stop is Potsdamer Platz. As we leave the subway, we’re greeted by part of the Berlin wall. A large yellow peace sign has been scrawled over a hundred times by people telling me they were here… in the last year. I understand that this may have been a pilgrimage and I understand the urge to commemorate it, but why do people have to deface a piece of history to do so? To the right is a line of pieces of the wall, each equally marred. Interspersed are plaques talking about the history of the wall and the various other memorials to its crumbling.

A man in an East German uniform with an oversized German flag sits on one side offering East German passport stamps. He’ll even stamp your real passport just as if you’d been there. I wish I’d had my passport with me. Then again, who knows what passport control reentering the US would say.

My feet dangled over the edge of my parents’ bed as I watched them replay the videos over and over. I could see the euphoria in the people. I could feel their joy and hate radiating off the screen in a million little waves, waves of flags and fists flying into the air in victory. All the hairs on my prepubescent body stood on end though I knew I wasn’t close enough to the screen for it to be the result of static. I watched the wall tumble piece by piece, blow by blow there in the bedroom in Boston, not truly understanding what was happening. In a few days I’d hear rumblings of it at school, but no one really cared; we had fourth grade to deal with. It wasn’t for a few years that the importance of the moment began to sink in, when the Soviet Union crumbled just like the wall, when my Russian and Ukrainian and Tajikistani and Georgian and Uzbek friends suddenly weren’t Soviets any more. The Berlin wall would never be put back together, but its importance had only just been built in my mind, destruction begetting destruction culminating in an odd synthesis of experience and idea.

Standing in front of these cement chunks, being able to reach out and run my fingers over their scarred faces, solidified this understanding.

Here, right here, people stood and trembled, wondering if they’d see their family on the other side ever again. Here, in this spot, people glanced back and forth, waiting for the opportune moment to duck across and find themselves in a place they could expect to eat at every meal. Here, before these grey slabs of distance, people dreamed of having access to the same lives their friends and brothers and countrymen enjoyed a mere pittance of meters away. And here, people reached across a deadly chasm for hope and didn’t make it.

The images of the wall falling are iconic. It’s the penultimate symbol of the end of the communist threat (the ultimate being China’s subtle use and ironic domination of capitalism). And to stand before it carries a weight I never expected.

Cinching my Tibetan coat around me and flipping my hood up, I study each segment, reading the panels in between. The Berlin Wall Memorial isn’t just restricted to this installment. Outside the Markisches Museum lie 10 pieces of the wall. There’s more at Bernauer Straße, Checkpoint Charlie, and in the Tiergarten, as well as a large and awesome installment known as the East Side Gallery. I decide it’s my mission while in Berlin, sick or not, to see as much of the Berlin Wall as possible.

Across the street are a series of white tents. Nobody’s manning them currently, but the sun is barely up as it glints off the massive skyscrapers in this area. As we wander through the buildings, we see a performance of blue man group rehearsing outside the theatre featuring their show currently. None of the men on stage are in makeup.

“I wonder which of them are blue men,” Matt says.

“I suspect it’s just the backup band. My bass teacher in high school was asked to be  a blue man but turned it down. He said that they required him to play in the backup band for a year or two before getting chance to don the makeup and go onstage.”

“The guy in the middle looks like he’d be a blue man,” he says scowling at me, referring to the drummer with the giant dreads.

As we continue on, we pass LegoLand. Unfortunately, it’s mostly underground, be we are able to enjoy a giant Albert Einstein with vampire teeth and a 12 foot Lego giraffe.

Just outside the Tiergarten is a memorial to the mentally handicapped killed in the holocaust. The massive stone grey bus has multiple locations, with two of the buses actually traveling and the third permanently installed here. It’s another aspect of the tragedy I was previously unaware of. The gray busses are meant to represent the actual buses that took these people to the camps. The plaque nearby offers the obscured meaning of the monument.

Between Dachau and this, I’m terribly torn. The art evokes an emotional response that’s proper: horror, shame, guilt, sadness. Yet, what’s more important than the emotional response is understanding what it is we’re mourning. One of my college professors once said that going to a museum is an odd experience because if you watch the people, they look at the art and then look at the plaque. You can never tell which actually offers the meaning. One cannot truly function without the other, the image and the knowledge tied in such a manner that it becomes a perfect dialectic.

The Tiergarten is massive. Matt tells me that it’s the former hunting grounds of the royal family. Today, it’s a beautiful park that is like several Central Parks stitched together. The autumn colors are overwhelming and people are out in force enjoying them, biker, strollers, and prams twining together in that perfect Sunday afternoon feel.

As we exit the park, we cut over to the Victory Column.  At the other end of the road is the Brandenburg Gate, but from here it’s obscured by scaffolding. The road between the two is mostly closed off, with the central area being used for parking. The column itself is a good three or four stories tall, with Winged Victory perched atop, glinting gold in the sun.

Rather than walk the length of the road, we head over to the Reichstaad, Berlin’s seat of government. The huge clear dome offers one of the best views of the city. When we arrive, there’s a line stretching several hundred meters out the door.

“I don’t really want to stand in line, especially if it costs money for a ticket,” I say. Being sick, waiting in the cold isn’t high on my list. In addition, the clouds have started to roll in, the warmth of the sun dissipating in the oncoming showers.

“It probably costs money,” says Matt. He turns from the Reichstaad and looks at me expectantly. I don’t respond. After a few moments of silence, he heads toward the line saying, “Well, I want to go up.”

“I’ll catch up with you back at the hostel, then.”

“You’re not just going to go back, are you?”

“Of course not,” I say with an annoyed smirk. I only have a couple days in Berlin. Sick or not, I don’t plan on wasting them. “I’ll probably wander over and check out the Jewish Museum or something. Then maybe I’ll go back and grab a nap. Later.” I turn and leave.

For the first time since my early morning romp in Jaisalmer, India, I feel good about splitting up and heading my own way. Between our time in Greece and the intense but sporadic bickering, time apart will likely do us good.

I head toward the Brandeburg Gate. There’s a stage set up in front of it, a mediocre poppy jazz band playing to a small crowd. Stands of fried dough and snack foods surround the pathways nearby. The gate itself is blocked from view, commercialized with a Coca-Cola banner. I can’t decide if I should annoyed that such a wonderful piece of history is marred by the strange celebration or amazed at the way they perfectly built around it. In front are a ton of people wandering in for the show. Men in old uniforms are taking pictures with people and stamping passports just like at Potsdamer Platz.

Suddenly it dawns on me. Florian told us that October third was German Unification Day. The celebration must spill over all weekend. I head back through the festivities. A punk kid passes me, a swastika on his jacket circled in red and cross out, the anti-Nazi sentiments clear. He starts yelling at me in German for staring.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I was just really impressed with your patch. I think it’s cool.” Suddenly he’s smiling and friendly, apologizing for going off.

The cold is really hitting me now. I wander and wander, passing parks and museum, finding myself completely lost. And suddenly I’m done. I’m in a stupor the entire way back to the hostel, yet when I arrive, I can’t quite fall asleep. I toss and turn, waiting for sleep to take me. Eventually I drift off. Flashing in front of me are images of celebration and terror; scenes of families reunited and hope dashed. As I fight the virus ravaging my system, the one though I’m left with is that for fifty years, Germany was divided by a strange disease. Today it’s united. Today it’s healthy once more.