No, I am not saying that I’m a jelly donut. Although, certain comparisons could be made… What I’m saying, and what JFK was saying, is that I am one with the people of Berlin. This is how I feel whenever I visit that city.
My first trip to Berlin was over twenty-five years ago, shortly after the wall had come down. It was a city in the process of transformation, and there were construction cranes everywhere. I remember that the most interesting thing about the city to me at the time, was the way old construction and modern architecture existed side-by-side as if it were perfectly normal. The best example of this is the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. A bombed out facade of stone that stood next to a sleek steel and glass skyscraper.
When I visit now, I find it almost impossible to know where the wall stood, and have no idea, just by looking at my surroundings, when I’m in what was formerly East Berlin. However, after a few days of exploration, I have discovered that the former East side has a different energy. It feels more alive, more fun, more free, more…transformed. I notice that there are subtle differences in the way people dress and act, and there are noticeably less tourists. Being on the “east” side, I really do feel like a true Berliner, especially in the neighborhoods of Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg. It used to be that only on the east side could you find sausage carts selling bratwurst, like NY hotdog carts. Now they are ubiquitous, and definitely one of the most delicious simple pleasures of life!
I’m really not very big on visiting the usual tourist destinations when I travel, and being in Berlin I am no different. I find it much more interesting to go on an Artist’s Walk, or to shop at the local market along the river bank, than to visit Checkpoint Charlie or the Victory Column. However, I did completely by accident stumble across the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
I had never heard of it, and only afterwards discovered that it is a labyrinth composed of 2700 cement slabs, each of a unique shape and size. Looking at it when first coming across it, I was not impressed; and although the slabs did resemble tombstones, I wasn’t really feeling any great impact. Having visited a concentration camp, I felt that this memorial did not capture the horror that easily surfaced when walking in a Nazi death camp. In fact, with the Parliament dome lit up in the background, it seemed a bit dull and pedestrian.
My friend told me that one had to walk inside to experience what the architect wanted the design to reflect, which was the loss and disorientation that the Jews felt during the Holocaust. So, of course we went inside.
The slabs rise in height as you move towards the center, and even though we were moving in a straight line I discovered that I had still lost my sense of direction. I knew that if I kept moving forward, that I would eventually come out, but it didn’t feel like that was true. It was at night and the pathways were mostly unlit, so everywhere you looked you just saw blocks of cement, seemingly going off to infinity in every direction. Logically, I knew I was perfectly safe, but nonetheless I was starting to panic. Although the slabs mostly look like they’re the same size and shape, I think I was subconsciously perceiving that they were all different, and it was confusing me. I really began to feel lost. I became unsure that we were moving in the right direction to get out, and even when we came across a lit pathway, I hesitated to follow it. Somehow, it felt like a trap. What if it just led me further in, and not out? We took a right turn, because it appeared that the blocks were getting shorter, and within a minute we exited.
We joked about the impossibility of actually being trapped in a maze that had no walls, but we couldn’t deny the momentary feelings of panic and hopelessness that we both experienced while deep inside. I know we were only inside for a few minutes, but it seemed like a very long time.
I needed a drink after that. (Of course, the necessity for having a drink is not always preceded by an experience such as this, however it made it slightly more justifiable in this instance. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it…)