05 September 2009

Of Checkpoints and Snackpoints

Berlin is an odd town, one that seems confused about and ill at ease with its history.

This is probably in part because it's also a new town--as our tour guide pointed out yesterday, the unified Berlin, sans wall, is still a teenager (it will turn 20 later this year). So it's still gawky and awkward, still testing new things, figuring out its identity, and growing, growing, growing.

Our tour started just inside the former East Berlin, near the Brandenburg Gates. At a Starbucks. Next to The Museum Kennedys.

The presence of these trappings of tourism didn't actually surprise me here, actually. It's a famous landmark; of course there's a museum and a Starbucks nearby.

But for some reason--naivete, I guess--I didn't expect pretty much all of what we saw in East Berlin to look essentially the same. Aside from a few scattered ugly, blocky apartment buildings, it looked exactly like West Berlin: same people, same landscape, same tourist restaurants and non-touristy bistros. If you were to drop me into a random Berlin neighborhood, I probably wouldn't be able to tell you if it were East or West. (And come to think of it, the West part of the city also has its share of regrettable architecture, so even those blocky apartment complexes might not be a tip-off.)

What was even more unexpected, though, was the close--close--proximity of memorials and tourist crap.

There are monuments all over: the Holocaust Memorial, with its haunting field of stone blocks of various sizes, orderly and yet chaotic; the sunken room full of empty shelves on the square where the Nazis burned books; the double rows of cobble stones that trace the line of the Berlin Wall, showing the seam where the nation was ripped apart and is slowly, even now, being sewn back together.

It seems like every few steps, there's a moving remembrance and you keep realizing you're in yet another place that you remember from your high school history class. But the minute you start to reflect on the awful things that happened here, you're distracted: t-shirts, ice cream, postcards coffee, get your photo taken in this American GI outfit, bus tours of the city--board here!
I realize that many historic places have tourist amenities and junk to buy. Even the Anne Frank House has a gift shop and a cafe. Here, though, it seems like every single block has both a monument and a Hard Rock Cafe, and the presence of the latter does rather diminish the somber nature of the former.

Case in point: Checkpoint Charlie. This used to be the main waystation between East and West Berlin. Arthur notes that it is actually quite simple for tourists to visit the East--the Wall is there to keep Easterners in, not others out. Of course, there's not much to see there, none of the wacky, wonderful nightclubs that Arthur raves about in West Berlin. But if you do want to cross the border, not problem: just "register your name with the American MPs at Checkpoint Charlie, tell them the time you plan to return, and if you're not there at that time, they'll take action."

(Let us pause for a moment of thanks that World War III was not begun over a missing American tourist, who simply got lost or was having too much fun in East Germany, and was late to return to the checkpoint.)

The checkpoint is still there. On one side of the street, there's a museum (Checkpoint Charlie Museum, naturally). I didn't go in, but it looks Serious and Informative.

Facing the museum, on the other side of the street, is Snackpoint Charlie, a food court with a Subway, a Chinese fast food stand, and other such establishments. (None of which, by the way, appears to offer cheesily-named foods like a Berlin Wall-dorf Salad or a U-Boat Sub. The kitsch level was disappointingly low.)

Between these centers of heartache and heartburn, in the median in the middle of the street, is a guard house. This is where the actually checkpoint was. It looks pretty realistic, if you can block out the tourists and free-flowing traffic. There's a wall of sandbags; there are two guys in 1960s-era military garb, one holding an American flag, the other bearing the Union Jack of Britain. A third, about twenty feet into East German territory, stands in a tiny hut with a laptop; in front of the hut is a tripod with a camera on top.

Get your photo with the Allied guards. Seven euros and up.

Just don't try to take your own photo of the soldiers. If you do, the American will snap at you in Russian-accented English.

A block away, in East German territory, a long fence along the sidewalk bears a series of signs with a detailed history of the Wall. There are photos, illustrations, and text in multiple languages; it's a moving testament to the tyranny this place has suffered. At the end of the line of signs, there's a new sign, a sandwich board blocking the sidewalk: Ben & Jerry's Sold Here. A few steps on, you can step into a souvenir shop with tacky t-shirts.

I can't express how common this scene is, or how jarring and dizzying. The city can't seem to decide whether it wants to dwell on the past or focus on the future. So it tries to do both. The attitude is "never forget, but don't spend too much time remembering, either."

Today Lee was looking at our map, trying to figure out our trip tomorrow to a former concentration camp. The map is a free one (Arthur's was not very useful, so we had to get a backup at the hotel reception desk); it was printed by a company that runs various tours, the starting points of which are noted on the map.

The pub crawl, for example, starts near the Oranienburger Strasse station. The concentration camp, Sachsenhausen, is at the end of the same train line, close to the Oranienburg station. You could easily do both tours in the same day, and given the tourist map's large ads for each, it seems like that's probably fairly common.

Head this way for the death camp; that way for the party. Or do both. I think that about sums up Berlin.

No comments:

Post a Comment

You know the drill: keep it civil and on-topic, don't spam, don't run with scissors, floss. For posts older than three weeks, comments will be moderated before publication.