Movement and Multiplicity: Berlin, Part I

“Life is movement and multiplicity. The great and ultimate ambition [of art] is to catch this living, this unknown and unknowable, this ever-changing life.”  ~ Herman Bang
– East Side Gallery –
   Berlin. A blend of music, culture, seamless modern architecture incorporated into old, historic buildings, parks and old churches, and So. Much. History radiating from the streets.  It’s as if Chicago collided with an old city in Europe.  Each neighborhood has a different feel  to it – the grunge, hipster area with beautiful graffiti artwork on random street corners, hidden street food markets, and a confusing array of transportation options that manage to be straightforward once you’ve just committed to one. There’s a definite young working class (yuppie? Hmmm not sure if I should use that word when the Berlin motto is reportedly, “We are poor, but we are sexy”) vibe. Recent graduates traveling from all over to find jobs in the city, rent out flats, go nightclubbing until 7 in the morning – the ultimate Berlin experience, or so I’ve been told. Rolled shirt cuffs, the formality of the business day blending into after work drinks, the neat creases of the button-up shirt fading as the night progresses, getting wilder, crazier, wearier with each passing hour. Exhaustion seeps into the corners of the early dawn. It’s not an electric energy necessarily, but there’s a definite verve running through the city and throughout the night. The city sleeps, sure, but not very well. The Ampelmann traffic signals. The city has the feeling of not quite knowing what its complete identity yet.  There’s still a slight sense of division, a remnant of the Berlin Wall. It’s present in the constant construction, the tearing down and building up, the continuous change. Movement and multiplicity.
 – Bike tour, graffiti on a street bridge, one of the oldest churches in Berlin, Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe –
 – East Side Gallery –
 – From Berlin Cathedral, locks on a bridge on Museum Island –
 – East Side Gallery –
    On the third day we were in Berlin, we visited the East Side Gallery – a two-mile part of Berlin Wall left standing today, painted with art-work and crazy colourful graffiti words. I ran my hand across the wall, fingertips touching all the different colours and the rough, textured concrete surface. And it was surreal. Because after learning about all of these historical events – the burning of the books in the square, Kristallnacht, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and so so many more – in textbooks for such a long time, being there made it real. Real, in that I could see it happening. Could see the books being burned, the café and shop windows being smashed, the people attempting to climb the wall and run to the other side. And it wasn’t that long ago that the wall came down. That was the craziest thing for me. When read about in a textbook, the event seems so far removed, distant, in the past; almost irrelevant after the test or quiz on the material. But at one of the places we went to later that night, we met a German PhD student who had escaped over the wall with his family when he was seven years old. He and his family went to live in the Czech Republic for a few years, before moving back to Germany when the wall came down.  And he was only a little bit older than us.
 – Bike tour –
 – Museum Island, in front of Berlin Cathedral with Zoe! Street Art –
 – Round Tower (hint from our bike tour guide: go to the top of the Park Inn to get a drink and enjoy a better view)
   We took a bike tour on our first day, and it was such a great way to see some of the city. Our tour guide was an American from Philadelphia, who had traveled the world for a while, before settling in Berlin a few years ago. He knew so much about the history of the city – it was amazing. We visited the Square where the burning of the books took place and saw Humboldt University across the street. We biked to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and walked amongst the high, heavy cement blocks, meant to symbolize headstones in a cemetery.
    The rows and rows of stones, all different heights, some larger-than-life, were seemingly endless, and you could get lost very easily down one of the pathways, hidden from sight by the tall surrounding blocks. And I suppose that might have been the point. That so many people were lost in the worst way possible, nameless, hidden from the sight of those who perhaps saw what was happening but pretended not to, or those who thought themselves far removed. And when reading more about the genocide inside the memorial itself, I almost just couldn’t believe that something like that had happened. Not just once. But so many times, in so many countries, to countless families. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the full extent of those horrific events, but I could see how they succeeded in carrying them out.
 – East Side Gallery –
     There was a moment in Poznan, when we were boarding the train to go to Berlin, and a policeman with a big German Shepard in tow walked by, and I got chills all of a sudden. Because I could see it then – the books I had read about the Holocaust, boarding the trains, the cramped and suffocating spaces, the people being herded onto the platform, belongings thrown everywhere and just chaos and confusion and violence. I could see how easy it might have been for Hitler and his party to gain control of trains for deportation, how the trains that connected all of Europe, really, would have been easy and convenient to board – the SS could get on, get off at an entirely different village or country and carry out their plan of extermination. And there would be no way that the village could prepare for that. It made my heart hurt too much to process all of it. And it made me so grateful for how my life has been so far. I’m so so fortunate, you know? That I haven’t lived in a war-torn zone, or had to escape over a wall with my family, fearing for my life. Later that afternoon, for some random reason, I thought about the noise outside our apartment window at school.
   My roommates and I hate the racket that the garbage trucks produce in the ridiculous hours of the morning, clashing steel on aluminum on the loudest possible metal – much before the sun has decided that the day can start, and the birds try in vain to make the wan light appear faster. And while I do complain about the noise – “Ugh, the nerve of those people to come at this hour. Go away, I just want sleep” – secretly, I kind of like the clanging, crashing sounds that start the day. I appreciate the racket because it’s not a sign of bombs dropping right outside of my window, or gun-shots ringing out in protest or war. We’re so lucky that those sounds mean something as trivial as people coming to collect our trash. And it’s trash we produce from daily, well-provided for, living.
     There is also a very loud traffic guard that blows his bulky shrill whistle seemingly for hours on end, early in the morning, at an unnecessary volume and recurrent rate. Sometimes I wonder how he doesn’t pass out from blowing his whistle for so long and at that volume. It’s worse than the most annoying alarm clock, but oh, do I love that traffic guard and his silly whistle. I love that whistle because it’s not a warning siren, an alarm of great tragedy. It’s not a signal to run and hide in a shelter somewhere underground, holding the hands of a stranger for comfort. No, it’s the sound of somebody making sure that people get to work safely, that traffic moves efficiently and clearly throughout the day at one of the busiest medical center intersections. Yeah, I guess that in the end, I don’t mind so much that the noise wakes me up at a time when no one should be awake. It’s the most solid reminder that I am alive, I am well, and I am safe. And in the end, I think that’s all you could wish for, and for the ones you love – that they are healthy and safe and happy.
 “Tried to find someone else he knows/All the hurt that a heart can hold/ We hate the rain when it fills up our shoes, but how we love when it washes our cars/ We love to love when it fills up the room/ but when it leaves, how we curse the stars.” – Ingrid Michaelson

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