This city is so alive, having been pushed close to death so many times.
You reference the Berlin Wall, the divided Germany so easily in conversation, like you really know what you’re talking about. But standing at Checkpoint Charlie yesterday, I realized that if challenged to discuss details of this pocked history, I’d fail.
I couldn’t help but notice the paradox of tourism there. The place was crawling, literally writhing with so many human bodies that we couldn’t all fit on the sidewalk. The seven of us had ridden up on our bikes, damp from an extra half hour of riding because somebody had done the unforgiveable and put the map and responsibility of navigation into my hands. We’d headed off exactly 180 degrees in the wrong direction until Cara nervously piped up that this all felt a little wrong. But we got there.
Reading the plaque under an eerie sign, “You are now leaving the American sector,” I learned that it wasn’t a real artifact but an exact replica so graciously donated by the US government.
Remember when we proxied our Cold War with that terrifyingly red country on your scarred land? Well, here’s a consolation prize anyway, so you never forget.
At the actual checkpoint, what would have been an unremarkable white military box surrounded by sandbag walls, all business and no fun, two actors in dated military dress hammed for blinking cameras. They were given away by plastic placards slung from their waists advertising “Photos for 2€, 3$ US!” The signs flickered under so many flashes.
An imperfect illusion.
The guards loved the miniature spotlights, flashing rock’n’roll and hang ten hand gestures, sticking out their tongues and turning up their noses in a childishly grotesque dance. The ladies in the crowd were especially fond of the young faux-guards, sidling close so that an arm might be draped over their shoulders.
Next to me, an American man fought with his companion while a third called to them from between the guards’ elbows.
“Where is the picture?” the man had begun to shout in frustration, confused that the money changed hands simply for the right to stand and pose.
“I paid them, so I’m taking it,” his companion retorted icily.
“But, what I’m asking you is, where is the damn thing?” He couldn’t find the logic in paying to take a photo on your own camera.
“Will somebody please just take my picture? Hello? HELLO?” the third woman called out as the waiting crowd surged toward and around them, glowering with impatience.
I turned my back to them and crossed the street away from that concrete stage, unaware of when the curtain would drop on their scene. More people would take their places, shouting and cursing, arriving home weeks later with a photo of a scowl that would be swiftly and unceremoniously deleted in the editing process. No one remembers moments like these.
There was a small plaza across the way, with a well-curated storyboard of events leading to the building of the wall and how it finally came down. The photos of escape attempts and the first man to lose his life at this crossing stretch from the ground toward the sky, several feet above my eyeline, covering my skin with goosebumps from the sensation of their weight. No one wants to be admittedly obsessed with that kind of violence and heartbreak, but just like at the Holocaust museum at Dachau that I would visit a week later, we couldn’t help but stand and stare. We are encouraged to be careless in our wonder by crowds upon crowds of tourists doing the same.
Everyone posed, poses, will pose, in front of shards of the wall, teeth licked to make their smiles bigger.
Still, that storyboard was not nearly so crowded. No one was fighting for a photograph. As I read, and learned, shame bloomed in my mind as I realized that I wouldn’t have been able to say if East or West Berlin was communist, or even what the wall meant exactly. But this history of the thing belongs just as much to America as it does to Germany in a devastating way.
I haven’t left the American sector. You tour places because you want to see and experience them, and you’re likely to do both of those things. But through that seeing, you recognize how impossible it is to belong. I won’t ever know a true, pure Berlin. I can only feel, taste, smell, breathe the phenomena that register some emotion, some reaction in my alien mind. I cannot understand the intricacies of language, the complex labyrinth of tone, the size and curvature of how it feels to have been a victim of another nation’s violence, a political pawn.
The city will cease to exist when I leave, because under my gaze grew a skyline of edifices that only I understand. So many white threads tied to my back will pull apart the delicate splinters with my retreating steps, and the true city will emerge from my shadow again to kiss the sun.
The relationship is not a fair one; growth is not shared. We don’t leave anything to Berlin, to Guatemala City, to Buenos Aires or Madrid or Bangkok or Capetown. We carry what we want them all to be home with us, jostling around in backpacks next to plastic trinkets and tokens that prove that we’ve been around. But growth nonetheless makes the interaction worth something. I may not have changed or even seen Berlin, but Berlin has seen and changed me.