During the Cold War, the Reichstag—its cupola wrecked, its walls bullet-pocked—was an abandoned relic in the no man’s land of central Berlin, just inside the British sector. The Wall, built in 1961, ran a few steps from the back of the building.
I finally begin to read this profile of Angela Merkel in The New Yorker, warm in my apartment in Michigan, colored lights twinkling on my Christmas tree in the corner. I feel comfortable with the historical introduction to Berlin that begins the article, though there’s a momentary twinge of shame at this self-satisfaction. The facts that I am recognizing are basic, and I fear my knowledge doesn’t go much deeper, despite the B.A. I hold in German, despite the many walking tours I’ve been led on through that city, both literal and literary.
It’s strange to me how much I warm up inside when a topic dear to me comes up. But I feel rusty on Germany, not really confident about the nuances of anything that’s German, not anymore. My convictions about living there, the people and the places I encountered, the day-to-day practices I observed and participated in, grow fuzzier with time. I know by rote the words I used to say, but the immediacy of experience is held hostage beyond the barrier of time. I don’t feel as though I can back up my old impressions and rusty knowledge, and I don’t think I have enough left of those experiences to plunge deeper, think anew.
Reading the sentence, though—the wall, built in 1961, ran a few steps from the back of the building—I remember it. I took a photo through a window in the Reichstag, the German parliament building, of two people just outside. I was standing in the Reichstag, in former West Berlin; the path marked the Wall; and so the couple just to the east were walking on land that for forty years belonged to a different city, a different country.
I think icy January was a fitting time to first visit Berlin. The city was colored in black and white, and the weather was forbidding, if nothing else was. Historical Berlin is so many things, but first and foremost, it is bombs and Nazis and Russian soldiers; the Wall, Wim Wenders’ angels in heavy overcoats in a world of quiet poetry, but no color; and spies, inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, everywhere. I overdressed: a heavy Aran sweater under my wool coat, leggings under my jeans, and thick, wool socks in my hiking boots, but my classmates complained about the cold for the full duration of our walking tour that wove all over and under the city. We saw Nazi buildings, Checkpoint Charlie, Geisterbahnhöfe—the ghost U-Bahn stations which, located on the eastern side of the Wall but attached to routes that belonged to West Berlin, became incongruous parts of the no man’s land, stations at which trains slowed but never stopped.
I have another picture out a Reichstag window, of the cobblestoned plaza that extended so far out ahead of the building, before reaching the great park, the Tiergarten. Cold stone, ice, and little people scattered about, some with cheery red accents. I used it to symbolize the brutal length of winter, but I loved the scene all the same.
When you travel, place after place, the intoxication and novelty wanes. After only six months in Europe, sights sometimes just felt like old stuff—and while at first, Very Old Stuff was exciting for the fact of its age alone, the spark can become diluted, deactivated, after relentless journeying. But when I stood for the second time (seven months after the group trip to Berlin, it was summer) on Bebelplatz, the square where the Nazis burned books, and I read Heine’s prescient quote from the previous century, I shivered—and I shiver a little inside each time I remember.
Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.
Where they burn books, so too will they burn human beings in the end.
It’s sort of nuts to me that I’ve seen so many far-off places, and my parents haven’t, especially because my travels are not unusual among my friends, and are surpassed by many people on my Facebook. My parents had comparable educations to mine, and unlike me, they started adult life without debt, with cheap tuition funded by summer jobs. They may have tottered on the path to gainful employment as I did, but they also went to Europe more than once. More than once in one decade, then never again, although it wasn’t until the next decade that they started a family.
My mom has been places I haven’t—Arizona and England, Denmark and the Virgin Islands, Minnesota and many other states, I’m sure. My dad lived in Germany a little while, like I did, and together they moved to Indianapolis, before happily returning to Michigan for the rest of forever. All three of us have been to New York City, Munich, parts of California; two of us to Montreal (none of these trips with all three of us together).
I don’t think I’m going to stop. My life is already different than my parents’, and it will remain that way. But it’s still strange that I’ve stood on the D-Day beaches, I’ve gazed at the galleries of the Hagia Sophia and taken a ferry up the Bosphorous, seen Charlemagne’s throne, and stood on the western coast of Ireland, staring out across the Atlantic toward North America—and they have done none of these things. Never seen Paris?