The Balloons are Gone, the Party is Over. What a Night it Was.

Like ghostly UFOs, the 8,000 balloons made their way over the Berlin night sky

Like ghostly UFOs, the 8,000 balloons made their way over the Berlin night sky

Some of the balloons just before their releast.

Some of the balloons just before their release at the end of the Lichtgrenze, or light border, next to the Oberbaumbrücke, a crossing over the Spree River that was closed when the Wall went up.

It was like no other celebration I’ve been to, and just as the rest of the million plus people who turned out won’t forget Mauerfall 25, the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, I never will, either.

It was the rare, perfect mix of somber and celebratory. The Chancellor tucked a single yellow rose into a remnant of the Wall, paying tribute to the people who had died trying to cross it. The political speeches were short. One of the key activists from the former East Berlin had a leading role in the ceremonies. Along the Lichtgrenze, one could read 100 different stories of ordinary people’s lives who were changed forever by the Wall.  And the illuminated balloons, stretched along a 15 kilometer stretch, evoked UFOs, which was really the perfect way to represent the Wall – as an alien body.

But the balloons each had a “godparent” or Pate, as they are called in German, and each (biodegradable) balloon had an individualized, hand written message attached to it.   As my friends Peter and Barbara and their son Daniel and his girlfriend Tania and I walked about a three-mile stretch of the Lichtgrenze last night, we stopped to read some of the messages along the way.  Like virtually everything about these past few days, they offered a welter of emotions, some as airy as the helium gas that filled the balloons, others in memory of some of the 136 people who were killed trying to cross the Wall, others still demanding that all of the remaining political walls in the world be torn down.

The crowds along the route never forgot why we were there, and so while there was an undeniably festive air to the foggy night, it was also laced with serious discussions between parents and children and friends and foreigners about what the Wall had represented. Everyone was talking about it, in dozens of different languages, and, for the Germans, in an uncharacteristically open way.  I probably heard a hundred of those conversations myself as I walked the entire stretch over two days.

Waiting for the balloons to rise

Waiting for the balloons to rise

We opted to stay away from the Brandenburg Gate and the hundreds of thousands of people who congregated there to hear the politicians speak and listen to Daniel Barenboim conduct Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Instead, we watched on giant screens erected at the very end of the Lichtgrenze, across from what is the longest remaining stretch of the Wall, now called the East Side Gallery, an outdoor art gallery, and near the Oberbaumbrücke, a bridge crossing over the Spree that was closed when the Wall went up. Our crowd consisted of a lot of locals, people who lived in the apartments looking right over the Wall at the water’s edge, and some of them recalled the horrors they had witnessed from their own living rooms, safe in the West.   As they talked and we waited for our balloons to go up – they were released sequentially –  a few people on standup paddle boards plied the waters of the Spree, where they could not have when the Wall was up.  As the temporary balloon Wall lifted skyward, a pair of mallards flew overhead, backlit by the glow.

As the balloons lit up, crowds strolled the Lichtgrenze near the Brandenburg Gate.

As the balloons lit up, crowds strolled the Lichtgrenze, swapping stories and sharing memories.

Somehow, it all fit together, magically and poetically.

This morning early, heading to an appointment at the American Embassy, right next to the Brandenburg Gate, I marveled at how clean the city looked. Crews had worked all night, and the barriers were down, the streets were swept and the trash had been emptied.  Even the bases of the balloon holders had disappeared. The Wall truly was gone, and by 9:00 a.m., Berlin was nearly back to normal.  I can’t say the same thing about myself.

A plaque marking where the Wall ran along one of Berlin's streets.

A plaque marking where the Wall ran along one of Berlin’s streets.

 

 

 

 

25 Years After the Wall Came Down

 

Some of the 8,000 balloons that the city of Berlin has erected along a 15 kilometer of what had once been the Wall.

Some of the 8,000 balloons that the city of Berlin has erected along a 15 kilometer of what had once been the Wall.

I came back to Berlin this week though I had just been here in August.  I couldn’t be here when the Wall  first opened on November 9, 1989, and so I wanted to come for the 25th anniversary to honor all of the people who made it come down – mostly the East Germans themselves, through a powerful and peaceful revolution – and all of those who lost their lives trying to escape to the West. For 5 years during the Cold War, I lived here, and as anyone who was here then will tell you, it was an unforgettable place.

This being Germany, there is a van patrol organized to replace missing or defective balloons.

This being Germany, there is a van patrol organized to replace missing or defective balloons.

 

 

If you were a West Berliner, as I was, you lived surrounded by thousands of American, French and British troops who were here to keep the Russians in check, not to mention an impressive number of “civilians” who did secret government work, like my best friend Nancy’s father who was, it can now be told, the Berlin station chief for the NSA. In many ways, West Berlin was the safest place on Earth at that time, or if it wasn’t, it felt that way to me, a teenager who grew blasé about tanks rolling down the street in front of my school.  But for the millions of people who lived in East Berlin and the German Democratic Republic (the DDR, as it was known in German) on the other side of the Wall, life wasn’t safe, free or particularly plentiful, unless you were well-connected politically.

When what eventually became the Wall – barbed wire to start with – went up at an astonishing pace in 1961 in a desperate effort to stem the tide of more than a million East Germans who fled the Communist regime, it cleaved a nation still coming to grips with its horrific role in World War II. On top of that shameful legacy, suddenly there were no longer just Germans, there were East and West Germans, essentially at war with each other, sometimes with their own families who, through a twist of geography, were dealt a very different fate.

Tomorrow will be a joyous celebration, but in the days leading up to it, I’ve quietly walked the entire 15 kilometer stretch of the Lichtgrenze, or Light border, which was illuminated for two nights and will be one last time tomorrow night before the balloons are released.  It has been a deeply moving experience, akin to a spiritual pilgrimage, made much more pleasant by unusually warm and beautiful fall weather here.

The Licht Grenze as seen through a beautiful display of fall crab apples.

The Lichtgrenze as seen through a beautiful display of fall crab apples.

 

Many thousands of us have been stopping at temporary commemorative displays, as well as in front of giant screens that the city of Berlin has erected along the route, transfixed by the old, often grainy video images that show everything from tragically bungled escapes to the surges of people heading towards the finally opened borders in 1989.

One of many giant screens along the route that are playing video images from the Cold War. This one says, "Germans, don't shoot your own countrymen."

One of many giant screens along the route that are playing video images from the Cold War. This one says, “Germans, don’t shoot your own countrymen.”

 

My ear catches snippets of heart wrenching and heart warming stories every few feet, it seems. Many who have come to walk have a story or a connection of some sort, and German families seem to be using the anniversary as an opportunity to teach their young children about this piece of their history, one that seems almost inconceivable to those who did not live it, regardless of which side of the Wall they lived.

 

Young spray paint artists continue to make new art on an old section of the Wall.

Young spray paint artists continue to make new art on an old section of the Wall.

A Perfect Week in Berlin

One of the few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, now repurposed as an outdoor gallery on the banks of the Spree

One of the few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, now re-purposed as an outdoor gallery on the banks of the Spree

 

Two skyline icons of the new and old Berlin: the rebuilt Neue Synagoge and the Fernsehturm on Alexanderplatz.

Two icons of the new and old Berlin: the Berliner Dom and the Fernsehturm on Alexanderplatz.

It has been a long time since I’ve had a great week, much less a perfect one. Divorce, the death a year ago of someone I’d known and loved for fifty years, and my own black dog of depression have conspired against good days, much less good weeks, these past two years.  But as I arrived home last Sunday from a week in Berlin with my dearest and oldest friend in the world, Nancy Talbot, perfect was the only word to describe it.

The weather was gorgeous, warm but not hot, breezy and so beautiful that we walked for miles every day, wandering in and out of neighborhoods nach Lust und Laune, as the Germans would say, that is with no set itinerary or destination.   The two times that it did rain were brief cloud bursts that cleared the air of dust and pollen and made Berlin sparkle like a platinum-and-emerald crown worthy of a Hohenzollern queen.

The company was wonderful, a combination of family – my mother and oldest brother, Pete, who happened to be in Berlin the same week – and old and new friends – my two pals of 40 years, Nancy and Peter, and my new friend, Barbara, Peter’s wife – and made for lively discussions and intimate, heart-to-heart talks that nourished the soul, as well as the mind.

Dinner with friends at a Turkish restaurant in Koepenick, outside of Berlin in the former East Germany. The town has a lovely castle/museum and sits four hours by boat downstream from Berlin.

Dinner with friends at a Turkish restaurant in Koepenick, outside of Berlin in the former East Germany. The town has a lovely castle/museum and sits  on the Spree River four hours by boat downstream from Berlin.

The museums and monuments, a dazzling melding of the former East and West Berlin collections and institutions, as well as new ones built since reunification, are so numerous and stimulating that you could stay a year in Berlin and not see them all.  Having bought a three-day Museum Pass, we took advantage of it to fit in nearly a dozen exhibitions while we were there, including the wonderful Jugendstil collection housed in the  Broehan Museum.

A stunning Jugendstil desk and chair at the Broehan Museum in Charlottenburg.

A stunning Jugendstil desk and chair at the Broehan Museum in Charlottenburg.

 

On another day, we took on the Deutsches Historisches Museum and its intellectually rigorous timelines and artifacts, while on yet another I sneaked out to revisit some old favorite 19th century German paintings like Casper David Friedrich’s “Moonrise Over the Sea,”  which used to be housed in the Neue Galerie in the old West Berlin, but now hangs among thousands of other 19th century European paintings in the Alte Galerie on the Museuminsel, or Museum Island.  Best of all, staying in Mitte, the hip part of town that used to be a part of East Berlin, we hardly ever needed to use public transportation, opting to walk most places, instead.

Casper David Friedrich's Moonrise Over the Sea, one of my favorite paintings in the world

Casper David Friedrich’s Moonrise Over the Sea, one of my favorite paintings in the world

Our hotel was unbeatable.  I’m not one to usually plug one place over another, especially not a chain hotel, but the Radisson Blu was flawless.  Our immaculate room looked right out at the Spree River and the Berliner Dom, and we had the world’s largest indoor, circular aquarium right in the lobby and so got to watch swimming fish and scuba divers cleaning the tank while we ascended and descended in the hotel’s elevators.  And having booked a Business Class room, free Wifi and the hotel’s truly sumptuous buffet were included in the room price and eliminated the need or desire to eat lunch (although not Kaffee und Kuchen, of which we ingested a lot). Best of all, when we finally retired every night around 1:00 a.m., no one banged on paper-thin walls to tell us to stop laughing so loud, because the thick steel doors and sturdy walls rendered our room the most peaceful and restful haven I’ve ever experienced in the middle of a huge city.  I’d go back to the Radisson Blu in a heartbeat.

A scuba diver at work in the aquarium in the middle of the Radisson Blu lobby in Berlin.

A scuba diver at work in the aquarium in the middle of the Radisson Blu lobby in Berlin.

A tour boat on the Spree, right below our hotel

A tour boat on the Spree, right below our hotel window

And finally for this inveterate birder, and since this blog is really about birding most of the time, there were birds everywhere in Berlin, especially eagles, which have played an important role in German iconography and symbolism for over a thousand years.  Granted, most of them were stone or wood, but I loved the sensation of  being observed by the majestic birds everywhere I went, from Schloss Charlottenburg to inexplicably random street corners and building facades across the city.  My heart soared every time I saw one of them. And even the lowly Hooded Crow, a common scavenger all across Berlin, made me smile at its comic antics.

The black eagle, the longtime symbol of German kings and other rulers, and the official bird of the German Republic, as well

The black eagle, the longtime symbol of German kings and other rulers, and the official bird of the German Republic, as well.

 

Another soaring eagle, this one in the courtyard of the Maerkisches Museum in Berlin

Another soaring eagle, this one in the courtyard of the Maerkisches Museum in Berlin

 

A Hooded Crow, doing what he does best, scavenging

A Hooded Crow, doing what he does best, scavenging

I came back from Berlin a different person than the one that left, a heady mix of ingredients conspiring to finally return the woman I used to be.  I’ve missed her and I’ve missed Berlin.  Being back there was perfect.

Forty Years On, Berlin Is Better Than Ever

 

The Quadriga of Victory atop the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin

The Quadriga of Victory atop the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin

 

In front of the Brandenburger Tor, or Brandenburg Gate, with my oldest and best friend, Nancy Talbot

In front of the Brandenburger Tor, or Brandenburg Gate, with my oldest and best friend, Nancy Talbot

Forty years ago, I moved to Berlin with two of my brothers and my father when he became CEO of a large German corporation.  It was a decision made as all decisions by my father were, which is to say without prior consultation or even notification.  It was left to our housekeeper, Hedy Hauser, to tell us that we were leaving New York and moving back to Europe, not to Switzerland, where my parents were from, or to England, where I had been born, but to Germany.

Truth to tell, I knew very little about Germany or Berlin at the time.  I was fifteen, a top student at the private school where I finally felt settled after two lonely years, and if I had ever wanted to move back to Europe, it would have been to France, whose language I studied and loved and at which I excelled, placing fourth in the nation among French students, encouraged by my wonderful Algerian-born teacher Mrs. Amsellem.  So the news that we would be packing up and leaving the only country that I could remember, and the few friends that I had garnered, was devastating. But no matter.

After spending Christmas with our Ohma in Switzerland, and on (in retrospect) the presciently named Epiphany Day, January 6, 1974, my brother Dan and I flew into Tempelhof Airport in the American Sector of the four-way divided, post-World War II city of Berlin to join our father and brother Pete.  And though I did not know it then, and even if I still marvel at my teenage self for how quickly I transitioned from Swiss-German to High German after being unceremoniously enrolled at a German-American school where the vast majority of students and teachers were German, moving to Berlin was one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

The four years that I called Berlin home before returning to the U.S. to attend college transformed a shy, awkward and impressionable Swiss-American girl into a confident, sophisticated and intellectual woman who proudly called herself a Berliner.  I adored and still madly love this city of opposites on the Spree, where comedy and tragedy, intellect and ignorance, darkness and light, kindness and cruelty, reason and insanity and beauty and ugliness seemed then (as now)so inextricably intertwined, like doomed, conjoined twins who awed and appalled in alternating cycles, each wanting to best the other.

It was in Berlin that I met my best friend in the world, Nancy Holston, now Talbot; embraced classical music, opera, theater and art and culture of all forms; became blasé about tanks rolling by our school every day; watched armed East German soldiers squint at me from concrete towers adjacent to the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie; laughed so hard at the mercilessly sharp humor here that all others paled in comparison; and happily smoked and drank my way through my teenage years.  It was here that I came into my own, falling in and out of love, reveling in the ability to travel to foreign countries for a weekend, devouring history as hungrily as German bread and Currywurst, and savoring the wonderful incongruities of wild boars and high-class brothels, both on the street where we lived.

I have called many places home, but no city has ever captured my heart like Berlin -during or after the Wall – and no friends have ever meant more to me than those made here. And so, forty years after I first arrived, young and not a little afraid, I have come back again, not for the first time, but with my then and still-best-friend Nancy. We are of course older, each of us with our own memories and regrets, but both still filled with awe for the city, even more beautiful now since reunification.  With our beloved and very successful friend, Peter Tarnowski, we have explored the neighborhoods of the former East Berlin, filled with buildings that the Communist regime thankfully never thought to tear down, thus preserving glorious examples of Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, whole courtyards and apartment buildings that now have been burnished to their original glory, as well as yet-unrepaired façades that wear their war wounds patiently nearly seventy years later.

A restored Jugendstil stairway in the Hackesche Hoefe area of the former East Berlin

A restored Jugendstil stairway in the Hackesche Hoefe area of the former East Berlin

 

The rebuilt Neue Synagoge, or New Synagogue, in Berlin

The rebuilt Neue Synagoge, or New Synagogue, in Berlin

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Fittingly for the former East Berlin, many of the neighborhoods still have an air of grief to them, the ghosts of  their former residents, mostly Jews forcibly evicted and sent to concentration camps to perish, still palpable.  Today, brass markers on sidewalks and building facades call them back to mind, as do the restored New Synagogue and the nearby Jewish Cemetery, where, as the war wound down, thousands of Gentile victims joined the Jews in uneasy repose, yet another juxtaposition in this endlessly complex, conflicted and truly beautiful city that I would gladly call home once again.

Brass plaques commemorating the lives of Jews exterminated during the Nazi era

Brass plaques commemorating the lives of Jews who had lived in Berlin but were exterminated during the Nazi era

One of Berlin's many eagles, all stone

One of Berlin’s many eagles, all stone