According to my father, I took my first steps in Berlin during a family trip to East Germany, one of the few destinations open to vacation-hungry travelers from the Soviet bloc. I have returned thirty-five years later to spend a few days in the city that is no longer divided by a concrete wall but remains a symbol of a divided world. I start the weekend by catching up with a friend over a leisurely late lunch at an Indian restaurant. We sit by the window, the table covered in dark cloth looks so inviting in the glow of the low sun. A young waiter lingers, talking about life in Berlin and Pakistan. The street outside is quiet, the brick buildings slowly turning warm red. A wave of contentment sweeps over me, pushing away fatigue from the long flight. I have a new city to explore, a weekend without plans or agenda. Why is it so easy to leave my schedule behind when I go out of town? My schedule is mostly self-imposed, yet I need a plane ticket to put it comfortably aside along with the keys to my empty house.
Warmed by sweet tea and spicy curry, we continue into the heart of the city, Brandenburg Gate, Alexanderplatz and Unter den Linden, names I vaguely remember from German and History classes in high school. As we walk through town - by now it's dusk- my friend points out the changing character of the capital, the former Eastern bloc, Western bloc, the gay neighborhood, the alternative neighborhood, the sections under the pressure of gentrification. We wrap up our stroll with an evening mass at the magnificent Cathedral that overlooks the city. The words of prayer float by, out of reach for me since they are in German. But there is another language that touches our hearts and fills them with grace - the music of the immense organ. It fills the space inside the dome with tones that are so soft and gentle, yet leave no doubt about the power hiding in the pipes. The notes descend on the listeners, then rise again and carry us outside into the night.
Next day and I am off to the Museum of DDR, a small building on the river that offers a glimpse into the life of East Germany. To my surprise the tiny museum is filled with people. Berliners, Germans and American tourists stand in a long line to explore the realities and absurdities of life thirty years ago: surveillance devices and prison cells, polystyrene clothing, cookie-cutter high-rise apartments or the tiny Trabant car, dirty, noisy, prone to stalling and yet, evoking a smile on the faces of those who remember how it felt to own a car after years of waiting.
My next stop is The Wall Memorial, the one section of the Wall that remains standing accompanied by names and pictures of those who died while crossing it. While the DDR museum felt surreal, like stepping into Orwell’s 1984 rather than into pages of history, the atmosphere at the Memorial is chilling. Perhaps it is the cold wind of the late autumn air that forces everybody to zip up their jackets right after stepping off the city bus. Perhaps it is the damp coolness radiating from the bleak concrete wall. Or perhaps it is the awareness that walls like this one are still being built today, across the ocean and here in the countries that were themselves once closed behind an iron curtain.
To shake off my somber mood, I leave the Wall Memorial behind and continue to Kreuzberg, an ethnic neighborhood that brims with color and life. Cobblestones splattered with golden leaves sparkle in the light of street lanterns and despite the late hour food trucks are still serving and restaurants are full of Berliners catching up at the end of the week. Here Italian dishes are served with German beer and Turkish kebabs with Italian wine. Kreuzberg could be any Western city shaped by the ebb and flow of history and the world around it, not an island hiding behind a wall. But even as I look back to the East, where classical buildings stand oddly besides the grey run down architecture of Communism, I find dignity in their co-existence, a certain grace and authenticity that I sorely lack a few days later when I walk through the center of Prague.
Prague the nearest city to my small hometown, the destination of frequent trips filled with ice cream and bookstores or visits to friends in college years, is flooded with tourists. Equally as numerous is the crowd of business owners meeting them, selling anything there is to sell. Designer stores stand beside souvenir shops that offer Russian babushkas and fur hats. Thai massages lure tired tourists with pink neon signs as soon as they step out of the Prague Castle. Men in blue-and-white striped costumes hand out tickets for boat trips on the river. Grocery stores stay open 24 hours selling alcohol to those who come to take advantage of Prague’s lower prices. Coffee shops and food stands attract visitors with the names of famous Prague residents, while guided groups carrying bright umbrellas weave in and out of the crowds and honking cars. Prague is a loud circus, and I am no less a stranger to this city than the tourists that fill the streets I thought I wanted to photograph. I leave a day early hoping that like many periods of history before, the current chapter that uncompromisingly embraces capitalism will pass, and Prague will once again find its poetry.
Days later I attend a ballet premiere of Don Quixote in a small but popular theatre. The building is filled with an appreciative audience: women in gowns, men in suits, regulars who came to see a new performance of their favorite dancers. The libretto is cheerful and lively. The dancers wear colorful costumes, red and pink whirl around as they leap across the stage. I am no stranger to this theatre but today I notice a change in the program where I read the dancers’ names. A Japanese ballerina and a Polish dancer form the leading pair. Ukrainians, Germans, Austrian, British, African American complete the ensemble. In a homogenous country that has not always been welcoming to newcomers, this crew where Czechs are a minority stands out. I hear their communication is not always easy. Different languages, expectations and experience bring even more tension to a competitive profession. Yet they manage, and at the end of the dance when the velvet curtain goes down and up again they are rewarded by a standing ovation from the sold-out audience. Like food in Kreuzburg, art in this town brings people together to share a moment of beauty. I hope that in the changing face of Europe people enjoy lots of good food and good art. I hope they continue to be mindful of history. I hope that more curtains go up than down.