Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What is past is prologue

I doubt anyone would argue the fact that Germany is a fascinating place. The backdrop for the most heinous crimes of the 20th century, Germany bears more guilt than any other Western country. And yet it is amongst the most powerful nations in Europe, and one of the most important financial players on the world stage. It is basically holding the EU together by sheer force of will, despite having a deeply divided history. So to say I was excited to get over there is at best a mild understatement.

A friend of mine from Australia, Joshua Harris (whom I fortuitously ran into in Dublin), is studying in a small town in mid-Germany for the year and generously offered me the use of his couch. So, unlike many tourists, my trip didn't start in any of the usual places. After a slightly disastrous journey over the channel (missing my connecting flight in Frankfurt = bad. Having my flights realigned by the most courteous and helpful airline ever = good. If you get the chance to fly with a German airline, take it. They were amazing. And they gave me free chocolate) I arrived not in a major port of call, but in a tiny university town called Göttingen. This worked to my advantage in several ways. For one thing it meant I was greeted in Germany with the sentence "so, are you ready for some schnitzel?", which was almost enough to make my whole trip all by itself. For another it meant I was able to revive my own uni experiences. I'm pretty sure I spent at least 2/3rds of my time there in a state of happy inebriation. But most of all it gave me the chance to see some of Germany that had literally never been touched by the war. Thanks to a slightly bizarre agreement the Brits made sure their bombs didn't fall on Göttingen, and in return the big two in England were similarly unmolested. So Göttingen is this stunning half-timbered fairytale town that encapsulates all that is great about German history. Which is important. Given that most people visit Germany to see places like Berlin, Dresden, and Munich it is easy to forget there is so much more to the country than the past 80 odd years. 

One of my favourite things about Göttingen was the story behind this statue. The  Gänseliesel (Goose Girl) stands in the old town square, and is possibly the most-kissed little girl in the whole of Germany. Whenever a university student is presented with their doctorate, it is traditional for them to present  Gänseliesel with a bouquet of flowers and give her a kiss. I found that story unaccountably sweet. For me it kind of summed up the kind of place Göttingen is.

After three nights with Josh I gathered up my bag and my hangover and made my way to Berlin. A word on foreign languages: no matter what you think you know, you really don't. I went to Germany confident that I couldn't speak the language (knowing that Auf Wiedersehen means the same as so long, farewell and goodbye is about as complex as my German gets) but even if I'd come fully equipped with a litany of helpful phrases I still would have been utterly perplexed. So fast! So accented! Happily everyone seemed to speak English, and all the Germans I came into contact with were super helpful.

By the time I arrived in Berlin I was starving and exhausted, so imagine my dismay when my hostel told me they'd overbooked my room. Things turned around pretty quicksmart though. They upgraded me to a private room (with en suit! luxury!) for free, and I found a lovely little Italian restaurant just around the corner. It was run by actual Italians (I know because they spoke more Italian than German) who were so pleased by my joy at discovering they did take away orders that they sat me down and fed me bread until my pasta was done. And while usually being alone in a hostel room would strike me as counter-productive, having the shower and light switch all to myself came pretty close to paradise at the time.

Berlin proved just as brilliant as I'd come to hope. Parts of it, admittedly, are blighted by the Nazi history. The courtyard where they burnt the books, for example, is surrounded by beautiful buildings that stand as testament to the city's previously liberal history - a church (designed by Frederick the great), a library, a university. The Brandenburg Gate is inextricably linked now with the image of Hitler walking into the city as the new Chancellor. And the Holocaust memorial is just beyond sad.

But Berlin is also really impressive. The Brandenburg isn't lessened as a piece of architecture because of one event. The museums are brilliant (I saw part of the wall of Babylon, for crying out loud). And it's also quite beautiful.

This building is a stunning church that looks about 500 years old. Actually it was only built about 160 years ago, when the then-king decided he needed older looking buildings to make the city more impressive. It's times like these I remember why I think the fall of the monarchy was probably for the best.

When I was in high school I took modern history. History was - is - one of my absolute favourite subjects. If you sat me down and offered me the choice between seven days in the tropics or seven days with an in-depth analysis of the past 300-odd years I'd take the plane ticket for the sole purpose of using it as a bookmark. If you make even a passing comment on the politics of the cold war in casual conversation you can wave goodbye to any chance you had of getting a word in edgewise for at least the next hour. In short, I'm a little bit of a history nerd. So when I was asked by a couple of my academic kindred spirits' one lesson what moment in history I would attend if given the chance it might have seemed like an impossible choice. It wasn't. If I could have been at any moment in history, I would have been at the fall of the Berlin Wall.

To say the Berlin Wall captivates me doesn't even come close to explaining how I feel. I had expected the wall to be more...well, frightening really. It was the cause of so much suffering. But in the end it was just a wall, which is why it fell. On the 9th of November 1989 a bumbling press secretary precipitated the greatest event in decades by uttering words to the effect of "I believe...immediately" on live international television and radio. Hundreds of East Berliners, people who had been taken without warning from normality and thrown into a state of constant terror, who hadn't seen friends and loved ones for almost 30 years swarmed out of their houses and peacefully ensured the destruction of one of the most oppressive regimes of the century. And when they made it over to the other side they were greeted by West Berliners handing out beer. 

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