Impressions of Berlin

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for tor.JPGYesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The New York Times has featured articles, user-submitted photos, interactive timelines, and multimedia graphics all week to celebrate the November 9th, 1989 event. I certainly don’t recall the day (two-year-olds generally don’t have a knack for remembering these kinds of things), but I can definitely imagine the throngs of people pouring through the Brandenburg Gate on that evening 20 years ago. I was lucky enough to be in Berlin for New Years Eve last winter, where over a million people flooded the streets around the Gate to ring in 2009. The excitement in the air was palpable that night, and I can only imagine an even greater electricity on the night the wall came down.

The Berlin Wall was an enormously significant historical and geographical marker, the effects of which visitors to the city can still see and feel. During my visit, I blogged about my first impressions of the city. Although I wrote it 11 months ago, I think the entry sums up the city and the legacy of the wall well–very appropriate for this occasion! Enjoy!


Arriving in Berlin, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. From my German, History, and Geography classes, I knew how multi-faceted it was. It is the biggest city in Germany, as well as the capital. On one hand, it is known for its cosmopolitan culture, fast-paced atmosphere, and bright lights. But on the other hand, it is remembered as the Nazi base for over a decade of terror, and the city that was pummeled by WWII. Berlin emerged from the war fractured into two halves, which stifled its dynamic pulse. The Wall that divided the city into East and West brushed up right against the Reichstag (Parliament building), severing the central artery of the city. Much of the old downtown went to East Berlin, and, without an organic center, West Berliners had to then re-create a new focal point for their city.

I knew all these facts before coming to Berlin, and was extremely curious as to how all of these layers would fit together. After several days, it was clear I still hadn’t quite figured it out. Berlin is a complicated city with a very complicated history.

berlinwall.JPGI could feel its ghosts behind every tree strung up with lights along the Unter den Linden while staring up at the Brandenburg Gate, one of the most iconic images of the Cold War Era. I could feel its ghosts as I walked along the cobblestones marking the path of the Berlin Wall, imagining the very different lives of Berliners who resided on either side of the Wall, only blocks away from each other, yet living worlds apart. And I could feel its ghosts at Potsdamer Platz, where skyscrapers now soar high above the place that has transitioned many times over the course of the 20th century–from an apex of 1920′s nightlife, to a virtual war zone as the Wall ripped through its center, and back again.

This city was a city of lights, everything electrified and illuminated. It was also a city of dark pasts and deep secrets. I did enjoy my days in Berlin very much. The city is big and beautiful and I could have spent twice as long as I did wandering through its streets. New Year’s on Unter den Linden was one I will certainly never forget–the lights, the fireworks, the throngs of people shouting and singing in German, English, Italian, and Turkish. People continued to revel in the ‘Silvester’ spirit by setting off fireworks on the street–one man even shot bottle rockets from out of his apartment window–and in the subway for the next two days.

If forced to describe Berlin in one word, the best I could muster would probably be ‘layered.’ A poor descriptor, for certain, and yet that is really the best I can do. Berlin is as modern as modern can be, and yet it just can’t shake its divided history. This complexity certainly adds to its intrigue, but Berlin definitely left this scrutinizing traveler asking questions.

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Maggie for My Wonderful World

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