Saturday, July 01, 2006
Postcards from Berlin
I am an American living and working in Berlin. The corporate bigs here at Liverputty thought it might amuse and edify the teeming readers of this blog to hear occasionally from me. Full disclosure: I am an artist, not a writer, and the attempt over the last few years to become fluent in German has rendered my English a little weird.
A couple of visits back, I was sitting at the dinner table with a few friends, when one (who hates flying, and as a consequence has never been more than 500 miles from home) asked me rather abruptly, "So what's it like...over there...you know...in Europe?" And he wanted an answer before the linguine got cold. In a word, it's different - far more different than either Americans or Europeans want to admit. Far more different than it first appears. It has taken me several years being here to realize just how different we are from each other.
I live in the heart of West Berlin, in the old entertainment district. It is still entertaining: as I write there are six prostitutes plying their wares on the street below. The streets are full of honking cars, racing past, flying great big German flags (black, red, and gold), celebrating the win a few hours ago over Argentina in the World Cup. This is the closest Germans get to displaying overt patriotism.
I saw Der Untergang (nominated for best foreign language film Oscar in, I believe, 2005) a few years ago when it was first released. At the time, I was relatively new in Germany and had only recently become marginally fluent. It was when the film ended and lights came up that I finally started to understand the German passion for pacifism. The audience was dead silent for a very long moment before silently getting up to leave. There were no comments. The scars on the German psyche are still fresh and there are physical reminders everywhere.
Today, walking to the State Library in eastern Berlin, I crossed over the wall, or rather the remains of the wall. It is now denoted by a flat line of bricks imbedded in the middle of the street, following its old course. In front of me was the Holocaust memorial, a three or four acre plaza filled with granite plinths, ranging from a few inches to over ten feet high, all uniform gray. The memorial had to wait until reunification to be built, as it occupies the site of the mine-fields on the East German side of the wall. One block north was the Brandenburg Gate, the symbolic center of Berlin, and just behind that was the Reichstag, restored after the reunification with an enormous glass dome over the center.
And galavanting through the streets were the Germans, waving their flags in hopeful anticipation(later realized) of victory that evening. But what was unexpected (to me anyway) was the number of non-european young people wearing the German colors(often in the form of large, fuzzy Cat-in-the-Hat hats) and waving the flag. Arabs, Africans and Asians were all heavily represented. Germany is not, like the USA is (or was), a melting pot. The country has only been open to immigration since 1949, when the Federal Republic of (West)Germany (DFR) was founded. And although Germany has been allowing entry to foreigners for nearly 60 years, with one of the most liberal asylum policies in the world, Germany has never been welcoming to foreigners (mostly Turks; known for years as "guest workers"), especially non-white, non-europeans. And the foreigners here have responded in kind, keeping to themselves, keeping their languages and national allegiances - merely existing within the German state.
Yet with a birth rate far below replacement, Germans are starting to realize that they will have to start absorbing immigrants, rather than merely making room for them, if they want the German nation to survive. And for the first time, the guest workers seem to be acting like the citizens they mostly are, if only for the soccer team. Those cars, which are still honking like crazy, are as likely to be filled with Turkish teenagers as German ones.
It is neither a deep nor, probably, a meaningful patriotism. Turkey didn't make it to the World Cup finals this year. A deeper intellectual pride of country would be too much to expect from the Germans, themselves, for many more years. That will not likely happen not until the generation that fought the war, and suffered (and ran) the concentration camps is dead and buried. But this World Cup spirit may be a start.
Next up: Ausländer Raus! The Far-Right, Far-Left, and anti-immigrationism.
Or maybe not.
Yours, Escutcheon Blot