a unique perspective on this crazy world

chasing the zeitgeist


My love affair with Berlin began over two decades ago… You know you feel at home when you start comparing rates for a single ticket and a day card without even checking to see if there is an option for a menu in English.  And you realize before the announcement is repeated in English that your quick, easy U-Bahn trip to KaDeWe is not to be.

But the bus is easy to find and there are advantages to travelling above ground.  You check out the window and see you are headed for “Zoo” so all is good.  When you finally get dumped off at Potsdamer Platz, you smile.  For most people in Berlin in 2012, it’s just a handy hub with an U-Bahn and an S-Bahn in the heart of the city.

To explain how a regular tourist day in Berlin yesterday held so much extra personal meaning for me, we have to time travel back to November 1989.  To the village of Haarlem, outside Amsterdam.  That was back when I couldn’t afford a proper hotel room and Amsterdam was too expensive for my budget so I was commuting in every morning to see the sights.  We had been there for most of the week so on Friday morning when the server came over at breakfast telling us the Berlin Wall had fallen, I just looked skeptical. 

She could see I was thinking, “I thought you spoke really good English.  What happened?  What is missing in this translation?” <note to kids – this was BEFORE the internet;  no one knew the Berlin Wall was coming down, especially people who had last seen the news in English via an expensive Time magazine purchased weeks before>

Then she brought over a newspaper and on the front page there was a picture of people dancing on the Berlin Wall!  And we were on our way to Germany!!! 

Life has a way of working out.  We had gone over our budget in Italy and Switzerland so I suggested to Scott, while standing in the train station in Bern scanning the railway timetables, that we change our plan and go to the Netherlands first since Amsterdam would give us an overnight trip on our Eurorail pass and save a night’s hotel room and Munich would not.  I am sure we would have found our way to Berlin again even if we’d already “done” it but it was one of the greatest moments of serendipity of my life.

We decided to not ditch my friend Greg and hang out with him in Celle, in northern Germany, over the weekend and head to Berlin on Monday.  We missed our chance to dance on the Wall but we got to watch everything unfold on the BBC, talk about reunification with actual Germans at the party Greg organized for the Saturday night and head off to the train station with everyone holding real jobs and unable to drop everything to go to Berlin extremely jealous.

Since we were travelling poor, we ended up in a sleeping car with a family who appeared to be from East Germany on their way to western freedom.  It was very poignant.  But didn’t prepare us at all for our arrival at Zoo.  The Germans don’t have words that short so the real name is Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten.  Zoo was the train station in West Berlin and the main entry point in those days.  I am sure it was normally busy but when you stepped into Zoo Station in November 1989, it was a zoo literally!

But there was such a feeling of euphoria in the air that no one cared about lineups or delays.  You just went with the flow and soaked up the experience of being in the middle of history – one of the very few times you risked being hugged by a stranger rather than hit by a stray bullet.  I will talk more about this incredible time and my return for the 20 year anniversary but for now we will continue with yesterday 🙂

For those of you not up on German history, Potsdamer Platz was one of Europe’s busiest squares in the 1920’s and it was the sight of the world’s first traffic lights.  It was the heart of Berlin until it was divided so it was the first hole made in the Wall in 1989.  The Wall didn’t actually “fall”, rather it just had holes punched in it and the concrete carried away until it was essentially gone.  So, when we arrived in 1989, there were four holes in the Wall, the only symbolic one being Potsdamer Platz.

But there were no tourist signs yet so we wondered how we would find it.  In those days there was one stop on the U-Bahn in East Berlin – so people were piling onto the U-Bahn at that stop and coming to West Berlin to check it out.  The West Germany government had also given each of them 100 D-marks to spend so everywhere you went there were offers for 99 D-marks!  And so many Trabants and plastic shopping bags.  People in war zones should really learn about the power of the plastic shopping bag to unite populations 🙂

The Berlin U-Bahn was giving the Tokyo bullet train a run for its money and it was impossible to move on any train so we decided to just go with the crowd and get out at a random stop and then try to head in the right direction toward the Wall.  Another non-decision that had unexpected benefits.  We found the Wall – it was hard to miss!  And just began walking along it wondering if we would find Potsdamer Platz.

We finally found a hole in the Wall.  It looked really busy.  We wondered if it was Checkpoint Charlie.  We looked at the ground and thought we saw the echoes of tram tracks (that was supposed to be the forensic evidence – tram lines crossing from East to West from the good ol’days before World War II).  But we weren’t really sure.  So we kept walking along the Wall.  And then we came to Checkpoint Charlie.  And we knew we had just found Potsdamer Platz!

I came back in 2000 to see the beginning of the redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz, I walked all the way there and back from the Brandenburg Gate along the dominos in 2009 and yesterday I got dumped off there because they are doing maintenance on the U-Bahn.  It looks very corporate and boring these days but for me it will always be my very first experience of Berlin.

Another touchstone from 1989 is KaDeWe.  Germans like to create really long words – and then use a short form to actually talk about things 🙂  KaDeWe is the Kaufhaus des Westens – the department store of the West.  It is over 100 years old and is the largest department store in Europe.  Over the years of the divided Berlin, it was a gloating mecca of commerce to taunt the East and encourage citizens to escape to western freedom – including the freedom to consume copious quantities of goods you don’t really need…

Yesterday I was at KaDeWe for the nostalgia – and to buy socks.  I will not bore you with my obsession with German hosiery but I came back to the hotel with an entire shopping bag and left the sales ladies at Wolford and Falke bemused as usual.

My first time at KaDeWe was in 1989.  Scott wisely just stayed outside – but I wanted to experience the mayhem.  According to legend, KaDeWe had been used to taunt the East over all the years of the cold war so every person in East Berlin wanted to see what they had been missing.  And it felt like they were all there on the same day!

Yesterday was only slightly less busy than that first day in 1989. This is a pretty Catholic country so there is still no shopping on Sundays and, this being Easter weekend, everyone was rushing in on the last shopping day for the week.  I think being a washroom attendant on the sixth floor at KaDeWe may be the most lucrative job in Berlin!  The sixth floor is the famous gourmet floor.  I had been unable to find a bathroom on other floors so figured I would just endure the line.  The custom seemed to be to leave the attendant a euro – I think the two of them made at least 20 euros while I was standing in line!  They did a great job though.  If you like stuff clean, Germany is your country 🙂

I also indulged in another very German thing – the department store champagne bar!  At KaDeWe, you can actually choose your brand.  I chose Jacquart because there were seats available – and it is good champagne.  I was planning to work on this post while I sipped my champagne but then this gentleman sat down beside me and started talking to me in German.  His name was Rudolf.  If I got the information correct, his wife has passed away but he is a native of Berlin and they came to KaDeWe a lot as a couple.  Apparently she had a weakness for porcelain 🙂

The conversation was a bit of a challenge but we managed to muddle through in a combination of German and English and it was a really nice connection to make in a foreign city.  He wondered what I was doing in Berlin and I tried to explain my history with the city.  I wish my German was better and I could have asked him what it had been like to live in this city your entire life through its tumultuous history.

I finished off my expedition yesterday by walking past another past of Berlin history – the Brandenburg Gate.  This is where I froze to death in the rain watching the twentieth anniversary celebrations in 2009 – while thinking fondly of the countless hours I spent freezing at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989 – the rumour was that they would make another symbolic hole in the Wall while we were in Berlin so we were all hanging out eating würst, drinking beer and waiting with all the TV cameras just in case we could actually get a snapshot of history in the exact moment it was being made.

The weather yesterday was insane.  It started pleasant, turned to rain, was brilliant blue sky sunshine as I walked past the Brandenburg Gate and had turned to snow by the time I emerged from dinner.  Since U2 wasn’t working properly, I decided to try taking an S-Bahn that I hoped would drop me at Alexanderplatz, rather than whisk me to some neighboring town outside Berlin.  Clemens would be proud 🙂  He taught me how to use the schedule in a German train station and I even connected back with the U-Bahn to get home without having to brave the snow!

Needless to say it had been a big day and it was hard to imagine venturing out again as I had planned to try and find a nightclub in my spring coat in the snow…  I do want to do some more exploring in Berlin.  It is definitely one of those über-cool places that seems at the epicentre of the cultural zeitgeist.

But sometimes you just need to spend a Saturday night in your hotel room reading a book and nursing your cold.  Chasing the zeitgeist is exhausting.  The real secret is to make the zeitgeist revolve around you – and whatever turns you on.  Truly cool people do not worry about what other people think or follow their lead.  One of the most valuable lessons I learned from my maverick father 🙂

The sun is shining.  I better shower and get out there.  Who knows how long it will last…  Even the weather here feels like you’re chasing the zeitgeist…

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