parting the iron curtain

next stop:

Life on the road is all about beginnings and endings. Many of these transitions are never really concrete; the ambiguous dividing lines between legs of a journey, for instance. A lot of times these are only acknowledged (or noticed) after their passing. Sometimes it’s easier to tell when these lines we’ve made for ourselves have been crossed. You can feel it that split second after you step off a train to somewhere new and strange, it’s late, and you’ve still a ways to go before you sleep. Or the first time you use a foreign language with success, when you realize the strange sounds coming out of your mouth are being interpreted and responded to by native speakers in a predictable fashion. Traveling is all about these sorts of moments – moments that change your perception of the world around you.

Our time in Berlin had finally run out. The road called, in this case one made of steel, and we headed to Berlin Hauptbahnhof for a ride to our next destination. We were bound for Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. The city of Vaclav Havel, the Velvet Revolution, and…goulash and beer? Something like that. Off the S-Bahn, down the escalators, and onto the platform we went. What would it be like in Prague? Would we find a holdover from the cold war, a Kafka-esque caricature on the Vltava? Or would it be westernized, more like the cities that we’d been wandering around in for a week and a half already? Before long, we’d find out. A string of scarlet-and-white Czech Railways carriages silently hissed onto our track. Time to boogie. We hopped aboard.

The train snuck out from underneath the station and onto the tracks headed for Prague. We were joined in our compartment by Colin, an American businessman from Portland sent by his company to help develop ties with renewable energy companies in Europe. The miles sped by as we chatted in our compartment, interrupted only by the ticket inspector who showed up soon after we left Berlin’s city limits. Kira and I settled in with lunch and a bottle of Bordeaux and watched the world speed by at 130 km/h, through the forests of northern Bohemia until we came upon the city of Dresden.

Dresden is a city which I fully intend to spend time in on my next trip to Germany, a city that rose from the horrific cinders of the Allied firebombing of February 1945 to become a modern, green city of three quarters of a million people. The scars are still evident; what buildings still remain from the prewar era are stained with soot from the firestorm. Today the only thing smoking were the handfuls of passengers clustered around the doors of the train, puffing down a cigarette before the conductor’s whistle caused them to leap back on board. This was Colin’s stop, so he left Kira and I the compartment to ourselves and with a handshake, our friendly train mate was off and on his way. For us: on to the border.

The forests and lowlands eventually gave way to the gorge that the Elbe River carves through the sandstone mountains which for thousands of years have been the traditional border between Saxony and Bohemia – and the gateway to the Czech Republic. Clouds began to roll in, and from the train’s route at the bottom of the valley we could see fingers of fog reaching among the trees. This part of Europe is staggeringly beautiful; it’s no wonder small spa towns like Bad Bentheim sprang up on both sides of the border over the centuries; it seems like a place as far removed from the urban conglomerations like Berlin as there can be. The train was quiet, families and businessmen alike settling in for a few hours’ nap before we reached Prague just past 9.30 P.M. On we went, the train slinking up the gorge and into Bohemia.

Eventually the signs on the station platforms flying past turned from German to Czech. Somewhere, miles distant now, we’d crossed over another one of those invisible boundaries, in this case the border between two now-Schengen states. Since 2007, there have been no border checkpoints between Germany and the Czech Republic, a sign of the former east’s western ambitions. The end of communism and the ‘Velvet Divorce’ between the Czech and Slovak republics meant the wave of western influence sweeping eastward would soon hit the banks of mighty Vtlava. Outside the train, the sun sunk down behind the hills, and we finally pulled into Prague under cover of darkness.

The doors open with a hiss, and I stepped out onto the platform and into the most alien place I’ve been yet. Culture shock is one of my favorite things, best when sudden and drastic. In this case, it came in several forms: the people on the platform speaking in strange, foreign tongues, the harsh greenish-blue station lighting, the darkness that hid the city streets around the train station from my prying eyes. At the station, we met up with a friend of mine from back home named Margaret. Margaret moved to Prague at the end of the previous summer, and had been teaching English and doing English-language tours around the city’s Old Town ever since. Her enthusiasm and ambition for traveling is matched only by her actions – when she tells me her goal is to live on every continent including Antarctica, I believe her. She may not exactly look like a seasoned hardcore traveler, but as with so many things, appearances can be deceiving.

Her apartment is down an old cobblestone street in the Nové Město (New Town) district and up an old, clunky Soviet-era lift in a remodeled block of flats. Though it may not look it on the outside, the apartment she and her flatmates share is as big, modern and comfortable as any I’d seen in the UK. The real attraction, though, is the view. From her roof, one can see Prague Castle standing sentinel over the sleepy city below, like a slumbering ancestral giant. From its perch it has witnessed war, revolution, renaissance, and everything in between in its more than one thousand years of existence. If these walls could talk indeed.

The next day, the castle got a little closer. I headed up the hill half expecting it to be empty; it was a Tuesday, after all. Upon arriving, it finally dawned on me that Prague is not unknown to the rest of the world; in fact, the masses of tourists now scurrying about in front of my eyes are among millions who now flock to this ancient city to see its winding streets and spectacular architecture. During World War II, Prague, though occupied by the Germans for the duration of the war, escaped the bombing that so many other cities of Europe endured. Because of this, there exists in Prague the feeling that you are in a very, very old place; one untouched by the passage of hundreds of years, tens of thousands of residents, and whatever régime you wish. The streets are narrow and nearly always cobbled rather than paved; the buildings crafted with a character that seems absent in anything less than two hundred years old.

Back at the castle, I managed to meet up with Kira and we descended the side of the hill above the roofs of the Malá strana (lesser town). From somewhere below, we heard the faint strains of a violin. Slow at first, then quickening, the music pulled us down the hill towards the alleys below. Its source was masked by the myraid passages between buildings, echoing off the time-worn brick until it reached us. Farther down the hill we found our musician.

Advertisements

achtung!

Berlin is an interesting place after dark. The city has always been a hotbed for underground subcultures, and here the gutter punks share dance floor space with everyone from latex-wearing goths to edge kids and everything in between. The years preceding the fall of the Wall fostered the same sort of alternativism. Oppressive conditions tend to breed resistance, the weeds that poked through the homogenous concrete of Honecker’s régime.

Speaking of Herr Honecker, he’d have had us Americans nicked by die Stasi if we’d made it through the Iron Curtain to where our hostel was – Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz just over the line from the West. During the days of the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik or East Germany), Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz was home to the Volksbühne, the East German ‘people’s theater’. Kira and I checked in to our hostel, just across from the U-Bahn and set upon the unsuspecting capital. The U-Bahn was mere steps away and sped us quickly through the tunnels beneath the city and on northward. We disembarked at Eberswalder Straße, and in wandering the streets nearby, found ourselves in a park with a number of spindly stadium lights at the top of a hill on one side and rows of Soviet-era housing blocks on the other. We climbed the hill, watching the increasing amount of people fill up the park with dogs, footballs, and most importantly for Berlin, bottles of beer. The beer in Germany is key, it’s cheap (sometimes less than a euro for a litre) and delicious, and the denizens of Berlin were cracking open cold ones in the park as the heat of the day faded away into the evening.

The top of the hill had a section of concrete wall on it, 30 metres (100 ft.) long and four metres (16 ft.) high. A number of writers were making good use of this canvas (see below), and it was actually encouraged; as we watched, a Berlin cop walked up and admired the work one artist was in the process of finishing. He chatted to the painter for a few minutes, then let him finish the last few sprays onto the concrete.

We had a sneaking suspicion about the origins of this heavily-painted section of concrete, and that night, after some quick research, we confirmed them. It seems we had managed to simply stumble upon one of the largest extant sections of The Wall. The one Roger Waters played the entirety of The Wall in front of after its fall. The one that Reagan told Gorbachev to tear down. That wall. No Man’s Land was just on the other side of the appropriately named Mauerpark (wall park).

And the Wall isn’t the only thing tagged up in East Berlin. Nowhere else have I seen such quantity of quality; nearly every piece of graf East Berlin showed us was remarkable.



Back to Eberswalder Straße now, it was getting dark.

The U-Bahn is, predictably for Germany, fast, clean, and efficient (if a bit boring to look at sometimes). During the days of the Wall, the German capital’s metro, like the rest of city, was diced up according to East and West. Some routes remained entirely in one or the other; others, like the U2 we were on, were cut in half giving some to the East and some to the West. Still others (West Berlin’s U6 and U8 and the S-Bahn’s Nord-Süd Tunnel) ran partially through Eastern territory – though without stopping, leading to the so-called geisterbahnhof – literally ‘ghost stations’. Trains would pass through these dimly lit, heavily guarded stations slowly, giving the western passengers on board their only up-close views of East Berlin. The sole exception to this no-disembarking rule was Friedrichstraße station, which was set up as a transfer point and a border crossing between the Berlins. The building was turned into a labyrinth of corridors, checkpoints, cameras, and armed guards – with some Stasi officers thrown in for good measure. For decades, Friedrichstraße was the biggest hole in the Iron Curtain, the crack through which many of the the 3.5 million East Germans that had left by 1961 (approximately 20% of the population of the DDR at the time) forced their way out through. After the fall of the Wall, Friedrichstraße, along with Potsdamer Platz and many others, was reopened to all Berliners. Potsdamer Platz was built in the Nord-Süd Tunnel, the connector between Berlin’s northern and southern rail lines. The tunnel’s orientation put it smack underneath the Berlin Wall, and as a result Potsdamer Platz shut down for service from 1961 onward until the Wall fell in 1989. It remained unchanged from the way it had been before its closure – right down to the station signs, still in old-style German script (the one outside dates from after the station’s reopening).

A train’s ride away is the famous Brandenburg Gate, built in the late 1700s as part of a wall built for tax purposes (similar to the Wall of the Farmers-General in Paris). The gate stands today as the most well-known symbol of Berlin, complete with its innumerable patches over holes made by shrapnel and Soviet bullets during the final days of World War II. Once again, we were doing nothing but minding our own business when *SMACK* – here comes the broad pimp slap hand of History. It would be coming down hard again very soon, as we walked a few blocks from the Gate to a car park just across from the Holocaust Memorial. It’s just a car park, full of gravel and…well…cars. When the dogs of Berlin need to have a poo, they’re sometimes taken here.

You see, it’s not the innocuous car park that bore any particular significance, it was what was buried underneath our feet: Hitler’s bunker. Remember that history pimp slap?

This sort of thing happened a lot in Berlin. All of these things I’d only learned about in history classes, this was where they took place. It’s a different experience hearing about the Battle of Berlin and actually seeing the gouges in buildings from shell fragments and bullets fired during the battle, or seeing the imposing Soviet housing blocks in East Berlin and knowing that this was a Communist country only 30 years ago. Seeing things like this up close make all of that real. It’s undeniable. It’s everywhere. Berlin has managed to masterfully incorporated this history into the city’s current form, never forgetting where it came from – and where it’s going.