Thursday, July 2, 2009

Goodbye to All That

This was the last photo I took our last-night-but-one in Berlin, a lovely long evening spent on a boat going round the river and canal system that make something of an inland island of the city. The Potsdamer Platz is the restored heart of Berlin, a festival of Prestige Modern Architecture - hotels, offices, theatres, a casino, apartments, a mall - that somehow doesn't feel false or imposed the way it might in an American, urban-renewed city or in, say, Dubai.

The first time I saw the Potsdamer Platz was twenty years ago when it was a wasteland, the no-man's-land between East and West, anchored at one end by the ruined Reichstag, the Wall, and, on the other side, the Brandenburg Gate. Every now again this past week, in the middle of this bustling new neighborhood, I would catch a glance of something that reminded me of those days and be, again, amazed at Time in its Flight and all the changes.

On the flight home yesterday I reread Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin, so beautiful, so sad (and so totally different from the varied works adapted from it). It takes place, much of it, in places where we had spent time - the Nollerndorfplatz, the Tiergarten, the Kudamm - and much of the atmosphere he creates (albeit absent most of the political menace) is still palpable in the air of the city.

It's an odd thing to be an American (new world) living in the Gulf (new money) visiting Europe (old culture). The civilization feels at once so deep - the shops, museums, streets - and so fraught. History, in the U.S., is a hobby, something for buffs and re-enactors; in the Arab world, it's politics, something inextricable from every facet of public and even private life. In Europe, it simply is, an unavoidable fact: here is Napoleon's tomb, Rembrandt's house, the Potzdamer Platz with its shining new buildings marked with signs showing the same site in 1920, 1945, 1989.

We drifted along during our dinner cruise, our Berliner friends - themselves expats - showing us this and that landmark of their lives and the city's. It's impossible not to think of the violence and horror that made possible, equally, the glittering new buildings and the sad, crumbling Eastern apartment blocks. Not just the last war, though, although that looms large, but so many: the "War to End All Wars" that didn't, the ones that created Prussia Triumphant, further back and further back.

And now here we are again, back home, in a country where an old building is one built before 1980 but where most of what makes up people's inner lives was determined 1,000 years ago or more. Europe's history seems far away, here, but just as in the U.S., it isn't. When we visited the site of the destroyed East German "People's Palace" (that itself replaced the Kaiser's principal residence), we learned that at least some of the steel from that disgraced landmark traveled down to the Gulf, reused to build the Burj Dubai (for a moment or two now the world's tallest tower). In the same way, motoring along a canal in former East Berlin, we noted how the cheap glass used to make the now-derelict buildings has aged prematurely, creating the kind of waved, bubbled panes so prized by renovators of colonial and Victorian treasures in the States. Maybe that would be the ultimate recycling - communist windows decorating twee rowhouses in Society Hill and cottages in the Chesapeake.

But anyway, we're home. We had a lovely break, and even get a weekend before having to face reality. And goodness, but we have one happy dog.


  1. Muscato, you might just be turning into an Isherwood for our times. I expect to be picking up my (signed) copy of The Oman Stories from the post box in a few years.

    ...and, oh, but could we sell that bubbled Berliner glass in our store.

  2. As is so often the case, I agree with Bill.

    Welcome home, sweetie!!

  3. lovely, simply lovely how you describe things. christopher isherwood....

  4. Wow...I was just in Berlin seven years ago and the Platz looks so much more lively. Sounds like a lovely time for you, now the doyenne of multiple capitals of Europe.