Three days in Germany’s new capital, with only three hours of “sight-seeing”, is too brief to comment on Berlin with any kind of authority. So this narrative will really reflect my naivete, and that certain innocence which fortunately stays with us even as the age advances.
One has always associated Berlin with bears, and more recently, the Wall. The bears are hardly visible, except in paintings at a Berlin museum, and, of course, only a tiny remnant of the Berlin wall remains. Berlin today appears to house only the very old (museums, palaces, churches and operas) or the very new (such as the massive Sony Center built entirely out of glass — the thought did occur to me that it would be a prime target in case the city witnessed a riot — and numerous other constructions, including the stylish red-coloured Indian Embassy building recently built at Tiergartenstr.17).
As we crisscross through Berlin, we constantly ask if we are in West or East Berlin; my personal impression is that the more interesting sights of the city are in the East. The commentator, a native of USA, however speaks of West Berlin with special pride. We also pass “Checkpoint Charlie” with the “friendly” US soldier on one side and the dour Soviet soldier on the other. This is when one realises that West Berlin belonged less to Germany and more to the Allies. I ask if the average Berliner doesn’t resent this American influence a little. Surprisingly, the answer is no (“there would have been no Berlin today if it were not for the Americans”, I am told). Later, at a Berlin ballet drama recounting the history of the city, the loudest applause is reserved for the US soldier.
The remnant of the Wall appears surprisingly slender; the eastern side is grey and colourless, the western side has colourful graffiti. Surely this could not have been such a daunting barrier? The commentator tries to explain how the material composition of the Wall made it so resilient. She fails miserably; she’s after all a travel guide, not an aerospace engineer.
It is a special pleasure to sit in a Mercedes-Benz taxi which is so strong and silent. It is even more reassuring to note that our DLR hosts will pay the taxi bill. The roads are full of rugged German cars, with the Volkswagen still being the most ubiquitous. At first sight, the roads appear empty; but car queues grow rapidly at traffic signals. We hear a presentation later on how DLR proposes to use global positioning systems to ease traffic congestion at Berlin; we wonder if these systems could ever help Bangalore’s Airport Road.
We worry initially about offending our German hosts by seeking to compare East and West Germany. But as reserves melt, we talk freely. There are still “two” Germanys and this will be so for at least another generation. The West Germans still prefer Munich, Stuttgart and Cologne for work. The East Germans now prefer the same cities. “This does create tensions”, our hosts admit. Other concerns are the high expenditures to support senior citizens, the exploitative nature of German industry which only invests in the East to “gobble up subsidies”, the vast gap between the educational systems of the East and the West and the poor form of the German football team.
The city is wet and we end up with umbrellas and muddy shoes which soil our impeccable hotel floors. But the hospitality is gracious, the wines are divine and the toasts are sincere. One felt a shade sorry to leave Berlin; it would have been harder if Paris was not the next destination.