2011-02-17

The Wall: Live in Berlin

Life is like a big city, a Metropolis such as Tokyo, or Sao Paolo, or Los Angeles, with broad streets and narrow pathways, with huts and individual houses and huge towers, parks and rivers also.
On my way through it, I pass bridges and crossings with thick traffic jams. What am I going to do when I get stuck? Shall I make a turn? Better walk on my own or follow the crowd to the underground? Take the bike? Watch my step in darker corners? Look out, a stop sign! - Nevermind, I don't care about those.

As a child, I played in the streets, mindlessly but with a vague sense of danger. Don't let yourself get hit by a car, Mama said. Don't take sweets from a stranger, either.
As years went by I discovered more and more of the streets in the quarter and roamed the city as an adolescent. It was exciting; still a lot to see and get familiar with, and the fact that my life was like Berlin, surrounded by walls and fences with barbed wire atop, did not matter as much as you might think. For my visitors, Berlin was all about THE WALL. But for me, the wall was such an ordinary feature that I couldn't care less. Like all of us, I earned my first Marks by joining the construction team, even. It is safe to say that we 'Berliners' were somehow proud of our wall. After all, it was necessary to protect us from evil forces outside.

Then came the day when I realized that things went worse. Still, the shop windows were filled with tons of bright-coloured stuff to purchase. But many people lost their jobs, their homes. There were more beggars on the streets than ever before, also junkies and bootleggers, whores and thieves... and of course the police and military, trying to suppress the spreading unhappiness.
Our family didn't do too well, either, although we still had a living. But it was all too obvious this was not going to last. Suddenly, the existence of the wall became a hurting reality. My world was finite, narrow, with each road ending in a blind alley. There was nowhere to go. Maintaining the wall had drained the city of its energy. Berlin had become a prison. Me, I got dizzy from banging my head against the wall; some guard shot at, and injured me, and from inhaling heavily polluted air, I was suffering of chronic sensual numbness.

It was at this point in time, when I discovered a second-hand bookshop somewhere in a remote corner of Berlin people rarely used to go to. The 'KDW' was way more popular those days, although less people than ever before could afford to buy there. Anyway, the bookshop turned out to be extremely interesting to me. Browsing through its shelves I found the wisdom of ages. At first I passed by without noticing; soon enough I would return. The thing that completely changed my blurry, distorted imagination of the city was a visionary map of a future Berlin. Yet to be built were a couple of new axes, some more parks, and an extended version of the wall. Wow. That felt liberating. Much more space for us in store to proceed with our lifestyle, if only we wanted to conquer it.

Quite life-changing were a couple of historical maps, and the one that showed today's Berlin: though it may seem to contemporaries that a city is a static feature, it actually grows and changes over time. Once, it was simpler. Once, it was not divided. Once, there was no wall. Almost unimaginable. New buildings got constructed, then amended, torn down, rebuilt, replaced. New alleys appeared, others got buried under glass and steel, depending on the needs of the citizens. There are countless winding ways to get from A to B (or C, or D, or...); there have been countless others in the past. But the one thing that never changed throughout the centuries was the main boulevard, a vast alley running almost straight from West to East, from dusk to dawn, from fear to love. Each section of it shows various landmarks and has a different name. Depending on your position, you would find traders, or priests, or members of the administration. Some people would spend a whole lot of time in museums; others stroll through the park. There, a couple of kids with their headsets on, music loud, bored to death with the concrete reality of highrises. Passing-by workers throw angry glances at the lazy bunch.

Back on the streets after having left the bookshop with a much clearer picture of the situation in mind I would notice, that most people were either skipping sides aimlessly, getting lost in the vastness of the city, or they were heading West. Me, fascinated by the features shown in the old maps, I wanted to go East now. That meant swimming against an endless stream of people violently pressing me to follow them to the factories. The wall was forever, they insisted; ain't no bulldozer big enough to tear it down. Come with us.
Needless to say I didn't.

It took only little effort. The forces of imagination found a way, and the wall, too large for one individual to remove it by force, crumbled and fell where it once barred the main alley. With nothing but a backpack in my hands I headed east.

From time to time I return, although it hurts. There's still ties to where I once was home. After all, I am not intending to leave Berlin too soon. I like to speak of the places I found beyond the wall, what they look like to me, the stories they tell me, and the new directions awaiting the traveller to explore them. If I were a leader person, I'd like to be a guide giving my services for free. So many people got stuck in their ghettos and slums, working class capsules like bird cages, apartments apart from reality, and castles to-be in the sky unable to float high enough to cross the walled border.
Yes, I'd like to be a guide, but I am untrained in applying first aid to the homesick. So I remain just humble me, nothing more but a road sign pointing from nearby a viewing platform to an alleyway most people dare not enter; each traveller is responsible only for himself, and most would rather starve their soul to death than take the risk of running into one of the self-appointed guardians of the status quo or the pit-holes near and beyond the wall.

Despite all that, numbers of refugees are increasing. That's good news. From what I saw behind the iron curtain, there is the chance we can make it to a new way of life, a new Berlin, that might resemble a garden rather than a city. People are much kinder there in general. I have faith. And whenever a guard stops me to ask about my business, I reply, "I want to be there, more than anything", and take a pass.

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