Saturday, July 9, 2011

At Home In Berlin

The acne of discarded gum dotted the platforms and graffiti graced many walls. Berlin's subway system, at more than a century, is as old as New York's, and just as gritty. After six months on the road, we at last felt right at home, as we waited for one of the U-bahn's yellow trains to deposit us at the Viktoria-Luise-Platz station, a block from the Stars Guesthouse.

This was our latest hotel, where the management promised to make all lodgers feel like stars, an agreeable exaggeration of a kind not unknown back home. The 99-year-old elevator was a creaky wooden affair that barely held three people (no luggage, please); we rose and fell within a shaft of chicken wire as the shadowy stairway coiled around us. The cab's ceiling light was out, shrouding us in noir, New York 1940s.

Abandon hope?
Photo: Diane

The Stars Guesthouse is in the Schoeneberg district, a gay enclave much like Manhattan's Chelsea, only with far less gridlock and many more bicycles and trees. One gay friend here suggested, with a twinkle, that Diane and I might be the only straight people in the neighborhood. We definitely were in the minority, but hardly alone, as dinner at Trattoria a' Muntagnola attested.

This checkered tablecloth establishment, three blocks from the guesthouse, draws diners from all over the city–gay, straight and in between–including Gerhard Schroeder when he was Germany's chancellor. Muntagnola means "woman from the mountains," and it is that woman, Mamma Angela, from the craggy Basilicata region of Southern Italy, who with her family created the inspired menu.

We felt as if we had stumbled on one of those neighborhood ristorantes in Brooklyn that the patrons keep secret from the rest of us. We kept going back: for succulent starters like the tapenade of eggplant, tomatoes, pine nuts and golden raisins, coated with rich Basilicata olive oil, the best we'd ever tasted; for ravioli accented with cinnamon, which seemed dangerously contradictory but turned out to be an ingenious blend of sweet and savory; for the house's signature lasagna, which oozed a light bechamel beneath a perfect minimum of tomato sauce. It was a long time coming from the kitchen, leaving ample time to watch the passing parade from the sidewalk terrace.

Almost everyone in that review, and at the restaurant, wore jeans, which are more ubiquitous in Berlin than in New York, and maybe even in Marlboro Country. Boys and girls wear the classic Western style with rivets, or opt for the stonewashed or distressed variables, knees pushing through the strategic tears. Men wear the denims when dressing down (add T shirt) or up (add jacket, tie optional). Women do likewise, donning jeans, skirts and vests in all denim styles and colors for all occasions, from gardening to office to opera. At a medical clinic I visited, all three nurse-receptionists sported white jeans.

Berliners come by this sartorial passion honestly, as a visit to the Jewish Museum confirmed. Hanging in a timeline of exhibits tracing the history of Jews in Germany over the centuries was a pair of blue jeans, an approximation of the work pants first marketed by one Levi Strauss, who came to the United States from Bavaria at age 18, in 1847; by the end of the 19th century he had established a brand that would sell millions of blue jeans and be copied by at least a score of other clothing firms that would sell millions more.

When young Berliners began tearing down the Berlin Wall in 1989,
blue jeans were the uniform of choice.

Before getting to Levi Strauss's iconic trousers, we detoured into "Radical Jewish Culture," a special exhibit focusing on the composer John Zorn and the New York new music scene since 1990. To our surprise, staring down at us as we entered was a blown-up portrait of one of RJC's more enthusiastic adherents, the clarinetist and klezmer promulgator David Krakauer, a neighbor on Manhattan's Upper West Side and sometimes collaborator with Diane. A walk through the raucous sounds and strained explanations of this experimental music left us with a certain grudging respect for David's edgy riffing but also a yearning to hear him play Mozart's clarinet concerto very soon.

As at Saks and Bloomingdale's in New York, the July sales were on at Kaufhaus des Westens, Berlin's upscale shopping shrine, better known as KaDeWe. "I'm just going to cruise the aisles," Diane said, as she left me beneath the arching skylights of Le Buffet, the hanger-size cafeteria in the Wintergarden atop the store. I ran some boiling water over a tea bag: 3.20 euros.

"That's $4.50!" I blurted in English, as the cashier looked perplexed and patrons piled up behind me. I carried this liquid gold back to a table, rationalizing that, well, a cup of tea at Saks or Bloomingdale's probably costs about the same. I steeled myself for what Diane might have shaken out while panning downstairs.

This turned out to be not a frock but a cell phone. We had been traveling for six months without one, much less two, and more than once the instrument would have come in handy, as it is called in Germany. We descended to the fifth floor technology department, where I watched the Tour De France live on a screen the size of a billboard and Diane bought a Nokia flip phone that cost only slightly more than the tea.    

It takes about 15 minutes to walk from Saks or Bloomingdale's to Central Park, and likewise from KaDeWe to the Tiergarten, the sylvan sanctuary in the middle of the great sprawl that is Berlin. Again, I felt the tug of home as we strolled under the trees that canopy the park's paths and explored its many monuments. The multiplicity of plantings, especially in the English Garden, put me in mind of Strawberry Fields, the quiet oasis in Central Park commemorating John Lennon.

Near the Lichtenstein Bridge we came upon a massive cast-iron plate that seemed about to slide into the Landwehr Canal, which threads through the Tiergarten. It was a memorial to Rosa Luxemburg, whose name appears on the edge of the slab in large, raised capital letters. Unlike Lennon, who was killed by a deranged fan acting alone, Luxemburg was ordered shot, in 1919, by the Weimar Republic's social democratic leaders, who feared her efforts to create a German communist party and her Marxist views in general. Paramilitary officers dumped her body in the canal.

The message of the Luxemburg memorial is writ almost too large to contemplate just outside the Tiergarten, near the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate. Here some 2,700 stelae commemorate The Murdered Jews of Europe. These mute, gray oblongs sit like giant unmarked gravestones, their differing heights creating an undulating monument across 4.7 acres.

The scene does not permit wistful comparisons with New York. Nor do the searing texts, voices and photographs testifying to the Holocaust in the information center below the stelae. But I did ponder what New York would have become had Hitler prevailed, or if he had never been born.

*  *  * 

I have lived for almost half a century in a city populated with several million Jews, almost as many as in Israel. I am one, and it is strange, even baffling, to feel so at home in Berlin, the center of Germany's murderous regime between 1933 and 1945. But I do.

I was last in Berlin not long before the wall came down, in 1989. I already knew much about Germany's determination to face and study its terrible history, a determination that only gathered force in the two decades that followed. But I had no idea what a vibrant, sophisticated and urbane city Berlin had become, an enviably diverse and tolerant democracy, if inevitably sometimes a messy one.

Wandering the streets, with their ethnic restaurants, bakeries and multitude of shops, watching mothers pushing prams and dogs wrestling near the fountain in Viktoria-Luise-Platz, sharing a laugh-filled meal with friends in their book- and LP-lined (yes, LPs) apartment in the former eastern zone, I felt as if I were back on the Upper West Side.