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Friday, August 10, 2012

Walking along the memory of a wall

It's one of those things that looms in your mind as you approach the city. If you've grown up reading Cold War spy novels it figures larger than life, mystery on either side and danger in the middle. You recall stories of people building tunnels and finding ways across No Man's Land hiding in improbable ways. And then you see the ghost of a wall on a bright summer day, nothing more than a double row of dark bricks that make a discontinuous line along the middle of a wide Linden-lined avenue.

Achala and I go hunting for Checkpoint Charlie, deciding to walk the 5 miles there instead of taking the faster-but-to-our-tourist-minds-more-complicated subway route. Despite faithfully following a map, we fail to make a couple of turns and end up a couple of miles off, and too tired to retrace our steps. We meet a couple who respond to our English with a Nordic smile and point to their watches to indicate it would take us an hour at least to get there. So we leave it for another day, and turn instead to find the comfort of a streetside cafe and nurse our fatigue with a Hugo.

Bernauer Strasse, the path of the wall

A memorial to families divided and reunited

Shadows of a memory?
Saturday morning, Prenzelauer Berg is getting ready for its weekly flea market in the park. What's significant about this park is that it runs along one of the most memorialised sections of the Wall, on Bernauer Street. "The Wall on Bernauer Street" is a museum along the west side of the street, using the sides of buildings and pieces of sidewalk in which are set the stories of people who lived in the apartment buildings that suddenly found themselves in a different country. One day the windows on their kitchens and bedrooms were boarded up and they could no longer look out on a world they knew.  Along this stretch of where the wall once stood, we walk while Felix cycles ahead of us, stopping at the storyboards, listening posts and wall-sized posters that tell the everyday stories of division. Of how, suddenly, a wall came up, almost overnight, and put families in two parts of an irreconciliable geography. Of how some of them tried to build tunnels underground and inched their way across the fifty feet of mined territory to find what they thought would be freedom. Of how a woman dived three stories down, out of her apartment on the East side, hoping to land safe on the other side. The Wall Museum also documents the larger story of the divided Germany and the Cold War politics that fueled the paranoia on either side.

The Wall itself is practically non-existent. In the days following the first opening up in November 1989, people from all over the world carried bricks away like pieces of history to their personal archives. Some bits have been preserved or reconstructed, and today, against the growing city, it seems nothing more than a poignant reminder of an idea that kept people apart and generated fear for three decades.

On a blue and green spring day history can seem like nothing.

We finally did make it to Checkpoint Charlie, and I got to pay a brief homage to my memory of Le Carre novels.

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