25 years since the Berlin Wall come down, Hugh McGowan reports on what life for a UCD student is like in Berlin
Early one cold September morning I left home, with my life packed into two suitcases, to start a new life in Berlin. Berlin, a city I had never visited, in a country I barely knew, whose language I could only do a garbled imitation of. My father drove me the few miles to our local airport; I spent the trip wrapped in my own apprehensions, barely speaking. Sensing my discomfort, he strove to reassure me, waxing lyrical about how great an opportunity I had and how jealous he was. As we drove my eyes reached beyond the window into the dark gloom surrounding us, searching for some final glimpses of familiarity.
If I wasn’t unsure to begin with, the events of that first day did little to underpin confidence in my choice. Between diverted flights, an abrasive new landlady and a wild goose chase across Berlin for shopping coupled with getting caught up in an apparently rare German rail strike; I was left shaken and not exactly stirred about what I had gotten myself into.
The first month drifted on, with a language course prior to beginning my actual classes constantly reminding me of the dire state of my German. The clueless antics of myself and the two other lads from UCD provided endless entertainment to onlooking Germans, like the time two of us went to the bank and were asked if we wanted a joint account.
As October began, the university registration process started with vengeance. It is impossible not to be flustered and frustrated by German bureaucracy; no fewer than seven documents were required for my registration and even today I still unhappily ping-pong between various far-flung offices. As one of the lads explained “The system is efficient for the system, not for the people who it’s designed to cater for”.
Sitting at my desk, looking at the dark November sky, I feel as if I’m starting to get this place. If anything my experience of Berlin is a story of contrasts, let me explain:
I am a middle class, conservative, straight, Catholic, teetotaller. I grew up in a normal house in a quiet area with my much loved middle class parents, my two siblings and our adorable dog. We were brought up properly, to take responsibilities seriously, to always vote, to pay taxes and bills, to support the police etc. etc. My ambitions include finishing university, getting a good degree, settling down where I grew up, marrying another eligible professional, and buying a semi-detached house before producing well-behaved, intelligent children to form the next generation of responsible citizens. Let’s not forget the pet Labrador and the Volvos. You’ll be able to get us at the following address “Respectable family, Normalville, Nice part of Town, Inoffensive Place in the Mid-West, Ireland ” verstehen Sie?
Except I now live in Berlin, a place which is Europe’s Party and LGBT capital, boasting the highest percentage of atheists in Europe and more bearded lefty anarchist types per square mile (sorry kilometer) than any city in the world (with the notable exception of Galway). My new home-town is so far out it’s on the way back, ask for directions on the street and you’ll likely be met with a look that says “F#@k you tourist, can’t you see I’m trying to be alternative here!” Not a day goes by where my moderate establishment sensibilities aren’t offended in some way. Though at some level I’m beginning to like that, I enjoy getting up in the morning to be shouted at by the crazy French communist on Friedrichstraβe, I get a kick out of going to college to be told that everything in the newspapers is a lie and the entertainment on my commute of “Is that a man or woman?” kicks Morning Ireland’s refined arse.
But it wasn’t always like this; the Berlin I know exists because of the pent-up desires of generations of Berliners, suppressed by regime after regime. Whole generations were born, lived and died under one despot or another. Allied victory in 1945 did not mean liberation for the people of Berlin, for half of them it meant living in constant fear of the Red menace, for the other half it meant goose-stepping to the opposite end of the ideological spectrum to satisfy their new, jumped-up, medal laden masters.
The streets I walk today still echo with the sound of marching soldiers, and the smell of burning books lingers. For far too long the desire for freedom and individual expression lay crushed under the weight of the jackboot and contained by barriers both legal and physical. But 25 years ago that all changed forever, the Berliners rose up in a peaceful wave and the Gate was thrown open, the Wall was torn down and what opened up was a whole new world of possibilities. Diversity of opinion, freedom of choice and a constant challenging of assumptions became the new order here.
Berlin today is brash and loud and flashy, like some sort of hipster New York. This city doesn’t just tolerate difference, it breeds it. This place knows more about dictatorship and the value of dissent than anywhere else. In this, the former power base of the Prussian Kings, the Capital of the Kaisers, the heart of Hitler’s Reich, the symbol of a continent divided by ideology, freedom has a special meaning, one which goes beyond the everyday platitudes we pay it in the Anglo-sphere. In today’s Berlin freedom is no longer a distant dream or a cliché taken for granted and paid appropriate lip service, freedom is this city’s lifeblood, coursing through its previously barricaded streets, soothing the scars of its past and giving power to the millions of voices, views and lifestyles which now shape Berlin’s, and by extension Europe’s, future. So 25 years after the fall of the wall I’m proud to be able to say Ich bin ein Berliner (na, fast) – I am a Berliner (well, almost)