I’ve always had regrets about the months between October 2001 and March 2002 I spent in Berlin. First and foremost is that I did not manage to stay there longer. Second, that I really did not make close to the most of the – admittedly meagre – job opportunities I had. Third, I regret the messy and emotional personal situation I found myself in.
Despite all of that, the city will always have a special place in my heart. It was there that I became aware of how wonderful life can be outside the UK; aware of all kinds of competing and conflicting factors that contribute to a good quality of life.
But now I have an additional regret: that I did not make the most of my time in Berlin to understand the city’s rich and bitter history. That realisation has been highlighten in large part by the book Stasiland by Anna Funder [link to Amazon] that I have just finished reading.
Funder bases herself in a lino-floored flat somewhere close to the U-Bahn station Rosenthaler Platz, the very station on the U8 I myself used so often. She gives detailed descriptions of the statue of Heinrich Heine, and the drunks and grafitti beside it, that I walked past so many times en route from my flat in Invalidenstrasse. She makes no mention of the bilious orange tiles on the walls of the U-Bahn station though, one of the enduring and strong memories in my mind.
Yet there are far more crucial aspects of parts of Berlin I was completely unaware of when resident there. Hohenschönhausen, an oxymoron for the former GDR, was the place at the end of my tram route to work, and a place known for the vulgar Plattenbau – 1960s communist housing developments. But it was also the location of the Stasi’s most notorious jail. Or Lichtenberg. For me a grotty station, but actually close to the location of the Stasi headquarters.
So how did I manage to miss all of that? Reflecting on it, the complete absence of analysis of Communism and the Cold War was a stark omission from school history lessons. The Berlin Wall had after all fallen when I was 9 years old.
But I think there’s also another reason. Here I was, 21, blinded by the lights of the big city. Blinded by actually working rather than studying. Blinded by being in a relationship at that time. I reckon I was simply too young to get to grips with the dense history of Berlin at that time. I don’t know how and when, but I so hope that my professional life might allow me time back in that wonderful city again sometime in the future.
@Phina – thanks for the comment! I’d forgotten I’d written this blog entry back in 2006. Today I am living back in Berlin (and have been in Berlin since autumn of 2013). It’s everything I had hoped it would be to be back there, and I am now very well aware (and appreciative of) the history and culture of the city. So no regrets at all!
Berlin appeals to me far more than Paris. Although my stays were always short, I look forward to the 4th time to return to the city. Also, it’s been a dream to live in Berlin for a longer time, your another post about finding a place kind of shows me the “cruel” reality.
So, back to this post, I wonder if you’d wanna change the history to leave no regrets.
I tend to agree that Berlin is a city to be discovered. The weekend I spent there in the freezing cold of February certainly did not do the city any justice.
Definitely worth another try in the future. If so many people love the city, there certainly must be a reason that I have missed 🙂
Thanks for the hint Jon, I will absolutely read it before next autnumn when IÃ‚Â´ll be lucky to spend a couple of months in Berlin!
I first went there in 1986, I think, and then again in 1988 for a camping trip, yes a camping trip, in the DDR… My then partner was fascinated by all things beyond the iron curtain, although that fascination has now remained because he now in lives in post iron curtain budapest.
Ah, yes, I seem to have been spending the last few years putting together in my mind what life must have been like… I’m not sure how I didn’t come across Stasiland before.
My first journey to the other side of where the iron curtain stood was in 1999!
I agree with you about that book. I read it a couple of years ago, and found it very illuminating. I was lucky enough to spend quite a lot of time in and around Berlin at the time of the fall of the wall. You’re lucky enough to be a lot younger than me. I spent two weeks in East Berlin courtesy of the British Council cultural exchange scheme in May 1989, and I remember sitting in Alexanderplatz on a sunny day with some eastern and western friends from Berlin, talking about the young people who were increasingly disappearing out through Hungary, and what the risks and possibilities were for our easterner friends who were there. Then we went back later in the year, specifically over the new year 1989-1990, and were caught up in a massive crowd on new year’s eve who literally swept through the border crossings and back again, as the border guards increasingly accepted that they couldn’t control things. But as you say, there is much still to uncover about the subsequent changes, and that’s where interesting books like Stasiland come into it. Berlin will always be one of my favourite cities – not only for its undoubted aesthetic charms (at least in some areas), but also for its continuing complexities.