Saturday, May 10, 2008

Thank You For The Liberation

Around this time of year, posters get slapped up all over town, the same ones every year, printed by the FDJ, of all people (and who knew they were still around?). In three languages, they say "Thank you for the liberation," and feature crude black-and-white photos that I guess depict the events of May 8, 1945, when control of the city was wrested away from what was left of the Nazi government.

What came next was the Occupation. It's somewhat bracing to remember that when I moved here, I was living in an occupied city. Certainly the first time I came here, in 1988, I had to change planes in Frankfurt because I was flying Lufthansa, and that airline was owned by the West German government, which was prohibited from operating in the occupied city. Back then, I didn't particularly notice the division (except for the obvious one made out of concrete). The British, American, and French zones all looked alike, and there weren't any obvious signs which you were in.

The key word there is "obvious." I'd assumed that where I spent all my time on my first couple of visits -- Schöneberg, Moabit, Charlottenburg -- was the American sector, so I was amazed to discover that, according to this map, it wasn't. In fact, but for a short visit to Kreuzberg, I never entered the American zone at all. But then, I never saw any soldiers except at obvious places like Checkpoint Charlie, or, during my first hours in the city, by the Brandenburg Gate when a Lada with a couple of uniformed Russians pulled up next to the car I was in. Boy, that gave me a start; I hadn't realized I was quite the child of the Cold War that I was.

It seems that it was obvious if you lived here, though. I had a friend who grew up mostly in Wedding, in the French sector, and she said (although I have no other proof of this) that the French were notoriously worse in their treatment of Germans, and that the locals went out of their way to avoid contact with them. As far as she was concerned, there was spite in their occupation -- and given the history between the two countries, who's to say that she might not have a point? At this very moment, there's a large contingent of French expats here, and I'm told they never socialize with the locals, since they've settled here because they have European passports and it's so much cheaper than Paris. I do know that they have their own free newspaper, which you can pick up in pubs, and which, as someone who tried and failed to establish one in English here for many years, makes me very jealous.

On the other end of the scale was a friend I'll call Z, because he lived in Zehlendorf, right in the heart (spiritual, if not geographic) of the American zone. A total Americanophile, he was working as a book translator at that point, and had been an exchange student not once, but twice, in the United States. ("Hey," he said, "if you'd had a teenage kid like me, wouldn't you have wanted to ship me half-way around the world to get rid of me?" He had a point...) After I moved here, it was becoming obvious that the Allied troops were going to be leaving, and he was dreading the day. There were second-hand bookshops run by Americans in Zehlendorf where he'd shop, and there was a pizzeria called Four Brothers which started as a fried chicken joint run by three black ex-soldiers from Philadelphia and was failing spectacularly (you can not get Germans to eat fried chicken: just ask the Colonel) when a fourth Philadelphian, an Italian-American, joined the team, turned it around to make pizza instead, at which point they started printing money. Having had carry-out from there at Z's house, I can attest that it was the best pizza in town -- if you wanted American-style pizza.

By early 1994, some American troops had already left, and Z had turned me on to Truman Plaza, on Clayallee, across from the American Consulate. Here, there was an American newsstand open to the public, and the PX, which wasn't. But outside the PX was a bulletin board, and when I needed a stereo, Z urged me to head straight to Truman Plaza and check the bulletin board. A brilliant idea: the PX sold stereos at cost, but they were, of course, for European, not American, voltage. I scored a couple of pieces of equipment which I still use, far better than I could have afforded new, from a soldier and his German wife who were headed back in a couple of weeks. Both of them just couldn't wait to get out of Berlin, and he was totally shocked that I didn't want his television and a half-dozen other appliances, too. (Totally unrelated PX anecdote: I once went to a party where I was charged with making hamburgers from my secret recipe, part of which involves sprinkling them with Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning, which I'd smuggled in after a trip to Texas and made a big "you can't get that here" deal about. One of the Germans at the party looked at my precious canister of the stuff and said "Oh, yeah, Tony Chachere's. You could get that at the PX. We always had some around.")

As the day for the troops to leave approached, Z was more and more distraught. The bookstores closed, the Four Brothers (which depended heavily on the military for its customers) closed, and he made me promise to meet him to watch the final parade down the Strasse des 17 Juni, which was going to happen on June 19. I'd already missed enough history here (I left town in 1989 the day before the Wall opened, and on another occasion, I missed the last Pan Am flight out of Berlin, an emotional occasion because they'd donated many airplanes to the Berlin Airlift) that I wasn't going to miss this -- plus, the parade route was only a few minutes' walk from my place in Moabit anyway. The New York Times story will give you the factual background, but my memory also includes the low-flying aircraft flying flags, and trailing red, white, and blue smoke from their exhausts (convenient for the Americans, British, and French!) while soldiers stood in their open doors at full attention, which certainly got my acrophobia going. The other memory of that day certainly didn't make the Times: Z was openly crying.

It seems weird at this point in history to think that someone like him would be so deeply affected. It's not that he wasn't a proud German, but he'd spent 35 years in either the American zone of West Germany, or West Berlin, and his most important cultural touchstone was being ripped away from him. He'd been occupied his whole life, and he'd formed a bond with his occupiers, whether he was reading their pulp fiction or surreptitiously smoking their pot and drinking their beer in one of their high schools. German identity, whether some people would like to admit it at that point or not, was partially dependent on the occupiers reminding them of why they were occupied. From this day on, they'd have to go it themselves. I suspect this provoked a tinge of fear in some people.

Anyway, I think of Z every year when these posters show up. He abandoned our friendship long ago as he quit his translating job and got into the film business, where he's produced some of the very worst teen comedies this nation has ever offered to a reluctant movie-going public. He's a millionaire now, I suspect. At any rate, he's been liberated from who he used to be.

Me, too, as almost 15 years in a foreign country will do to you. Not that I've gone native, as some expats do. But I've become accustomed to some of the European norms which are pretty much universal in the countries I've visited: a different pace of life, an acceptance of universal medical care as a human right instead of a privilege, an abandonment of puritainsim, a scepticism about nationalism, and a feeling for cross-border cooperation. I think you can be liberated from the United States without becoming a subject of where you live, too, in the same way that the Italian-Americans I grew up with were both Italian and American. I think of myself more as an American-European in that sense, and, like those Italian-Americans, I can live with the best of both cultures and make a new one out of what I've been dealt by life here.

So, much as I bitch about Berlin and much as I can't wait to get out of here, I gotta say it: thank you for the liberation.


Scraps said...

Thanks for this, Ed. I didn't know about this aspect of the occupation at all, and you've made it vivid in a short space.

And of course, this --

I've become accustomed to some of the European norms which are pretty much universal in the countries I've visited: a different pace of life, an acceptance of universal medical care as a human right instead of a privilege, an abandonment of puritanism, a scepticism about nationalism, and a feeling for cross-border cooperation.

-- makes me depressed.

Scraps said...

I always forget to tick the ticky box.

Anonymous said...

Great essay. Thanks for a glimpse into a period of Berlin history that I know very little about.

Anonymous said...

You softie.
Fine post.

Anonymous said...

Ed, what happens to this blog when you leave?

Ed Ward said...

This blog will end with a "This Blog Has Moved" entry which will contain the URL for my new one.

Like, you don't think there'll be things to write about -- and complain about -- in France?

Anonymous said...

Can't say I regret a decade-and-a-half of Berlin, but it's also refreshing getting back out into the real world...

Ed Ward said...

What I regret is actually more like the last three or four years and not being able to do anything because of extreme poverty. Starting in about 02, I should have packed up and left: everything I'd tried to do here had ended badly -- the radio station sold to an idiot, my communications project hijacked by morons who forced me out -- and I should have just chalked it up to experience and moved on. Instead, I've been treading water and occasionally been sure I was going to drown. We only live so long, and I feel like I've lost five years at a point when I'm not sure how many more I've got. If I were accomplishing anything here, though, it'd be a very different story. And, of course, if I felt more sympathy for the culture.

Olaf said...

Thanks Ed--wonderful post. My life was/is marked indelibly by Berlin, and even though when I left, I was damned ready to go, I'd move back in a heartbeat if my wife would just give up her career, friends, and family.

Let me say this though--the Berliners are a damned sight nicer now than they were 35 years ago. Peace and stability have a wonderful warming effect.