Tuesday, July 24, 2007


My husband and I went to Berlin for a week at the invitation of our son and his family, who have rented an apartment there for the summer. Although we have been to Germany many times, we had never been to Berlin. While I had suggested it in the past, it was not a practical thing to do before the wall fell.

When the Berlin wall came down, my father commented that he never thought he would live to see it happen. Frankly, neither did I – much less think that I would spend a week of my life living in what had been East Berlin.

I guess I expected to see dramatic differences, even today. I imagined East Berlin in shades of gray – the dismal colors of the communist regime. But this is 2007, and East Berlin is in many ways like every other city, alive with a Technicolor vibrancy.

There one thing in particular that struck me about the city, whether it be East Berlin or West Berlin, and that was its youth and energy. I looked around and saw few people older than myself. Most of the people I saw seemed to be 50 or younger. Everyone was in motion – whether walking, riding bicycles or sitting on the train or bus.

At 61, with little tolerance for walking and hot weather, I found myself constantly seeking out places to rest. There were plenty of street cafes, with a cold beer the price of admission. A few times I succumbed to the pain in my feet and ordered a beer.

I lost ten pounds in one week, and I think it was a combination of walking and heat that did it. Though the first few days were cold and rainy, we were soon in the midst of a heat-wave, with the thermometer topping 90 degrees. Not something that I notice at home in my little sedentary, air-conditioned world, but something that really got my attention in Berlin. Without air-conditioning and relying on my two feet and public transportation, I was quickly the victim of heat exhaustion. But, I felt good – alive in a way I don’t at home.

They left some of the wall standing. It was thinner concrete than I had imagined – not much more in some ways that an extra tall Jersey barrier. The course of the wall is marked in stones on city streets. It amazed me just how easily we could cross from one side or the other. I could only imagine what it was like before.

While we were there the Brandenburg Gate was mostly blocked off with a series of elaborate white tents. Turns out this was fashion week in Berlin, and fashionable people were there from all over the world, presumably to find out what was hot. Contrast this to scenes from the Third Reich.

When we go to Germany, we enjoy eating traditional German food. Our son had warned us, however, that Berlin was very cosmopolitan and real German food was not that common. But we did enjoy several excellent German meals, mostly at beer gardens. We also enjoyed fabulous pizza, as well as delightful French and Russian food.

We toured a museum (in a shopping mall) that focused on the history of Berlin. A commercial venture, it was indeed worthy of the Smithsonian. It was a great way to spend a cold and rainy day.

At the conclusion of the tour, there was an optional tour of a fallout shelter under the mall. I guess of everything I saw, this shelter shocked me the most. Built in 1974, it could accommodate 3,500 people – first come, first served. There are four of these in Berlin. According to our tour guide, two weeks notice would be required to stock the shelter with food, and after the 3,500 people had stayed there for only two weeks, they would have exhausted all the supplies and air, and would have to leave. I remember 1974; we were living in Southern California. By then I already had come to terms with the reality that if the bomb dropped, it was all over for us. We were told that the shelter could still be used. Amazing!

The scars of Nazi Germany were visible, intertwined with modern life. Walking down the street, one can see small brass markers that show where the Jewish families lived. It made the Holocaust seem all too real.

We visited a small museum focusing on the life of Anne Frank. The museum was in the attic of a small building. This venue made it easy to envision how Anne Frank must have suffered in a sweltering attic in hiding with her family in Amsterdam.

Clearly, Berlin is a city that has endured a lot of pain, and it shows. There is as much graffiti per square mile probably as Queens. But what impresses me is the city’s resilience – the way it embraces life. Its focus is clearly on the future, and there is an energy that is electric. Late at night young men and women, some drawn together by the Internet and a shared language, are gathering in cafes and beer gardens and talking of things that matter. Something powerful is bubbling just beneath the surface.

For our son, his wife, and most especially for our grandchildren, living in Berlin for the summer has to be a grand adventure. For us, it was a glimpse into another world.

We are home now; back to our cars and our air-conditioned, comfortable suburban world. There is no walking up the street for a gelato or catching a subway to go to a museum. Everything is easier here, but what is missing is creative tension and energy that happens when you get outside of your comfort zone.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Holidays Mark the Speed of Life

You know how with reel-to-reel tape recorders, the closer to the end of the reel, the faster it spins. At 61, my life feels like it is spinning ever so fast, almost out of control. I guess that is normal, but it is disorienting, and it just keeps getting faster and faster. Ironically, this phenomenon coincides with the intellectual knowledge that one’s life is coming to a close, sooner rather than later. My mother died at 69; her mother at 67. I wonder how much time I have left.

I can tell you what songs were popular in the 1960s or even the 1950s or 1940s, and even usually what year and who the artist was. But I am hard-pressed to make a distinction for all the other more recent decades, much less know the artist. It all just sort of runs together in a blur. And the bottom line is – I really don’t care, so I don’t focus on it.

When you are young, everything is an adventure. There are new things to experience; new foods to try; new places to visit. And, of course, when I was younger those new experiences and places to visit were more diverse and intense than they are now. The world is quickly getting to be all the same. One has to look for differences, and they are more subtle than in the past.

At the same time I am discovering that cultural distinctions are harder to find, I am also discovering that I really do enjoy being set in my ways and the comforts of home. I love my home, and travel is harder than it used to be. Suitcases seem to be heavier and my feet have less tolerance. I don’t like to be too cold or too hot, and I like an extra firm mattress and bottled water. If I can’t hook up to the Internet or there is bad cell phone reception, I am totally out of sorts.

The Fourth of July was yesterday. For the 30 years, we have done essentially the same thing. We have participated in the local parade in one form or another, then had lunch with family and dinner at a friend’s potluck. While there was a disquieting sameness to this ritual, there was comfort in it as well. Then this year, everything was different. Our son and his family are away in Germany; we borrowed our son’s convertible to use for the parade, but it wouldn’t start and the top wouldn’t go down; there was no potluck. Steve is having a colonoscopy today, so he was on clear liquids. So no parade, no family, no potluck, not even any food for Steve. It didn’t feel right, but I seized the time and, you guessed it, worked! This is a Fourth I will remember because it was different. But next year, it will come around again. Maybe my family will be in town; maybe the car will be fixed and we can be in the parade; maybe the potluck will be back on, and surely Steve won’t have to have another colonoscopy. Or maybe we will try something totally different and get out of town or start a whole new ritual.

I remember Christmas of 1985. We were making our annual trek to Birmingham to be with my family. I knew it would be a long and exhausting trip, and I somehow envied those who didn’t have to leave their homes over the holidays – the people who had Christmas trees, had parties and cooked Christmas dinner. But it was a passing thought, and one I now wish I had never had. Being with my family at Christmas was always very special. My mother had big holiday parties, and the house sparkled with holiday cheer. We all felt loved and past of something bigger than ourselves. It was worth the grueling 15 hour drive.

That was our last real Christmas together. A few weeks later, my mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. By January 13, 1987, she was dead – a year to day after her diagnosis. We were all together for Christmas of 1986. There was no party; everyone was depressed; Christmas dinner was prepared by myself and a family friend, under my mother’s none too patient supervision. We are Chinese take-out Christmas Eve. We exchanged meaningless gifts. I got a camcorder, but my mother wouldn’t let me take her picture. She did not want to be remembered looking the way she did. We left tired, discouraged, and profoundly sad.

It is strange about holidays; they are the same for decades, then suddenly everything changes. Old rituals give rise to new rituals, and we find comfort in the sameness as the years go spinning by, faster and faster. But without holidays, the days and nights would totally spin out of control with no anchors to hold us our past.