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Memories of a Divided City

by Roman Orszanski

(First published in doxa!, 7 November 1990, edited by Roman Orszanski.)

These are just trip notes.

I plan to publish notes for the next few months, in the hopes of eliciting letters and replies, and, with luck, descriptions of events from the others there, because that's what a GUFF Trip really is: the chance to meet and talk to fans from the other side of the world. And it's not just my story, all the fans I met are part of the story, and should have a part in the telling of the trip (share the blame, right?). So I'm publishing snippets, and I hope that at least some of the fans I met will share their version of events with us. Eventually, in six months, I'll expand and complete my version, annotate it with comments from the innocent (!!) bystanders, and issue a collected Trip Report.

Given the unification of Germany a scant twelve hours ago, let me muse on my visit to Berlin...

*** *** ***

Just crossing the plaza was extraordinarily moving: a year ago people would have been shot for trying to stroll across Checkpoint Charlie. Now, no-one particularly cared. I wasn't there as a tourist, but just wandering across the deserted area to visit Eric Simone at his publishing house. With the restructuring forced by unification, he was the sole survivor of three sf editors the company once had. New Capitalists had quickly seized on the removal of the wall: near Checkpoint Charlie was a shop dedicated to selling wall souvenirs. Posters; t-shirts, postcards and the omni-present pieces of "the one, true wall". They'd photographed some of the amazing artwork/graffiti on the wall and turned it into full colour t-shirts.

Across the road was a museum dedicated to the Wall, and attempts to cross Checkpoint Charlie.

I'd caught the U-bahn (aka Metro, Underground or Subway) to a nearby stop, and strolled along the road. The wall doesn't exist anymore, not as a barrier: just a symbol. My map still showed a non-existent border of concrete and barbed wire, but all that met my gaze were the now-abandoned bunkers which flanked the main border gate, a couple of signs saying "You are now leaving the American sector", and acres of rubble and a cleared no-man's land, awaiting development. On the East Berlin side, plush apartment blocks, designed to impress the West. And everywhere, signs of building and renewal.

I'd caught up with Erik the previous night, at the home of Karlheinz and Angela Steinmuller, two East German sf writers/fans with whom I was staying.

I'd left Den Haag the previous night, in the hope I might be able to contact them once I reached Berlin. I did, and was welcomed by Karlheinz with afternoon tea: Karlheinz is editing the letters of Einstein, in the hope of publishing the complete correspondence. (The complete works of Einstein currently only exist in Russian!)

We chatted about many things, particularly the question of unification and what it means for the identity of East Germans. The unification is, after all, more an annexation. West Germany is attempting to swallow East Germany whole - not, I suspect, without suffering some indigestion.

Although everyone welcomes the new-found freedom, they are wary of embracing capitalism completely. There are questions of social provisions such as childcare, employment and abortion. East Germany has (had!) a strong packaging law to prevent unnecessary wrapping and protect the environment; they have recycling schemes to reuse bottles. Will the east now be flooded with the excessive western-style packaging?

There was strong state backing for the arts in East Germany, including heavy subsidies for publishing. What happens in "a combined germany? Will the arts and drama groups be "rationalised"? Amalgamated with their western counterparts (if they exist)? Softly and silently vanish away?

Even more subtly, will the very idea of an East German cultural identity vanish overnight? Should they ignore the last forty years of, their history, and become West Germans? There is a strong East German culture, different from that of the West: should it be abandoned? These sorts of questions are currently being debated by the state-supported "cultural clubs' in the East, as they try and work out what their role will be in the New Germany.

*** *** ***

The U-Bahn trains in Berlin shriek, as metal wheels scrape across the tracks. It is, like metros elsewhere, fast, convenient and effective at moving people.

When Berlin was divided, they sealed off the tunnels, and left the lines to decay. When the city was opened, they repaired three of the lines, and are working on restoring the rest. Thus, while the transport maps show six different lines joining Friedrich Strasse (in the West) with AlexanderPlatz (the heart of East Berlin, with stalls, shops, markets and buskers - including the omnipresent Ecuadorian Indians!!), in reality, they have only restored one track, along which all of the trains run.

West Berliners have good reason to envy the East: they kept their trams, whereas the West ripped theirs out. The opening of the city will mean the construction of the first new tram lines for many decades: they plan to extend the existing eastern lines to join up with U-Bahn or S-Bahn stations in the west. Who knows, perhaps someday, trams will return to West Berlin.

I prefer trams to the metro: you get to see where you're going. In dark tunnels underground, you loose all sense of direction and distance: sum, you may know the topology of the metro (that is, how it's connected), but you don't get a feeling for the city layout.

So, once I realized many of the sights I wanted to see were along the straight road which forms the spine of Berlin, I decided to devote an afternoon to walking through the city.

I started in the west, near the Berlin Zoo, at the Tiergarten, and strolled along June 17th Strasse (named after the date of an unsuccessful uprising of East Berlin workers in 1953).

Either side of the strasse are gardens. When the city was divided, the West Berliners, denied access to the gardens in the eastern part of the city, planted and extended those in this area, which had been destroyed by the bombing during the war, and subsequent scavaging for firewood in the immediate post-war years.

It made for a pleasant green area for the recreation of citizens.

*** *** ***

Near the Winged Spitit of Victory, mounted atop a column in the centre of a roundabout, there are many alcoves in the surrounding gardens. In the alcoves are statues, monuments to warriors, from the time of Bismark on. Very fond of martial heroes, am the Germans. (As, indeed, are the French, the British, etc.) Traffic was held up just as I passed the Spirit of Victory, while police escorted a bus, screaming along the Strasse, airportbound. l presumed it carried one politician or another making the most of a topical photo-opportunity, as the vehicles were screaming along from the top of the Strasse. (I later learnt that ex-president Reagan was visiting Berlin that day. had I not been delayed by an enticing . strudel, I might have caused a diplomatic incident....)

The Strasse is capped by the much-photographed Brandenburg gate. But just before that, is a military barracks. It presents a frightening frontage: tanks and cannon, of the soviet variety, poke out at passers-by. The soldiers on duty within were quite friendly, but refused to pose specifically for photos. One young soldier smiled, but declined to accept a red rose offered by a trio of young women flirting with him.

The plaza before the gate was crowded with stalls, and germans selling souvenirs: pieces of wall, army caps, red stars, binoculars, complete army uniforms. The Gate itself was swathed in scaffolding, as they were cleaning it for the upcoming celebrations. They'd even removed the chariot atop the gate.

I declined to purchase a lump of concrete (my luggage was going to be heavy enough as it was). And, as I skirted the gate to enter East Berlin, I saw many entreprenteurs still chipping away at the few remnants of wall. I suppose I could have chipped my own piece, but unlike some fans, I didn't carry geological hammers with me.

Again, crossing the barrier, a vast swathe of open land: rubble, undeveloped, in the centre of Berlin. Already, Mercedes Benz plans to build a large office block on some of the land.

I hope they keep some of the land as public land; it would make a splendid pedestrian area, with cafes, parks, walks etc. Apparently they've already started a cycle path along the wall zone.

On the eastern side, more stalls, of better quality, and some offering food. I wolfed down a crepe with Zucker und Zimt (sugar & cinnamon). I was intrigued by the hotplate, and the t-shaped tool used to spread the batter to make the crepe: a deft twist of the wrist, and it was done. Later, in Paris, l would see creperies galore...

I continued, past the university, along Unter den Linden; named after the trees planted either side of this cultural avenue. Along the avenue were theatres, libraries, the state opera building and other interesting sites. At the far end was a huge international bookshop. A very fannish sight: huge neon signs adorning a building, spelling out "books" in half-a-dozen languages.

This end, Marx-Engels Platz, also had a fannish monument' In a large circular space, surrounded by grass, is a statue of Marx & Engels: Marx is seated, and behind him, hand on shoulder, stands Engels. On either side, arranged in a semi circle, are six monoliths. Not black, like the structure in Tycho, but shining steel. Engraved onto the surface are photographs from liberation movements around the world.

On the leftmost monolith of the group to the right of Marx, in the top lefthand corner, is a photograph of someone running what looks suspiciously like a roneo ...

Clearly a monument to faneds everywhere; samizdat was big in eastern europe.

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