Tuesday, March 30, 2010

From Frohnau to Schmöckwitz

Ever looked closely at a map of Berlin? All those magical place names?

Not magical, you say? You're just not trying!

OK, so this is not everybody’s idea of a fun alternative to cleaning your sock drawer, but it is mine. I carry around with me a love of this city that goes back to the time my Uncle Willi first took me there and showed me where the family came from. I have childhood memories of my grandmother telling me about walking down Unter den Linden and pressing her nose against the shop windows and dreaming of someday having a dress like that.

A few years after that first trip I went back again, this time wearing an American army uniform. I had trained to be a Russian “linguist”. The military uses this word for anybody who speaks, even poorly, a language they paid lots of taxpayer money to teach them. Once I got there, for reasons that I won’t explain here, I got switched from Russian military spying to German political spying, partly because nobody had bothered to teach the German “linguists” to handle the Saxon dialect of nearby Dresden. I didn’t have much experience with the dialect either, but I had a German grandmother, so I had a head start.

These days I live in San Francisco where an earthquake could come along at any moment and end my days. In those days, one way to be cool, if you were twenty and in the U.S. Army of Occupation, was to taunt fate and laugh at the possibility the Russians could march in without warning, take the city and do us in that way. To my Berlin family and friends, the fact that the heart of the city they had grown up in was now inaccessible was heartbreaking. To us Americans, the inaccessibility only lent excitement. It was a place of mystery and endless fascination.

Nearly thirty years later, when the wall came down in 1989 and the city started putting itself back together, I was living in Japan. I had given up the plan to emigrate to Berlin. I still went back as often as I could, but it was receding in my imagination. It was no longer a place I could lay claim to. It was a whole new place and try as I might I would never make up for lost time.

Recently, I have become aware of how much of my energy goes into raving about the state of American political life and I need ways to get calm. Music helps. So does Google. Now, I can sit in front of the computer and spend the entire day flying over the cities of the world reliving past travels thanks to Google maps. Much of that time is wandering between places I know in Berlin, and coming to terms with the fact that “they” are now “us” and “there” is now “here.”

Recently I came across the name “Marzahn-Hellersdorf.” I had never heard of it before. I can’t tell you what a blow it was to my ego to learn it’s one of the twelve boroughs of the new united Berlin. Taku and I are going to Berlin this summer and one of the things he wants to see is the museum put together by that guy who lived his life in a dress, collected antiques, and called himself Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. It’s on the easternmost side of the city, in the borough of Marzahn-Hellersdorf, and deep in the once forbidden territory of da drüben –“over there.”

So now I pore over maps.

All those Slavic names. You know about Moscow and Krakow. But do you know Kladow and Gatow, Karow and Pankow, Treptow, Malchow, Rudow and Buckow?

They’re all pronounced “-oh”, incidentally, not “ow”, as in “how now brown cow” and the way English speakers pronounce Moscow and Krakow. (And not like the “uff” in Krakow, as the Poles say it, either). A linguistic curiosity, breaking the otherwise highly consistent rules of German pronunciation.

Berlin too is Slavic, as you may know. Polabian, to be specific. Not that that helps much, since the last native speaker of Polabian, a woman, died in 1756, and the last person who spoke any Polabian at all died in 1825.

But just in case anybody asks you about the origin of both “Berlin” (pronounced bay-uh-leen, in German, by the way) and all those place names ending in –ow, don’t hesitate. Speak right up and say, “Well, my best guess would be Polabian.”

I’ve known some of these place names all my life. Some, like Wedding, make me remember my friend Merrill, who worked there as a construction worker after we got out of the army. Spandau will always make me think of the prison where the British Commandant, whom I met at a party one time, played chess with its sole prisoner, Rudolf Hess, even though the average British soldier was strictly forbidden to have any contact.

But those names – like Lichterfelde, where I lived during my army days in the Berlin Brigade (in Andrews Barracks, formerly the home first of Prussian cadets and later of the Waffen SS at the corner of Finkensteinallee and Kadettenweg – if you click on "Andrews Barracks" and scroll down to about an inch from the bottom, you'll even see pictures of Bldg. 904, home of the "spooks" - that's us, the spies, and I think the actual room I lived in) – and Charlottenburg and Dahlem, where all my friends live, are all West Berlin names. The new Berlin opens up all sorts of places I know only from stories. Pankow, the word that represented the ruling class of the supposedly classless DDR. Köpenick, as in The Captain of Köpenick, a book by Carl Zuckmayer, the writer I chose for my senior thesis in college to the absolute horror of my department chair. “German literature has Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Hölderlin, Lessing, Rilke, Kafka, and even that bastard Bertolt Brecht, and you want to read Carl Zuckmayer?” So many memories, but so little knowledge of the mysterious east.

It’s all such an adventure now. All so intriguing. Even though the wall came down twenty years ago, it’s all still new to me.

So in preparation for my next trip I’ve been committing the map to memory. Or trying to. Berlin reduced its twenty-three “Bezirke” (boroughs) to just twelve in 2001. I’ve got those down. Now I’m working on the “Ortsteile” (“localities” in English), the subdivisions of the Bezirke. That’s taking a little more work, because there are 95 of them.

I’m working on mnemonic devices. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

The 95 official locality place names include (the list is not exhaustive):

1. a couple of “aeries”:
Haselhorst and Karlshorst

and a couple of “courts”:
Tempelhof and Adlershof;

2. three “castles”:
Charlottenburg, Rummelsburg, and Blankenburg;

3. three “cities”:
Siemensstadt, Wilhelmstadt, and Gropiusstadt;

and three places which carry Friedrich’s name:
a grove – Friedrichshain; a field – Friedrichsfelde; and a “close,” – Friedrichshagen;

4. five fields and five Lakes:
Blankenfelde, Lichterfelde, Marienfelde, Hakenfelde, and Friedrichsfelde (just mentioned). Oh, and Falkenhagener Feld.

The districts with lake names are:
Heiligensee, Wannsee, Weißensee, Halensee, and Nikolassee;

5.six mountains:
Schöneberg, Lichtenberg, Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg, Falkenberg, Wartenberg, and

6. thirteen villages, which I have ordered alphabetically:

1. Biesdorf,
2. Bohnsdorf,
3. Heinersdorf,
4. Hellersdorf,
5. Hermsdorf,
6. Kaulsdorf,
7. Mahlsdorf,
8. Mariendorf,
9. Rahnsdorf
10. Reinickendorf,
11. Schmargendorf,
12. Wilmersdorf,
13. Zehlendorf.

That still leaves all the names of places that stand alone, like Frohnau, Lübars, Staaken, Westend, Moabit, Grunewald, and Buch. There are a few more.

Französisch Buchholz. Does your home town have a place name that translates “French Bookwood?” No relationship to that Greek god, Horst Buchholz, that I worshipped when I was younger, (although he was a Berliner, too).




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