Saturday, July 10, 2010

Memory Lanes

Decided today (July 9th) would be the day to make the trip down memory lane. I walked to Charlottenburg S-bahn station, bought a day ticket and took the S-7 for Ahrensfelde, got off at Alexander Platz, walked a mile to the U-2 for Ruhleben, took it one stop to Klosterstraße and walked to the Nikolaiviertel. I went inside the Nikolaikirche, paid five euros for an audio tour, was its only visitor (shame – it’s a lovely place, this, the oldest church in Berlin) and therefore got royal treatment from the five or six staff. Plus interviewed about how I liked the layout, whether I could read the signs all right, whether I was doing anything else cultural while in Berlin. I answered all the questions politely, wanting to break away, because I had miles and miles to go.

I then expected to walk back to the Klosterstraße U-bahn stop, get back on the Ruhleben-bound train for Stadtmitte, where I would transfer to the U-6 bound for Alt-Mariendorf. But I decided, since I was right across the street from the Red City Hall that I might as well walk forward and not back. I walked up to the Ku-damm, caught the M-4 streetcar at Spandauer Straße, and went one stop to Hackescher Markt, where I caught the S-bahn going west to Friedrichstraße, where I got on the U-6 for Alt-Mariendorf and got off at Kaiserin Victoria Straße. That subway stop happens to be only a half block from Frau Neumann’s apartment at Tempelhofer Damm 197, where Ed and Bonnie came to live when Bonnie flew over from Missouri so they could get married in 1964.

To my astonishment, the name Neumann was still on the door. I almost rang the bell, but then got a flash of a possible ugly encounter. Frau Neumann is by now almost a legend. She used to line up the chocolates on the coffee table and show us how, if Hitler had moved his tanks this way instead of that way, he might have taken Stalingrad. She also liked her cognac a tad too much. And her American ice cream. She drove poor Bonnie crazy with her kitchen rules.

The real crisis came when Bonnie found a coin under a couch cushion with Hitler’s face on it. My first thought was how disgusting that the place had not been aired out in eighteen years. Bonnie's saw her fears that Frau Neumann was actually Gestapo confirmed once and for all. It took all our skills to keep Bonnie from packing her suitcase then and there. That wasn’t really Frau Neumann’s fault. But it didn’t help that she had to mention in passing that it wasn’t worth anything anymore.

Since Frau Neumann never spoke of children of her own I decided it’s likely the place is now owned by a grandnephew or some such, and could just imagine his wife coming to the door and taking me for a ghost. Frau Neumann must have been in her late 60s or even 70s back in 1962, so I would not be surprised at a response like, “Oh, my God, that old witch! You have to knock on my door and bring her back to life? What did I ever do to you?”

This is scriptwriting in a dark sector of the brain on a very hot day. I might also have gotten, “You knew Great Aunt Hildegard! Oh, my God!!! Please come in and tell me everything you know.”

But I had made this plan to hit all the memory lanes, and I didn’t linger. I can only hope Ed and Bonnie will ring that doorbell one day and ask what ever happened to the Hitler coin.

I got back on the subway, went two stops back the way I had come, to Tempelhof, where I caught the S-Bahn ring clockwise to Schöneberg. “In Schöneberg, in Schöneberg ist Holzauktion” goes this song in the head from my youth.*   Most people remember it as the place where JFK gave his famous "Ik bin ein Berliner" speech, giving rise to the urban legend that he actually said he was a jelly donut. I then transfered to the S1 bound for Wannsee and got off at Feuerbachstraße.

[* note, September 1, 2015.  Reading this again, more than five years after posting it, I have to laugh.  What I've done is confused two songs of my youth - "Das war in Schöneberg, im Monat Mai..." and "Im Grunewald ist Holzauktion"]   Wonder how many more brain farts I might uncover if I set myself to searching.]

Here I had to get out my map. The S-Bahn was off limits when I lived here in the 60s, so we had to travel all over hell and back to get anywhere by bus and subway. Berlin’s transit system might well be the most efficient in the world, but it was designed to be used with all four systems in conjunction. Without the S-Bahn, you could get everywhere in West Berlin by U-Bahn and bus, but it sometimes took forever.

If you don’t know the background… When Berlin was divided, the S-Bahn (Stadtbahn – city train – think of Chicago’s L) remained under the control of the East. The network was far too complex to be divided up, so it continued to run even in the west as a DDR transit system and some people in the West used it. Most people, though, wanted no part of adding even a few pennies to the coffers of the DDR (tickets were supercheap, because they wanted riders and because the exchange rates were so good), so a pretty effective permanent boycott was in place for the decades before the wall came down. As a member of the American military, I could have gotten in trouble if I had been found using the S-Bahn.

The U(nderground)-Bahn was divided up. The East ran trains on tracks in the east, the West ran trains on tracks in the west, and in the couple instances where a single subway line crossed the border through the eastern zone, DDR passengers were not allowed on, and guards stood at all the train stations with their machine guns to make sure nobody tried jumping on a moving train. It used to be an eerie experience to travel from the southside of West Berlin to the northside, through downtown East Berlin, a kind of cheap thrill the first time you did it (or was for me at age 20), but depressing after that.

Just the other day I learned that employees of the S-Bahn who worked in the West, since they were actually employees of the East, if they got sick, had to be treated on the DDR health care system. Since they were not allowed to actually go to the DDR, the DDR built a hospital in the west, specifically for these people. One of dozens of stories of accommodation not generally known. Like the fact that all sorts of trade in food and other goods went on, despite the fact that, for all intents and purposes, the division was complete, and you were jailed or shot for trying to flee the DDR. Potatoes could cross; you couldn't.

From Feuerbachstraße to Tante Frieda’s house at Sachsenwaldstraße 17 was a ten-minute walk. I let myself get lost to see what I remembered of the neighborhood. (Nothing, is the answer to that question.) Was there always an elementary school across the street? I am almost sure there wasn’t. I remember the names of the neighboring streets, but little else. But there was the apartment building. Still there. No longer full of flowers on every balcony, but the person living in her apartment had kept up the tradition. The balcony where she would wave at me with her handkerchief, eyes tearing up and sniffling each time I left for America. She always feared it would be the last time. About twenty times she feared it would be the last time before it actually was the last time, when she died at age 94 in 1988.

I used to go to Germany at Christmas to spend Christmas with her, and she remains the chief reason I think nobody can do Christmas like the Germans can. She had outlived all her friends and family and died alone at 94. I used to wonder where the money would come from for those trips. Now I wonder why I didn’t work nights and Sundays to pay for tickets every year instead of just most years.

I found my way back to the Feuerbachstraße S-Bahnhof and got back on, for just three more stops to Lichterfelde-West, the S-Bahn stop closest to the Andrews Barracks, where I was stationed from 1963 to 1965. Just three stops from Tante Frieda’s house. Couldn’t get over it. All those trips week after week, a good hour at least, with lots of transfers and lots of walking. And we were only three stops apart.

Well, not really. It was a hell of a walk down Baseler Straße to Finckensteinallee and up a block to Kadettenweg, to the entrance of the caserne. Friends took me here about twenty years ago, so I came to realize then then that the barracks was in a very upscale neighborhood in a very upscale suburb. Somehow it all registered as the boonies when I was here in the 60s. We might have been living on the moon, for all the connection we felt with the neighborhood. And it probably was as drab as it is in my memory. It is drab no more, though. It had spruced up when I saw it twenty years ago, and twenty more years have made it into something quite lovely. I think that I’d absolutely love to live here, an idea which I would have taken as proof of insanity if my twenty-five-year-old self could have read the future.

After all that walking, I was seriously concerned I was going to run into trouble. There was no way I could walk that thirty minutes back to Lichterfelde West. Not in that heat. Not with these tired feet. To my astonishment, there is a bus stop directly in front of the Caserne. There’s no reason why a bus stop in modern Berlin in front of a public institution employing hundreds of people should astonish anybody. It reveals how easy it is to think that your memories have a right to determine the present, and not much else. And that’s the last time I’ll refer to it as the Caserne. It is now the Bundesarchiv. No idea what they are archiving there, but unlike twenty-years ago, when it was sealed tight as Fort Knox, today the place is open and you can walk right in.

And I decided not to. I was suddenly taken with the feeling that I had done enough just to get to the gate. Even if they had let me in, many of the buildings, including the one I lived in, have been demolished and I would find it difficult to get my bearings. The main outline of the place is the same, and I decided to call it a day. If anybody is curious, you can google Andrews Barracks and read the history of the place from Prussian Military Academy (hence the name of the street Kadettenweg) to SS Barracks to American base for the spooks, among others, who used to spy on the Russians in the good old cloak and dagger days. Or at least start with the link here. Lots of former GIs have made much more of the place than I want to now.

I took a bus heading to Steglitz City Hall, but at one point I looked out the window and saw that we were at the S-Bahn Station Lichterfelde-Ost and got off the bus. There was a regular train coming that would have taken me into the Hauptbahnhof, where I could have caught the S-bahn home in fifteen minutes. Instead, I assumed (erroneously – why didn’t I ask?) my day ticket wasn’t good for regular trains, and dashed over to the platform where the S-Bahn was just leaving and there was a twenty-minute wait.

Completely by the way here, take a virtual tour sometime if you have a minute of the Hauptbahnhof, Berlin’s Central Station. A stunning piece of futuristic architecture. . Scroll down to the bottom where you will see two “virtual” download possibilities, one regular, at 18 MB, one for the iPod at 12.

So I went back out, got on another bus, which turned out to be heading for Tempelhof – i.e., the opposite direction – so I got off that one and onto another, which happened to have a broken air-conditioning system, which meant the temperature inside had to be over 100 degrees. I couldn’t take it, got off an the next intersection, took another bus going I didn’t care where, figuring sooner or later I’d end up at an S-bahn or U-bahn station.

I ended up riding all the way to Steglitz City Hall, where I caught a subway home. I rode at least an hour longer than I needed to because I was in explore mode, and saw a good piece of the southside of West Berlin - Tempelhof, Lankwitz, Steglitz and Lichterfelde, at any rate. Not that I didn’t know this already, but it staggers the mind to get the scope of this city. And it’s daunting indeed to realize that after all this time, the goal I had in mind when I came here for this extended stay, was to do the same for East Berlin. I can’t imagine now how I’m ever going to get that in. Some year when the temperatures are not in the mid-90s, possibly.

I got home in time to take a shower and walk back to Charlottenburg Station and catch the S-bahn to Hackescher Markt, from where I walked to Monbijou Park to the theater where they were doing this “highly adapted” version of Molière’s Don Juan. Have said this before. Where the French do farce, the Germans do slapstick. It didn’t help we were seated on hard wooden benches with no backs¸ and that one member of the audience collapsed from the heat, stopping the show ten minutes before the end when I thought I had reached my limit of endurance and had to eat NOW or die. Also sit on something soft.

They called for a doctor in the house, put the guy’s feet up, hooked up a fan, passed around buckets of ice cubes throughout the audience, made lots of fun and laughter about it all and extended the damn play till 9 p.m. By the time we got out and found a place to sit on the grass by the Spree with the thousands of other people still celebrating that it’s summertime (a national holiday which runs from the end of May till the beginning of September)¸ got our shish kebab and wine and an inkling that we might not die just yet, my eyes were double x’s and I have no idea whether when people talked to me, I actually was able to respond.

I must have. I remember being delighted by Barbara’s friend Barbara and her partner Elizabeth, once I had some shish kebab in my belly. They left about 10:30. Barbara and I sat and talked for another half hour. I was home in bed by 1.

There. That was my day yesterday.

Today it's fix up a garden hose, and maybe a movie.

Or maybe an organ concert in the Dom.

Nope. I almost forgot. It's the new me. Germany plays Uruguay tonight, and I've got my priorities.

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