04 June 2006

quite possibly the world's greatest city.

Ironically, this blog left off with last year's trip to Berlin, and here I am again. This time, however, I spent two weeks on a photojournalism study abroad program, living in Prenzlauerberg, the heart of the former east. While I've never disliked any place I've visited (with the possible exception of Texas), Berlin just may earn my "favorite city in the world" title. The formerly divided city serves as the symbol of both the instigators of the bloodiest war of the 20th century and a Cold War that dominated international relations and kept the world on the brink of nuclear disaster for half a century. And yet, despite the blood on Berlin's hands, less than two decades after the fall of the wall, the reunited city has an atmosphere like nowhere else. Without being pretentious, Berliners have this air about them that says "we've seen it all, and yet we're still here." A city facing devastating unemployment, an economy that can't keep up with envisioned growth, and not-so-distant memories of some of modern history's greatest atrocities, and yet the next generation's thirst for life cannot be quenched. Even the homeless musicians performing on the U-bahn for spare change have a liveliness about them I've never seen anywhere else.

After living under not one, but two of history's most oppressive dictatorships in a half century, Berliners cherish their democracy in a way Americans will probably never understand. The glass dome atop the Reichstag represents the transparency of democracy, and from the summit, Berliners can look down into chamber and keep their elected officials accountable. While the glass dome has become a symbol of the new Berlin for tourists worldwide, on any given day, Germans dominate the line to climb to the top. For couples young and old, the night views of their city make a romantic end to an evening, and for groups of Berliners, the free admission makes the dome a popular hangout.

And it's not just the Reichstag - throughout the city, Germans can be found in large numbers at all of Berlin's famous sights. Kurfurstendamm's bombed-out church, Alexanderplatz, the Brandenburg Gate - Berliners have integrated their city's turbulent history into their present, determined to learn from their past instead of sweeping painful memories under the rug. As part of the World Cup marketing campaign, "Germany: Land of Ideas," a monument to German authors even includes Marx, a statement that earns my utmost respect.

For a Cold War history nerd, living in a city that has preserved this much of its tumultuous history is like Christmas everyday. To walk through the streets and finally stand at all the places I've studied throughout my short academic career has been mind boggling. But what makes Berlin truly amazing in my eyes is not just its history, but also its present. Berliners haven't forgotten the past, but nor are they living in it. They're moving on at breakneck speed, and embracing their new united culture and the longest lasting democracy in their nation's history. Despite unemployment, young Berliners are educated and well-read, yet unassuming - everyone prefaces their flawless English with "I only speak a little." Even in a cheap bar in the wee hours of the morning, they are eager to discuss politics, international relations, and the nature of freedom with American students and each other - topics we often take for granted in the States, but ones taboo in half of Berlin until recently. I spent several hours talking to a group of Germans, one of Iraqi origin, about their perceptions of American intervention in the Middle East. Instead of the blatant anti-Americanism the media tells us to expect, I found well-informed young people full of questions about my life in America, what I thought about my government, and my views on the Middle East and the world. Berliners aren't necessarily seeking right or wrong answers - they revel in the discourse we Americans take for granted. While many modern democracies are modelled on the United States, perhaps we could stand to learn a few lessons from those who have emulated us. While going from East to West may be as simple as crossing the street today, Berliners haven't forgotten the wall that once ran through the heart of their city.

Berlin may not be a perfect city, but it has avoided complacency and struck a delicate balance between striving for further change and embracing the improvements already made. It is a city fully aware of its own history and limitations, but with faith in its potential. I met many young Americans who visited Berlin, fell in love, and moved there to start careers or find themselves, and have never looked back. While I may not be ready to join them just yet, my time in Berlin hasleft an impact, and fortunately, on more than my lacking photography skills.

Coming soon: Berlin's sustainability movement (including the infamous trashcans), the culture of the former East, and other misadventures. In the meantime, more pictures are posted.

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