Monday, December 13, 2010

Ich steh' auf Berlin

I'm leaving for Berlin in a few days, a city I last visited in 1981. The Wall is gone, and in fact I'll be staying in what used to be gloomy East Berlin.

The most recent book I read with a Berlin setting was Kathryn Lasky's Ashes, and of course Christopher Isherwood's tales of Berlin in the 30's and 40's loom large in my imagination.

However, it is two books I read while a teen living in Germany in 1980/1981 that have created the image of Berlin currently inhabiting my mind. Both were written by Germans in the 1970s, using a casual slangy kind of language that I found much easier to read than Goethe or even Thomas Mann.

Ulrich Plenzdorf's Die Neuen Leiden des Jungen W (The New Sorrows of Young W) is written from the point of view of a rather feckless young East German named Edgar Wibeau who takes off for Berlin and promptly falls for a pretty and married young Kindergarten teacher named Charlotte. He riffs on all manner of topics, from what "real blue jeans" consist of to the odious ubiquity of Van Gogh's sunflower paintings - and eventually he comes to a tragic and ridiculous end. Edgar's complete self-absorption is absolutely spot-on - even as a 16-year-old, I could recognize a certain type.

Christiane F's Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo (We Children from Bahnhof Zoo) was a whole other kettle of fish, depicting a West Berlin full of young heroin addicts who lived in depressing high-rise apartments and prostitute themselves to support their habits. I spent my year in Germany living in two different small towns, surrounded by rural countryside, and so this view of modern German urban life was an eye-opener. Even had I been inclined to be a bad girl, this book would have cured me of any belief that drug use was cool or sophisticated. The movie came out while I was in Germany, featuring David Bowie as the soundtrack to all the geilen Wahnsinn.

I went to Berlin with other exchange students and our host brothers and sisters, and while we did go to a few discos, we also gamely trouped around various museums and spent a day in East Berlin, being terrified to so much as throw a cigarette butt on the sidewalk, for fear we'd be dragged away and interrogated. Compared to the glitter and glitz of West Berlin, the East was gray and depressing.

It's going to be interesting experiencing Berlin as a middle-aged mom. Accompanying me will be my 16-year-old daughter, who finds the concept of a divided Berlin to be quaint and ancient history. But I hope she finds the city as captivating as I did both in books and in reality.


  1. I hope you both have a lovely time!

  2. uh huh, uh huh, uh huh!