Postcards from Berlin

COLD War kiss. The longest intact portion of the Berlin Wall, more than a kilometer long, has been turned into an outdoor gallery featuring the works of famous artists the world over. Pictured above is Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German dictator Erich Honecker smooching like there’s no end to the Cold War.

GERMANY, including Berlin, may not top most Filipinos’ bucket list of must-go-to places in Europe. With France, Italy and Spain competing for our wandering attention, limited euros and Latin hearts, Germany probably doesn’t stand a chance.

It may not be as breathtaking as Paris, as cool as London, as pulsating as Rome, or as vibrant as Barcelona, but Berlin, if you look hard enough, has its own unique charms, too.

For a city with a checkered history, including being nearly laid to waste like Manila and Warsaw during World War II, this is quite an achievement.

GERMAN connection. alexyvergara, with Manila-based colleagues Jaye Bautista and Scott Garceau, in front of the Berlin Cathedral, the biggest Protestant church in Germany.

And to think, Berlin, divided for almost 30 years between East and West, also fell victim to the machinations and ambitions of two superpowers during the Cold War.

In less than two decades since its reunification, Berlin has reemerged and reinvented itself not only as Germany’s political capital, but also its center of arts and sciences.

I was fortunate enough to go on a four-day trip to Germany recently with two colleagues from competing papers. Sponsored by Samsung, the official trip highlighted the Seoul-based global company’s launch of several supposedly game-changing products, including the latest version of the Galaxy (watch out for my coverage of the event in the Philippine Daily Inquirer).

Although it wasn’t my first time to visit Germany, having gone to Frankfurt several times before to cover yearly furniture fairs, the visit was my introduction to Berlin and a different, more personal side of the country.

For all their accomplishments in the fields of technology, business and global finance, Germans, we gathered, are not too keen to highlight their, well, being Germans.

Unlike Filipinos, said a Pinoy we met there, Germans won’t wear anything like, say, Collezione’s popular map shirt that would herald their origins (except, perhaps, during sporting events). The Pinoy should know since, apart from traveling often to Germany, he recently hosted a German exchange student in Manila.

CONCRETE puzzle. A memorial that doubles as a park in downtown Berlin dedicated to the memory of those who died during the Holocaust.

We also heard this seeming reluctance from our driver, who was working in the now-defunct Czechoslovakia when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. He was too ashamed to be a German during those days when his country was divided, he said.

Samsung’s German marketing guy based in Berlin also echoed a familiar refrain. Although he isn’t proud per se to be a German, there are many things Germany did in the field of technology that he’s proud of. When his spiel was cut abruptly by latecomers entering the venue, he resumed his presentation a few seconds later, and again said the entire thing from the top, including his missing pride in being German.

We found this situation a bit strange, and simply dismissed it as the country’s attempt to rid itself of any lingering collective guilt it still has for its role in the Holocaust and its aftermath, which resulted in Germany and its beloved capital’s division.

CAUGHT in the crossfire. Jaye and I at the Brandenburg Gate, the traditional entrance to Berlin during olden times. The “Quadriga” statue atop the gate was once taken by the triumphant Napoleon to Paris as war booty. With his imprisonment and eventual death, Germany demanded that the bronze statue, consisting of four horses and a man in a chariot, be returned.

Jaye tended to believe it wholesale, while Scott was more skeptical. How can they not be proud, he said, when they’re the glue that’s keeping Europe together.

Whether this general sentiment is genuine or yet another false display of modesty, we will never truly know. What’s apparent is how Germany dealt with its dark past and turned the entire situation around to emerge stronger, wiser and, yes, richer.

I’m no historian nor sociologist, so I won’t bore you anymore with my assumptions. Instead, I’m going to share with you snapshots of Berlin, what’s left of it as well as what has been restored and added more than 60 years since the end of the war.

MY place. Alexanderplatz, a few meters away from our hotel, was named after a visiting Russian emperor sometime in the 19th century. Like most districts in Berlin, Alexanderplatz was heavily damaged during the war. Although rebuilt after, you can sense the destruction through the uneven timelines of buildings in the area. Some are prewar, while others are of more recent vintage. I wouldn’t be surprised if some were constructed during the East German era because of their rather shabby appearance.

SHOPPING time. Alexa, one of Berlin’s more popular malls, features a number of mass brands like Zara, H&M, Esprit and Mango for the budget shopper. It also houses several home-grown German and European brands that have yet to reach the Philippines.

4 thoughts on “Postcards from Berlin

  1. Your comments, Alex, were “right on”. I found myself nodding in agreement several times while reading about your observations. Shortly after the wall came down, I was in Berlin and a friend, who happened to be a former member of the U.S. Federal Reserve System Board of Governors and a German by birth took me into then East Berlin. You had to pass through “Checkpoint Charlie” but it was easier than when the wall was still up. I noticed something which I would be interested to see if it has changed much in the past 25 years. in the late 1980’s, West Berlin was a thriving city with lots of neon, fashionable stores, restaurants on every corner and etc. Just what you would expect to find in a cosmopolitan city. But when we entered East Berlin, everything was dreary…..the architecture, the way people were dressed, the lack of street advertising (maybe this was a good thing), fewer cars (also maybe a good thing)…..all in all a depressing landscape. Did you find this to still be the case….or has the former East Berlin landscape become a carbon copy of what was then the western part of the city?

    • Hello, Bob. It’s good to hear from your here. I really don’t know because it has become a blur. This plus the fact that I have no idea where East and West Berlin were, except for areas where the remaining walls are. But, yes, capitalism can be both a good and a bad thing. I wish I can say the same thing for socialism. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed, which I’ve already written in my post, it’s the “anachronism” in the architecture. Unlike certain European cities like Paris and Amsterdam with its preserved restored buildings, the Berlin cityscape is more unpredictable with its mix of old and new, beautiful and plain. That’s why I think you have to look hard enough and live in the city for some time to really discover it.

      My, those were exciting times, Bob. Were you even allowed to take pictures of East Berlin? I hope you did. For outsiders like us, we can still afford to look at that era with a certain sense of nostalgia. I’m sure those who experienced the hardships of communism have a totally different perspective on the matter. 😉

  2. Hi Alex ,its been a long time …i wonder if you could still remember me my friend … i ‘ve seen your post, i saw that you’ve been all over the world lol. Any news from Mike Casey ? Remember he had a lot of bruises all over his body when we are doing our telemovies w/ Jacky Foster ,,,, its such an amazing memories that worth to keep though 😀 you know what, i remember when you told me that you gonna give me a leading lady who ever i want and in deed it happen ..whew.. i was blown away… if only i knew that… i would probable choose for more famous ,,,hummm like J- lo hahahha

    oh well im just so happy that i finally found you ,,, the way i look at you base on the photographs that i saw and article post, I AM PROUD TO SAY THAT I PERSONALLY KNOW YOU AND YOU DIRECT MY FIRST MOVIE 😀 …

    May God bless you more buds 😀
    Angelo Maristela
    ”if you know more about me or what i do today just Google my name or search the yahoo” lol
    love you my friend … take care

    • Hi Angelo. I’m sorry, but you got the wrong Alex. I’m not connected with the movies and have never directed a movie in my life. I’m Alex Y. Vergara, a lifestyle journalist for the Philippines’ leading English-language daily. Anyway, thank you for visiting my blog. I hope this doesn’t in any way stop you from reading my future posts.

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