On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Monday, March 4, 2013

Berliners, Summer 1989: A Traveler's Glimpse

Watchtower--another day and time
    I’ve only ever visited three foreign countries (not counting a few limited forays into Canada), specifically Germany, England, and Scotland.  The first named was in Berlin just before the wall came tumbling down in the summer of 1989.  I stayed, of course, in West Berlin, but I had the opportunity to spend a day in East Berlin, which was very instructive.  My socialist-leaning friends should have been there to see the effects of a strictly-run socialist economy–a grimy city with virtually no available merchandise full of sad-looking residents.  West Berlin was a contrast with its economic prosperity, yet I was interested to note one particular common characteristic of the people in both the East and West: a love of order.  Since I spent just a week there, I can only give a snippet of my observations, and some of what I witnessed may have sunk by now into the oblivion of American-style efficiency.
    As I mentioned, the trip to Berlin was really fascinating at such an important time in that city’s history (particularly viewed in retrospect).  The tour guide who conducted us around West Berlin was a well-informed law student, who when asked about reunification declared that possibly the wall might come down in his lifetime, but he couldn’t ever imagine East and West as one.  A few amazing months later the two events had become a reality (a year later officially for reunification). 
    In both East Berlin as well as West, the most definitive characteristic about these people from my point of view was their sense of order.  For example, I was used to walking up to the counter to ask for help while shopping.  I mistakenly tried that in the only large department store in East Berlin, which, by the way, had hardly a thing for sale.  I heard a horrible hissing sound, and turning to my companion, who had been in Germany for a few years, asked what that meant.  She informed me I’d committed a shopping sin–barging in front of those patient people waiting in line to be served by the clerk behind the counter.  Thinking this was an effect of a communist state, I forgot the lesson at the Ka De We, a huge and rather marvelous department store in West Berlin.  I had picked out something on a rack and wanted to pay for it, but when I walked up to the counter, a low muttering arose with my friend tugging at my sleeve to go to the end of the counter.
    When visiting the department store restroom, I was a little startled to see an attendant who zoomed in after me to do an official clean-up, after handing me a towel to wipe my hands.  The same thing happened in a restroom at the Berlin Zoo.  This kind of attention had been abandoned here by commercial or government-run establishments decades ago as being not cost effective.
    Out for a walk one day, we saw a young woman in front of her house with a dog, which immediately went to her side as we approached.  I thought I heard her say “foos” (fuß in German), which I later learned meant “heel.”  I was impressed with the smartly trained animal and was told the Germans had better behaved dogs than children!  I can’t attest to that, not having met any children there, but the dogs were lovely, including those in restaurants.
    Many of the streets in Berlin are paved with cobblestones or bricks, and they look perfect, even after what might be centuries of use.  I found out that when, say, the water department needed to get under the paving, a cobblestone crew took up enough stones for the repair crew, and then came back to replace them, leaving the street pristine again.  I wonder if there’s a brick-paved street left in any city in the United States?  I expect they’ve all been cemented over as being too much trouble or expense to keep them in trim.
    During just a week’s sojourn, I became accustomed to this orderliness, evidenced also by how very neat were the street parking areas with the grass finely clipped as if with nail scissors. Just outside the city there were no weeds or trash along the roadside.  Imagine the culture shock I experienced on the way home from the airport in Nashville when I couldn’t help but notice the difference.  I don’t think my home city is any messier than others, at least in the South, but I suppose the residents simply don’t care like the residents of Berlin.  It really is a different mind-set, maybe for better, maybe for worse, but that sense of order remains in my memory as a significant characteristic of a wonderful trip to a remarkable city.