WHEN I LIVED IN West Berlin, two years ago, I couldn’t get enough of the Wall; I had to see every angle it made, I followed its graffiti-strewn facade on foot as far as I could, leaving it only where back yards or fences blocked my way, inspecting every chink I could get close to. I found streets that ran adjacent to the Wall, with signposts at the intersections of cross-streets, as if there were no barricade a few feet away. I took a bus to the “suburb” of Steinstücken, a tiny exclave that hangs like a willful rose into East Germany. Gardens abutted the border, and a family picnicked near the concrete, their bicycles propped against it. I took a tour boat on a lake, where each of a string of white buoys bore the warning “Achtung!Sektorgrenze!” and I realized that the Wall even parted the waters. Affluent West Berliners sailed along, unmindful. I crossed the border frequently to visit East Berlin, and eventually—after the process had grown familiar (the wait, the quick search of my belongings)—the Wall stopped seeming tragic or fearsome or even sad. It was merely the oddest structure that I had ever seen. To understand Berlin you must appreciate the Wall. You needn’t like it, but it should at least make you curious.
Berlin lies a hundred miles from the West German border, three quarters of the way across East Germany toward Poland. Nonetheless, the city is easy to visit. The West German government subsidizes air travel to the pre-war German capital, so round trips from anywhere in the country cost less than a hundred dollars. When I visit the city, I avoid the big hotels, although I know that the Kempinski is elegant and the Excelsior is comfortable. Instead I stay in a pension off the Kurfürstendamm, the main shopping avenue in town. (Berliners, who irreverently nickname streets and buildings, call it the Ku’damm.) I like the pensions because they remind me of a naive and hopeful time; most were once stately apartments of the Weimar bourgeoisie. The one I visit has a wide, curving marble staircase, a birdcage lift, and tall stained-glass windows. I enjoy its dining room, where damask tablecloths reach to the floor.
If you go to Berlin, you, like me, will probably be eager to visit the Wall. You will perhaps be a little embarrassed by this impulse; it is a feeling akin to wanting to view an accident that you have passed along the highway. Catch a dou-
ble-decker bus, number 69, heading east along the Ku’damm; if you sit upstairs, you will have a fine view of the city. Get off at the Reichstag building, once the seat of the German parliament, today a museum of German history. Climb the platform at the museum’s south side and look over at the Brandenburg Gate, now in East Berlin. East German guards in their watchtowers will observe you with binoculars, which will make you uneasy. But don’t worry. You are only one among thousands of tourists who have climbed that platform since the Wall went up more than twenty years ago, and you are seeing what you must to understand Berlin: over there lay the city’s cultural center, and the astounding, labyrinthine structure before you cuts off West Berlin from its natural heart. (Imagine Washington, D.C., with a high concrete partition between the Capitol and the Mall.) If this disturbs you, go back to the Ku’damm and have a tall German beer at, for example, Hardtke’s pub, near the corner of Meinekestrasse. Try the bratwurst or, if you are brave, the pig’s trotters. You will be able to cross the Wall and visit the rest of the city (or, truly, the other city), but first you can devote your attention to the pleasance of West Berlin. A Berliner I know once told me, “I like the Wall. Whenever I’m depressed, I can go and walk along it and be glad that I’m living on this side!”
WEST BERLIN, BECAUSE of its location and its history, is an ad for capitalism. Frivolity is part of its Weimar legacy, and there are still all-night jazz clubs and lively cabarets. It is also a refined and comfortable city, with, for example, the best symphony orchestra in the land. “Excess” seems to be West Berlin’s motto. Visit KaDeWe, the city’s largest department store, and take the escalator to its food section, on the top floor. Look up into the rafters: never again in your life will you see so many different kinds of sausages. Or visit the Dahlem cultural and ethnographic museums, but be prepared to spend days, for the collections are immense. Walk through the acres of parks and forest (West Berlin is almost three times larger than the District of Columbia), stopping at one of the ubiquitous outdoor pubs— the traditional German beer gardens. You can sit in the shade and listen to the prattle of the old folks, a cosmopolitan people at once sophisticated and sentimental. Old women wearing velveteen hats will sip tall beers and talk softly, and you will realize that there are far more of them than there are old men, and you’ll think about why. They have lost a lot, it may seem to you, but they have surely made the best of it, here in this gaudy oasis of a city.
And from where else in the world can you take a subway to another country?
Westerners can pass through the checkpoints freely for a day’s visit to East Berlin. By subway you will cross at Friedrichstrasse station, where you simply get off the train and go through customs. In a car or on foot, cross at Checkpoint Charlie, which is near the Kochstrasse subway station. I do not know any Americans who weren’t nervous the first time they went to East Germany, but the border crossing is something one gets used to. You will wait in a line to show your passport. You will be asked to change twenty-five West marks (they purchase about seven dollars’ worth of Western goods) into twenty-five East marks (they will buy your dinner and the best seats in the opera house). You will be charged a fivemark “street-use fee” and will receive a day visa, which means that you must return to West Berlin before midnight. I have never wanted to test the penalty by breaking this rule, and advise obedience. You may be asked to show the contents of a briefcase or a purse, and your car may be searched. (This happens regularly during the return crossing.) Most guidebooks advise you not to carry Western periodicals, but the last time I crossed at Checkpoint Charlie none of the guards objected to my Wall Street Journal or to zitty, West Berlin’s entertainment weekly. Use discretion, of course. Unless you are carrying a hundred pairs of designer jeans, it should take no more than twenty minutes to clear the hurdles.
The best buy in a communist country is high culture, and as a foreigner you will often have access to the best seats at the opera or the symphony, right up to the time of performance. To advertise the availability and excellence of statesupported arts, tickets will nearly always have been set aside for someone like you. The State Opera house and the Comic Opera are lit almost every evening. Sets are elaborate and colorful, and the singing is superb. During intermission at the State Opera small round tables in a lounge full of mirrors will be set with the sandwiches and champagne you ordered before the performance. It is no different from operagoing in the West, until you notice your loge-mates; they could be a couple of smartly decorated Russian generals.
Food can be a disappointment, unless you dine at Ganymed, Ermelerhaus, or the Operncafé. Each of these restaurants provides substantial fare in a comfortable setting, but do not expect everything on the menu to be available. Allow extra time for dinner, because service will probably be slow.
Compared with an American city, East Berlin seems utterly still. A few small Russian-made Ladas zip by along the boulevards, but there are far fewer cars and people about than in the heart of a Western city. Strolling east along Unter den Linden—once Berlin’s most elegant promenade—you will pass the city’s most impressive buildings: Humboldt University, the Pergamon Museum, the Altes Museum. From the breadth of the boulevard and the grandeur of the design you will recognize that this was the core of a perfectly planned city: here was Berlin’s Champs Elysées. Look west, however, and you will see that the street dead-ends at the Wall. Turn your back on it and follow Unter den Linden on toward Alexanderplatz, passing shops, bookstores, restaurants, and cafés. There is something strange about them; they do not beckon. Slowly you realize that the colors are different. Labels, book covers, and clothes are paler, softer; nothing is bright. Suddenly you may feel like the protagonist in a science-fiction story, as if you had just stepped twenty or thirty years back in time. There in the plaza stands an observation tower that resembles the Seattle space needle. The models of the cars are all the same: they look like little Studebakers. There is a pre-technology aura to the place that is at once peculiar and calm. No hustling, no hawking of wares, no pushiness. If you take a ride on the elevated commuter train (built in 1871, the year Bismarck created the German empire) to a residential section of town, you can pretend you’ve slipped back a century. Board it in the great glass station at Alexanderplatz and take it out to Schönhauser, where stately gargoyled apartment houses line the streets and Alleen. Watch the lights coming on in the dormers, the shops closing down for the night. Imagine yourself in Old Europe, before there were automobiles, skyscrapers, world wars. Once, during just such a flight of fancy, expecting to see a horse-drawn milk cart at any moment, I rounded a corner; and there, coming toward me on the cobblestones, gleaming white and shiny, was a Corvette. In East Berlin you never know when your expectations are going to be defied.
WHEN I AM IN Berlin I think of spies and think I am one: all dressed up in a trench coat and dark glasses, snooping through the trappings of an alien philosophy. Probably nowhere else in the world can you feel the conflicts and dramas of this century as acutely as you can in Berlin. It is the most challenging of European cities; and you wonder sometimes if your mind can stretch wide enough to enclose its extremes.