That Girl and Her Sister
Blogs from Across the Pond
The struggle I’m having is deciding which stories to tell and which stories to let sit like photographs in my memory’s album. For there are a myriad of stories from when (in this so recent past) my sister Jesse and I traveled together for six weeks, covering seven countries (if you count the Moscow airport – six countries if you don’t), stopping off in fifteen different cities or towns, and traveling by train through many more than that. As we went along, we learned to look over our shoulders for each other as we walked the metro tunnels from line to line, as we crossed streets, worked our way through crowds, and made our way up towers and hills and down streets. That’s the buddy system. That’s looking out for the other one. As the days went by, we learned the little things that we each love; Jesse has a thing for stairs, I have one for bell towers. Those two loves went really well together. I like my coffee and wine, she likes her desserts. So sitting at cafes served us both. We also learned to appreciate each other’s individual areas of expertise. Jesse is a pro at reading maps and figuring out the metro systems, I’m adept at reading human behavior and body language. We’re two sides of a coin and we work well together.
Our first stop is Berlin.
We stay a full week. The longest of any other place we go. After a summer at the ranch tending animals and listening to the nightly owls, a city of 3.5 million people feels overwhelming and packed. The roar of cars, the crammed metros, the streets full of humans crossing from one side to the other, the steady stream of bikes, the noise of sirens, and the dirty streets, the walls covered in graffiti both artistic and disruptive press in on us. However, we adjust quickly and Berlin soon feels like home. That’s the kind of place that Berlin is: a home for the homeless, the newest melting pot, diverse, a place to reinvent oneself the way David Bowie did in the 1970s and the way so many artists do today, a place of welcome and redemption. For Berlin has a hard past. But Berlin is resilient.
My friend Pontus flies over from Sweden and spends a few days with us. Together we visit the Berlin wall and Checkpoint Charlie. The places are touristed out and have an amusement park feel. Everyone wants their pictures taken with the men dressed like American soldiers. Everyone wants to get that perfect selfie to post to all their social media sites to prove they were there—to add to their travel books like notches on a belt. Jesse and I get the first taste of what it’s like to be a part of that tourist pack. We don’t like it, but how do we differentiate ourselves from “tourists” when we also are touring? Is it possible to be a guest rather than a tourist? Is there a difference? Jesse talks about the “eyes that see” and how the viewing can degrade the art, disrupt the meaning of a thing, a place. “How do you view something correctly?” I ask. She doesn’t know. Neither do I. As we go from place to place we try to view with respect. To see the art and the history and even the residual pain that’s there. Sometimes the pain is transformed into something beautiful like the Berlin wall remnant which has been decorated with art from artists from all over the world. Yet even that art is marred by disrespectful punks who put their graffiti tags over the genuine artwork. This marring bothers me and Pontus especially. People are amazing and horrible all at the same time.
This becomes even more apparent when we take a day trip over to Sachsenhausen, the site of one of the many Nazi concentration camps. We make our way from the train station through the town, the streets lined with trees and settled in with cozy homes, and over to the museum walking slowly in the perfect autumn air. The clouds are puffy with friendliness and the sky behind them is bright blue. It seems impossible that this idyllic place could ever have been anything other than this. But then we arrive. We walk past the tall walls and under the shadow of the watch tower. We head over to one of the bunkers and walk through rooms where people suffered and died. Where people hurt others and took away their humanity. It’s one thing to read about human testing and the horrors of war, but it’s another to walk along the pathway where men were forced to test the durability of shoes that didn’t fit and walk for hours and hours on end until they collapsed or didn’t, and then were made to walk in another pair day after day after day—without relief and without rest. We read about the men and children who were injected with hepatitis or given drugs to keep them awake for days on end in order to develop a tonic to help soldiers have the upper hand in battle. We read about all those who were sterilized or castrated for being non German, non Aryan, different. I read the stories and swallow back tears. How can humans inflict so much pain on other humans? How could anyone have thought this testing, this killing was justified or right?
A few summers ago I participated in a human testing study at the University of Oregon. I had tubes put down my nose and throat, a shunt in one of my arteries, and an IV in one arm. It was a full day of testing and it was uncomfortable, unpleasant. But I was being paid and at any moment I could have said, “Stop” and they would have unhooked me and let me go. I remember thinking at that time that there were humans tested on who never had that choice. And then, with that in my mind I almost burst into tears in that chair where I sat being tested.
Now, at this camp, knowing that people were tortured and killed for “science” for the “good of mankind” for sadistic pleasure, I’m once again moved to tears. “Everyone should have to come here and see this,” I say to Pontus, to Jesse. And yet, I know that wouldn’t change the world. It wouldn’t stop the wars. It wouldn’t cause the power hungry to rethink their greed. But it would be nice if it did. It would be nice if all that suffering from the past put an end to all future suffering. It would be nice.
Sachsenhausen is a sobering place. That history should not be forgotten and it’s a credit to Germany that she doesn’t brush this under a proverbial rug. At Sachsenhausen the past is laid bare in all its horror and honesty. It is an attempt to keep that same horror from happening ever again. Maybe it works to some extent.
We take the train back to Berlin somber and silent, each of us filled with our own thoughts, trying to make sense of the emotions.
Then we pocket away the pain and find smiles and laughter again. We take the metro all over Berlin visiting grand buildings like Norman Foster’s glass domed Reichstag and the Radio Tower that Jesse and I call the Space Tower. In the early evening, we say our goodbyes and Pontus heads back to Sweden. Jesse and I climb up our first bell tower and see Berlin from a beautiful height.
Ah, Berlin. There are too many stories to tell. How can I ever choose the right ones?
For there are stories to be told about and from the Olympic Stadium, from our incredible time at Teufelsberg—the old U.S. listening post hidden up on a hill in the Grunewald forest, from seeing Nefertiti at the Neues Museum, from hearing a lunch time concert at the Berlin Philharmonic Concert House, from attending a book reading and concert at the Curious Fox bookstore.
We stop off to eat at a Turkish restaurant on our last day and the waiter asks us where we’re from. We tell him and his face lights up. “You’re welcome here,” he says. He brings us Turkish tea and baklava as a gift. He’s also found his home in Berlin and he’s willing to share it with us. There is room here for all.
Berlin is every big city; New York, Madrid, Stockholm, Milan. It’s street performers and beggars. It’s constant movement. It’s welcoming. It’s home. It’s the past of pain and the nearness of Sachsenhausen, both transformative and honest. But it’s most of all redemptive.
It’s the little café where we have breakfast every morning. I tell the café lady (with new German words I’ve only just memorized and badly pronounce) that it’s our last day there and she makes the appropriate sad sounds. And then she brings us a goodbye gift, a bowl of potato salad.
We leave before dawn and as the train rolls away, I feel a twinge of homesickness for a place I’ve only just met and for all the stories I’ll never be able to tell.