In the shadow of the ruined spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a platoon of protesters lifted banners and voices in outrage. Their grievances were with the policies of Recep Erdogan, the president of Turkey, who would be arriving in Berlin the next day for a state visit. Erdogan would tie up traffic during his stay, which coincided with mine, rather as happened during the visit of the last dignitary who came to Berlin the same moment as I had, the Dalai Lama — but for very different reasons.
I was wearing a business suit and snapping a few photos with a Leica M when a conservatively dressed local woman came up and asked, after a few leading questions, if I was a member of the Turkish secret police. It took giving her a glimpse of my German passport to temper her suspicions as she kept us talking, trying to place my accent, but what finally did it for her was that I said I was a copyright lawyer in town from my home in New York City for a conference at the Hotel Intercontinental; having satisfied herself that no spy acting so conspicuously would come up with such a cover story, she left with a smile.
It was indeed true. Lawyers do not typically leave their mark on the cities through which they pass. One could expect, for example, that Berlin’s famous sex clubs did not brim with newfound business that week, but we managed with the equally famous Museum Island, which is literally an island in the Spree River shared by five of the city’s prominent museums. The star of the collections, the Pergamon Altar, is off limits during a restoration that likely will take longer than the eight years that had been needed to disassemble it in Turkey and bring it to Berlin. The Ishtar Gate of Babylon, imposing, blue and magnificent in its own right, serves as the Pergamon Museum’s main attraction while the altar is restored.
Berlin has three opera houses and arguably the world’s greatest symphony orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic; lawyers fanned out for performances and, in the case of the Comic Opera, an impressive backstage tour. It was only when the conference was over that I had the time to spare to treat myself to a performance. Fortunately, I was accompanied by my old friend David Lee Brewer, the operatic tenor and voice coach (if you like how Beyonce sings, give David the credit he is due), who lives in Berlin. We sat in the orchestra of the midcentury-modern Deutsche Oper, listening to a Richard Wagner in a production that substantially reimagines “Tristan und Isolde.” Although the story dates back to the 12th century, the set is from the same era as the opera house. I likely would never have understood, had I not brought along my own internationally renowned authority, that, in this interpretation, Tristan was not the real lover of Isolde but a metaphor for heroin, which she appeared to shoot up on two occasions during the performance.
During the intermissions, I asked David if, as an African-American, he still felt more comfortable in Berlin than in the United States.
“Absolutely,” he told me. “I took a friend to KaDeWe, the main department store here, and we went up and down in the elevator together six times so I could show him that, when women come in and see a black man riding with them, they don’t reflexively clench their handbags.”
I tried to imagine what it must feel like for David and others when American women do that — particularly as David, like opera singers the world over, had not quite worked himself up to that menacing punk look. “Dare I ask your view of American politics?” I suggested.
“ ‘Make America Great Again,’ ” said David, “is code for ‘Give me back to the comfort of what America was before the civil rights movement.’ I rented my apartment in a nice, enjoyable part of Berlin. They showed me the place, got my credit information, and rented it to me as they would to anyone else — no sudden removal of the listing, no unexplained increase in price. In these situations, it is truly nice to be treated no differently.”
I could see his point — made all the more ironic in my case because my family had ended up in the USA after persecution under the Nazis. Civilization, despite its self-evident virtues, is a veneer easily scuffed and cracked.
Sunday came — a traditionally quiet day in busy Berlin, a family day without business deadlines or meetings. I would not be the first to observe that Germans are skittish about their history, and that includes German families such as mine that came back into the population (albeit as de facto expatriates) during a detour through enforced exile. There was a short view of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (the Holocaust Memorial), then a ride in a pedicab driven by the affable and obviously well-toned Christian, who has been pumping the pedals for 16 years and who can give running commentary in German or English. He took me to the East Side Gallery, which, at 1.3 kilometers, is the longest remaining part of the Berlin Wall, the panels of its eastern flank now serving as canvases of an open-air museum. The wall is part of my personal history because I was one of the last people to see it alive, as it were. On my first visit to Berlin, it stood before me, a prison wall in all but name and a visual metaphor for the paradoxically utopian brutality that built it and that killed people trying to make their way over it. Two weeks later, Berliners once trapped behind it were dancing on it.
Then it was back to the Brandenburg Gate, that neoclassical monument dedicated, despite its triumphal look, to peace. (Yes, Prussians enjoyed interludes of peace just as much as anyone else.) Inevitably, Starbucks next called, and then it was across the street to the Adlon — because I so enjoy being in that fine, restrained lobby and Erdogan was by now safely back in Turkey, after stopping off briefly to open a mosque and to snarl traffic in Cologne. My history tour ended with the Berlin Wall Memorial, built in another zone where the city’s internal barrier had stood. Bearing the description, “In memory of the city’s division from 13 August 1961 to 9 November 1989 and of the victims of communist despotism,” the memorial plays an unsettling oral narrative in the form of a recorded reading of the names of people killed there while trying to do what anyone can do today: head across town.
This is an old tip of mine that I will now share with you: the best antidote to recent German history is classic Italian food. That can be hard to manage in Berlin on a Sunday evening, but good fortune, on my walk to the Rocco Forte Hotel de Rome — a hip luxury property massaged into the former headquarters of a major bank — La Banca (“The Bank”) was open for business and ready to serve. After an almost obligatory minestrone starter, I had something that is a particular treat in Germany: venison, interpreted here in an Italian way by head chef Davide Mazzarella, with a chestnut puree, chanterelles and a careful blending of three types of fruit — figs, dates and pomegranate.
The next day, I met David at KaDeWe, which is a source of luxury versions of just about anything but is also a social hall with a gourmet supermarket and large choice of novel dining spots. I started at the Moet & Chandon Champagne Bar. (You find a barstool wherever one is handy and order a flute of any of several different types of Champagne.) Then I met David at the food island known as the Kartoffelacker (the Potato Field), which turns a German staple, once considered peasant sustenance, into a culinary experience. I ordered mine baked, with a chicken ragout. I rounded the visit by purchasing replacements for the German pattern of everyday tableware that got in the way during a Nerf gun fight. (Fair enough, maybe it was me doing the shooting and ducking at the time and not my 9-year-old or his friends.)
At dusk, I was in the nearby town of Potsdam, where Frederick the Great kept his summer palace, Sanssouci — a mini-Versailles. My friend and colleague Axel (whom I had last seen at a large legal conference in Seattle that he had chaired) gave me a tour of the formal garden — an expense of manicured beauty so vast, we did only one-third of it in about an hour and a quarter. Then it was to Pino, a brightly lighted and sophisticated but informal Italian restaurant on a quiet street, where I enjoyed some creative ravioli with truffles over conversation with Axel and his charming wife, Wiebke, a lawyer, and his clever daughter, Jette, who is studying to be — you guessed it.
I was in an understandably good mood when I stood in line to deposit my suitcase at the airport — until I was pulled aside by a very short man with a very stern attitude who announced himself as security and demanded to know why I had come to Germany. “Because I’m German,” I explained. It must again have been with a Turkish accent, so when that did not satisfy him, I had to tell him everything I had done the previous day (see above). It was only when I said I enjoyed visiting Sanssouci Park in Potsdam that he said I gave the correct answer and pivoted to his left, next to challenge the bona fides of the grandmotherly American behind me. There was only one thing left to do: I had just enough time before the flight to see if the airport might just have a good Italian restaurant.
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