Westward, Ho!

Yesterday I decided that I needed something I could only find on Ku’damm, and so with low trepidation and much expectation, I decided to go into the west. Now, before you misinterpret the grandiosity of this statement as something artificial and forced, born out of my nostalgia for a city I never knew and my desperate wish still to capture something of it, consider this: every time I go into the west, I get lost. I’m not talking deliberately, fairytale lost, leaving a trail of brötchen crumbs like Hansel and Gretel and dramatically wondering “just when, oh when would I ever get home?!” I mean really lost. Like that time I tried to meet a friend for a cabaret show at the famous Bar Jeder Vernunft and found myself wandering darkened residential streets with grand, Parisian-looking apartment buildings with winding staircases and gilded foyers, only ten minutes to spare before the performance began, and me without a clue…or a map. I finally found the place I was looking for, but only after coming out in front of the KaDeWe (one landmark I could always recognize), catching sight of a taxi stand, and asking at least four taxi drivers if they knew where the bar was. When the fourth answered in the affirmative, I jumped dramatically into the back seat and shouted, “take me there!” almost as if I were demanding that he “follow that car!” I was glad to have a driver to take me through this city I didn’t recognize, if only for a few minutes.

Every time I go into the west, I’m seized by the dual feelings of strangeness and familiarity. More strangeness, actually. The people here are still speaking German, and the same newspapers are on the newsstands, virtually the same ads on bus and subway kiosks, but there’s something that just feels a bit off. It’s like I can’t decide whether I’ve traveled back in time or merely to Paris. Or perhaps this is what Cologne looks like? I find myself wondering what the people in the west think of East Berlin. Do they never go there? Do kids only go there on weekends and not tell their parents? Do they still regard it as an unsavory and somewhat unlawful place? When I was little, nothing enraged me more than that hint of fear in the voices of my classmates after they found out I lived “in Harlem.” Actually I lived several blocks from Columbia University in Morningside Heights and not in Harlem at all, but their constant questioning about “whether I heard gun shots at night” and “whether I was afraid to leave my apartment” irritated me for two reasons. First of all, it annoyed me that they couldn’t tell the difference between the various sections of the city simply because they lived on the Upper East Side, or in the acceptable parts of the Upper West Side. Second of all, it was absolutely ridiculous this fear they had of Harlem, as if Harlem were not also a place where normal people lived with normal jobs and families. In fact, I probably experienced this type of open prejudice the most when I was first here and living in Neukölln. There was a certain disapproval and distrust of the Turkish people who populated that neighborhood in every under-the-breath question to me of “is it clean?” and “is it safe?” It is impossible for me not to wonder about the types of people populating Charlottenburg, especially since I’m not German and don’t have the 20 years of ost-west resentment permeating my bones.

I imagine the west being populated by all the old people you never see here, having lived out their days in gargantuan flats with only some vague recollection of a wall being up somewhere in the city, much like they had some vague recollection of a war beginning and a war ending, and all the Jews going off on holiday in between. I’m sure that is not really the case, and I reveal my own prejudice by even suggesting that this is so, but then again, the west used to be an island of refuge in the middle of Communist East Germany, and it seems to remain somewhat isolated today, living out an idyllic, boring existence in a city that is not in a constant state of flux; a city that is not being rebuilt because in fact it was never knocked down.

I’m sure this is all just speculation, born from the need to believe that, after eight months of living here, there are still parts of this city left to explore. But to me, living in my little flat in Ossie Mitte, there’s still something iconic about the West, about Savigny Platz and Ku’damm and Kanstrasse and Momsenstrasse (where my grandmother lived very briefly when she was young) that makes every trip there seem like a real adventure.