Monday, December 6, 2010

Embassies of Berlin

I spent about 24 hours in Berlin on Saturday and Sunday morning, a break at the end of 72-hour business trip (it was supposed to be 96 hours, with more than 3 hours in Berlin before I took a train to the Rhein, but my flight to New York was delayed and I missed my connection). And when I ran across this, I reverted to my old habit of photographing embassies. Yes, that is the Embassy of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, we don't have one of those in Washington. It is unsurprisingly on the eastern side of where the Berlin Wall used to run. I discovered the large Czech embassy (and wondered if it was a renovated Warsaw Pact leftover or a new building) nearby. I resisted going overboard and only photographed two of the embassies in Germany's capital, however.

Unter den Linden, the great avenue of Berlin, runs from the Brandenburger Tor (the city gate where Reagan told Gorbachev to tear down the wall) on past Humboldt University towards the Museuminsel and Alexanderplatz. Called Mitte (it means "middle"), the area was the showpiece of the East German capital and I've enjoyed watching it change since my first visit to Berlin in 2003, when I lived there for a month (this was my fourth return). Near the Tor is a Starbucks just 100 meters into the former communist country, like a monument to capitalism. But about 200 m further on, a whole block is dominated by the Russians: their embassy and a large Aeroflot office (featuring their logo, a hammer and sickle with wings).

The Museuminsel, an island in the Spree, is named for the museums at its north end but also features the Berliner Dom and the now empty Schlossplatz, where the Palace of the Republic stood after the war-devastated Schloss (palace) of Prussia's rulers was torn down by the East Germans. Berlin tore down the Communist showpiece after 2006, when I last saw it, and is now rebuilding the Schloss, except that the city is broke. I read at an information booth about how Berlin had "lost its heart" when the Schloss was destroyed. I don't agree, Berlin has as much heart as any city I know. The Palace of the Republic had an asbestos problem, but the reasons for tearing it down go beyond that, obviously, although the decision was controversial. At a Fulbright event in Berlin in 2006 I asked a politician about preserving the historical and architectural legacy of the DDR such as the Palace of the Republic and Alexanderplatz. She chose to answer only about Alexanderplatz. I donated a euro to the building of the Schloss anyway, the open space is sort of nice, but I would like to see the finished project on a subsequent trip to Berlin someday.

Back at the Tor, a stone's throw from the Reichstag, there is a square called Pariser Platz. The French embassy stands on the square, but it was named in honor of the capture of Napoleon's Paris in 1814, not the embassy. The new US Embassy is also here on the square, and it makes me proud - it is the type of friendly-looking public embassy in the heart of a city which should be our model, when too often we built fortresses, even in the capitals of countries which are our friends. It was about 17 degrees Fahrenheit, but the gate at night was beautiful, with a Weihnachtsbaum as well as a giant menorah lit-up for the fifth night of Hanukkah. The scene (and thoughts of my next cup of Gluhwein) warmed me. Germany is an especially fascinating place right now, I can't wait to go back.

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