As I sat looking out over the tourist boats on the Spree, drinking up the soft autumn sunshine, I had a flickering insight that this moment encapsulated much of modern Berlin. How fitting, I thought, for the occasion, and returned my mind to the conversation. This was last Friday (3rd October) – Tag der Deutschen Einheit – and 24 years since reunification. As the history of this national holiday has been written about in excellent detail elsewhere on this blog and website, I shall stay in the present. So what was striking about this relatively commonplace scene for a Hauptstadt dweller?
I suppose it is the old adage about modern-day Berlin that it so easily combines old and new. Our fortuitous seat was in the garden of the Zollpackhof – a 300-year-old restaurant and beer garden on the banks of the River Spree. The view through the dappled light of a 130-year-old chestnut tree and across the ancient sparkles of the river was of the vast, white Bundeskanzleramt – a homage to modern German public architecture, officially opened in 2001. Across the river stretched the warmed sandstone Moltke Bridge, looking much as it would have done on completion 110 years earlier. Named after Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army for 30 years, it was one of few Berlin bridges to survive the onslaught of the Second World War, despite some damage. Since then, it has been carefully renovated and adapted to hold the weight of modern traffic. All considered, this single panorama featured medieval Berlin (the trading settlement on the River Spree), Prussian Berlin, bombastic Kaiserreich Berlin, a post-war devastated Berlin, and Berlin the capital of a modern and unified Germany. Phew.
But far from being stuffy and self-important, this particular spot seemed to elegantly carry the weight of history and contemporary politics. Indeed, it did what so many parts of modern Berlin do so well. Put simply: it was pleasant, peaceful and incredibly family-friendly place to be. The beer garden, for all the vast quantities of beer you can buy, was no boisterous place. Family groups sat on benches chatting, enjoying a drink and perhaps a sausage or two. A playground stood under the shade of another elderly tree, through which small children scrambled; their shrill squeals of excitement happily tolerated by parents and other drinkers alike. If that was too dull or sedentary, you could take a stroll back over the bridge, either along the river or to the large lawn up beyond the banks, where young couples lounged, children tumbled and buskers played. The cars and bustle of Hauptbahnhof (on the other side of Zollpackhof) felt far away.
Any balanced piece should pick out a negative point or two. I shall do my best. The food available in such places may not be to everyone’s taste. It was mostly stodge, true to some German culinary traditions (though slowly things do improve) – chips (french fries for you North Americans), Brezeln and Flammkuchen being the order of the day. And, down the road, just in front of the Reichstag was an anti-American / capitalist protest. Small and not especially aggressive in its message, such speeches and banners are perhaps an inevitable legacy of the former-GDR’s mostly east-looking history and ongoing resentment that much of their former way of life (for the people who liked it) has been ditched in favour of an attitude imported (in their view) from across the Atlantic. And it does show, at least, that freedom of speech and the right to demonstration live strong in this now united nation that could for many years have done with more.