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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Guten Tag!

Summer 2008

Ah, Berlin. I arrived to find it is my favorite city in Europe thus far (ok, ok, so I’ve said that about at least 3 cities before Berlin, but I really think Berlin might be it). The city is vibrantly alive and there is so much history here! I’m staying at a hostel in East Berlin, which a little over 18 years ago was a communist section of the city. Now East Berlin seems to have replaced West Berlin as the more active portion since it’s been in constant change and motion since the wall came down. Today, just10 minutes from my hostel, I stumbled

 upon a gem of this capitalist boom. Potsdamer Platz is a gem of glittering blue glass buildings which are huddled together around a neon-and-sunshine radiant circular plaza. The fountain in the center trickles musically along as people flock to and from the surrounding cafes and cinemas. Aside from its modern treasures though, Berlin is a fascinating place where monumental historical events happened fairly recently! (I say recently after my explorations of historical Paris or Rome…)

So far, I saw pieces of the old wall which separated East and West Berlin. It was actually very thin, with a piece of circular plastic piping on top. The plastic pipes were donated to East Berlin by West Berlin, who was duped into thinking East Berlin needed them desperately for a plumbing problem. Instead, they were mounted on the wall to keep people from gripping onto the top. Apparently the piping was the most effective method of keeping people from climbing the wall, because otherwise they just used the installed barbed wire and razors to hoist themselves up--regardless of the pain. West Berlin was quite the place to be! There were also checkpoints where people attempted to cross the iron curtain—legally or illegally. I visited the American checkpoint--called the Charlie Checkpoint (because it was the third checkpoint and thus called C, or Charlie in military garble). The checkpoint is still standing, although it has no function today. On a tour I heard stories about how people custom-built cars to go under the first gate that marked the Charlie Checkpoint until the eastern government made it more secure. It then became a series of 90 degree turns. At that point a western man sewed his gymnast, eastern girlfriend into the seat of his car and had his friend sit on her as they drove through the checkpoint (they replaced the seat stuffing with her). Another (unsuccessful) man wanted to bring his girlfriend over from East to West, so he looked around West Berlin until he found someone that looked just like her. He dated the lookalike, took her across for a picnic, stole all her documents, ditched her, and brought his real girlfriend across. Unfortunately, the castaway’s father was a high ranking politician, so the con man and his real girlfriend went to jail for 11 years.

All of the stories of the past were swirling about my mind as I stepped on each well-known but evolving piece of ground in the thriving German capital. I noted the stark harshness of the German Ministry of Finance (say taxes!) and later learned that it was once the headquarters of the Nazi Air Force. During the Soviet occupation the building even gained an idealistic mural reflecting communist life, with happy uniformed workers and women dancing and smiling together. Nowadays there is also a blown-up photograph of the reality of communism on the ground opposite that mural. In it workers have linked arms in protest and are all frowns and worry.

Later I stood on an unmarked spot of ground, covered in packed-down measly grass and dirt. It is the spot exactly above the underground bunker where Hitler committed suicide. Unintentionally, Hitler’s old bunker stands really close to a memorial built for the Jews killed during WWII. The Jewish memorial is an obsidian, abstract series of rectangular columns that is not supposed to have one specific meaning, but many. They are arranged in rows that visitors can walk through. It’s quiet inside the columns, which start at ankle level and vary throughout, sometimes reaching over six feet in height. The ground slopes randomly, which is disorienting. The monument is reminiscent of anything from the Jewish Cemetery in Prague (where graves are stacked so densely that they created an artificial hill in the centuries-old graveyard) to the skyline of a city. Hitler’s spot, on the other hand, is a parking lot.

Berlin is a history major’s paradise. Everywhere I roamed I stepped on the sites of a powerful past, filled with intense suffering, striving, and hope. Even more stunning was the beautiful juxtaposition of the present and modern with that past. Berlin is beautiful, sparkling, alive because it is rich in history and savvy in form.