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VISIT TO BERLIN 18 - 22 MAY 2014

BERLIN – A CAPITAL IN THE MIDDLE OF EUROPE

This was the title of the four-day seminar in Berlin from 18th to 22nd May organised by Karin Weiss, President of the Bad Godesberg circle, following on from that group’s 50th anniversary celebrations. There were 30 participants, five from each of the groups in the European Friendship Circle, plus Karin herself.  We stayed in The European Academy Berlin, a lovely white villa situated in a leafy corner of Berlin near Grunewald (which literally means “green wood”). This is a conference centre where Karin had worked for many years before she moved to Bad Godesberg, founded in the 1960s and set up to promote European understanding, a very appropriate venue for the European Friendship Circle. We slept and ate breakfast and dinner there and on the last couple of days it was warm enough for us to sit outside in the evenings over a glass or two of wine…

We had a full programme of activities and Berlin offers endless possibilities for the visitor, so all I am going to attempt to do is to give you a flavour of our visit and to mention a few personal highlights. A comprehensive bus tour on the first morning with a brilliant multilingual guide set the tone. Later we saw some of the same sights on foot or from a boat on the River Spree and our amazement at the diversity and history of this city only grew.

Our guide gave us plenty of background to all sorts of historical events as well as to today’s Berlin. I was fascinated to hear the full story of the Berlin airlift as we passed the old Tempelhof Airport. The logistics were incredible. The airlift (known as the Luftbrücke or “air bridge” in German) lasted for almost eleven months from June 1948 to May 1949 and 2.4 million tonnes of supplies were flown in (including 1.4 million tonnes of coal). Almost 280,000 flights were made and planes which became known as “raisin bombers” were landing in Berlin every two minutes. We were told that from that moment on, the British and Americans were seen not as occupiers but as friends.

Berlin is a city constantly on the move. Cranes and diggers are omnipresent, they just move from area to area. The famous boulevard "Unter den Linden" was the casualty this time, but the Brandenburg Gate looks magnificent and the Reichstag (or German Parliament) crowned with Sir Norman Foster’s incredible glass dome is impressive and now surrounded by many dramatic glass and concrete buildings, including the Chancellery with its spectacular post-modern architecture completed in 2001. Its cubic shape and round windows have led to it being dubbed the “Bundeswaschmaschine” or federal washing machine.

Included in our programme was a guided tour of the Reichstag. The usual security procedures applied, though I was a little taken aback when the young German security officer took one look at the birthplace on my passport (Glasgow) and asked me “Rangers or Celtic?” Once inside, we were able to sit in the press gallery of the chamber itself. As usual, when you see a semi-circular chamber, you wonder whether this creates a less adversarial system than our own where politicians face each other across the chamber. Or not! The views from the dome over the city are wonderful. As the week progressed, cloudy skies gave way to brilliant sunshine and soaring temperatures, reaching 30 degrees by the end of our stay. I learnt that such glorious weather is known in German as Kaiserwetter, weather fit for an emperor….On the day of our Reichstag visit, there was time for the young German intern accompanying us to take a group photo in front of the building. With one camera or two or three… Eventually she had fifteen or more cameras hanging from her wrist as she manfully struggled to take the same photo multiple times. Probably the most difficult of her tasks, although her other principal task of making sure the group always contained the same number of people was not exactly easy either!

Much of the Berlin Wall has disappeared now, but sections remain and these are devoted to exhibitions about the divided city or to painted murals or graffiti. In other parts of the city, lines of cobblestones are all that is left to serve as a reminder of that moment in history. Friedrichstrasse Station in the old East Berlin, the crossing-point from east to west, was known as the “Tränenpalast” or Palace of Tears, as that is where for 27 years western visitors said goodbye to friends or relatives in the East before crossing back into the West. The Nazi legacy is visible mostly in memorials to the Jewish community and to other persecuted minorities. In the Bebelplatz, a simple underground memorial created by an Israeli artist in 1995 commemorates the burning of 20,000 books in 1933. It consists of rows of empty bookshelves, enough to hold exactly the same number of books….The good news is that the Jewish population of Berlin has been growing again in recent years.

We only touched the surface of Berlin’s magnificent museums which cover every period of history imaginable. Some of the most memorable items for me were Cranach’s portrait of Luther and his wife, the spectacular head of Nefertiti and the enormous Hellenistic Altar from Pergamon in Turkey. At Charlottenburg Palace, the summer residence of Sophie Charlotte, first queen of Prussia, there was also the Porcelain Cabinet, a room in which not an inch was left undecorated by gilding or pieces of fine porcelain.

Of course, this was far more than a standard city break in Berlin. The multilingual chatter of 31 women had to be heard to be believed. More than one reference to the Tower of Babel was made. More than one bemused gentleman at the Berlin Academy inquired who we were and what we were doing. More than one unfortunate passenger on a bus or train heaved a huge sigh of relief as we disembarked en masse. The disproportionate number of teachers in the group attempted occasionally to impose order, to little avail. But what fun we had.

For me, it was all about cross-border friendship and maybe Berlin was one of the best cities in Europe to emphasise the importance of this. I was lucky in that the participants in this Berlin seminar included my first hostess from Saint-Cloud, my first guest from Frascati and my prospective guest in July from Bad Godesberg which gave a great sense of continuity. The hope was expressed that other groups in the circle might feel inspired by this one-off conference to develop other multi-group events in the future.

Finally, one of my strongest memories is a birthday celebration during our stay, when Karin presented one of the guests with a miniature cake and lit candle one morning and all of us joined in various renditions of Happy Birthday in several languages. A lovely moment…And a fitting tribute to the organisational skills, thought and care invested by Karin in this delightful introduction to Berlin. Because of you, Karin, we all want to return to see more of Berlin and we all want to meet again to continue to enjoy that feeling of European friendship. Thank you so much.

Jeannette Jennings, May 2014

Visit to the Reichstag


 


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