Germany Across Time: Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom
Explore a Changing Germany
By Rachel Siden
Author Cees Nooteboom lived and travelled throughout Germany on visits that span over fifty years. In this memoir, Roads to Berlin, he records the culture of Germany as it changes dramatically over time. The reader can follow him on his adventures through a post-WWII world, his time living in Berlin around the fall of the Wall, and his visits to modern Germany.
This book may be more for those who are interested in a first-person perspective on how Germany changed politically and culturally over the years, but this book could also easily be enjoyed by the traveller as well. Nooteboom’s experiences in Germany (no matter what decade they took place), can stimulate excitement within any traveller with plans to visit Germany in the near future.
This book also offers the traveller a unique perspective on Germany. We are unable to visit the Germany of the past, but can the remnants of the past be recognizable to a first-time visitor to Germany? Odds are, the answer is no. Through Nooteboom’s eyes, however, the reader can see the Germany of past and present, and how the past shaped what it is today.
Excerpt From Roads to Berlin
A Historic Past
Why am I telling this story? To give an impression of the atmosphere that existed at the time, an atmosphere we can scarcely imagine nowadays. It has already become history, you can read about it, but you can no longer feel it.
Rhyme is a concept from poetry, but it has, probably by analogy, another meaning for me: events that reflect other events, sometimes also forms of historical justice, confirmations of a prophetic inkling, an almost metaphysical relief that history is not only changing course, but making a radical about-face and seeking its opposite.
In 1956, I stood in a smoldering Budapest and watched Russian tanks, and in 1989 I stood in Berlin and watched the Wall fall. That is what I mean by rhyme: when history finds a connection with itself, without the intervening period of crime and destruction, which is also history, itself being destroyed.
A Germany Divided
January 23, 1963. On either side of the Autobahn, white landscapes open out towards other parts of Germany. We have been driving down this road all day, the most unreal road in Europe, a road that does not pass through any country. This is driving across the face of the earth, not through a nation.
Slowly, they draw closer: the small buildings, the flags of America, England and France flapping in the frozen air. How could anyone have explained this future to a German thirty years ago? The checkpoint procedure is straightforward. Yet another sign clearly states that we are leaving the West and entering the East. The German uniforms are the same, but different.
There is nothing really to report. People look at us, just as they would in Limoges or Nykoping, but you keep asking yourself the same, inevitable questions: How many people here have families in the West? How many would like to leave? How many would like to stop others from leaving?
Words cannot quite captivate the stiffness, the wooden reality that reigns in this place. It is a backward, infantile, old-fashioned world, but a world that exists, and not without reason. And it is this reality, this desiccated, fervent past which claims to be a vision of the future, that creates such a sense of alienation.
May 27, 1989
“So what is it like now?” my friends ask me over the phone. That is a good question, but I do not have an answer. “It is,” I would like to say. “It is. I am here.” I live in Berlin. It is not only different from the Netherlands; it is different from anywhere else. But I cannot quite express that difference, that otherness, in words yet.
At times it feels claustrophobic. I never felt that way when I was just a visitor. The Wall– the border– you know you can just go over, get out. So it can’t be that. Yet even so.
I often go to Lubars, which is like a real village. The first time, I came to a small river. That was when I noticed the sign. It said that the border ran down the middle of the stretch of water. The Wall might have been some distance away, but the other side, those dry reeds, the scattering of trees, that was the land of the Others. Now I saw the water differently.
East water, West water. Absolute nonsense, and yet that border is real.
Berlin twenty years ago. Berlin ten years ago. Berlin now. Berlin was no normal city, and for anyone living there in that eventful year of 1989 it will never be normal again. I will never be rid of it, that double line of separation, the line running between two political systems, the line between two eras.
I wander among big buildings for awhile, a homunculus in a giant architectural model, but this is not a model; it is real. Do I miss anything? The Berlin of the past? No. I am simply unable to delete the past from my system in such places; the only option would be to go and live there again.
I wrote the above in autumn last year, but 2008 was not 1988. The torrent and the
momentum of those days have given way to the gentle flow of democracy. Of course, history continues to be made here, but suddenly I realize that I am an outsider.
The dramatic events of 1989, so much more recent, also had significant emotional impact on anyone who experienced them, as did the struggle of the years immediately afterwards, and the mutual attraction and repulsion that the two Germanies continue to show.
A History Lost to Most
I read in the newspapers that Tempelhof is being closed down. The flights on which I departed from or arrived at Tempelhof always involved small aeroplanes, which made the experience of flying feel rather old-fashioned. But there was something else about that airport, something that has to do with a deeper layer of my past. The noise I can hear now is unmistakably the same as back then, the sound of the pre-jet era.
On the square in front of the entrance to Tempelhof is the head of an enormous eagle, black and gleaming, its beak pointing downwards like a sharpened dagger, but when I go inside everything appears deceptively normal.
Stewardesses stand at the Air Service Berlin desk in their cappuccino-colored uniforms, and the light-blue hands of the clock on the big dark wall indicate the time, time that is connected to scenes of arrival and farewell, and which therefore always has more significance at airports than on a church clock.
I walk around the building, along an extremely bare and simple gallery that once looked so modern that totalitarian ideologies found it easy to appropriate its sober, geometric forms. Outside, I walk towards Tempelhofer Damm in the hope that I will be able to stand behind the fence and watch the aeroplane of my childhood taking off.
Because the people around me are too young. A historical event needs only to have occurred sufficiently long ago to become deformed. Then it assumes the characteristics of the mythical, the legend, or the fairy-tale.
When I look around, I realize that I cannot share the memory of that sound, which I am hearing again after almost seventy years, with anyone here, simply
When I first said farewell, now so long ago, I did not know what was going to happen, and I still do not know. On both sides of that firewall, the great poker game continues, sometimes in plain sight, sometimes behind the scenes, and time ages both rapidly and slowly and, along with it, so does history. April 16, 2012
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