I am sitting with my mother on the top of a double-decker bus in Schmargendorf. It is night and the streets are wet with puddles of glittering lights and autumn leaves, and I am eating Chinese rice crackers.
This is my first memory – a Berlin memory – a memory of a city I would come to love and hate; hold strong emotions for; become a proponent of and a detractor of — but now finally grow increasingly indifferent to.
I would have left long ago. In fact, I tried to escape to Istanbul ten years ago, but after a year in a city without trees and without parks (though, admittedly with other potent charms), I found myself being pulled back into the orbit of Berlin. I longed for the broad pavements, tree lined streets, gemütlichkeit, my nice Altbau apartment – and the Berlin speech — a mixture of Berliner Schnauze and foreigner kanaksprak.
I was born in Berlin in 1970. My father was a pilot with Pan Am who had grown up in Chicago, where his major claim to fame was that he had bagged groceries as a kid for Mrs. Hemingway. My mother is half German, half Italian with roots in both the Harz mountains and the mountains of Abruzzi. In 1945 she lived through the bombing of Berlin, holed up in the basement of the Italian embassy, where her father worked, representing Italian guest-workers in Nazi Germany.
Mother was coming from California via Italy and Berlin, father from Okinawa via Chicago.
Berlin was a collection of ruins then. The facades of Altbau apartment buildings were bullet-riddled. There were empty lots everywhere. Giant railway terminals lay derelict and overgrown with weeds and small trees. Once bustling intersections, like Potsdamerplatz, had become swathes of no man’s land.
The other thing about Berlin in the seventies was how interwoven the various milieus were – the students, artists, squatters hung out in so-called “brown bars” – old-style Eckkneipen fitted with wood cladding and stucco ceilings –like Zwiebelfisch and Die Dicke Wirtin in Charlottenburg and Leydicke in Schöneberg – locales that remained popular hangouts through the punk era, the kind of bars that Iggy Pop hung out in and which had so impressed him.
You look so good to me
Here in this old saloon
Way back in West Berlin
A bottle of white wine
White wine and you
A table made of wood
And how I wish you would
Fall in love with me
These bars were relics of a vanishing order, that only gradually became overtaken and supplanted by the arty and slick New Wave bars of the eighties, full of zinc and neon. In Sven Regener’s novel Herr Lehmann, which is set in Berlin in the late eighties, we read diatribes against the old wood bars. Gradually over the years they lost their appeal.
In those first five years of my life, from 1970 to 1975 – before we moved to Hong Kong, and thence to California (before moving back once again to Berlin in 1980), we lived in an expansive Altbau apartment in Schmargendorf. I remember the lively wallpaper and the smell of old wood – which together with the smell of Pommes (French fries) and the subterranean smell of U-bahn tunnels evokes for me the mood of Berlin to this day.
Vladimir Nabokov had lived in the building, one floor under us, briefly while a student in Cambridge.
His father would be assassinated and Vladimir would go on to write a series on Berlin stories set mostly in Wilmersdorf, the district I grew up in and still live in to this day.
Nabokov had twelve residences in Berlin, all of them in Wilmersdorf, some of them bearing brass plaques making mention of novels he had penned there. Nabokov said that he “rented out” that first Berlin apartment to many of his protagonists, so that after I had returned to Europe following college in the States, when I became an avid reader of Nabokov, I felt that I had an added insight into his Berlin stories by virtue of having lived in this apartment.
After all, setting played a big roll in Nabokov’s appreciation of fiction, and while a professor at Cornell he once had his students sketch out the floor-plan of Gregor Samsa’s Prague apartment in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
Our apartment stood on the third floor of a Jugendstil building at the end of a cobbled cul-de-sac in an outlying neighborhood of Wilmersdorf bordering on the Grunewald forest. There used to be a tram line that ran down the Hohenzollerndamm to the Grunewald, but that was decommissioned after the war. In Mary Nabokov describes the windows rattling when the tram passed by.
Our neighbors, who ended up in the building through queer Nabokovian twists of fate consisted, on the first floor, of a group of elderly men and women who had been evicted from their Dahlem villas to make way for American officers. They lived together in a kind of WG cluttered with expensive antiques and paintings. Above us were a couple of Lutheran missionaries, who had worked in Africa, their two sons, and a FU professor.
Back in the early to mid seventies Tempelhof was the only airport in Berlin, and it was there that my father would fly in and out of. It was a big, sprawling and monumental edifice built by the Nazis and at one point it was the biggest single structure in the world, before it was knocked off the ranking by the Pentagon.
Part of the building had been taken over by the US Air Force, and part of it was given over to commercial flight service provided by three carriers – Pan Am, British Airways and Air France, representing the three Allied forces in Berlin.
At the very top of the arrivals terminal, Hitler’s architect had constructed a ballroom. Upon being taken over by the American Air Force, the ballroom was turned into a basketball court and a bowling alley, where I remember spending many an afternoon.
Flying into Tempelhof airport was a tricky thing, as you had to fly in low in “the slot”, over the roofs of Neukölln, sometimes so low that the chimneys of buildings were knocked down.
One of the peculiar features of Tempelhof airport, offering a supremely incongruous first impression of Berlin, was the shepherd who tended his flock of sheep on the grass in the center of the runways. One time while still a co-pilot, my father recalls being present as the captain taxiing up to the rickety shepherd’s shack in a 707 maliciously turned on the engine suddenly, blasting the shepherd’s shack with full engine force, blowing it to bits.
The airport control tower was worked by Germans, who joked with the American pilots that not long ago they had manned Nazi anti-aircraft guns, shooting American pilots out of the sky.
Today Tempelhof is a sprawling decommissioned relic. The bullet holes on Berlin Altbau buildings have long been plastered over and every year there are less and less empty lots. The Eck-Kneipen are also a vanishing species, as Berlin’s history is gradually becoming smoothed over, slicked up and gentrified. Berlin of the seventies is as lost in time as Weimar Berlin.
Today I am resigned to Berlin. Berlin must have been interesting in the seventies when the artists were few and discerning. Now the avant-garde is gone. Instead: the hoi polloi in a bohemian guise. Berlin is a victim of its own success. But I can’t hate Berlin. Just like I can’t hate the mother that bore me.