Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Berlin, Day 1.

Well, this morning the first thing I did at the recommendation of my guide book (Lonely Planet this time) was head over to the Reichstag building. The guide recommends you get there early but by the time I walked there from the hostel it was already close to 11 a.m. and there was a huge line to the entrance. Luckily, these things being as organized as all German things are, they distributed very well written and informative pamphlets about how the Bundestag (that's the German parliament) works here to very easily keep you entertained for the over an hour wait that the line promised.

The Bundestag has a nice varied composition (especially compared to the U.S. Congress). According to the pamphlet, in this Bundestag there are:

4 students.
30% women.
22% lawyers.
20 engineers and scientists.
70 teachers out of a total of 614 members.
15 members under the age of 30 (wow! that's a lot!)
youngest age: 22
average age: 49

One can serve in the Bundestag since the age of 18. I think this is both a good and a bad thing, and again, compare to the U.S. (serving age I think is 30 or so, if I remember correctly). I wonder how well this (that is, allowing such young people to serve) works, though. Must ask a local, I suppose (Torsten, any comments from my favorite Berliner?).

What is kind of neat though, is that it would appear that with such diversity (as reported, at least), this comes closer to the democratic ideal: a lawmaking organism that truly (or fairly closely) represents the people (in the U.S. I think few people know their representatives and surely the group tends to be more homogeneous, in terms of age, education, and background? Take, for instance, the fact that currently, only 15% of it is female, 1% African American, only 8% is under the age of 40--with only ONE, yes, just 1, senator under the age of 40--and 39% of Congress is composed of lawyers).

Anyway, one of the things I found kind of interesting was how the speaking times in the Bundestag depends on how much percentage of the house your party has got. That seemed a bit weird to me. My sense of fairness suggests that everyone ought to have equal voice (since clearly voting should depend on the percentage of the house you control--control more, your vote counts more, makes sense, but speak more? That intuitively seems odd, I think), but then again, I'm probably just thinking like an engineer. They probably have a good reason for it, I hope.

Anyway, the pamphlet makes a big deal (that is, they mention several times and in several ways) about how the architecture of the Reigchstag is used to reinforce the concept/ideal/(propaganda?) of "transparency" (i.e. the glass cupola). But the cool thing that I haven't seen anywhere else before is the fact that apparently people, ordinary people like you and me--even tourists--, can come and sit in the Bundestag plenary sessions. How neat is that? That is super awesome. The pamphlet then goes to emphasize that this is a way for the public to be able to see with their own eyes what their representatives are up to. Though this method, I think, is a bit useless given that as an observer you probably can't make much noise if you find something fishy going on....or could you? I dunno. Might be interesting to try to get in one of these sessions and find out.

Anyway, I didn't really find the patience to sit through the rest of the line so I resolved to come earlier in the subsequent days (and perhaps even catch a live session) instead of waiting around for the line to move a few more inches, so I headed over to the nearby, newly-completed (just a little over one year old) Jewish Memorial instead.

The Jewish Memorial is very....evocative. As you walk the ground sinks and the square stellae get taller, engulfing you, and you feel like you're sinking a bit deeper and deeper in desolation and confusion....until the effect is ruined by a pair of 7-year olds laughing and jumping about between the stones and playing hide and seek behind them.

Remember the painting, "Then and Now" that I told you about before? Maybe...there's a bit too much of a cult of death, with these things sometimes. Either that, or come to the memorial at dusk during wintertime, when happy cheery children are less likely to be found, if you feel contemplative, I would say.

Anyway, somewhere at the bottom and in the middle of the grounds is the information center, which does a very good job of humanizing the victims and giving you an idea of the unfathomable scale: the Holcaust victims came all the way from Greece, Lithuania, Denmark, Austria, Estonia, Belgium, Luxembourg, Macedonia, the Mediterranean coast, Ukraine, Romania, Yugoslavia, even Norway, Turkey, and North Africa (!) not to mention the obvious Poland, Checkoslovakia, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and even German allies Italy and Hungary.

Reaction during exhibit: anger, despair, helplessness.

How easy to forget that the victims had a life, illusions, goals and projects, that they had a family (many of them who died as well), parents and children, some who kept looking for them unavailingly for many years afterwards (some who still do), that they are not merely numbers and statistics. Remember this, the next time you're in favor of your country dropping a bomb somewhere.

Anyway, after this sobering wake-up, I headed over towards the nearby Potsdammer Platz, with its übercool modern architecture. Ha ha. Can you believe it? In Potsdammer Platz, Berlin is just like I imagined it (from all those movies, I sort of had thought it was all full of skyscrapers and modern architecture. Not quite true, as it turns out: as I saw yesterday--approaching from the outskirts one can see more than if one just arrives all tourist-like into the airports--Berlin doesn't seem to be too well maintained--grass on parks and lawns is several weeks long, many buildings are run down with paint peeling, even on the Western side, etc. No city upkeep, it seems....).

In the afternoon I headed over to Checkpoint Charlie, but following the Jewish Memorial with a visit to the House at Checkpoint Charlie (a privately sponsored, rather propagandistic museum dedicated to the history of the Berlin Wall and the spectacular escapes from the GDR, which tried to advance a lot of the greeny granola liberal views of the owner, towards the end) left me a bit depressed and almost drained of all faith in humanity.

Do you know that joke about the physicist, the engineer, and the mathematician, who are having a contest, to see which one of them can enclose the largest area of a field with a given length of wire and a set of some wooden poles? The physicist, an empiricist, immediately starts trying things, hammers away, ties up some of the wire here and sticks some poles to the ground there, finally comes up with the widest, slightly mishappen circle possible given the materials provided. The engineer, on the other hand, first measures the total length of the wire, figures out the radius of the circle that would result with such a length for circumference, counts up the poles and calculates at how many degrees from each other they should be posted apart, and finally builds a perfect circle the exact same size as the physicist. Finally, the mathematician comes, and after scratching his beard for a while the pile of wire and poles he's been provided with, takes up a few of them, surrounds himself with them, and proceeds to build the smallest possible circle fence around him that will still allow him to barely move. He then announces: "I declare myself to be on the outside!"

The building of the Berlin Wall, it seems to me, was a little bit like my mathematician. The absurdity!

Anyway, I'm choosing a more uplifting program for tomorrow. Perhaps a visit to the Museumsinsel (which is what makes Berlin a UNESCO Heritage Site) and closing with a visit to the Berlin Philharmonic in the evening, if they're still playing (as you know most world class orchestras tend to go on vacation during the month of August, but maybe I get lucky!), may restore a little bit of perspective. It might do good once more to be reminded, how humanity can invest its talents in efforts to create instead of to destroy.

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