I first visited Berlin in 1985, while traveling with Randall Kroszner. We drove to West Berlin by car and we were terrified for the few hours we were underway in East Germany. Randy did not drive over the speed limit once. I was hardly a communist sympathizer but still I was unprepared for the day trip to East Berlin. I saw soldiers goose-stepping down one of the main streets. In the stores old ladies yelled and swung their brooms at me. Many buildings still had bullet marks or bomb damage from World War II. In a restaurant we ate a rubber Wiener Schnitzel and shared a table with an East German family; they did not have enough trust in their government to speak a word to us. I was unable to spend my mandatory thirty-mark conversion on anything useful; I carried back some Stendahl and Goethe but didn't want the Lenin. This was in the capital city in the showcase of the communist world.
My biggest impression was simply that I had never seen evil before.
In the summer of 1990 I stayed in a dorm in East Berlin. Everyone seemed normal. Cute girls smiled. Yet there were few signs of modern German life as a Westerner might understand it; it was as if I had stepped into an alternative science fiction universe. The Vietnamese ran the street markets and Russian still mattered.
In 1999 I heard an emotional performance of Fidelio there and most of the audience cried.
I like spending time in Berlin. But I am never sure I like Berlin itself, West or East. Berlin is Germany being imperial. Berlin is Germany looking toward the east. Today Berlin is Germany pretending it is normal, while not yet having a new identity. Here is Kurt Tucholsky (in German) on Berlin. Here is a silly quotation about Berlin:
“Berlin combines the culture of New York, the traffic system of Tokyo, the nature of Seattle, and the historical treasures of, well, Berlin.”