A Quick Thought on the Berlin Wall and the Distortion of Human Memory

This summer, I realized that I had spent more time living away from Washington, DC than I spent actually living there (6 years). It gave me a minor existential crisis. It was hardly the type of existential crisis that led me to lease an expensive car on credit or go on some barefoot walkabout in the Smokies, but some minute form of reckoning nonetheless.

This afternoon, I found out (thanks to my colleague Mimi, again) that the Berlin Wall has now officially been gone for as long as it stood (28 years). I’ve never even been to Berlin, and learning this fact nearly shut down my brain for a minute. I can only imagine that this should give the world an existential crisis. Can we, as Westerners, conceive of a planet without the footprint left by the iron curtain, and in microcosm, that wall?

I found it strange how quickly my span of formative years in DC came to mind when I discovered this milestone for Berlin that, unlike my personal coming-of-age, most people actually care about. But, the personal is political. Envisioning the type of person I would be had I not taken a chance to moved to Washington in 2005 is impossible, as is trying to imagine the current physical or mental state of Germany, Europe, and political geography in general if the DDR had pursued some alternate course of action in 1961. Both epiphanies are similarly remarkable, too, because of the tricks that our minds play on us – time is both an abstraction and a distortion. To me, the six years I spent in DC felt insurmountably longer than the six years I’ve spent between Long Beach and Knoxville. I have many theories as to why, some personal and others easy enough to ascertain for anyone who has taken Psychology 101.

To Berlin natives (many of whom have been depositing genuinely fascinating replies on this twitter thread), those 28 years must have felt like a solid eternity.  For a whole generation, life was always and would always be like this. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear an East German genuinely shocked at how relatively fast these past 28 years have passed. Either way, this makes me feel even worse for never having made it to Berlin, especially when I was a young professional in DC who occasionally had enough time and money scraped together in order to make that happen.

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Four preserved panels from the Berlin Wall set up for a public exhibition in North Jakarta. (via the Jakarta Post).

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Paul Pomerantz in the Alps, Sometime in the Mid-1940s

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My grandfather, Paul Pomerantz, would have been 100 years old today. He passed away in early 2010, just shy of his 92nd birthday. My grandmother found this picture a few years ago. It stars him in his Army uniform and trench coat, some middle-aged Alpine man in what appears to be lederhosen, and the Alps rising in the background. I’m assuming this was sometime in 1943 or 1944, which would put Paul in his mid-twenties. To the best of my knowledge, he served at the rank of Lieutenant.

I wish I’d had the opportunity to ask him about this picture when he was still around. Does he remember the name of his friend in the lederhosen? Did he have a dog tethered to him, sitting outside the frame? Where exactly was this – Austria? Northern Italy? Southeastern France? Switzerland? At what point in the war was he even in the Alps? I don’t recall hearing a vignette like this mixed in with his war stories. I need to re-listen to what I did record a few years before he passed away. For now, though, take this as a tribute to a hell of a guy on the centennial of his birth.

On the outside chance that this post does somehow find the eyes of anyone who knows something that I don’t about that picture, please get in touch with me. Falls man kennen mehr Informationen über das Bild (besonders mit dem Mann, der steht Rechts im Bild, oder der Standort des Bildes), bitte rufen Sie mich an, oder schicken Sie ein Nachricht bei Email/Sozialen Medien. [Thanks to Mimi Thomas for the translation.]

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…Supergeil

In August 2015, I left Paris after a month of fieldwork to do some travelling in the low countries. One of my best college friends and her husband, who was in the German Air Force, were living in Bedburg-Hau, a pastoral Rhineland community outside Kleve. I had a couple of days to spend out in the country with them before returning to Amsterdam to fly back to the States. This turned out, by the way, to be a wonderful coda for a month of work abroad, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

In order to get to Kleve (where my friend’s husband, whom I had never met, was planning to pick me up), I needed to take one train from Amsterdam to Nijmegen, then quickly transfer to a bus that crossed the border, rode through some suburbs and into Kleve’s small bus depot. Because I had no cell phone service outside of France, and there were no evident sources of WiFi in the plaza where this stranger had apparently (hopefully) been dispatched to pick me and my bags up, I stood around on the curb next to Kleve’s quiet railroad depot. I debated going into a bar full of elderly locals to try to get a WiFi signal or use their phone to call my friend, but I didn’t speak any German and I was worried my ride would roll by, not see me, and return home to the countryside. So, I waited there, occasionally pacing around the traffic entry, naively hoping that every car that approached was the one sent to get me. I don’t remember how much time passed, but it felt like an eternity. ‘This is how our parents used to travel,’ I figured, wondering how many hours people whittled away waiting for rides in foreign countries in the twentieth century.

I eventually got restless and wandered over to the opposite side of the street, trying to get a read on whether this bar was worth trying to drag myself and my massively heavy suitcase into, hoping someone wouldn’t start yelling at me in German. As I would find out later, this pocket of the Rhineland had little use for English. They didn’t entertain many tourists from the UK or USA. Right as I was about to step inside, I saw a car roll up with a young man in a Red Sox cap on. “Are you Tyler?”

We got acquainted on the drive over to pick my friend up from her new job (the reason she had to send her husband to come pick me up). My friend and I shared a big hug and the predictable platitudes about how many years it had been since we had last hung out in Boston or Syracuse or wherever our paths had last crossed (probably Syracuse). We excitedly caught up as we got back to their gorgeous duplex house in Bedburg-Hau, both of them telling me about the sleepy life in the Rhineland. I asked my friend how she had adjusted to German life, and what was so different from that of the US.

What happened next is up for debate, as I don’t remember exactly how it happened. The important element was that it happened.

My friend’s husband interjected, “you should show him the video!”

My friend lit up; “Oh god, the video! Ty, have you ever seen ‘Supergeil?'” I hadn’t. Apparently, ‘supergeil’ is German slang for cool/hip/fun/etc. We sat down in their living room, they turned on their TV, and this was what happened next:

After the commercial ended (and I had taken a moment to compose myself), I told my friends “If I ever get to teach a class on the Geography of Europe, that’s what I’m going to start with on Day One.” Last week, I got to make good on this promise to a class of 40+ at the University of Tennessee, and now I have shared this with you. YOU’RE WELCOME.

If you’re interested in the story/demystifying what you just saw, you can read up on Friedrich Leichtenstein here.