When I finally found the Berlin wall, or at least this piece of it, my hands were so cold that I had to force my fingers down onto the camera shutter. I walked up close and noticed the texture of the concrete, the iron stakes that poked through the crumbling cement like a tired spine.
This was just after I looked through a glass window in the ground of a cobblestoned square. It was partially covered in snow, which the tour guide (an Irish guy whose name I can’t remember) had to swipe away with his boot. Inside, below the cobblestones, was a library room full of whitewashed empty shelves. To commemorate the Nazi book burnings at Hamburg University. That first day, still feeling like a tourist and viewing the city mostly through its history, I thought to myself that Berliners seem to have perfected the art of contrition. No, I don’t quite mean contrition. Not remorse, but commemoration and ammends. It’s a city of memorials—bombed-out cathedrals and reconstructed museums, several sections of the Wall each preserved or painted or remembered in a different way.
That night I wrote in my journal, “There are monuments here that I think do justice to the losses that they mark. Monuments that are hollowed out and heavy. Half-demolished, where you can feel the weight of past events and the loss that the present is built on.”
That particular section of the wall was like a scab, such a small piece remaining, not even a scar yet, something the city felt ready to shrug off.
Of course there were many other pieces that were completely different—some painted with political murals, some stoically refurbished to preserve the stretch of silence between West and East. But for the most part, the Wall is a trace that you can follow by looking at stoplights. The “walk” and “don’t walk” signal is shaped differently in former East and former West. In the neighborhoods that lay on the border, I walked along the streets sometimes forgetting, and then would look up and notice a change in the stoplight design. I must be standing, I’d realize then, on what had once been the no-man’s land between sides. There were snowbanks, bundled children being pulled on sleds, neon Open signs in the windows of cafes, hunched figures running errands in the darkening afternoon.