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Our Berlin

I had been in Berlin once before, with a student group in 1977. Berlin was still a divided city then, rife with suspicion, and I remember the sensation of always being watched. This time, though, my father, my sons, and I waltzed through customs together with nary a stamp on our passports or a questioning glance from the smiling officials. We were met at the airport by a friend, Sten Nadolny, a novelist who's writing a book about the Ullstein family. Together we drove into the vast and bewildering urban network—of dilapidated old neighborhoods, glittering new downtowns, skyscrapers under construction, and bombed-out spaces—called Berlin.

We arrived on the afternoon of the Love Parade. This annual Mardi Gras—like frolic on the second Sunday in July started in 1989, when a DJ celebrated his birthday by blaring music from a truck as he drove down the Kurfürstendamm, followed by a raucous parade of friends. With no political or religious agenda whatsoever, the Love Parade has become a mob of boozy, scantily clad revelers surging up, across, and down Unter den Linden, the main thoroughfare of the Eastern sector, through the Brandenburg Gate, and into the Tiergarten, Berlin's biggest park. My father and I covered our ears, but the kids liked the relentless techno beat coming from loudspeakers— Tommy bought the official Love Parade CD—though the dyed hair and bare breasts did take them by surprise. That night, back at the hotel, Nicholas drew pictures of spiked green hair and wrote in his trip diary: "I think they made too much of the word LOVE."

Our hotel—the sturdy, unfashionable Stuttgarter Hof—was within walking distance of the old center (the "Mitte," or middle) and the futuristic new skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz, and an easy bus ride to the shopping in the western neighborhoods and the zoo. Checkpoint Charlie and the most extensive surviving section of the Berlin Wall were both nearby. The kids were engrossed by the House on Checkpoint Charlie Museum, where exhibits show how people escaped under, through, and over the wall—via tunnels, VW bugs with secret compartments, and hot-air balloons.

What I hadn't bargained for was the hotel's unnerving proximity to the old Gestapo headquarters, just a block away. The building was destroyed by Allied bombing, but the basement rooms, where prisoners were interrogated and tortured by the SS, came to light during recent construction. The site is now an ongoing archaeological excavation and outdoor museum called Topography of Terror.


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