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Berlin, Then and Now

Revisiting a town you once loved and finding that your old haunts have disappeared can feel like losing a little bit of yourself—which is not necessarily a bad thing

Author Edward Klee Illustration Michael Byers

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“Earl Grey with milk,” sniffed the extravagantly bearded waiter, plunking down the crockery. “Sugar?” he added, glaring at my belly.

I guess I had only myself to blame, having shoehorned myself into a booth next to what looked like the cast of The Nightmare Before Christmas, all of whom were sucking something fluorescent through straws only marginally narrower than their bodies. This East Berlin joint used to be different. It used to serve Volkswagen-size lumps of strudel to gloomy former Communists. I liked it then. I fit in.

Returning to a city you once loved tends to be a hit-or-miss proposition. Like rereading The Catcher in the Rye or rewatching a John Hughes movie, it can be a letdown. For one thing, the you who originally loved the city is not the you you are now; also, the city you loved is no longer the city it was, or at least not the city that you remembered it to be. Anyway, I felt a little let down when I went back to the German capital recently, almost two and a half decades after I first set foot there, and not long before last month’s 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The changes the city has undergone since then were the subject of barroom chatter, news-paper think pieces and panel discussions. Personally, I was less concerned with the historical implications than I was with figuring out whether the Thai-Mexican fusion restaurant I’d just passed was the same Thai-Mexican fusion restaurant I’d passed a half hour earlier.

The problem was that all of my old touch points seemed to have gone the way of the Wall: the dilapidated art-house cinema, where I’d spent many a happy afternoon watching films in which the camera would dwell meaningfully on a chair leg or a shrub; the absinthe bar with the burlesque photography plastered on the ceiling and the musicians plastered on the floor; the techno club that you could get into only by climbing down a manhole in the middle of the street. Gone, gone, gone.

This had an effect on my self-esteem. As a rule, people who think of themselves as travelers (as opposed to tourists) place a premium on discovering funky, in-the-know places, and I’m no exception. “You’re going to Berlin?” I would say to my friends back in the day. “Then you must go to Frau Müller’s Hackepeter Haus!” Where would I urge people to go now? The Brandenburg Gate? The Starbucks next to the Brandenburg Gate?

For days, I circled Berlin with my fold-out map and my yokel’s frown, my emotions pinging between frustrated nostalgia and sad exclusion. It was as if, upon seeing my arrival, the city’s hip locals had hidden their graffiti galleries and pop-up clubs from view, snickering behind their hands as I lumbered unfashionably by. At one point, I had to resist the urge to hug a pair of elderly tourists who passed me on the street, so relieved was I to encounter people who looked even more out of place than I felt.

My recent Berlin experience reminds me of an afternoon a few years ago, when I had coffee with the woman who had been my first love. It had been decades since I’d seen Sara, and during that time I’d ordered my memories of her into a neat little montage: Sara kicking her heels in a nightclub; drowsy-haired on a sunlit bed; and then, at the end, a blur of tearful mascara on a train platform. I almost yelped when she walked into the coffee shop. She looked ordinary. She wondered aloud whether she should get a pastry. Seeing her this way, it was as if I’d lost a part of myself.

In some sense, this is exactly what had happened. After all, what are we but an aggregate of our experiences, an assemblage of the moments we have singled out as being defining? The problem is when memory no longer tallies with what’s out there in the world. This is how it was when I met the middle-age Sara, and how it was when I revisited Berlin. I wasn’t just feeling out of place—I was having a full-blown identity crisis.

But then, this is precisely the kind of existential shake-up that travel is supposed to bring about. We experience new things to ensure that there is memory turnover, to prevent the stagnation and curdling of ourselves, the kind of psychic stasis that leads an aging actress to spend her days poring through old press clippings. This thought made me feel better. Berlin got better too. I found a bar I liked; I discovered cool little shops and architectural oddities. Unthinkingly, I compiled a list of places to recommend and moments to look back on. Finally, I stopped missing my old haunts altogether. After all, even if I did want to enter a nightclub via a disused manhole these days, I almost certainly wouldn’t fit.

Edward Klee, a Los Angeles–based writer, has just remembered that those VW-size strudel slices also had the consistency of Germany’s best-selling car.

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