memory's sacred domain

moments mundane and magical

Berlin and the art of keeping time

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By Romel Regalado Bagares

My unabashedly touristic pose at the Brandenburg Tor

Berlin, Germany (February 23, 2012)— Twenty three years after the fall of the “Iron Curtain,” and I’m wearing a wristwatch once again.

Not that all that time I wasn’t wearing one, I didn’t mind time at all;  but in 1989 – or three years after our own February 1986 People Power Revolution –  I was a wide-eyed high school  junior in Lagao,  General Santos City  who watched with fascination television news of the “Berliner Mauer”  finally tumbling down as hordes of East Germans hungry for the freedom enjoyed by their Western cousins flooded into West Berlin in their rickety Trabants.

To my young mind, the first bloodless People Power revolution destroyed the Marcos-made mythical narratives of martial law; the fall of the Berlin Wall further amplified for me the human spirit’s longing for authentic freedom.

I remember coming across a New York Times piece on the historic event carried by a now -defunct local newspaper and the impression it left on me: the journalist, whose name escapes me now, wrote of how he thought he had history figured out; he had long been an observer of events in the East, and yet he too, did not see the writing on the wall.

The Protestant Berliner Dom, host to the protest movement in the old days

The sudden flood of time caught him flat-footed. After watching thousands of  East Berliners seep through the broken walls and flow into all directions, he found himself unable to come to grips with the enormity of the historical moment.  What he did next totally captivated my imagination: he took off his wristwatch, and threw it away, a gesture meant to signify that henceforth, he will no longer be bound to mindless time-keeping.

I decided I’d do the same.  And so for the next 24 years, I steadfastly clung to what my friends considered a sophomoric – if not inscrutable – vow . The timely advent of pagers and later on, of mobile phones, with their own time displays, somehow made the timepiece-less switch easier.

It took this trip to change all that. I’ve just planed in from Zurich, where I earlier conducted a three-day intensive course for Filipino evangelical church leaders based in Europe on developing a reformational worldview under the auspices of the Alliance Graduate School in Manila.

Yesterday, the eve of my flight to Berlin, my Filipino hosts graciously gifted me with a Swiss-made timepiece as a souvenir of my visit. Truth to tell, I wasn’t prepared for the generous gesture, but how could I refuse it?

And so before my host Hector Chio drove me to the Zurich airport early this morning for my flight to Tegel, Berlin, I finally put on my new wristwatch.  It felt like an addition to the four layers of clothing I was wearing to ward off the cold of European winter.

A lone trumpeter in a crowded Berlin cafe playing sad old love songs

Ever since I’ve laid my hands on Count Harry Kessler’s   diaries about the Weimar Republic, Journey to the Abyss,  I’ve always wanted to see this city whose streets once bore the footprints of  great thinkers like Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Hanna Arendt, Walter Benjamin and many others (as James Wood recently noted in his column in the Guardian, Berlin has a peculiar way of naming its streets –either in triumph and atonement – as it has a habit of memorializing figures who had either brought it honor or  who had borne the brunt of its own unspeakable cruelties).

But indeed, you walk down its streets and you breathe in history.   For this visit, I knew exactly what I wanted to do – with only one day to spend in Berlin, as I’m heading for Amsterdam the next day –a walk through the heart of the city: from Alexanderplatz in the East  in the Mitte District down towards the West to  the Unter Den Linden – the city’s famously historic boulevard  – and beyond . There you’ll see many of the important city landmarks, such as the Fernsehturm TV Tower, the Berliner Dom, the Museumsinsel, Humboldt University,  Hotel Aldon,  Brandenburg Tor,  and  farther West, the Reichstag.

For the better part of the day, that is what I did, a retracing in part of my first ever visit to Berlin in 2007.  Back then, I was a graduate student in Amsterdam, and my Dutch friend and I, helped by a few hundred euros earned from a recent lecture we did together in Munster,  Germany, stayed for a few days at an old hippie colony in East Berlin, and from there, explored many parts of the city on foot.  Much to our delight, we found Berlin to be cheap and inexorably full of historic, intellectual and cultural wonders. That it remained cheap I knew right away as soon I bought upon my arrival at Tegel airport what is known as a tageskarte — a day ticket, which I can use in all of the city’s public transportation systems, all for 6.30 euros. In Amsterdam, a one-hour city tram ticket already costs 2.70 euros.

booksellers outside the Humboldt University gates

Later in the afternoon, I was joined by my host, law school classmate and kababayan Chicky Arumpac, who now serves as a vice consul at the Philippine Embassy;  funny that she had been too busy with work since she assumed office a few months back that she had no time at all to explore the city. So I played tourist guide to her, and at her request, gave her a tour of the Humboldt University premises.

On a wall at the university’s main lobby, one reads inscribed the famous words – in German, of course –of one of its famous products, Karl Marx, to the effect that in the past, philosophers have sought to understand the world, but the point however is to change it (to which we Dooyeweerdians would jokingly retort, well Marx utterly misunderstood reality and reduced it to the economic aspect; the point is that before he can change it, he must first see that created reality displays a great variety of aspects or modes of being in the temporal order, which  break up the spiritual and religious root unity of creation into a wealth of colors, just as light refracts into the hues of the rainbow when it passes through a prism).

(Reductionist) writing on the wall?

I recall that on my last visit, after I posed for a photograph right beside the inscription, an old lady walked up to me – she was apparently the wife of one of the Marxist professors there – to complain how today’s generation have forsaken the lessons of history as Marx understood it.   Apparently, a bust of Marx used to adorn the university lobby as well but it had been taken down by university authorities.  Well, the Marx-Engels Forumstill stands in Mitte on the eastern banks of the River Spree, albeit 100 meters away from its original location. It was our next stop.

Chicky found it fascinating that the monument to the main architects of Marxism has no inscription of any kind and simply assumes that people knew to whom the artistic installation gave honor.  “The creators simply assumed that everyone knows Marx and Engels!” It was getting dark when we were done with what tourists come to do there: have their pictures taken in the lap of Karl Marx.

We had intended to see as well the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe to  the south of Brandenburg Tor –a 19,000 square meter site covered with 2,711 concrete slabs arrayed in a grid pattern on a sloping field – but we absentmindedly walked towards the wrong direction.

At a Vietnamese dig in Kreuzberg, reminiscing about law school days

When we realized we were in the wrong part of the city, we decided to take a bus to the memorial, hoping to see it before night finally fell on Berlin. But we missed the stop nearest to the memorial as well.  We finally decided to head for the hip and colorful Kreuzberg district, a behive of multi-cultural life, whose residents live by the motto, or so I’d been told, “live in poverty in style.”  There we had  dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant with another law school classmate, Anna De Vera, who is also a vice consul at the Embassy.

After  a 35-euro dinner for three, we retreated to a nearby café — popular and always crowded — where we had some drinks and reminisced about our law school days.  A lone trumpeter played sad, old, love songs in the din of the crowd. We actually thought it was pipe-in music that was playing.

When I looked at my watch again, it was nearly 10 p.m. It was time to call it a night. I got an Amsterdam-bound train to catch at 4 a.m.

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Written by Romel

March 2, 2012 at 7:36 am

One Response

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  1. julian

    March 2, 2012 at 7:39 pm


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