Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ich bin (wieder) ein Berliner

Photo of the Brandenburg Gate by Flickr user http2007, used under a Creative Commons license.

Well, I'm not quite a Berliner again - not until I arrive there blurry of eye and brain on Thursday. Today's a travel day. I'll spend five weeks in Berlin with my family, then get back to Ohio in time for the kids' school to start. Since five weeks is too long to just drop all my work, I'll need to prepare a new class or two while I'm there. (Okay - realistically, just one). If I'm lucky I'll get a bit of translating work, too.

In between working and loitering in cafes and biking along the Spree River and trying out every last playground in the city, I hope I'll get to see Barack Obama when he visits Berlin. Yes, I'm still feeling painfully disillusioned. Yes, I know I never should've nurtured those illusions. It reminds me of when you're fifteen and you fool yourself into thinking the really cute boy you like might actually like you back. Except I'm not fifteen anymore.

I'm not done being pissed at him - but I still want to see him in person. And yeah, I know he was in Zanesville and Dayton, so it's silly to have to schlep to another continent in order to see him. I don't care.

But apparently, high-level officials in both Germany and the United States care quite a lot. Last week, Spiegel Online (via Salon's English translation) reported that Obama wants to speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate. That's where Reagan famously challenged Mr. Gorbachev to tear down this Wall. And where I saw Bill Clinton speak back in 1994, days before my wedding, years before any of us had ever heard of Monica Lewinsky or Ken Starr.

The German Chancellery isn't keen on Obama sharing the same venue as past American presidents. Arguing that electioneering would be improper in front of such a weighty symbol, Angela Merkel's office is putting pressure on the Berlin city government to prevent Obama from using the Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop. Her coalition partners, the Social Democrats, favor the idea, reports the New York Times. So does Berlin's left-leaning municipal government (again according to Spiegel Online via Salon).

In other words, German politicians are dividing along partisan lines. And no wonder: Der Spiegel reported that the Bush Administration has apparently been putting pressure on Merkel's people. For her part, she's apparently forgiven Bush for that unwanted impromptu neck massage he gave her.

Not that anyone from the Obama campaign has asked me - but I think he should nix the Brandenburg Gate and speak at the Schöneberger Rathaus (city hall). That's where JFK gave the most famous Berlin speech of all - the one where he claimed, "Ich bin ein Berliner."

It all depends on what Obama hopes to accomplish. If this Berlin speech is really just another campaign stop, then sure, the Brandenburg Gate is the symbol that'll resonate back home. It's got that Cold-War cachet. (Maybe we could even rebuild a short stretch of the Wall? And invite Pink Floyd back for another concert?)

If, instead, Obama intends to start rebuilding some of the burned bridges, then the Schöneberger Rathaus would be a highly meaningful site for Berliners, other Germans, and the American expat community. While I haven't been in Germany since last summer, my sense from family and friends is that most Germans adore Obama. They are ready to see him as a sort of human incarnation of the Berlin Airlift - a chance for a new start - but this time, with the United States, not Germany, as the rogue nation that needs to be brought back into the international community.

So Senator Obama, I hope to see you next week, holding forth on a balcony in Schöneberg.

Photo of Rathaus Schöneberg by Flickr user snooker68, used under a Creative Commons license.

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